Thursday, December 29, 2011

Annals of Horrible Douchebags

(Quotes are from this fascinating yet appalling article, which isn't available online to non-subscribers.)

Have you ever thought to yourself, of high-powered college football, "you know, I like the idea of players being encouraged to neglect academics in order to break their bodies in the very slim hopes of becoming NFL players--but the problem is, there aren't enough fourteen-year-olds doing this?" Well, if you have, Horrible Douchebag Ken Halloy has got your back:

"There was this big uproar, about kids being exploited and so forth," Halloy said, of his initial efforts to promote high-school events. "Next thing you know, ESPN's trying to televise the games, using that as a marketing tool, because you've got guys that are in the recruiting business. So they want to put on games that feature top players. And then you had an uproar about that--saying 'ESPN is exploiting blah blah blah blah blah.'" Halloy has the boyish face and the glinting blue eyes of a born salesman. "The beauty of ESPN, for me, is that they can take something seemingly radical and turn it mainstream. That's exactly what happened with high school football. ESPN has mainstreamed it. ESPN can buy anything. Schools are so desperate for money these days they can't say no."

Any rhetoricians out there know the Greek term for refuting an opposing argument via "blah blah blah?" A less-horrible douchebag might have, I dunno, tried to soft-peddle the awfulness a little, but that would have implied the presence of a conscience, however degraded. That's what's great about being a sociopath in America today: there's no need to justify yourself in anything other than financial terms! "Cash-strapped schools will have no choice but to participate in our exploitive scheme! Isn't that great?!?" It sure is, you horrible douchebag. It sure is.

He described his vision of the future, perhaps a decade from now, involving high-school bowl series, with regional post-season games occurring during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. He was certain that the audience already existed. Offshore-gambling sites had been issuing point spreads for noteworthy high school contests since August. "If Don Bosco played St. Thomas Aquinas on December 23rd or 28th, on national television, those ratings would be as good as the Sun Bowl, in El Paso, Texas," he said. "I don't think there's any question that it's going to happen, and, again, what's going to drive it is money. The high-school associations are going to get their hands in that kitty."

And you know what? The horrible douchebag is almost certainly right! God bless America!

J.-K. Huysmans, En rade (1887)

I read Huysmans' most famous work, the anti-novel Against Nature (À rebours, 1884), when I was in college. It wasn't for a class; I was just obsessed with nineteenth-century French literature at the time. What can I say? The book concerns one Jean Des Esseintes, the last scion of a decayed noble family, who gets bored and disgusted with the world and thus decides to hole himself up in the family château to escape human society, as one does. The bulk of the book consists of lengthy catalogues of the art and literature and whatnot that he's brought with him, interspersed with his various efforts at amusing himself, macabre flashbacks, and dream sequences. In the end, this lifestyle proves too unhealthy, and he is compelled, reluctantly, to return to society.

This book blew my tiny mind. You wouldn't necessarily expect to be enthralled by a long list of early Christian philosophy that you have little interest in, but somehow the effect of the whole was really hypnotic. Granted, this was probably in part due to a sort of perverse wish-fulfillment thing that appealed to my more misanthropic tendencies, but regardless, it was just super-cool. So I followed it up by reading his later novel, The Damned (La Bas, 1891--and yes, that translation of the title is pure sensationalism). I don't actually remember it all that well, as I was much less enthralled by it than Against Nature. It's about a guy writing a biography of infamous child murderer (…is there any other kind?) Gilles de Rais who gets involved with Satanism. There's a depiction of a black mass at the end that might have been shocking in the nineteenth century. I didn't dislike the book, but the fact that I didn't love it means that I did not proceed to read this here other Huysmans novel which I had purchased, Becalmed (En rade,--also translated as Stranded, which is more exact, but the other title seems more evocative and thematically appropriate).

But, on a whim, I recently picked it up and gave it a go, and hey, I've gotta say, it's a pretty interesting piece of deviltry. It's about a fellow named Jacques Marles who, having had financial problems in Paris, retreats with his wife Louise into the country, to live in an old château of which her aunt and uncle are caretakers.

