Saturday, May 28, 2011

Personal Update

The last "personal update" I did was April 11, 2011. I'm doing another because I reached a sort of milestone.

1.
Last week, I weighed 197 pounds, confirmed by two different scales. That means I weigh less than I did when I graduated high school. I could still stand to lose more fat and gain more muscle though. However, you should see my frigging thighs - they're getting huge thanks to all the bike riding and running. Regardless, I feel fucking fantastic that I weigh less than 200 pounds. That means I've lost over 40 since January.

2.
Exercise has mostly fallen to the wayside, unfortunately. I don't have access to my school gym anymore, and I'm loathe to get a membership elsewhere while I wait for my application to go through at a different school (see item 3). Once I get registered there, I'll have access to a better gym than I used before. Until then, I'm trying to do this mostly through bike riding and the occasional chin-up or push-up. Or rather, it's mostly diet that's making this go faster than I expected. Sticking to fruit and no red meat is truly spectacular. Anybody who says that they can't do what I'm doing is a fool. Even without exercise, I'm losing weight and managing to stay healthy by just eating healthy.

3.
So the big news. I've decided to not continue with Red River College and my diploma or certificate in computer programming. Here are a few reasons why:
a) it's not fun
b) I don't have the aptitude for it
c) I failed this last semester due to personal reasons all documented on this blog and due to sheer revulsion thanks to the terrible teachers

Instead, I've decided to go back to University of Winnipeg and pursue an Honours Degree. I already have a 3 year Bachelor in English, so I'm going to spend 2(!) years upgrading my degree. From there, I'll apply to every graduate program in the country and work on my Masters. Here are a few reasons why:
a) it's fun
b) I have the aptitude for it
c) I fucking miss real school. I miss talking books. I miss being with people I can relate to. I miss the academic environment. Enough, I suppose, to sign up for a lifetime of it....

Come September, you're going to be reading the blog of a university student who lives with his parents (see item 4) and is inescapably single. It's like it's 2006 all over again!

4.
I'm moving back in with my parents. I'm not terribly excited about it, but it's something I need to do. I need to make money and work on my school. I need to increase my GPA by a lot and this means I can't afford a full price apartment. The place I'm living now is good and cheap, but it could be cheaper. Currently, my parents are redoing the basement, installing a new bathroom. They just recently redid my old bedroom.

On a certain level, I'm depressed because it's like going back in the past, but on another level, I'm accepting of such a fate because:
a) I'm a different and better person than I was 6 years ago
b) I have a goal now, a real goal
c) I'm happier now than I've been in years

Living with the parents is suboptimal, but it's not the worst thing that could happen.

5.
I've sold a third of my comics and 90 percent of my books. All of the books I own now fit into about 4 boxes, or three larges boxes. The rest of the comics will soon follow, I'm afraid. As aforementioned on this blog, I've lost my attachment to things. I no longer have the burning desire to own something and have it on my shelf. I'd rather go out and see friends than spend my money on books. The only exception I'm making is books that my library doesn't stock. It's really satisfying selling your stuff and then having tons more space in the small bedroom you rent.

Part of this selling books thing is that I can't really justify spending money on something that I know for certain I won't read again. I haven't re-read a book since I was in university. That means it's been over 6 years since I've complete a second run on a book. I've certainly tried re-reading novels, but I can't quite turn off that voice in my head saying, "there are over a billion books that you could be reading right now, so why go over the same ground?" This might change come university mark II when I'm confronted with studying texts I've already read, but the advantage there, one I'm hoping to exercise, is that I'm already familiar with the texts on the syllabus. Fingers crossed!

6.
Expect to see more David Foster Wallace on this blog. There's your official warning.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oblivion

Slowly, inexorably, I get closer and closer to starting Infinite Jest. I'm nervous about tackling such a huge and apparently difficult work without any lead-up to the work. Doing pre-reading is how I managed to finish Ulysses, by reading both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With David Foster Wallace, I feel compelled to read his first novel, a good amount of his short stories, and at least one book of his essays. I've already read Broom of the System (which I loved) and at least half of Girl With Curious Hair. Consider the Lobster is checked out from my library, so I have to wait. This brings me to Wallace's final collection of stories, Oblivion.


I've been told by a few learned readers of DFW that Oblivion is a good place to start before reading Infinite Jest. They say it tackles many of the same themes, uses many of the same techniques, but is far easier to read because of each story's relative brevity. I say relative, because in a 300 page short story collection, there are only 8 stories, one of which could conceivably count as a novella.

The stories are not just big in length, but in scope. They are filled to the brim with exhausting detail, detail that you wonder how much research DFW did before setting pen to paper. The very first story, "Mister Squishy" is typically Wallace-ian in its level of detail. The story is about a man leading a focus group to determine if a new snack food is worth putting on the shelves. Not only is there an exhausting level of detail about the main character, but also physical details of every member of the focus group. On top of that, there is a ton of math and statistics to pour over as the main character thinks about the science of focus groups. Plus, background information on how a company makes a snack, designs the package and logo for maximum profit, sells the product, and how they employ research firms to do focus groups. It's an extremely long piece, and it's told in a sort of nonlinear fashion. That is to say that the entire piece is told mostly in paragraphs spanning multiple pages with very little dialogue and sometimes, very little to connect each individual sentence together in this very long paragraph.

It's like reading an academic paper, which is surely one of DFW's aims. What is less obvious is what DFW is trying to get at with this story. Why did he write this? Was it merely an interest in the idea of the focus group, and how much science has been co-opted for the admittedly irrelevant realm of snack food? Was DFW just fascinated by what kind of a person would make his life revolve around products? Maybe it's none of these and maybe it's all of them. The best thing about "Mister Squishy" is how it resists so many things that we consider universal about short stories. There's no clear ending, no clear protagonist (there's a main character, but he's neither protagonist nor antagonist), there's a confusing section of first person narration which seems amazingly tangential, plus a plotline about a man scaling a skyscraper with a rifle that doesn't seem related at all. The paragraphs go on far too long, and even the footnotes are huge blocks of text. But all of these things, which a creative writing teacher would faint at, are part of the story's charm. It works, thanks to DFW's godlike lexicon and his seemingly endless store of knowledge.

Many critics complain that DFW is too smart for his own good, and his arrogance shines through inexorably. This doesn't bother me in the slightest. One of my favourite authors is Joyce, a man who said people could rebuild Dublin using a copy of Ulysses. The fact that DFW is truly a genius doesn't irritate me. It inspires me. His neverending conflict with fiction's form and content, his tenseness with philosophy and the world outside of academia. His constant desire to needle humanity, poke it and prod and turn it over, over and over again. These are the things that separate the writer from the rest of the pack. There is no one like DFW. He was a singular and unique voice that cannot be duplicated. His impact on literature will be felt for a long time.

This isn't to say that DFW is all intelligentsia. There is heart and humanity to these short stories, but you sort of have to look for it. In "The Soul Is Not a Smithy," easily the best story in the collection, DFW charts the psychological impact of a homicidal substitute teacher but through the gaze of a student daydreaming about another family and about his own lonely and depressed father. The form of the story is endlessly inventive and complicated, but the small details of the father make the story just soar. The story is told from the perspective of the student as an adult, with a marriage of his own, and he picks up all the memories of his father and sees them through a different perspective. The small images DFW uses to convey the father's vast emptiness are perfectly used.

Another highlight of the collection is "Good Old Neon". The narrator (one of the few first person narrators in the book) is a fraud, a man who can manipulate anybody and has made his life easier by manipulation and subtle coercion. However, he feels empty inside, constantly aware that he is a fraud and has no real personality. He ends up going to see a therapist, but wastes most of the time with trickery and subterfuge to gauge the therapist's intelligence. Until finally, the narrator relents, admits his phoniness. So begins an epic discussion of the logical problems brought up by such a paradox. How can you be a fraud all the time if for a moment you can admit to being a fraud?

The story is an exercise in logical arguments and feels like DFW just showing off. For most of the story. It's not until the end that you realize DFW is playing a different game. Like I said before, one of DFW's strengths is his constant toying with the short story's form. At the end of the story, the narrator is committing suicide, and has been relating the entire story during this one infinite moment (this idea that time is relative and that words cannot possibly do the trick that thoughts and emotions do echoes throughout the collection. For a man so adept with words, he certainly had a low opinion of them [see Broom of the System for more on that])**. We find out that the story is really just DFW seeing an obituary for a man he went to school with, and DFW wondered what happened in the man's head before he killed himself. What was the story? What happened to this seemingly successful and happy man that drove him to kill himself? The story is not just an exercise in form, but an exercise in understanding a human being fully and completely. Surely, a critic with more knowledge of DFW could make some sort of connection between the story's narrator's avowal of fraud and emptiness and DFW's constant fight with depression and medication and eventual suicide. I'm not going to do that - I don't know enough about either the story or DFW. All I can do is merely point out that there exists a connection.

