Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pirate Shoot-Outs

I know that real-life, modern-day piracy is a serious issue that bears no relation to the Robert Lewis Stevenson/Monkey Island kind. So I KNOW this is a callous thing to say. Nevertheless: it's hard not to experience a feeling of profound awesomeness when you read a headline like "3 Pirates May be dead in shootout." And as if that weren't enough, the article itself features comments from a "pirate spokesman." That's right: a pirate spokesman. Is a cooler job than that even theoretically imaginable?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ziggy Stardust post

I wrote this in March (March 26, to be exact), certainly with the intention of publishing it here, but then...I never did, apparently? I sure can't find it in the archives, though I have no idea why I would have abandoned it. It's certainly no worse than my usual blather. Anyway, I thought of it because I was listening to that album again, so here it is.

I've been listening to David Bowie lately--a figure of my formative musical years. And then someone mentioned the Beatles, and it occurred to me that Bowie really ruined the Beatles experience for me. I know this is a completely arbitrary comparison, and I wouldn't expect it to apply to anyone else, but this is how it worked for me.

The Beatles: sure, loads of catchy songs, and some good lyrics. I understand that they were seismic, and probably if I'd been there at the time, I would not be comparatively denigrating them. I don't dislike them these days, but I rarely actually listen to them, I have to admit. What happened? I'm not the world's biggest Bowie fan or anything--I'm familiar with very little after Scary Monsters (although I do quite dig "Dead Man Walking" and "I'm Afraid of Americans," which you always heard on the radio when I was in eleventh grade or thereabouts)--but he sort of encapsulates why the Beatles stopped being interesting to me.

I was a Beatles fan before I was anything else; I was very narrow-minded, music-wise. I branched out a bit into various britpop bands--this was during my long, somewhat inexplicable anglophile phase--but that's about it. Sort of stagnant.

So anyway, when I was on the staff of my high school 'literary' magazine, there was a record player--yes indeed, a record player; we were OLD. SCHOOL.--and some lps in the back room. One of those was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Now, given my sensibilities of the time, that title was NOT COOL to me. Intolerably uncool, in fact. Not something I would ever have had the slightest inclination to investigate. Ziggy, what the hell. Like the relentlessly dopey comic? DO NOT WANT. But someone played it. And...there was something about hearing "Five Years" start up for the first time. So I played it myself. And then it was too late; I purchased the CD--along with a half dozen others, best forgotten--from bmg or whatever the music club was called. Rather quickly, it became extremely cool. And that was that. The Beatles were over.

It was mysterious and weird and silly and sexy in a way that was sort of a revelation, and that made my previous idols seem very thin to me. Would John or Paul be a rock and rollin' bitch for me? I think not! Why is Lady Stardust referred to as a he? What is this love I could not obey? How can the lines thought I saw you in an ice cream parlor drinking milkshakes cold and long be suffused with such ineffable yearning and melancholy? And in all seriousness: is "Rock and Roll Suicide" not the most...? Well, whenever it goes, oh no love you're not alone, no matter what or who you've been, no matter when or where you've seen...that's a tearjerking moment. I can imagine many a closeted gay teenager taking solace in it, and I do too.

In a more general sense, becoming a Bowie fan helped to show me that I shouldn't form my musical tastes based on some inchoate sense of self-identity. I won't say I never do that anymore; maybe it's possible for some people, but not me. It's not like I go around bragging about how awesome I am for listening to what I listen to, but I won't deny it: I believe, in a sub-rational way, that the music I listen to makes me a cool person. But I do think I have substantially LESS ego involvement nowadays, and in any case, I think that my tastes have broadened to the extent that this has become more or less tautological.

Also: when Bowie was in Cash for Questions in Q lo these many years ago (I wish I could find it online), he came across as the nicest guy ever. So thanks for everything.

The Intuitionist

They published this literally SECONDS after I submitted it, in spite of the two-star rating and in spite of the fact that I stuck an oral sex reference by way of Aerosmith in the title box. It's obvious that nobody read it before posting. And yet, come hell or high water, my Dhalgren review WILL. NOT. GO. UP. I really and truly do not understand these people.

So. Elevator inspectors. Okay. Why not? It's one of these little sort of shadow cultures that one knows intellectually must exist, but that one never really HEARS about, unless, presumably, one is directly involved with it. As such, it's actually pretty perfect for for a paranoid, postmodern conspiracy novel. And Whitehead has either done a lot of research on elevators or is just really good at faking it.