As per usual with Huysmans, not a whole lot happens here. The book is all about entropy: the decay of the natural landscape; of the primitive, atavistic peasants; of Jacques' mental state; of his wife, who is suffering from some mysterious wasting illness; and of his relationship with her. All of these things are described in somewhat gruesomely-detailed fashion--and there's your novel.

There are also three dream sequences, emphasizing the disorder of Jacques' mind and the entire milieu. The most memorable of these is one in which, with no warning or transition of any kind, he and his wife are suddenly on the moon--but not a fantastic moon; an arid, real-world moon with no air on which consequently they can't talk. They just wander around, taking in the geographic features, and noting that, in spite of what you'd expect from many of these features' names, they're completely sterile; there's nothing lush or Earth-like about them. I believe that Mishima read Huysmans, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this sequence was his inspiration for calling his final tetralogy the Sea of Fertility.

The dreams aren't the only fantastic parts; there's also a morbidly funny bit where Jacques imagines how, with the aid of science, ptomaine could be used to flavor food and thus people could eat their ancestors as a special treat. If I have one criticism of the book, it's that it could have used more along those lines. Huysmans obviously had a very idiosyncratic sensibility, and a bit more of the surreal would not have come amiss. In the introduction to my edition of the book, there's a quote in which he accepts criticisms of it and asserts that it would've been better if he'd gone with his original idea of strictly alternating between "real" daytime chapters and nighttime dream chapters. That might've been a bit of overkill, but it sure woulda been something.

Later, Huysmans converted to Catholicism and wrote a number of novels about this (featuring the guy from La Bas, no less). They seem to be fairly well-regarded, but I dunno--it's difficult for me to imagine how a writer this willfully perverse could possibly not be literarily neutered by religion. Maybe one of these days I'll give this later material a look and find out.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Upton Sinclair, Mountain City (1930)

Hmm. This novel concerns one Jed Rusher, who grows up an impoverished farm-boy, with an unbreakable determination to get rich come hell or high water so he doesn't have to be at the mercy of economic fluctuations. It's a perfectly believable motivation, and goes a good way towards explaining this country's general amorality: when you have a system that's designed to fuck over the great majority of its subjects (or "citizens," if you laughingly prefer), you strip away the ethical frameworks not just of the plutocrats, but everyone else too.

It's an interesting novel because it's the first I've read from Sinclair with an unsympathetic protagonist. Here's how Jed starts his fortune: he's able to go to college because of his sister's ironclad determination, and while there he wrangles his way into a job as attendant to a fabulously wealthy speculator who had become an invalid. His granddaughter, Lulu Belle, comes in to visit him; she's fourteen years old, but she's been kept utterly sheltered her entire life, so she has no idea about anything. She's very upset because her parents have taken away her dolls, on the basis that she's outgrown such childish things. If only I could have a real baby, like my cousin, she says to Jed, nobody could take it away from me. How do people get babies? This flusters the hell out of Jed, who mumbles his apologies and leaves, but upon reflection, it occurs to him, hey, I know! If I were to tell her where babies come from, and then impregnate her, they'd have to let her marry me, and I'd be part of this super-rich family! And he's all prepared to go through with this brilliant scheme, until he learns that he has been preëmpted by a boy from her own social group, leaving him to say oh, well, if you DO get pregnant, be sure to tell me and I'll help you.

Mirabile dictu, this comes to pass, and she writes him a letter telling him, and he puts his new scheme in motion: he blusters his way into her family's house, making her mother let him see her by threatening to tell the papers, and getting her to drop the idea of getting a discreet abortion for her daughter with appallingly insincere expressions of moral outrage that would do today's anti-woman brigade proud; then, when he sees Lulu Belle, he does the classic psychopath thing of isolating her by emphasizing how everyone's against her but him, and gets her to agree to run off and secretly marry him, having ascertained that the worst that can happen if it's revealed that they lied about her age is a small fine.

And then indeed in short order everyone does accept him. So yay Jed! But while the money he marries into helps, he makes his real fortune via oil prospecting, and the scenes of him inspecting fields and bribing officials might as well have been copied straight from Sinclair's earlier Oil! (1927).