"Good Old Neon" might be my personal favourite of all the stories, even thought I recognize that "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is, in terms of technical merit, probably superior. "Good Old Neon" kind of resonates with me. As a writer myself, I also look at people and wonder what their story is; I imagine their lives in detail and try to make a short story or a novel out of it. It's my interest in the complexity of humanity that makes reading DFW so enjoyable, other than, of course, DFW's intellectual trickery and vast lexicon.

There's a line in "Good Old Neon" that pretty much sums up how I feel about DFW as a writer. The narrator learns how to play chess, but becomes discouraged when he realizes there are better chess players out there and no matter how hard he works, he'll always be good or adequate and never great. This is exactly how I feel about DFW. I know that I'm good or adequate, but writers like DFW make me feel like a child. His ability and his intelligence simply loom over mine.

I've written a lot on the technical aspects of Oblivion and some of the emotional aspects, but how did I feel about the book overall? Well I can't say it was as entertaining as Broom of the System. While his first novel seems inconsequential and slight and definitely guilty of "showing off" it was overall more enjoyable than this book. Oblivion was sometimes tiring. Two of the stories in particular were quite tiring: "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "Another Pioneer". The former is a quick four page story about a man's mother getting horrific plastic surgery. It's boring and uninteresting. The latter is a medium length story about a man overhearing a conversation between two men on a plane. The conversation, told in exceedingly unbelievable detail, concerns a parable or myth about a pre-writing tribe somewhere in the world who produce a genius child, and the inevitable cultural backlash against a preliterate tribe and this savant, who increasingly brings up philosophical matters. "Another Pioneer" is interesting in subject matter (and the link between author and subject fascinating) but it's altogether tedious. It's just too much: too much detail, too much confusion over form and too much philosophy.

Really, these are the only two stinkers in the whole bunch, and I use that term in an ironic way. Even the stories that aren't as good as still complex and have tons of depth to them. While DFW was never going to be Alice Munro, he was still able to contribute something important to the medium of short stories, even with the ones that aren't so great. Most of these stories are so big and so complex as to be almost "complete" in the way that big novels are.

Overall, I enjoyed Oblivion. I thought that most of the stories were fantastic, if tiring, and only a couple were sort of annoying. I was never bogged down by DFW's unique authorial voice or his tsunami of information that he provides, like it or not. Reading DFW pains me because I wonder how much grief and heartache he went through to produce these works of art. I know as well as anybody that the act of writing is not something a person chooses to do but something they feel must be done. It's like a piece of you that you must extract. I've no doubt DFW was tortured in the way most great artists are. I've no doubt Oblivion was published at great personal cost to the man, but of great benefit to literature.

**Look! I did two Wallace-ian tricks: the nested brackets, offering an aside, and I did a footnote. Of course, I'm not going to make a huge block of text, like DFW does. You know, now that we're discussing footnotes, I gotta say that I'm rather ambivalent about them. DFW uses them a lot and wants to disrupt the flow of the reader, and he succeeds, so I appreciate the technical use of them. However, as a reader who reads mostly for entertainment, I like to read to enjoy myself. When he breaks up my rhythm, then I'm thrown off. So like I say, wholly ambivalent. Thanks for reading this footnote.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Matterhorn

When I was 15 or 16 years old, I wrote a novella about the My Lai Massacre. I remember it being visceral and very stream of consciousness. I wanted to try and confront my adolescent obsession with war, specifically, the Vietnam War, something that continues to interest me. With my novella, I wanted to challenge notions of honour, nobility, and the wages of war. I can't say for certain I was able to do so; the novella is lost in the digital sea, along with my specific memories of it (Although, tangentially speaking, I remember there was a lot of psychoanalysis, or at least as I understood it, on the part of the main character). I mention this because my Vietnam novella was no doubt not very good, and I'm absolutely certain was not accurate in the details, no doubt because of my (still present) disdain for research, and the fact that I didn't live through it. It seems that the best and most accurate war novels are the ones written by the men who fought the war. This brings me to Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn, a behemoth of a novel, like its very title.



The novel follows Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas along with the men under his command, and a few of Mellas' own superiors. It's 1969, and the war is not going as well as it could. Bravo Company is told to give up the mountain they are situated on, as it is no longer a tactical asset. However, the mountain is quickly taken by the enemy, and Bravo Company is ordered to take it back, no matter the cost.

Matterhorn is a long and incredible read. It's satisfying, it's powerful, it's dynamic, it's intriguing, it's suspenseful and it's haunting. I fucking loved this book. But not without some slight reservations, which I will address first, and then get into why I loved it so much.

Marlantes allegedly wrote this novel over the course of 30 years. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that he wrote, in order, chapters here and there for 30 years. We have no idea. We can't even guess, because the author's voice barely changes throughout the novel. I mention barely. The authorial voice improves over the course of the novel, and this is only noticeable in the small details, the specific words that the narrator uses.

For example, often the narrator will employ the word "rump" in reference to the Marines' posteriors. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with using this word. The problem is that there is a disconnect between the reality of the situation and the word the narrator has chosen. "Shrapnel in the rump" doesn't quite have the bite that it should have, when describing something so painful and so raw. Luckily, this issue seems to slowly dissipate when we reach the final third of the novel, when shit goes down hard.

All of the character speak in roughly the same jargon-heavy almost-impenetrable dialogue, which is just laden with profanity. The Marines say "fuck" and "ass" and "shit" so why can't the narrator? Does the narrator want to hold everybody at a distance? I'm not sure, but it's slightly distracting sometimes.

As a decorated veteran of the war, Marlantes is very familiar and very proficient in the jargon and the dialect the military uses. As a writer, he has to walk a fine line between immersing the reader and holding the reader's hand through the more technical aspects of the book. Thankfully there is a glossary at the end of the book to explain some of the terms, most of which are familiar to those who have watched a war movie in the past 30 years. However, Marlantes sometimes stumbles with some of the scenes in which the superiors discuss strategy. During these scenes, I sometimes had trouble following along with the nuances and the finer points of their strategies. Like I say, it's a very fine line, and if every once in awhile, the author can't keep the reader at the same level, it's not the end of the world. I understood generally what the commanders were planning. It's never obfuscating for the sake of it.

Finally, in terms of complaint, there are just way too many damn characters to keep track of. Part of the problem is that this book took me about two weeks to read (with two books as a break in the middle) so maybe I had trouble remembering everybody. But there are just a lot of them. Marlantes makes... most of them individuals who stand out, but a decent portion of them melt into the same Marine. Scenes at the beginning of the novel echo slightly at the end, but it's tough to maintain the emotional outcry when you just can't quite remember who this one particular Marine is. There's a command structure at the beginning of the novel (in addition to a map) but it only mentions the core cast. Try remembering all frigging 60 characters introduced over the course of the first 300 pages. It's not easy.

All of these criticisms are just superficial, signs of a first time writer. But they're not fatal in the slightest. The good significantly outweighs these small issues. First of all, for a first time writer, Marlantes is just absolutely powerful at conveying images to the reader. The eponymous mountain of the title just looms in the reader's imagination. It's an important visual, and Marlantes completely sells it. Not just this, of course, but the entire shebang. The jungle, the wounds, the violence, the tears.

This skill works in conjunction with the grittiness and realism of the depiction. It's all about the details with this novel. I would estimate that at 50 percent of this novel's success is due to the amazing level of detail in everything. If the Marines are suffering "jungle rot" or "immersion foot" then the author will make you feel it. If the Marines are digging a latrine or dying of thirst and hunger, then you will feel it. Every single numbing exhausting detail is pushed onto the reader until the audience is carrying the hundred pounds of gear on their back as well.

When I say "grittiness" I don't mean like a cop show is gritty. I mean gritty in the way that shows life in war isn't life at all, but a struggle, a never-ending uphill battle to stay alive. It's also a constant war to stay sane in spite of the death, violence, and seemingly nonsensical plans of the brass. There are a few scenes, used sparingly, but tremendously effective, in which we get into the head of a Marine, and he's just thinking about his mom, or a girl he'd like to hold, or how he's never done this or that. It's heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting for the reader.

Even though we're bombarded with images of "men" in war, cigars installed in the corners of their mouths, stubble defiantly prickling the air, the reality is that most of the grunts in the Vietnam War were just 18 and a lot of the officers were just in their twenties. These are boys, and the author never lets us forget it. Marlantes confronts the imagery of the masculine, the manly man in war. He shows us, no doubt from personal experience, that there were a lot of tears. These boys cry when their friends die. They cry when it gets too much. But when they are, after all, highly trained soldiers, and they are able to kick ass when they need to.

But the cost is high. There is not a lot of war fiction that has captured my heart the way Matterhorn has. It's just heart-rending - the entire thing. It takes a long time for Marlantes to really get to the point, but when he does, it's devastating.

The novel starts out sort of slow, with the author using small episodes of day to day life in the bush in Vietnam to get the reader on the same page. There's excursions, marching, digging trenches, building LZs, stuff like that. It gets to be slightly numbing until after the first third of the book. Then the overall plot starts and Marlantes begins moving his pieces around the board (of Vietnam) for the finale, an absolute epic.