So that's all well and good. But The Intuitionist never really follows through on its intriguing premise. One gets the very strong impression that Whitehead is trying to write something akin to The Crying of Lot 49--there are strong similarities between the two books--but he doesn't come anywhere near to succeeding. As interesting as the elevator conceit is, it remains pretty thinly-drawn throughout. One never really gets much of a sense of the different factions' machinations beyond the most superficial level. And if you find the idea of intuitionists, inspectors who assess elevators by "feeling" them, intriguing and would like to know more--too bad. I just described their methodology in as much detail as Whitehead ever does. Pynchon no doubt would have done a bang-up job of this, had he been so inclined. But Whitehead, on the evidence of this novel at least, is no Pynchon.

It's hard to have a racial allegory if you're not willing to delve deeply into a society's psyche, but Whitehead proves either unwilling or unable. The larger society of which he writes is as vague and unconvincing as the elevator inspecting business itself. The novel takes place in the forties? Fifties? Who can say? It's not particularly believable as ANY given time period; the degree of racism inherent in it seems to fluctuate according to what is necessary for a given scene.

The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black female elevator inspector, and since she operates within the confines of a marginalized branch of elevator inspection, the intriguing possibility presents itself of reading her as a kind of subaltern (may god, if not man, forgive me for using that word). That, at any rate, would provide a justification, albeit a rather baroque one, for why she's such a remarkably dull, nondescript character. I'm not really buying it, though. If that IS what Whitehead is aiming for, he's doing a remarkably poor job of it; this avenue is never explored in any adequate way. As a character with such a pivotal role, we NEED some idea of what makes her tick, and that is something that we never get.

It's easy to compare her to Lot 49's Oedipa Maas--they're both women thrown into unfamiliar, dehistoricized situations trying to penetrate giant, monolithic conspiracies--but Oedipa is only required to serve as a kind of everywoman; she's certainly not Pynchon's most finely-drawn character, but that's not really the point. Lila Mae, on the other hand, is absolutely central to the point of The Intuitionist, and in that regard she just doesn't pass muster. Their different purposes notwithstanding, Oedipa remains a much more vivid character. That's not good.

In fact, it would be fair to say that, on top of everything else, it drags down the novel. Neither Lila Mae nor anyone else in the novel is even slightly compelling, and without any interesting plotting or well-developed ideas to make up for that...well, there just ain't much left.

This is Whitehead's first novel, of course, so maybe he's improved. I can't say I'm much moved to find out, though. The praise lavished on this one suggests to me an audience so wowed by the premise that they're willing to forgive the sub-par execution.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Goddamn right.

XKCD can be far too precious for its own good, but today's installment has me doing a terrorist fist bump of solidarity. When I got a new phone this summer (old one pretty much died), I was endlessly pleased by the fact that it included a ringtone that sounded like an old-school rotary phone. That is all I ever want in life, ringtone-wise.

The right reward for repulsive, porcine plutocrats.

You've perhaps seen this mind-boggling quote:

"A lot of those people will have to sell their homes, they're going to cut back on the private jets and the vacations. They may even have to take their kids out of private school," said Frank. "It's a total reworking of their lifestyle."

He added that it's going to be no easy task.

"It's going to be very hard psychologically for these people," Frank said. "I talked to one guy who had to give up his private jet recently. And he said of all the trials in his life, giving that up was the hardest thing he's ever done."

Makes "let them eat cake" look pretty anodyne, doesn't it? If we were less fat and lazy and apathetic, we'd be lining people like this up against the wall at this very moment. You know I'm against capital punishment, but that actually doesn't seem all that virtuous in this case, given that a quick death would probably be a mercy for them compared to my preferred punishment, which would be to strip them of all their worldly possessions and force them to work arduous, mind-numbing, thankless eighty-hour-a-week jobs for minimum wage with absolutely no respite every day for the rest of their miserable lives. And they'd have to donate half their earnings to the people they've been so industriously fucking over all this time. That seems only fair.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Revenge of Feminist Nightmares in Student Writing

Same student:

The Bible is my main source of how I create my moral values and basic lessons of life. It is stated clearly many times in The Bible the different responsibilities each gender poses. The men are responsible for providing for the family and the women should honor and obey their husbands, while also taking care of the children and the home . . . This traditional idea of how a family should act of look like has been lost on today's younger generations, mostly by feminist women and the media. Feminist force into young girls minds that they are just as good or superior to the male sex . . . The media helps this cause by having such a liberal bias.

