Sunday, December 17, 2017

Alias Grace: A Brief Review

So I just binge-watched the Netflix series Alias Grace, on Netflix (based on the Margaret Atwood novel, which I haven't read). I recommend it. It's a historical drama, focused on women's experiences (even the parts about men are about how they think about, and use, women), and a lot about power and the lack of it. It's also a marvelous narrative contraption, with some real subtle possible interpretations lurking just under the surface of the ending, leaving us with a marvelous ambiguity. Also very well acted & shot. (One other advantage: it's a good length, six 45-minute episodes, and it's a closed story, not an open-ended thing.)

If you don't know, it's based on a true story, a mid-nineteenth century murder case (this is not a spoiler, it's shown in the first few minutes, and then circled back to, repeatedly).

The only negative comment I have, really, is that the actors are required to play a very wide range of ages. The lead actress is superb as the main age she's asked to do, but a scene where she gets her first period was jarring because I'd assumed (just from appearance, not having adequately thought through the timing) that she was supposed to be about 20 at that point. Similarly, one actor at the end (shan't say who, it's a spoiler) is made up to be old & it's quite unconvincing. Not sure how this could have been avoided, though.

One particular thing I really liked is a spoiler, so I'll ROT13 it: Va gur svany rcvfbqr, jura Tenpr fcrnxf va Znel'f ibvpr, vg ernyyl fbhaqrq yvxr gur npgerff jub cynlrq Znel gb zr. Ohg ernqvat hc n ovg, vg'f npghnyyl zhpu pbbyre guna gung: nccneragyl gur npgerff jub cynlrq Znel qvq gur fprar, fb gur npgerff jub cynlrq Tenpr pbhyq zvzvp vg, naq gura gur npgerff jub cynlrq Tenpr npghnyyl qvq jung jr urneq. Vg'f dhvgr n fcyraqvq ovg bs npgvat juvpu uvgf dhvgr gur evtug abgr.

Don't let that stop you, though. It's quality television. (And now I want to read the book!)

Saturday, December 02, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

[Responding to the question why he was not a member of any specific religion:]
Because they all appear to have prohibitions, admonitions and proffered truths which cannot be established as a matter of intellect or natural law, which is reason -- simple reason -- unattended by revelation of faith. Most of them insist that you believe in certain things not because you can prove absolutely that they are so, but because you want to believe in them. Give me a church or a religion that has one principle: Love one another as you love yourself, and I will belong to that church.

-- Abraham Lincoln

Friday, December 01, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness.

-- Clement Greenberg

Thursday, November 30, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; but when I asked why people are poor, they called me a communist.

-- Bishop Don Helder Camara

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Secondary Sources On Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

A friend of mine, seeing my previous post (on FB), asked whether there were "annotations" of Gene Wolfe's SF masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun.  Since I wrote a lengthy reply, I thought I'd repost it here, with links.  (In the following, the "you" is my friend, natch.)

I don't think there's quite what you're looking for. The closest that there is—and in any event the first secondary work devoted to The Book of the New Sun that one should lay hands on—is Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle, by Michael Andre-Druisi. It defines many of the obscure words, and also has a certain amount of commentary/exposition, although hardly a complete reading. Beyond that I can think of three other books, none quite perfect for your needs: there is Attending Daedalus by Peter Wright, which is about Wolfe's work in general but which focuses on The Book of the New Sun; there is Marc Aramini's Between Light and Shadow, volume one of a projected three-volume work discussing all of Wolfe's fiction, but its entry on The Book of the New Sun, while good, is brief (c. 40 pages) and is more thematic than annotational. And then there's Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski, which has a number of essays on specific puzzles in the Urth cycle. All three are worthwhile; none are quite what you're looking for.

That's mostly it for books. There are a few essays scattered around — in review collections by John Clute, for instance — but nothing systematic. Three web resources might have some more of what you're looking for. First, there's the Wolfe Wiki, which is variable (some works get only a skeleton treatment, some a very detailed reading), but it looks like there's some good stuff there. There are the archives of the Urth List, which is the mailing list/forum for discussion of Wolfe's work, which has a lot of stuff in it, but so far as I know it's not indexed & you'd have to do a tremendous amount of searching. And then there's Reddit, about which I don't know much, but it looks like there's a fairly active Gene Wolfe section there. Again, while I imagine there's some good stuff in all three, none are quite what you're looking for.