The big firefight at the end of the book is - in one sentence - blistering but always coherent. It has to be mighty difficult to convey the chaos and the insanity of a battle, but somehow Marlantes never loses the reader. While the geography of the site is opaque once in awhile, it's never unclear where the principal characters are or where they're headed. Marlantes even describes the inherent chaos of the battle without ever losing focus on what he's describing. While this might seem facile and facetious to mention, I think it's an important and amazing thing to pull off, almost more amazing considering this is Marlantes' first novel.

Ultimately, Matterhorn is a masterpiece of fiction. Not just war fiction, but fiction in general. Even if the novel suffers from slight clunky sentences every 10 pages or so, or even if the novel suffers from some purple prose and simplistic conclusions near the end, the sheer reality of the experience drives it home for the reader. It transcends the limitations of the simple conclusions and rises to the realm of Great Literature. If I was teaching a course on American historical fiction, I would surely use this as a major text. It perfectly captures this small company of men, their fears and hopes and lives and tears.

I could continue, but I think I've made my point on how much I loved this novel. I highly recommend this for lovers of American history or of war fiction. I can say with supreme confidence that the Vietnam novella that I wrote pales in comparison to this book. It's long, it's tiring, but the journey is incredible and powerful. This is one of the best books of the past 5 years that I've read, easily.

Monday, May 23, 2011

California Fire and Life


Oh look, we’re reading another Don Winslow book. Really? Yes, really. Winslow has become my go to guy when I’m stuck reading something large or difficult. It’s an easy way to get my mind to relax. Plus, he’s the ultimate summer read. I’m very slowly running out of Winslow books at my library, which is a huge problem, so I’m trying not to read them all at once, like I tend to do with authors I like. This one I picked up because I’m having trouble sticking with Marlantes’ Matterhorn, a book I’ve been reading for seemingly months. But that’s a different review to look at.

Jack is a claims adjuster for California Life and Fire, and he’s specifically trained for fires. When Pamela Vale dies, burned to death surrounded by vodka and cigarettes, it’s Jack that’s sent out to investigate the fire and figure out if the fire and death are accidental. Unfortunately, Pamela was married to Nicky Vale, a Russian businessman with deep ties to the local criminal underground, who seemingly has plans to eliminate the rest of the Russians and the Vietnamese from their little area of Cali. When Jack inevitably concludes that the death and the fire were not accidental, he unwittingly steps into a huge clusterfuck that threatens to explode with violence.

Well. This isn’t going to be a long review. We all know where I stand on Winslow. In fact, I’ve said this before, then ended up writing 1600 words about how awesome this guy is. No, I’m going to be brief this time. I knew what I was going to get, and I loved it, and then I finished it and wondered why there aren’t more movies made of his shit.

However, I have to say, I didn’t LOVE this book as much as his other stuff. Shocking, I know right? Well, California Life and Fire is good, but it’s not great and here’s why. It’s extremely exposition heavy. Like threatening to buckle under the strain of having to explain all this chemistry and physics to an uneducated audience. I certainly know little about the science of combustion, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to read a nonfiction book about fires with a murder mystery mixed in somewhere.

When I say it’s exposition heavy, I really fucking mean it. There is a twenty page long section that explains how fire functions. And that’s just a small piece of the overall exposition. Obviously, Winslow has to do a lot of lifting and straining to get the audience on the same page, or at least enough to follow how it is and why it is Jack comes to his scientific conclusions about the fire. It’s Dan Brown spending twenty pages explaining the voting for the pope in Angels and Demons (good lord, I’m admitting to reading that piece of syntactical shit). However, Winslow’s prose is never flat or boring, so it’s often entertaining to read his exposition. It’s just there’s a fucktonne of it.

Also, I just didn’t FEEL the characters like I did with his other books. I read Savages months ago, and I think I could still accurately sketch out the three main characters – they just stick with you because they are so memorable. Too bad the same can’t be said about this book. Jack will fade away into the mist of strong badass protagonists who don’t take shit from anybody. He’s not funny enough or interesting enough to hang an entire novel on him. The best we know about him is that he surfs a lot (no shit, everybody does in Winslow’s Cali) and that he can fuck people up with his fists. Great. So can everybody else. The main characters of Savages, and Bobby Z, while similarly archetypal, still retained enough individual spark to create interest in the reader.

But these two issues aren’t enough to ruin the experience. In this book, more so than Bobby Z or Savages, Winslow juggles quite a few plot strands that happily and epically coalesce in the final third of the book. It’s the sign of a good writer with capable hands. When everything comes together, it’s like the ending of a melody that just fits. And of course, Winslow’s prose retains its stark and conversational beauty, the kind of prose that seems easy to duplicate or mimic, but is actually way harder than it looks.

So yeah, I liked California Life and Fire, but I didn’t love it. Unfortunately, the last Winslow I read was Bobby Z, which might be one of my most favourite thrillers I’ve ever read. I just wish my library had more of Winslow’s stuff. I only have three more books available. I might have to buy his other books, which frightens me, because apparently they’re the early stuff which isn’t as good. Oh well. I love Winslow’s writing enough that I’ll probably find some good in it anyway.

See? I can write shorter reviews.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Butcher's Crossing

Okay, so the Internet is not working in my apartment for some idiotic reason. Which means my posting is going to be rather infrequent until I can fix it. I'm at my parents' right now, and I have a few posts scheduled to be posted in the next few days, so don't worry. If you are worrying, well then, here's a review written by yours truly to slake your thirst.



The Western is an invaluable genre. It’s extremely flexible when it comes to stories and characters, and it allows for a seemingly infinite variety of situations. It’s nimble and deft in portraying the land, inherently part of the character of the Western. I haven’t read a million Westerns, but when I do read them, I try to stick to the acknowledged classics, one of them being John Edward Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing.

Set in the 19th century, Will Andrews has left the comfort and safety of Harvard for Butcher’s Crossing, a small town right at the edge of the great wilderness. He has come to this town, inspired by a lecture delivered by Emerson, to seek an “an original relation to nature,” and he finds Miller, a grizzled veteran of buffalo hunting. Andrews hires Miller to take him out to this area where the buffalo are extremely populous, something increasingly rare near the end of the 19th century. Andrews, Miller, and two other men embark on a long and arduous journey, but they find the buffalo and they begin a long and violent hunt. But Miller becomes greedy and stays in the valley too long, until they are snowed in and forced to stay there until next spring. When the men return to Butcher’s Crossing, irrevocably changed, they find a town just as altered in ways they could not have expected.

Written in the Sixties, Butcher’s Crossing might appear to be a revisionist Western. It’s not a tale of myth or legend, but a tragedy of violence and the way the landscape can change a man. But it’s revisionist in the sense that the book rejects the Western. Instead it embraces the theme of the power of nature, the power of the untamed wilderness, and marries this with Williams’ approach to his characters. There are no gunfights or Mexican standoffs or outlaws. Rather, there are men, businessmen, hunters, scholars, drunkards, and everything else populated a real Western town.

Williams only wrote a few novels in his career as a teacher of creative writing. I’ve only read this novel by the man, but I can sense the stamp and the forge of the school of creative writing with this book. Every sentence feels carefully crafted, almost to the point of delicacy. I don’t mean the prose is so delicate as to break easily, but I mean delicate and intricate like a snowflake. This overall impression isn’t necessarily negative; I’m merely pointing out that I could have guessed Williams’ background as a writer based off the prose. Creative writing schools often produce a similar style of writer (note that I did not say style of writing), which is that every single sentence has been sanded, rubbed and ground down to the tiniest thing possible, where every superfluous word is discarded through endless revision and endless drafts.

But this works to Butcher’s Crossing’s benefit. It’s a short novel, and I cannot imagine it being any longer than it is. The book is almost simplistic in plot and execution: men go hunting, get snowed in, come back. Where the novel’s complexity lays is its cast. The four men are carefully sketched over the course of the novel, but with the bulk of the focus on Andrews and Miller, two completely different people who end up a little bit more similar than they expected by the novel’s end.

The absolute best part of the novel comes at the very end, when they have returned to Butcher’s Crossing. As Andrews takes a bath, his first in almost 7 months, and a shave, he looks in the mirror and sees his face, changed and hardened. His physical being has come to reflect the valley from whence he came. Internally, he has not become disillusioned. A lesser writer would have gone through this song and dance. No, instead, Andrews, a small scholar with no previous experience being in the outdoors, has not become disillusioned, but rather, has come to grow up. Nature is the great equalizer, he has discovered. Rather than be shy and soft, he has become a man. The prostitute he was too timid to have sex with before his journey, this whore becomes his concubine and they stay in bed for days, sleeping and making love. It’s a fantastic section and so unbelievably complex. When they arrived in town, I expected the novel to go one way, and Williams defied that by going his own, frankly superior, way than what my imagination came up with.