You have to wonder what exactly she's doing in college. Going for her MRS degree, presumably.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sharia law has its up-sides.

I kind of agree that Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases. He IS a repulsive creature. I'm not quite sure why it is that Donald is awesome but Mickey/Goofy are abominations before the LORD, but they are. Oooohhhh, yes they are. Part of the problem is that Mickey has become metonymic with disney itself. Part of the problem is that Carl Barks was a genius; Floyd Gottfredson...not so much. No disrespect intended. But beyond that, there's something fundamentally wrong with non-Duck disney characters, and I suppose "it's because Allah hates them" is as good an explanation as any.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Limerick Time

There once was a pirate named Little,
An enigma wrapped in a riddle.
While robbing some fools
He said "you know the rules
"I want gold, boys, not Kraft Peanut Brittle."

UPDATE: And JUST LIKE THAT, this blog becomes the number one google hit for "Kraft Peanut Brittle!" Only with quotes, yeah yeah, but never mind--that's POWER, baby!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Folk Music Advisory

Peter Howell and John Fernando made up a loose folk music duo in the sixties and seventies that recorded a series of super-obscure, beyond-underground records (Alice Through the Looking Glass; Tomorrow Come Someday; Agincourt, Fly Away; Ithaca, A Game for All Who Know; Friends, Fragile that have since gathered something of a cult following. Some of them have been rereleased on CD, some not; I'm not sure, since I got most of them from various folk music blogs. It consists of whispy, sometimes psychedelic melodies--not my favorite things ever, but pleasant enough.

Anyway, now there's an official website, as I learned from one of the few useful spam emails I've received. The layout's kind of terrible, but you will at some point be able to buy rereleases of all the albums, plus--the most interesting part for the devoted--a whole bunch of miscellaneous rare (well, rarer) and unreleased tracks. Pretty neat. I approve.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace has FUCKING KILLED HIMSELF.

Horrible. It's been a long time since anything shocked me like this.

Additional thoughts: I feel just endlessly shaken by this. Of course, a large part of it's selfish: Wallace should have had many more years to produce many more signs and wonders. Was Infinite Jest in some ways flawed? Who cares? He wrote it in his thirties. Plenty of time to write something like it but better, or something completely different but better or something unimaginably awesome that would shake American literature to its foundations. Did he have it in him? Maybe, maybe not, but it would have been great to watch him try. And now, never no never no more. It's very painful to contemplate.

Infinite Jest is absolutely jam-packed with addition, depression, psychoses, and all sorts of mental fucked-uppedness; Wallace was clearly a very acute as well as compassionate observer of such things, which, one might have thought, would have transferred into an awareness of and ability to handle his own mental state. I guess depression is something that it's difficult or impossible to deal with analytically, but man alive, if Wallace couldn't do it, then what hope for any of us?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

If you don't read fafblog...

...you suck and I hate you. However, I will still point you to this Mooselini post, which is not half bad.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Student writing

Feminist nightmares [from a female writer]:

It sounds to me like Susan Brownmiller was a woman with little love from the opposite sex therefore driving her to an intense dislike for males. I would love to live in an era like the 1950s where there was a traditional kind of value and responsibility for women.

Punctuation issues leading to gender confusion:

Even though I was a girl mostly through elementary school I had all guy friends.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The good news about the RNC...

...is that it's actually almost unspeakably boring. I was hoping for a Nuremburg Rally-type thing, but it's nowhere near that interesting, mostly due, apparently, to lack of competence. You'd think they could at least manage the stagecraft, but this is real amateur hour stuff.

Part of the problem of course is that their message is completely incoherent: there's a lot of banging on about change and reform and fixing Washington, which isn't really very compelling, given that they've spent the last eight years trashing the joint. I was only half-listening, so I might have missed something important, but Mike Huckabee told a really bizarre story about veterans giving desks to students. Wuh?, thought I.

There's also a lot of hyperbole about how Sarah Palin is the most fucking awesome Vice Presidential candidate in the history of the UNIVERSE, which is pretty surreal. I can't help but think that they're doing this because they were so caught off-guard by the brazen cynicism of the choice that all they can think to do is desperately over-compensate. I don't see it working, but what do I know?