From this, you might think that the novel would be luridly fascinating, but it's really not. The awful business with his child-bride is the clear highlight. After that, he just settles in to being a kind of generically corrupt oil tycoon. Naturally, the idea of being rich just so he doesn't have to live a hard life quickly goes by the wayside, as he throws himself full-time into stock manipulation and the like. As with Oil! it would be hard to call this an advocacy novel, exactly, like Sinclair's earlier works; it really just shows all this corruption in action and lets you draw your own conclusions.

All this goes on for a LONG time; looking back, it's sort of hard to see how this was possibly enough to sustain a three-hundred-twenty-page novel (and densely-packed pages, too--it would probably be closer to five hundred in a contemporary edition). There's a whole lot of nothing here. Towards the end, Jed gets an anonymous tip-off that his wife is cheating on him, and one is briefly seized with the hope that the book's going to suddenly turn into Othello, which would just be gloriously loopy. But no such luck; she just confesses her indiscretions and they separate rather amicably, after which he keeps doing his thing. It's an obvious analogue for capitalism, which doesn't really have climaxes, but just keeps on keeping on. Not a particularly satisfying conclusion, though. Maybe if it had been written by the other Sinclair, Lewis, it might have worked better.

I'm trying to read a whole bunch of Upton Sinclair because it pleases me to do so, but this isn't a great book. The aforementioned Oil! is far better. The closest thing to a sympathetic character is Lulu Belle's grandfather, who holds socialist ideals while cynically profiting from the system to rub it in people's faces what bullshit it all is, but that's about it, and Jed just isn't much of a character at all--again, maybe in a representative way, but that doesn't make for great fiction. He has occasional very brief intimations of some sort of social conscience, but it goes without saying that those are quashed quickly enough. I was driven largely by curiosity about where the hell all this was leading. Nowhere in particular, it turns out.

But to end on a positive note, one thing I do like is Sinclair's fastidious insistence on putting quotation marks around any turn of phrase that strikes him as suspiciously colloquial; eg, "all that would be more or less dangerous, but even bolder things had been 'gotten away with' by able lawyers with rich clients 'in a jam.'" Maybe I'll try to start incorporating that into my own writing.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Duck Comics: Holiday Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Marathon

Details here. I'm not going to post a link here every day, 'cause that would get monotonous, but long story short, there's going to be a new post every day from tomorrow through Christmas, so check 'em out if you want to.


China Miéville, King Rat (1998)

So there's this guy named Saul who comes home to visit his father, only said father has been mysteriously killed. He gets taken in by the cops, but a mysterious man calling himself King Rat breaks him out, and it turns out--this isn't *much* of a spoiler--that Saul himself is, in fact, part-rat. So he has to acclimate himself to this while a demonic Pied Piper tries to kill him.

This is Miéville's first novel, and the difference gulf between it and Perdido Street Station is quite remarkable; you never would have guessed from this relatively simple story what lay ahead. Aside from questions of scope, the writing itself seems somewhat less adroit, though it stopped bothering me pretty quickly; part of the issue may be that the opening trope--guy suddenly finding out that he and the world are dramatically different than he had imagined, first disbelieving, then accepting--is so well-worn that it must be very difficult to do well. I sort of feel like authors must think "yes yes, shock, disbelief, let's just take that as a given and move on, shall we?"

The book certainly has its moments. One aspect I particularly liked was the effort to make being a rat seem like a genuinely alien thing. There's a part soon after Saul's been rescued where King Rat goes, okay, let's eat, and roots through the trash to find some thrown-away foodstuffs. Saul is, as you'd expect, horrified, but KR asks him: when was the last time you threw up? and he realizes that, in fact he doesn't experience nausea, and once he's accepted that he's not in fact disgusted by the idea of eating garbage, he's fine--as you would be, when you think about it. Very clever. Also, there's one pretty exciting chase sequence, and the ending is rather grippingly macabre, albeit not so much that I would call the book as a whole a "horror" novel, as the fact that it was short-listed for this here Bram Stoker Prize would seem to indicate. Finally, the whole thing has a cool, mostly-upbeat conclusion: given that Miéville was even younger than when he wrote Perdido Street Station, I was bracing myself for the same sort of forced grimness that somewhat marred that book, but no, nothing like that, and the novel benefits from it.