I didn’t really love this book though. I liked it, and I can appreciate its artistry, but this appreciation is more for the technical skill than the overall work of art. It’s similar to appreciating a good piece of engineering. The product might be totally functional, but the only thing you can notice is how clever its put together, instead of loving how well the product accomplishes its task. A lot of people feel this way about Joyce’s Ulysses. (not me though). Butcher’s Crossing is a well constructed artifice and I really loved the smaller details, like the aforementioned homecoming, or how well Williams takes Andrews through his first skinning of a buffalo. But the overall work left me somewhat cold. The individual and excellent parts never coalesce into something greater than its sum. It’s frustratingly nebulous.

Part of this is Williams’ absolute detachment from the narrative. There is no authorial voice in this novel. It is merely a description of the events, and the reader must extract the relevant meaning from the barest of information supplied by the narrator. This is similar to Hemingway’s iceberg style of writing, which I happen to dislike. Williams never steps into his own narrative and comments or judges or applauds. He stands far away from the book and lets the characters go their own way. Instead of the author placing obstacles for the cast to get through, it’s like Nature itself puts itself in the path. While this is well done and very careful, again, it’s a technical aspect I can admire, but overall it just doesn’t work for me.

Of course, Butcher’s Crossing is a classic of the genre, and most people will disagree with me. I liked the book and I thought it was well done, but not well put together. There’s a coldness that ends up being the totality of the experience. It’s the combination of the prose ground down, the cast’s distance from the reader, and the author’s distance from the reader. Reading Butcher’s Crossing is like living on the Moon, cold desolate and completely devoid of humanity – no doubt the point of the novel, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sucker Punch



This film cost 80-something million dollars to make. It made about 90 million dollars around the world in box office. Therefore, it's a flop. And this is probably a good thing. It's a good thing because maybe films like this won't be made anymore.

Set nebulously in the Sixties, 20 year old Baby Doll gets thrown into a mental asylum by her lecherous and greedy stepfather. Her lobotomy is scheduled for 5 days in the future. Immediately, Baby Doll goes into a delusion where she is a dancer in brothel, and she befriends a bunch of other dancers. Each time Baby Doll dances, she enters into another fantasy where she wears a tiny skirt, wields a katana (with one hand!) and a pistol with charm bracelets dangling from the butt. In order to secure her freedom, she must find some magical totems which correspond to useful items such as a map and keys. Each time she dances, she and her new friends battle Nazis, mechas, demonic samurai, and even a dragon.

To say that this film is style over substance is far too neutral. This film is execrable. The moment I left the theater, I thought that maybe this movie wasn't too bad. But the more I've thought about it, the more I think that there are no redeeming features to this film apart from its decent but not great soundtrack.

At first, I was willing to concede that the premise of the film was interesting and different. Girls go into a fantasy land in order to escape the horror of their own reality.... Oh wait. That's like fucking everything else out there. Isn't The Bridge to Terabithia about this very same thing? Except that book/movie doesn't make me feel squeamish for watching girls get threatened with rape every five fucking minutes.

Yes, the girls are gorgeous. And in tremendous shape. But the film positions the viewer as voyeur - sometimes literally looking through a keyhole at a potential rape. When Baby Doll first steps into the (second layer) fantasy world, wearing the tiniest skirt, brandishing the longest katana, the Bjork music just pumping on the soundtrack, I admit to looking. I mean, looking, like the male gaze. This was a gorgeous and strong female who is kicking ass like it's serious business. But this euphoric moment only lasts for a couple minutes. Then she's flipping all over the ground, fighting a stone samurai, and her skirt is flapping in the breeze, exposing her (unsexy and functional) black undies.

I'm being told to look at this girl. I'm being directed to watch this girl take control of her situation and kick ass and take names. It's supposed to be empowerment, I suppose. I bet Zack Snyder thought he was super cool, letting the girls kick ass for once. Except the parameters for this to happen is a constant threat of rape and murder and lobotomy. There's a constant and tenacious sexual subtext to everything. Positively every scene is dripping with sexuality. The movie screen was practically sweating at me, heaving its mighty bosom and asking me to willingly participate in ogling this nubile female flesh.

It's hard to really complain about a film that's so upfront with its 13 year old boy fantasies come alive and packaged in female empowerment trappings. Oh wait. Yes it is. Snyder thinks this film is about lending strength to girls and putting them in control of their situation.

And now we come to the title. Yes, the title of Sucker Punch refers to a couple things. Mostly, it refers to the sucker punch of an ending. There is no such thing as perfect victory unfortunately, and there is a great sacrifice. The lobotomy mentioned so many times, comes to happen, taking Baby Doll from her drab grey world (literally) and placing her permanently in a world of colour and action, her definition of freedom.

Does anybody else have a problem with this? She willingly sacrifices herself in order to achieve a semblance of freedom in a fantasy world. She willingly subjugates herself to a man's world and then "escapes" into a reality that doesn't exist. There's something not quite right about all this. This brings us back to the complaint of style over substance. This movie doesn't mean anything. Is Snyder trying to tell us that a fantasy world in which we're in control is better than being imprisoned in someone else's world? Cause, buddy, that's not freedom - that's mental illness.

Maybe I'm in the wrong for taking a more feminist approach to this movie. Maybe I'm in the wrong for expecting anything more from this movie other than people kicking ass and taking names. No, wait. No I'm not. The ponderous and pseudo-poetical voice over narration that permeates the beginning and the end make me think the makers of this film aspired for something more than action and spectacle. The narration points to themes and points to "meaning" in the nebulous and murky way that amateurs think it means.

This film wants to be something more than the sum of its parts, but it never rises above video game structure and borrowing liberally from other genres. None of the fantasy sequences really bring something new to the table. The samurai, the dragon, the steampunk Germans. None of these things impressed beyond the visceral impact of seeing them. My mind registered them, I recognized them, I instantly moved on. My eyes were constantly assaulted with this "cool" images, but nothing is made of them. They're derivative and unoriginal. The orcs in the dragon scene? Their makeup and style are lifted directly from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Every element is borrowed from something else.

Since all the elements are cobbled together from better movies, and the premise is borrowed liberally from archetypal story structure (and it's almost made painfully clear by the screenplay itself) and the "themes" and "meaning" are so positively elementary as to be preschool level, what else is there to this movie? Other than, of course, the icky fake-feminist angle that Snyder tries to play at.

Nothing. Nothing is the answer. There is very little to recommend with this movie. I can't say I actively hated the film, though. There are some small moments of entertainment, like the very first big action scene. After that moment, the film derails in cliches and wrongheaded sexual politics.

Many reviewers have made mention of the video game structure of the narrative. It's worth discussing here as well. The structure of the plot goes like this: there's an item we must retrieve. We go into a fantasy, where there are hordes of faceless and expendable enemies to murder and dispatch. There's a "boss" (a dragon, a burn-victim German) that must be defeated for the item to be secured. The girls complete this objective. The fantasy ends and we move on to the next objective. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does. It's EVERY FUCKING VIDEO GAME of the past twenty years.

There's a slight suspicion I have that this film originated as a video game and Snyder decided to change to film for some reason. I would have totally forgiven the simplistic plot and bizarre sexual stuff if this had been a video game. Hell, I probably would have loved this as a video game. While I talk a lot about story and the primacy of it, I tend to be a little bit more lenient with video games. After all, the medium has come of age yet; it's still maturing and finding its feet, as a medium, I mean. So a simplistic plot such as this would have been acceptable.

But as a film? No, I don't fucking think so. This thought pretty much sums up my feelings about the film itself: "no, I don't fucking think so". Especially when it comes to the bizarre Snyder signature camera tricks, like ramping up and down the speed, or the fake that everything and I mean everything has a haze of artificiality to it. Just like in Watchmen and 300, everything feels fake. This is due to the use of green screen and CGI of course. But here's the paradox: I'm more willing to accept the green screen use in the fantasy sections, like when the girls are fighting Germans than I am to accept the use in "reality". It's like using the green screen in "reality" increases the feeling of artificiality and wrenches from the illusion and reminds me that I'm watching a film. And not in the good way.

Whatever. This film has the ickiest sexual politics of a film I've ever seen (and this coming from the guy who wrote 1600 words on Easy A's sexual politics). It's not that good looking, the girls are all boring and cardboard as actors, the plot makes little to no sense, and the sucker punch of an ending makes me feel squeamish. So, fuck you, Sucker Punch. You're a shitty fucking movie.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Shorter Reviews

Contrary to recent history, I don't write 1600 words on everything. Here are a bunch of shorter reviews of things I don't think I can devote a whole post to. Enjoy.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy



I like Kanye the producer. I don’t like Kanye the person. I don’t like Kanye the MC either. I think his rhymes are okay. He should employ a co-writer to tighten up his rhymes. But the production? No way. I think he might be one of the greatest producers in the history of recorded music. Dark Fantasy is such a big epic canvas, equal parts tiring and awe-inspiring. It takes some major huevos to employ Elton John as a backup singer and then bury him in the mix to make his part indistinguishable. It’s daring and audacious, and that goes for the whole album. It’s fascinating that Kanye doesn’t use the trademark swagger and braggadocio that he used on stage with Taylor Swift. Instead, here’s an MC that’s comfortable, singing about the ups and the downs of being famous and being Kanye. It’s not all lights and money. It’s also about being alone. Instead of being dark and dour like 808s and Heartbreaks, or being full of piss and vinegar like Late Registration, Kanye strikes a sort of balance in tone, musically and lyrically. His use of Auto-Tune is still entertaining and not overly distracting. That being said, it’s still an overlong album, with songs going on past their natural and organic end. On top of this, Nicki Minaj remains an annoying but interesting MC. While I personally don’t like her style, I admit that it’s different, and that’s something to admire. Kind of like this album. I may not like the whole experience, but I admire it.