At any rate, it's impossible to imagine how this little debacle could give them any sort of electoral advantage.

Mike Huckabee...

Sure, he seems likable when he's on Colbert, but you only need to watch his convention speech to realize that he's actually kind of a prick. Sure, he might not have the kind of visceral "intense humming of evil" feel about him

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Joe Lieberman: great shithead...or the GREATEST shithead?

"If John McCain is just another partisan Republican...I'm Michael Moore's favorite Democrat." Pause. "And I'm not." And then, to reiterate, unless we didn't get it the first time he explained it: "and I'm not." Get it? He's not. Actually, Joe, you're not a Democrat, period. Not that being a Democrat is a HUGE badge of honor, but given that you've betrayed everything you ever stood for, you don't get to pretend you're still one of us.

(Brilliant job, voters of Connecticut. Fucktards.)

Second-worst part of the evening: the dimwitted fratboy-sounding dude, apparently standing too close to the microphones, shouting YEEEAAAH! at every single applause line.

Amazon fucking HATES my Dhalgren review.

Why? Beats me. But first, they published it in such a way that it wasn't visible from my profile page, nor was it visible from the book's own page, unless you specifically clicked on "four-star review" and went to the second page. So I deleted it and resubmitted it in the hopes that this would be rectified. And now they don't want it at all, apparently. It makes no sense, but it kinda pisses me off. Anyway, here it is for your delectation.

When I first read Dhalgren, at the tender age of nineteen, I was blown away. I wasn't a particularly ambitious reader at the time, but, due to the SF label (applied due to Delany's prior record, even though it's not really science fiction), I was lured in by this massive, intellectually challenging tome, and I was absolutely taken with it. Never having come face-to-face with such an intellect, my critical faculties weren't really fully in gear. Coming back to the novel nine years later--hopefully at least a BIT less callow!--I think I am better able to understand and appreciate what Delany does well while at the same time remaining keenly aware of his failings.

The basic premise is irresistible, and it's more or less borne out by the book iteslf. The portrait of a society come loose from its moorings (one that has, essentially, lost its historical context) and the people who live therein is very finely-drawn. From the Richards family's hysterical efforts to retain a no-longer-operative order, to the Scorpions' somewhat aimless quasi-gang anomie, to Roger Calkins' attempts at experimenting with social order by setting up his own little fiefdom, to the defiantly utopian menage à trois at the center of the novel, very few stones are left unturned in this regard. I think it bears comparisons to Pynchon's recent Against the Day, which depicts a similar kind of societal breakdown, albeit without the city metaphor.

Furthermore, Delany is really smart in terms of race, sexuality, and gender, and the ways in which such concepts become warped and distorted when the society propping them up is abruptly no longer in a position to do any such thing. The gangbang scene in the last section is more profound than a gangbang scene has any right to be.

ALL THAT SAID: this is far from a perfect novel, and most of that has to do with the central character, the nameless Kid, who just isn't a very compelling or likable guy. One gets the strong impression that he represents a kind of adolescent wish fulfillment ("poet, lover, and adventurer"), especially as regards his prodigious sexual exploits. Many of the secondary characters--eg, Tak, Bunny, Nightmare--are interesting and sympathetic, but they are not the focus of the novel. Kid is, and this gets old after a while. I can't tell you how cathartic I found the section in which fellow poet Frank absolutely tears his poetry apart. And I don't think that such catharsis was Delany's intention.

Furthermore, the aforementioned sex is so omnipresent that it becomes exhausting. Kid's stamina is well beyond that of any human to ever have walked the earth; this may go along with the utopian aspect of the novel, but it also kinda had the effect of making me want to never have sex again, which I can't imagine was the point. His primary partners, Lanya and Denny, are less annoying than he himself is, but they aren't all that interesting either, and I found that one of the novel's central ideas--that a free'n'easy relationship like this can rise above, transcend, and in some way redeem all the chaos around it--was undermined by my general indifference.

Delany is a great writer. There's no denying that much. I think "to wound the autumnal city" surely deserves to go down with "a screaming comes across the sky" as one of the all-time great opening lines. But I don't know, at this point in his career, that he was necessarily capable of adequately controlling that gift. There are numerous passages that, while technically impressive, amount to what it might be fair, given the novel's preoccupations, to describe as verbal masturbation. I won't lie to you: it gets old after a certain point, especially in the somewhat gimmicky (if often effective) last section.