Still, it would be hard to call King Rat exactly a great novel. A lot of it is pretty flat, and there are a few parts that are simply underdeveloped. In addition to King Rat, there's also a king of birds and one of spiders, but their narratives, particularly that of the bird, are just half-baked and peter out most unsatisfactorily. And the most (theoretically) interesting thing in the book--Saul's relationship with King Rat--is not given nearly the attention it deserves.

Hey, there's nothing to be ashamed of here; most people only wish they could write a first novel this good. It's not quite one for the ages, though.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Commercials We Hate, volume umpty-billion

It's this fucking microsoft commercial where the kid is giving his parents a powerpoint presentation about how he needs a dog, and his parents are charmed by this and thus, there is a dog, but then the husband tries to do a presentation about why he should be allowed to play golf on Sunday and the wife just shakes her head and he immediately shuffles off.

Now, the main action of this commercial is no great shakes; the faux-clever precociousness of the kid's presentation is less endearing than was evidently presumed. But man alive, that ending. Now, god forbid I should be like those "men's rights" assholes who fulminate about how any commercial where a man is humorously made fun of or made to eat his cheerios or whatever is an instance of horrible, omnipresent oppression and therefore let's all be as misogynistic as possible to make up for it. But look, people: what's wrong with the guy playing golf on Sundays if he likes playing golf? The only legitimate objection would be if he were using golf as a tool to help him be emotionally distant--but in that case, this marriage has problems that are not going to be solved by attacking the symptoms like that.

And if that's not the case, then he really needs to explain to his wife, "hey, marriage requires mutual concessions. I love you, but as you knew when you married me, I'm also an avid golfer, and I'm not going to be happy if I'm never allowed to play. So we are going to have to reach a mutually-acceptable compromise; if we can't do that, there will be big problems down the road, and not just because of golf, either."

But the ending makes it pretty clear that this isn't going to happen; that he's resigned himself to this situation. Which means that there are two possibilities: either at some point he's just going to explode, with horrible consequences for everybody; or else he's just going to keep on endlessly sublimating his frustration and anger, becoming ever-more withdrawn and bitter and making things ever-more miserable for his family until all this repression literally kills him.

And the fact that none of this even occurred to the makers of the commercial--that they just mindlessly drew on lazy comic-strip gender tropes to create what they thought it was a cute, funny, family scenario--just endlessly rubs me the wrong way. Is a lame thirty-second spot worth this level of scrutiny? YES. I demand that bullshit like this not be made, end of story.

Duck Comics: "City of Golden Roofs"

Friday, December 02, 2011

In the gleaming corridor of the fifty-first floor, the money can be made if you really want some more.

This is late I know, but, for the record: wingnuts fulminate about the War on, I shit you not, Black Friday. Seems some libruls somewhere said something bad about mindless consumerism, so obviously that can't stand. And apparently, there's something called "Small Business Saturday" where you're supposed to patronize small businesses, which apparently Obama said something positive about, so it's also necessary for them to take a day out of their busy schedule of praising small businesses to the heavens to explain how small businesses fucking suck and should all be destroyed. It really is all stimulus-response with these guys. No higher brain function.

I probably don't have to say that I absolutely fucking loath the very idea of this day. I try my best not to feel disgust for the mobs of humanity rioting for the opportunity to snag a two-dollar waffle iron--tell myself that they're only playing their proscribed role in a diseased society--but lord knows it's hard.

I have a friend who works in retail. He told me that his store opened at six on Friday, and they did not get as much business as they like, and this was because--or management determined that it was because--they didn't open early enough (I saw ads for places opening at midnight, or even the night before). So next year, they're gonna open in the middle of the night.

So to sum up: the Thanksgivings of retail workers will be ever-more ruined by their employers making them come in before the holiday's even over. The Thanksgivings of other people will be ever-more ruined as they are compelled to go along with this insidious bullshit. It's a pretty perfect example of the way late capitalism undermines anything that isn't strictly regimented according to the dictates of the market. Looked at in those terms, it's not just foolish and stressful to go shopping on Black Friday--it's actively immoral. Not that I blame people who do (well, I try not to anyway); they're just part of an immoral system. But if you're even a tiny bit self-aware about this stuff, you have no justification.

(And yeah, I could've used a quote from Flogging Molly's "Black Friday Rule" in that title there, but it just seemed too obvious. Same reason that the movie Drive does not feature the Cars song "Drive.")