Countdown to Final Crisis volume 1 (of 4)

Holy shit. I’d heard this was bad. I didn’t think it was this bad. This series is practically incoherent. Both 52 and Trinity are enjoyable reads, so I thought DC’s attempt at another weekly series wouldn’t be so godawful. But this first volume is just atrocious. It’s not just incoherent in terms of the art (which makes all the Monitors indistinguishable) but in terms of story. One of the threads running through this first volume are the Rogues, specifically two of them. They kill the Flash, I think and then they’re on the run. But the death of the Flash isn’t shown. I assume it happens in the pages of his own series. But why couldn’t they have provided a little flashback, or – hell – even context? I had no idea what was going on. Why is Karate Kid locked up in the JLA satellite? How did he get there? Countdown is the epitome of the self-recursive navel-gazing DC tapestry of overly complicated history that they peddle as comics. This is exactly why I stopped reading mainstream superhero comics. Plus, there’s a scene in which a Rogue, a villain who commits crimes I might add, lectures another Rogue about how the maxim of “the customer is always right” ruined common courtesy in America. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? I had planned on barreling through all 4 volumes and doing a massive review of the entire thing, considering my love of Final Crisis, I thought I could do it. Alas, I’m not sure if I can stomach 36 more issues of this turgid piece of tripe.


Superjail! (or at least half of the first season)

For most of this show, I kept going, “what the fuck am I watching”. I thought my eyes were going to bleed. The best way to describe this series is Johnny Ryan mixed with Family Guy. But that still doesn’t really capture the insanity of this show. It’s literally the most violent thing I’ve ever seen on television. I haven’t seen every show made, so I don’t know if it is indeed the most violent, but it’s got to be pretty fucking high on the list. It’s not really funny in the traditional joke kind of way. It’s more funny in the “what the fuck am I watching” kind of way. I still enjoyed it. The show’s second greatest strength (other than violence) is its brevity. At less than 11 minutes per episode, it doesn’t grate on the nerves like other animated vomit does (Family Guy, I’m looking at you). The voice talent is okay, but it could have been better. David Wain, as the Warden, shines, but everybody else is simply satisfactory or bland. I still like the show, even though there are definite weak elements. There’s no other show like it, and you have to admire something that strives to be original.


F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

I think I’ve mentioned this game on the blog before. If I haven’t then, here we go. FEAR2 (I’m not going to type out the periods anymore – it’s tedious) is a sequel to the scary first person shooter that I haven’t finished playing. It goes like this: you’re a super soldier able to slow down time for brief periods that infiltrates a scary locale, shoots some other soldiers and then hallucinates scary things. Repeat ad infinitum. The scary parts are pretty fucked up. The shooting parts are fairly fun. I want to finish FEAR2 because FEAR3 is coming out in June, even though FEAR3 seems to be more of a sequel to the first game than the second. The only problem is that I picked up FEAR2 again just after finishing Call of Duty: Black Ops. The problem? FEAR2’s graphics positively suck. For a game from 2009, it looks like shit. Things are pixilated, things are shiny in that fake way that early CGI was. The game’s kind of the same thing over and over again, as I mentioned. Yes, it’s pretty fun taking a shotgun to someone’s head and their body inexplicably disintegrating, but there’s only so much of that I can do. The story’s so weak as to be Kate Moss thin. Go from point A to point B, shoot soldiers, hallucinate some scary stuff, see “ghosts” end up at point B where somebody gets on the mike and tells you to go to point C. The plot involves going back and re-examining elements of the first game’s plot, which by the way, had a much better story, more complicated, but still not complex enough. While I complain the story’s weak, and the campaign repetitive, the game is still overall enjoyable. There are some epic parts, like when a plane crashes into the urban area and then you walk through all the people instantaneously turned to ash. All in all, it’s made me long for the third game. Hopefully they’ve improved the graphics and put a little bit more effort in the story.


Cousin Bette

Honore de Balzac is somebody I really wanted to read. He influenced Zola, who I loved, and Flaubert, who I also loved. But Cousin Bette is boring. SO boring. It’s also irritating in that hand-holding 19th century way. Just leave me alone, Balzac, I can figure things out for myself. So I gave up after one hundred pages. Hence why this shorter review isn’t a standalone review. Not much to really add to this other than expressing my disappointment with Balzac and myself (for not finishing it).


House of Balloons

Toronto’s The Weeknd put out a nine track “mixtape” of dark and awesome hiphop/R&B. I gave it a download after some random person on YouTube recommended it for fans of Frank Ocean. One of the first tracks I listened to was “Wicked Game,” a six minute slow tempo epic that just perfectly resonated with me. I listened to it over and over and over. Since the beginning of May, House of Balloons became my most listened to tracks on my iPod, with Bon Iver a close second. There’s just something about the dark and beautiful ambience that strikes a chord with me. It helps that The Weeknd’s voice is so fresh and versatile. He must have a huge range of octaves. A lot of his songs don’t really mean anything in particular to me, lyrically speaking, but the beats and the music are the perfect soundtrack for the film that runs in my mind. This is exactly the type of album that I want to make.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops


I have to preface this review with some comments regarding the multiplayer experience of Call of Duty – which is to say I had none. It’s May 12th, and the Playstation Network is still down. However, this doesn’t really affect me in the slightest, as I don’t play online multiplayer. I’ve played Uncharted 2 online and Red Dead Redemption online. That’s it.

The reason is that I’m just not that good and I don’t have the time or the patience to practice enough to be able to competently compete with all those foul-mouthed 13 year olds from Wisconsin. Therefore, this review is not going to touch on the multiplayer aspect of Call of Duty, which is, honestly, the biggest reason why anybody plays this series. I’ve seriously met people who haven’t even touched the single player campaign. That drives me nuts.

It’s May of 2011, and Black Ops has been out since November. Why the delay, you might ask yourself. Well, I didn’t have a lot of money back in 2010, nor a lot of time as I was in school fulltime and trying to work. Plus, the relationship I was in was winding down. But that’s beside the point, really. I still haven’t even purchased the game; I borrowed it from a friend (thanks, Sanjay) and in three days, I’ve pummeled through the solo campaign.

A bit of background needed, of course. Treyarch, the company that made this Call of Duty (as opposed to Infinity Ward) and previously made the 5th entry: World at War, which honestly wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t as good as Modern Warfare. One of the strongest aspects of World at War was Gary Oldman’s character Reznov, a Russian sniper. The best missions in the game involved Reznov. A lot of people didn’t give World at War a chance because of the Treyarch name and the lack of Infinity Ward. I had a positive experience with World at War, but not a mindblowing experience, so I went into Black Ops with medium level expectations.

Black Ops kind of shifts gears away from Modern Warfare and away from the series’ World War 2 roots. Instead of the Forties, Black Ops examines key events from the Sixties, a time of great political change and social upheaval. Don’t be afraid though: just like usual, this game doesn’t make any drastic political statement other than the bad guys are bad because they’re bad. Black Ops focuses on Mason, an operative for a covert organization. His team gets involved in the Bay of Pigs, which doesn’t end well, then they get involved in disrupting the Soviet space program. Mason gets imprisoned in a Soviet worker camp, but escapes with the help of Reznov, with Gary Oldman reprising his role. After the escape, everybody goes to Vietnam (cue the CCR music on the soundtrack – no seriously they did) and then Laos. From there, the team is intent on killing some Soviet bad guys who are armed with a poisonous nerve gas that’s aimed right at the good ol’ U. S. of A.

I’m hesitant to mention anything more about the plot. Anybody who has played the game and read my synopsis will notice that I’m being extremely vague and almost opaque. Well, it’s for the good of the experience. Not knowing anything will inevitably improve the whole solo campaign. I’m impressed that a) nobody spoiled it for me in six months and b) nobody spoiled that there was something to be spoiled. Fairly impressive.

Watching the credits after the game ended, I noticed that one of the story consultants was Howard Chaykin. I can’t say for sure if I could pick out any particular element that seemed tinged with his touch, but it’s relieving that the writers had some professional help. Not that they necessarily needed it. The story in Black Ops is serviceable and enjoyable. It allows the character to trot the globe, visit various locales relevant to the Sixties/Cold War setting and allows for different types of action to present itself. Would the story work as a film?

Possibly, with some tightening of various plot nuts and plot bolts. It’s quite unwieldy and formless in its current incarnation as a video game, but that’s to be expected. I don’t play Call of Duty or any other game for a cinematic experience. I play these games to be a total fucking badass and to fuck major shit up.