But I don't want to get too down on the novel. If it seems like I am, that's probably just because it's easier to criticize than to praise. There is no denying that it stays with you; in places it is luminous, Delany's indulgences aside--and how many really ambitious novels are devoid of self-indulgence? It's no Gravity's Rainbow (which may however be an unfair comparison); still, I think it deserves to go down as one of the better products of seventies postmodern counterculture.

Monday, September 01, 2008

"Politics and the English Language" sucks.

Whenever someone mentions this essay, there is a seemingly mandatory appreciative silence as everyone sagely contemplates the eternal verities contained therein. I've read it for my own alleged edification, and it appears in every essay collection ever written, so I always feel obliged to teach it. The point I'm trying to make is: I've read it a whole bunch of times. And I can't hold it in any longer: it's just not a good essay.

What I take to be the central point--that vague, poorly-considered language enables oppressive political practices and régimes--is right on, and it's a vital point to be made, now as much as ever. "Enhanced interrogation," anyone? When Orwell writes that "the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable,'" it's impossible not to think about Jonah Goldberg's train wreck of a book.

So that's all well and good. But you notice how I merely described that as "what I take to be the central point?" That's because the essay is so poorly organized, and the point is flooded with so much incredibly petty and occasionally nonsensical complaining, that it's often difficult to believe that Orwell even has a central point other than "get off my lawn, you durn kids!" His points about the genuinely harmful nature of bad language practices are so diluted by his small, unimportant points that the former are cheapened and it's often unclear what the central thrust is meant to be.

Obviously, one has to adjust for the fact that the essay was written sixty years ago, and some of his complaints may simply no longer be operative in the way that they once were, but even with that in mind, a lot of them just seem irreducibly silly--more like a litany of literary tics that annoy him than anything else. We all have such lists; we don't all try to elevate them to the level of absolute truth. People are being pretentious, you see: they're using bizarre, esoteric words like "exhibit" and "basic." They're also using dreaded foreign phrases like "status quo" and "deus ex machina!" And you know what's even worse? DO YOU??!? I'll TELL you what's worse: they're using those fancy--élitist, one might say--words with Greek and Latin roots, instead of folksy, down-home Anglo-Saxon words. You know--terrifying words like "expedite," "predict," and "clandestine." I'll bet they eat arugula, too.

That last example is especially confounding: even if a good explanation could be provided for the thoroughly bizarre injunction to avoid words with the wrong kind of etymologies, who but an especially maniacal Classics professor is going to be in any position to put this idea into practice? The English language's greatest strength is its ability to assimilate words from all over the place. It's like a big ol' katamari (serious nerd reference). But not for Orwell: "Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English," he breezily writes, and this is where he really tips his hand. Why do these three examples meet with his approval? Why can't we just say "that is," "for example," and "and so on?" Why are these somehow A-OK while "cul de sac" is deeply offensive? There's no reason for it. It's completely idiosyncratic. And that's fine, as long as you aren't trying to pretend that your personal idiosyncrasies are somehow universal truths.

There's plenty more where that came from. One of my favorites is the part where he condemns phrasal verbs. Dude: that doesn't have anything to do with linguistic degradation; it's just how the English language works. You might as well object to rules of word order or verb conjugations. If you don't like it, you could switch over to French, which does not have such abominations unto the LORD.

Of course, we can't go without mentioning his high-larious rendering of a passage from Ecclesiastes into allegedly modern prose. It's really about the most fatuous thing ever. "What if someone tried to say that 'the race is not to the swift,' in modern language? Also, they'd just suffered a severe head injury." Did he actually think he was making a valid point here? Yes, granted, the examples of modern language use he cites are pretty bad. Some people are not good writers. What a revelation. But he himself is just being silly.

Somewhere buried under all this nonsense there are some valid points, but it's not that easy to get to them. Again, the central issue is an important one. But Orwell badly misdiagnoses the problem, and his examples represent, at best, sloppy, half-valid attempt to get at the core issues. I don't want to come down TOO hard on him: as if to show that, no, he's really not that bad, this collection (as does the previous one) also includes "Shooting an Elephant," which is a really smart, perceptive essay. But the fact remains: for all that it's his most famous essay, "Politics and the English Language" bites pretty hard.

Hey you guys...

...why aren't you reading Phil Nugent on a regular basis? What's wrong with you?