Saturday, October 29, 2016

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (2000)

Wow. The Last Samurai. By law, I must clarify that this has absolutely nothing to do with any damn Tom Cruise movie you could name--it was originally published well before the movie, in fact. I've read that it was originally to be titled The Seven Samurai, which is appropriate but kinda perverse. Well, at any rate, it is what it is.
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Friday, October 21, 2016

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx (2000)

Here we have a totally wild post-apocalyptic dystopian satire allegory thing by (I think) a great grand-niece of Leo Tolstoy. The nuclear war happened some indeterminate hundreds of years ago, and now people are living a primitive, medieval (pre-medieval in some ways) lifestyle. There's a lot that's disorienting and alarming about this world, as obliquely revealed in bits and pieces. Take this, from the beginning:

Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop.

Huh? Flying rabbits?

It would be nice to have the meat...

Okay, makes sense...

Give black rabbit meat a good soaking, bring it to boil seven times, set it in the sun for a week or two, then steam it in the oven--and it won't kill you.

?!?! Mammals aren't supposed to kill you like that. It shows, startlingly, a world out of joint. There's a lot like this--things are weird and inexplicably deadly. I once read an observation that Adam Roberts made somewhere to the effect that one thing that scares us about nuclear weapons is the idea of being poisoned by light--poison is supposed to be a dark, dank, underground kind of thing. It bends against how we see the world, and that's alarming. I think you get a similar thing here. There's a lot more like this.
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Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Nobel Prize in Stuff I Like

I'm clearly not the right person to evaluate the merits of giving the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, inasmuch as I'm not a Dylan fan. It's weird; I feel like I ought to be--but every effort to get into his music, I've just bounced off. It's not that I don't understand why he's good and why people like him, but he just leaves me cold for reasons I can't explain. It certainly doesn't help that I don't like his singing voice (and I like plenty of stylized singers) and that harmonica music tends to set my teeth on edge.

Still, I want to try to think this through, so I try to imagine that instead, the prize was given to Leonard Cohen, the obvious other choice if you're going to give it to a pop musician, and a guy whose music is very important to me. What would my reaction be then?

I dunno...I really, really think it would be incredulous laughter followed by a yeah, I'm glad in some sense that he's being honored, but this is still kinda weird, dude. There are a lot of songwriters whose lyrics resonate with me, but it never, ever occurred to me that Cohen or Tom Waits or Ron Mael or David Bowie should therefore be Nobel laureates. I see similarities to the whole "videogames are art" crowd: "we like playing videogames and we want to think they're Important in some intangible way, therefore videogames are art." Likewise: "we like Bob Dylan and think he's important, therefore his work is Literature." Just because you like something doesn't mean it has to be something else you admire, people! This whole thing strikes me as a weird category error, like awarding the Booker Prize to a videogame. You can think that's weird and inappropriate without throwing any shade at videogames, people! Also, let me note that if you're calling Dylan lyrics literature, you're doing one of two things: you're either saying that the music itself is unimportant to Dylan's appeal, or you're saying that the music itself somehow counts as "literary." It's just nonsense.

But maybe I'm the hidebound one? It's certainly possible. Lately, I've found myself thinking about my younger coworkers' music of choice--contemporary pop music--in terms very like the way old people always think about young people's music. So I'm clearly not immune to charges of cultural conservatism. Still, I can only say what I think, which is that reading and listening to music aren't comparable experiences, and the latter is not "literature." Claiming otherwise is just incoherent. Plus, you're empowering those damn college kids who want to write their literary analysis about their favorite band's lyrics. No one needs that.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Kings of Shreds and Patches

I watched the Vice Presidential debate, just because it was on. I think Mike Pence was awful, but then, I'm biased. Still, I must admit, his strategy was probably the best (for some definition of "best") strategy he could've used. Look, he has a problem: not that he isn't horrible in his own right, but he's chained to a fucking maniac who is utterly unable to even pretend to hide his horribleness, and who is horrible in new, trail-blazing ways, to boot. So what do to? Well, obviously his strategy was just to LIE LIE LIE, constantly, non-stop, even when it meant straightforwardly contradicting things that he and his running mate said, on tape. This seems crazy? Well, maybe, but it was still his best option: obviously, he can't just concede that Trump is a transcendentally, historically awful candidate, so let's just pretend that none of this is true. Obviously you're not going to fool anyone who's paying attention, but let's face it, everyone who's paying attention has already chosen sides and isn't going to be swayed. All that's left is the ever-decreasing supply of "undecideds" (I know it's wholly unoriginal and uninteresting for me to ask "who are these people?" but seriously, who ARE these people???), and sure, if they pay attention, they'd know he was full of shit, but if they were the sorts who paid attention, they wouldn't be undecided. So Pence relies on the fact that these people get their news in a really incomplete, distorted way from a mixture of word-of-mouth, clickbait, and tv shouting heads, and sure, maybe some of them'll start to realize, hey, that guy's full of shit! But...some of them won't! And that's your best bet. I mean, if you're a crazed sociopath driven only by lust for power. But, you know, they're Republicans.

The people I have to wonder about (okay, not REALLY wonder about, but you know) are actually-informed republicans who know damn well how full of shit Trump and Pence are but plan on voting for them anyway, 'cause hey, it doesn't matter THAT much, and they'll appoint the right people to the Supreme Court, so pace Olaf Glad and Big, there is no shit they will not eat. But you have to think that someone would start to WONDER: if the only way my team can gain power is by constant, non-stop, egregious lying--because otherwise everyone would be fucking horrified by us and we'd always lose in a landslide--if this is true (and even if you won't admit it for previous elections, it's impossible to deny this time (okay, obviously not IMPOSSIBLE, but nobody with even the thinnest pretense to critical thought could--HA!), maybe possibly I should start to reëvaluate my worldview? Mightn't one infer that there just might be something WRONG here? I mean, unless you're joining the psychologically-implausible ranks of D&D characters who are conscious of and happy with the fact that they're "evil?" I dunno, man. People, I sometimes feel, are significantly worse than I ever thought they could be.