Black Ops delivers this in spades. There are so many instances of cool shit exploding or doing cool shit, like swimming under a boat, leaping up and stabbing some fucker in the throat. Oh man. It’s so satisfying to just seriously mess people up. There are all sorts of amazing sequences, like when the Soviet rocket blasts off, the heroes just seconds too late to abort, but instead, you pick up a missile launcher and just blast that thing out of the sky.

The Call of Duty series is really just a murder simulator. I probably killed over a thousand people in this game, without any remorse or without any reflection. I used a wide variety of tools to shoot, stab, incinerate, explode, eviscerate, mutilate and even dismember these nameless faceless people. Don’t worry, I’m not going to drag ethics or morality into a review of a popular video game. Suffice it to say that despite the moral misgivings I might have with murder, I have a great fucking time just destroying all these people. This is the ultimate in making you feel macho and manly. You’re better than Schwarzenegger in Commando and Predator combined. You’re the ultimate man: a pure soldier able to annihilate the bad guys.

Or are you? Black Ops throws a curveball at the video game audience used to the aforementioned paradigm. To any viewer of modern day fiction, the end of Black Ops won’t be a surprise, but it will be interesting. This is an interesting game because it challenges the narrative form usually used by first person murder simulators. Kind of like the way Assassin’s Creed challenges the narrative. What you think you know, you may not necessarily know.

I wish I knew the regular user of Call of Duty, the foulmouthed 13 year old from Midwestern United States. I want to know what their reaction was to the end of Black Ops. Would they even notice that things aren’t quite as they seem, or would they just play it? Do regular users of games play it for the story? I think they do, judging by how game reviews seem to go. They tend to discuss the story as much as they do the mechanics of the game (something I won’t really do. If you’ve played a first person shooter, then you already know the controls – they’re all the same). So what did the regular player think of the story?

I’m not a typical video game player. As aforementioned, I don’t play the multiplayer. Plus, I mostly play on easy or medium. The harder difficulties are just frustrating for me. I can’t even get past the first level of any Mega Man game. That’s how poor I play. I play because I like the narrative, the story, and the simulation. I like to fuck shit up. If there isn’t a solid story, then I get bored easily and I probably won’t finish the game.

The story in Black Ops is serviceable, as I’ve already said. The game benefits from some top-notch talent doing the voices. There’s Gary Oldman and Ed Harris, two acting heavyweights. Harris is used perfectly as a gruff and cool as an icecube solider. There’s also Ice Cube (speak of the devil) who lends his typically rough and powerful voice to an American soldier. The lead character, Mason, is voiced by Sam Worthington, an actor that I really like, even though everybody else in the world seems to dislike him. If you thought that Aussie Worthington’s accent was shaky in Avatar, then you ain’t heard nothing yet. Ostensibly playing the all-American Marine-style soldier, Worthington’s vowels are all contracted and stretched, not like any American accent I’ve ever heard. It’s equally distracting and entertaining. Despite the accent, Worthington does a good job. Not as good as Oldman (who voices two different characters, I think) but who is, really?

I was thoroughly entertained for the duration of the game. I played on the “normal” setting and there were very few parts where I was close to tears of frustration. It was challenging enough to make it fun, but not overly punishing (I’m looking at you, Demon’s Souls). It’s a fine line to walk, and Treyarch performed admirably. In addition to the usual shoot, cover, run, shoot, cover style, there are frequent on-the-rails parts, a couple sections of piloting a helicopter and some tank sequences. There’s even a pretty cool (but difficult) section where you rappel down a mountain. It’s enough of a variety to make it entertaining, but not enough to complain when you again and again take the reins of a tank.

However, I have to go back to the helicopter parts. Treyarch had to – no doubt – simplify the helicopter piloting process for the sake of the game. But, the chopper in the game doesn’t move like one in real life down. I’m able to do all sorts of things that aren’t physically possible with a real helicopter, like touch other choppers in the air with my rotors, among other instances of laughing in the face of physics. Oh well. You can’t win them all.

I liked Black Ops. I thought it was a good story, an enjoyable experience, and there’s enough cool shit to make up a couple action movies, except with you as the star. I like that the style of narrative challenges what video games normally do, but without launching into experimentalism or delusions of high art. It’s Call of Duty, and it lets you shoot fuckers in the face. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Terrible Cover Art

I saw this at the bookstore today, and I couldn't help but do a post on it. I've spoken before of cover art and how important it is, how hard it is to pull off. When you have terrible cover art, I'm completely turned off. I don't want to read anything that has a cheap looking cover or a garish hideous cover. Yes, I know: don't judge a book by its cover. False. Totally false. You know what you're getting into when the cover art looks like clip art put together - you know the book is going to be poorly edited and chock full of spelling and syntax errors.

Here's some cover art that makes a decent book look like a piece of shit. Michael Crichton's Sphere, one of my favourite novels of all time, and a total guilty pleasure, has been reissued in that bizarre half-paperback, half-trade paperback size, the beach-reading comfort size. Well, they went with the worst cover art I've seen in a long time. It looks cheap and sort of misrepresents what the book is about, kind of like the Sphere movie trailers misrepresented the subject matter.

Anyway, here's the cover. Feel free to puke on it if you see it in stores.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Acrylics

I've started painting with acrylics, a medium I've never used before. I like that acrylics act like oils and act like watercolours. This is my first acrylic painting. Apologies for the shine of the picture.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Vivisector

Based on the title, I had always thought this novel was about some sort of Australian serial killer. In my head, there's a giant list of authors that I want to read before I die. Patrick White was somewhere in the middle of this list, until I learned that this novel was about the life of a famous painter. Therefore, it shot up to the top, and once I finished Stendhal, I immediately devoured The Vivisector. It only took me three days to read a 600+ page novel. That's the spoiler alert for what I thought of this book.


This is indeed, one of the more harrowing cover images I've ever seen. My copy of The Vivisector has a different cover, but I could not find a suitable facsimile of it during a quick Google image search. The shock of the image did go along with my preconception of the novel's subject matter. Whoops. Anyway, this is an atrocious but relevant cover image.

Hurtle Duffield is a young boy in Australia, living in (close to) poverty. His mother, a laundress, and his father are too poor to really help Hurtle's burgeoning genius. A rich family, the Courtneys, adopt Hurtle and allow him to develop his artistic skills. Her foster sister, Rhoda, suffers from a curved spine, but she introduces him to Boo Hollingrake, a beautiful girl. When Hurtle goes off to fight in The Great War, he leaves his provincial Australian life behind and focuses on painting. He falls in love, well not love, but more fascination with a prostitute, whom he paints a portrait of. When this affair ends, Hurtle takes up with the now-rich Boo, widow of a sugar magnate, and patronage of Hurtle's now-famous paintings. She inadvertently introduces Hurtle to Hero, the Greek wife of a shipping magnate, and they indulge in an animalistic affair. However, this ends poorly, and Hurtle ends up alone again, living in a giant house, painting constantly. In his fifties, he meets the thirteen year old Kathy, a piano prodigy and then Rhoda comes back into his life. Hurtle hopes that Rhoda will be Kathy's defense against Hurtle's own desire to lay her bare and open.

Okay here's the review in a few words: lush, provocative, stunning, gorgeous, painful. This book was really fucking good. White's thesis is that Hurtle is a vivisector, mercilessly and cruelly exposing everyone in his life to the air, through the torture of art. He loves nothing save for the act of painting. Once a work is completed, Hurtle moves on, to vivisect the next person, no matter how hurt that person may be. He is a man of strong passions, but with a short attention span. He loves, if that's the word, and leaves.

In portraying the life of Hurtle, White is absolutely successful. In conveying the inherent suffering of an artist, White is wholly convincing. In addition to utterly capturing the tortured artist, White is also guilty of the most sumptuous and evocative prose I've had the pleasure of reading in the past little bit. Perhaps it's because I've been reading things in translation the past couple weeks, but White's prose is in complete contrast to the cold and academic voices employed by translators. His descriptions of things are rooted in colours and in forms, just like a painter would see things. Hurtle isn't interested in how things feel, rather in how they appear. Each little piece of description is clustered and close, damp and close like a hot dank forest of words. They're like thick gobs of paint on canvas, surely the intent, and it succeeds expertly.

This is a book I would love to teach in university. The system of imagery used by White is thick and deep. It should be no surprise that symbolism is lavishly used, as painters see in symbols and forms. There's the chandelier in his foster parents' house, the rocks in the outback that his prostitute lover commits suicide on, the rocks that he must paint, the hunched back of his foster sister, the numerous birds that appear frequently. The vivisected dog, cruelly opened and exposed. The fur coat. There's just so much in this book.

Are there problems with the book? Yes, a couple. This isn't perfection. White's sometimes rushed pace makes certain episodes suffer a little. We skip from his thirties to his fifties, and no doubt nothing interesting happened, but something could have. This is a very slight issue, considering the rapid pace actually helps the book more than hinders. I'd be hard pressed to find another 600+ page book I've read this fast. I absolutely devoured it.

Of course, I'd be remiss in not admitting my critical bias. As mentioned before, I've taken up painting again. I've been working steadily with watercolours and pastels the past week. I've even attempted at drawing with pastels something from this novel. So obviously I'm biased to enjoy a long novel about a painter, especially a painter in a country I'm desperate to visit.

The Vivisector, apart from the not-so-great title, is an amazing read, full of passion and verve and suffering and everything that artists will recognize. This might be a better portrait of the artist than Joyce's first novel. No, it's not a better novel, but White seems to understand the artist a little bit better. This might be because White is a bit more cruel, a bit more honest than Joyce. The Irish writer loved games and puns and language, but White is more interested in real life.

For a novel about painting, there's surprisingly little information about the paintings themselves. Only a few are detailed enough to be vivid. The rest are hazy or just never described. All we know is that Hurtle is a technical wizard, capable of surrealism and naturalism and something transcendental. But this is the point. I said that White is interested in real life. Not still lifes. Not surrealist works. He wants to lay bare the soul of the artist, not the soul of the art. It's an important distinction.

This is going to be a bit shorter of a review if only because I don't think I can add anything to what I've already said. The Vivisector is an amazing, vivid and visionary novel, full of all of the small details that lesser authors miss and it lays bare the absolute suffering that creates and sustains the successful artist. I'm sure there's something to be said about the autobiographical details, but I'm not sure if I know enough about White to sound anywhere near authoritative. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Feminism and video games

Okay, this is going to be a long post about feminism and gender politics. It's no secret or surprise that this blog has become increasingly political, especially in regards to books, which is pretty much the only thing I blog about nowadays, aside from the odd music track or meta post. One of the reasons why I've become more interested and incensed about politics is that I'm getting older, and I'm developing a greater awareness of a world outside of myself. With this in mind, let's start this post with a bit of biographical details, as I always love to talk about myself, regardless of increasing awareness.

In 2005 or 2006, I joined Barbelith.com, a forum that developed from a Grant Morrison fan community. The forum prided itself on being extremely inclusive when it comes to people of all different stripes, but it also prided itself on being extremely exclusive when it comes to trolls, misogynists, homophobic people, racists, and all sorts of other undesirables. The forum tended to attract posters interested in more esoteric or arcane things, such as magick or Aleister Crowley and stuff like that. I was there because it was the only forum that didn't seem like 4chan or SomethingAwful.

Barbelith was an intense learning experience for myself. I learned as much about argument and logic as I did about acceptance and feminism. I had never in my life been called out for being intolerant or ignorant in the way that Barbelith did. Things I had just assumed were acceptable were viciously derided and I was expected to either defend myself or change. I saw the light, and converted to a more militant view of inclusivity.

It wasn't a matter of tolerance. I wasn't expected to tolerate anything. Tolerance sounds like I was doing people a favour. In reality, it was accept diversity or be banned. I chose diversity not because of my desire to stay with Barbelith but because I was genuinely won over by logic, reason, and getting to know quite a few people, without ever knowing their real names. A few in particular, such as Ganesh and alas and some others. Quite a few posters came from increasingly different backgrounds than myself. I was being exposed to a whole different view of the world, of politics, of gender, of psychology. I was being exposed to my own assumptions of the world and forced to acknowledge their invalidity.

I read over some of the PMs I received in my three years at Barbelith, and I had forgotten the amount of support I received privately from members. They didn't necessarily agree with my views or opinions, but they respected them, because I wasn't some foaming at the mouth extremist. I was convinced and swayed by logic and reason, and they respected that. Essentially, Barbelith taught me feminism.

Now, it's 6 years later (jesus time flies) and I'm no longer a student at university and I'm no longer a young adult with a gigantic chip on the old shoulder. Now I'm edging closer and closer to my thirtieth birthday and I'm expanding my presence on the Internet, not only with a blog, but with attempts at writing for video game sites. But something makes me leery of this. Something is making me want to stay in my own little corner. (Well two things, with the second thing being that I'm intimidated by the sheer volume of excellent writing out there!)

I'm concerned with the male presence on the Internet. I don't just mean the average Anonymous on 4chan, who scares the bejesus out of me with his casual racism and fervent misogyny. The anons on 4chan are close to the extreme end of the spectrum, and are beyond convincing, beyond reason. The male presence that I'm concerned most about is the ostensibly legitimate writers of sites such as IGN.com and Destructoid.

In terms of IGN, I tend to check them if only for their exclusive news stories. I find their reviews to be irritating, poorly written and often riddled with syntactical and grammatical errors. And god help the comments sections and forums. Typically these forums are havens of ignorance and 12 year olds.

Superficially, Destructoid appears to be of higher quality. However, things aren't always as they seem. I don't generally follow specific writers on video game sites, like I follow writers such as Tucker Stone or Dorian of postmodernbarney, so this means I can't point to any one journalist at Destructoid who has filled me with dread. Nonetheless, I am often left feeling sick after reading reviews and previews.

And this is all because of murky gender politics. Many male writers have their hearts in the right place when it comes to tolerance and acceptance, especially of the idea of the female gamer. They argue that anything that brings in more people and diverse people will enable the video game industry, often very insular, to grow and change. These male writers also accept the growing trend of the female nerd or geek as this is always good for social interaction and for allowing nerd culture to become more mainstream.

All very heartwarming. But there is a darker undercurrent. This very same subtext can be found in the comic book industry, but that's a far larger discussion and has been touched upon by countless writers before me. Rather than try and shout in a deafening crowd, I'll let writers such as Douglas Wolk and Tucker Stone handle comics criticism. Instead, I'm going to highlight a few writers that are examining this gross world of sexism that operates on the legitimate level.

Firstly, there has to be no better writer than wundergeek's Go Make Me a Sandwich. A self-described cranky feminist blogger, she writes about the godawful things being bandied about on Kotaku and Destructoid, including the latter's gallery of nearly naked gamer girls. Go Make Me a Sandwich is about how not to sell games to girls. Before you assume that it's an overly negative blog, consistently pointing fingers, the writer also features positive portrayals of females in games, and female gamers. One of the more recent posts looks at the female version of Shepard from Mass Effect 2. Go Make Me a Sandwich also deals in data, looking at the proliferation of misogynist words like "slut" and "cunt" on the video game sites. This blog is absolutely eye-opening in its approach to how the industry advertises to the male gaze.

Secondly, Fat, Ugly or Slutty has to be mentioned. The conceit of this blog is that male gamers assume that all female gamers fit into one of the three eponymous tags. If you play games, you're either fat, ugly or slutty. What makes up content on the blog is screenshots of messages from male gamers to female gamers that exemplify this behaviour. The messages run the gamut of "have sex with me" to more violent and disturbing things such as barbecuing genitals. I'm not making this up. Reading even a few pages of content on this blog sickens me and gives me a headache. A lot of these screenshots are presented with minimal or no comments at all, leaving the male gamers to - really - speak for themselves. Of course, they do a abysmal job of doing so.

Thirdly, and this is the blog I'm least familiar with, is GJAIF (which I'm honestly not 100% sure what it stands for). This blog seems to be the most famous, as it tends to engage with other video game sites. The content is a mixture of highlighting egregious examples of poor writing and featuring more insane illustrations of rampant misogyny and sexism.

There are tons of other sites out there, including specific feminist blogs. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to sift through the entire internet trying to find the good examples of video game journalism. All I can do is to try and uphold the ideals of my betters.

I know that there are moments on my own blog where I step perilously close to sexism myself. We all carry around assumptions and beliefs that are frankly illogical and sometimes dangerous. What makes us better people is to consistently challenge those conceptions about the world and question our own knowledge. I am a strong believer in examining my own beliefs. Just recently, I doubted my own opinion on the electoral system in Canada. Should I partake in a system I don't believe in anymore? Is it better to not vote when you don't accept the system, or is it better to try and vote in change, but by doing so, become part of the problem that you want to fix? I'm not entirely sure either way, but I think it's extremely important to be aware that our opinions and moral compass are not set once and left for the remainder of our lives. It's quite the opposite in fact. Our systems of belief are protean and mercurial, constantly shifting due to environmental factors and personal factors.

What shouldn't change is an acceptance of people. Not just feminists, or LGBT individuals, but of people. Now, here's the tricky part. I'm not arguing for moral relativism. Not in the slightest. There exists a line. You know it. I know it. There exists a moral line that separates acceptable behaviour from unacceptable. Murder is not right. Rape is not right. Sexism is not right. Racism is not right. When these are clear, the line is also clear. It's when these things are part of the subtext, or unconscious is when it becomes an issue.

I guess my long-winded point is that people need to be made more aware of their issues. Just like with Barbelith and myself, if it hadn't been pointed out to me, I would have been walking around with all these poisonous assumptions and prejudices. I think it's extremely important that we are forced to face our own beliefs so that we can take stock of them, engage with them. If you don't engage with ideas on a deeper level than simply, "hey what's up, racism" then you are never going to learn. If you don't learn, then you're not human, you're simply an automaton.

When I read these blogs and these videogame sites, I'm constantly concerned. I'm concerned that gamers of all backgrounds and genders and races will be offended by a minority that is unfortunately the most vocal. Everybody should be welcomed to the industry, whether as a consumer or as a developer, or whatever. Call of Duty, the most popular online game in the Western world right now, is just rife with homophobic and violent misogyny, making it hard for females and for males such as myself to want to engage with this.

The problem with hatred and abuse is that it's the abuser that speaks the loudest. It's their voice that we hear, and not the voice of the abused. Which is utterly ludicrous. It's everybody's voice that we should hear, not simply the one filled with hatred.

Everybody should feel welcome on video game networks. Everybody should feel comfortable. Those that hate the opposite sex are confused and insecure. The rest of the world, the small minority that feels misogyny and homophobia is unacceptable, well, they're not as confused. At least in regards to hatred.

As I said at the beginning, this is a long post about gender politics, but superficially speaking unfortunately. I'm not a philosopher, nor am I educated in women studies or cultural anthropology. All I can say is that the bullshit people are spewing from their mouths appalls me. I wish I could write for Destructoid and IGN and bring a level of intelligent discourse. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Red and the Black


Thank god that's over. That's what I was thinking after finishing Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir, a long 500 page monster that took me over a week to read. I brought it with me on my trip to Kelowna, so that I would read it on the plane. Instead, I watched that new reality show The Voice. That tells you how gripping I thought Stendhal's novel.

Julien Sorel is an ambitious and extremely intelligent son of a carpenter. He lives in a very small and provincial town in France. It looks like this:


The mayor of the town elects to hire Julien as a Latin tutor for his two sons. What the mayor doesn't know is that Julien absolutely despises the materialism and hypocrisy of the bourgeois, especially during the Bourbon Restoration period of France's history. Julien himself is divided in his ambitions: he longs to be a great military leader like Napoleon, but he's also drawn to the learned and respected profession of priesthood. Both of these ambitions take a backseat when Julien decides to seduce the mayor's wife in order to simply prove his superiority.

When Julien and the mayor's wife are inevitably found out, he is sent to Paris to become the secretary of a marquis, drafting letters and doing business for him. Julien is introduced to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, and his dark ambition grows. He tries to seduce the marquis' daughter, Mathilde, which takes up about 150 pages of the novel.

The Red and the Black is a confusing novel. It sounds like it's simple and a fun read, kind of like Bel-Ami. In fact, superficially the plot sounds similar. However, this is not Bel-Ami at all. In reality, Stendhal's novel is a deep and detailed portrait of the main character's psychology, stretched over 500 agonizing pages. It's like reading Henry James, but not quite as psychologically accurate.

However, it's not just psychology. Stendhal's novel is an extremely biting satire of French society, which was obsessed with materialism, surfaces, and hypocrisy. Nobody ever says what they mean, and nobody ever shows people their real faces. It's all a facade.

What's frustrating about The Red and the Black is that every ten pages or so, Stendhal has something interesting or complicated or gripping to say. He goes through stretches where in a matter of paragraphs, he quickly advances the plot. These bits are few and far between however. Every time I was drawn into the novel, at the end of the ten pages, Stendhal pushed back as hard as he could, leaving me wondering why the hell am I reading this book.

This might be a problem with the translation, but I doubt it. The issue is that there's often a disconnect between the flow of sentences. People will say things and do things, but in the next sentence, the author has already moved on. This means the reader has to follow very closely for fear of missing something integral that won't be repeated for some bizarre reason. I kept wondering why people weren't reacting to dialogue, but after awhile I realized that the plot and the dialogue are so irrelevant to Stendhal's interests. His only concern is showing us how corrupt Julien and society are.

And boy howdy is Julien corrupt. Normally, even with anti-heroes or morally ambiguous characters, I still like them. This is not the case with Julien Sorel. I don't think I've ever hated a person so much, often to the point of considering giving up the book. There's a loooooong section near the end, when Julien has "fallen in love" with Mathilde, the marquis' daughter, but she has yet to reciprocate. In order to have her, Julien engages in a long campaign of seducing a nice unsuspecting widow, all to inflame Mathilde's jealously. He breaks the heart of an innocent woman in order to have the bored and spoiled and irritating Mathilde. And this isn't a small scene. It takes about 150 pages for Mathilde to finally and completely throw herself at Julien's feet, using such bizarre language as "I am your slave and you are my master". Ugh creepy. This is me reading Mathilde's "seduction":


Did I mention that I really didn't like this book? Frankly, it's boring. 250 pages could have been cut out and the novel would have still been able to make its points. All the most interesting stuff is mentioned and then never picked up again. Julien becomes the unwitting pawn in a dangerous political game, and it's extremely fascinating for Julien's character and for the plot. Here's how it goes down:

Julien is told by the marquis that he has to take notes during a political meeting, then condense the notes into a few pages, memorize them, go to England and recite them to an exiled Duke, who will help the political group's ambition to raise an army. Stendhal relates the entire meeting and it - is - boring. So much talk that does nothing to advance the plot! Then, after the 40 page meeting is over, Julien memorizes the sheets and goes off to England, almost getting attacked as a spy by enemies. He relates his message to the Duke and returns home. That part, the most interesting part? That takes 6 pages. What the fuck, Stendhal? Give me something I can sink my teeth into!!!!

You might say that maybe my problem with Stendhal is that I'm missing the point. The plot truly is tertiary to reading the text. Okay, fair enough. If only the psychology of the character was accurate enough to be a convincing portrait. Nope. At the very end, Julien falls madly in love with Mathilde and wants to escape with her, but the old mayor's wife, scorned and forgotten (mostly) sends a character reference letter to the marquis, which needless to say, it's fairly negative. In  anger, Julien travels to the small town, buys guns, and then shoots her. Want to take a guess how many pages this action takes up? Nope, not 6. More like 1. ONE FUCKING PAGE? Are you kidding me?

Now, I understand why he shoots her. I understand it has to do with Julien's frustrations at finally achieving his goals, but then they're snatched away from him. What I don't understand is why Julien suddenly becomes remorseful and demands the death sentence, even though the mayor's wife's injuries are not fatal, or serious. During his trial, he speaks for over 30 minutes to the jury, trying to make women cry (yes really), telling them he deserves to die.

Why, Julien? Why stop there? What gave you all this guilt? Well, Stendhal steps in and reminds us that Julien was really in love with the mayor's wife and never in love with the pregnant and disgraced Mathilde.

Oh, I see. So Julien is even more loathsome than I thought. Like I say, it's fairly rare that I'm so incensed against a character that I start to dislike the book itself. Man, I loved Bel-Ami, and the protagonist in that book is a vile creature. But he isn't worse than Julien. No, Georges never lets anybody truly into his heart. With Julien, he falls in love with them and then crushes them. It's terrible because Julien does for a moment love these girls, but then sends them packing when he decides he's had enough with them. Makes me want to fucking puke I'll tell you that.

So are there any positive aspects to this book? Yes, a few. Stendhal's prose isn't one of them, that's for sure. I did like the political stuff a lot. It was fascinating and confusing because Stendhal never gives the reader any background or context. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the political atmosphere already. Unfortunately, my library's copy of this book is one of the Signet Classics, an imprint woefully lacking in proper academic editing, like the Penguin books are. There's very little help coming from the translator in this edition. I had to Wikipedia quite a bit of the Bourbon era of France to make heads or tails of it. That's not against Stendhal though. In fact, I was quite pleased with the political machinations of the bourgeois as depicted in this book. It was entertaining and Machiavellian.

I also enjoyed Julien's time in the seminary (just before he heads off to Paris) because of the same reasons. Even though all these boys are training to be devout and morally upstanding priests, they are still in competition with each other for placements, which is why the political machinations of the priests and their Machiavellian schemes are all the more interesting. I enjoy works of art that depict the mental battles, fought only through words and the verbal traps and attacks people come up with. Sort of like the non-physical aspects of HBO's Oz. There's a lot of tricks and manipulation in the show, which is probably the only part of the show I liked. This kind of thing is interesting to me, and Stendhal pulls it off quite well. It's too bad the whole seminary episode isn't really picked up again at all. It's just a sequence to show the audience how ambitious Julien is, and how utterly clueless he is until he reaches Paris.

So ultimately, I didn't hate The Red and the Black, but I didn't love it either. I found it to be overly long, disjointed and often, extremely boring. But I did really get a kick out of certain parts, and when Stendhal has his mind on it, he can write a pretty gripping scene of just two people having a conversation. The problem is that you have to wade through endless paragraphs of dubious psychological insight. This is an important novel for the development of the internal life, but it wouldn't come to maturity until Henry James and D. H. Lawrence took a stab at writing something truly internal. Oh well.

I'm taking a small break from 19th century French literature with Patrick White's The Vivisector, which I'm already 200 pages into. Then it's Cousin Bette by Balzac up next. Check back for more longwinded reviews of books nobody reads anymore.