One more set of resources to discuss. There are now two podcasts devoted to close readings of GW's work. One, The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast, seems good, but it's just starting (and I've heard only one episode), and is doing a lot of short stories & many novels before they get to the The Book of the New Sun. So they probably won't get to it for years. The other, Alzabo Soup, is actually doing The Book of the New Sun now. But at this point I can't quite recommend it. I find many of their readings simply careless: some strike me as flatly disprovable, others as wholly wrongheaded even if not flatly contradicted by clear textual evidence. I'm getting a lot out of it — even with its problems, they pick out details & things I missed on my several times through the books — but I think their overall interpretation is questionable, and I think that, unless you feel you have a good grasp on the text, they will mislead as much as provide insight. I wish this wasn't so; after the first ep or two I had great hopes for it, but I have been disappointed as I've kept listening. I haven't stopped listening yet, but I may; at this point it's more frustrating than enlightening, although it is that, too, at least in certain local observations if not more broadly considered. Alas! I really wanted it to be great. (It's gotten a fair amount of positive attention, so I may simply be an outlier here, but for what it's worth a Wolfean whom I respect a great deal — whom I can't name, because it was a private communication — said they dislike it too, for some of the same reasons.)

Beyond that, I would suggest that a large number of the mysteries—not all, by any means, but more than you'd think—can be cleared up by simply reading the entire work (i.e. both The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun, the sequel) closely & carefully, and then doing so a second time, while the first is still fresh in your mind. That's a huge time commitment, of course — five books, each twice — but it's the best route I know of.

I do wish someone would put out a proper annotated edition. (No one will, and if they did they wouldn't hire me to do it, but I would love to if both of these counterfactuals were miraculously overcome.) Or that there was a "rereader's companion", online annotations that went chapter-by-chapter.

will say, in conclusion (after far more than you wanted to read, I'm sure!), that the best route is to get Lexicon Urthus, do a careful reading with it to hand, and then either do a careful rereading, or read the Wright, the Aramini & the Borski volumes, the WolfeWiki pages, and possibly explore other online stuff as well, and then do a careful rereading. Wolfe is work. Personally I think it's well worth it. But many others, doubtless, won't find it so. (Of course the books can also be enjoyed on a surface level, as a sword & sorcery romp, although that's obviously, A) not what they are when read closely, and B) not what you were asking about.)  

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In Which, as a Throwaway Notion in a Letter, the Origin of the Autarch's Social Role In THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN Can Perhaps Be Found

And—though I pale to admit it—I have my vice. It is writing, and in everyday circles that is viewed a good deal more seriously than, say, pot probably is in yours. In short, your business is my besetting weakness; your business letters are my pornography; your shop talk my dissipation.

Which gives me a story idea. A nobleman, a pillar of the Jockey Club, who (on alternate Thursdays) creeps away from the Fabourg St. Germain to become (heh, heh!) a Montmarte used-lace merchant. Can't you just see him gloating fierce gloats as he speculates on Society's reaction to the news that he is secretly a petit commerçant? That's me except that I reverse it—I steal way to become a nobleman.

And you know what the petite bourgeoisie think of that.

— Letter from Gene Wolfe to Damon Knight, December 3, 1969
Reprinted in The Best From Orbit (1976), p. 337

From a Commonplace Book

My first concern is not for the reader. That would be pandering. My first concern is not for myself. That would be self-indulgent. The writer's first concern should be for the verbal object that's trying to get itself said.

-- William Gass

Monday, November 27, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Antoninus said to Rabbi, "Why does the sun rise in the east and set in the west?" He replied, "Were it reversed, you would ask the same question."

-- Sanhedrin 91b [quoted in Dov Aharoni Fisch, Jews for Nothing, pp. 308 - 309]

Sunday, November 26, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit... the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.

-- Igor Stravinsky

Saturday, November 25, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Elements such as magic are labeled fantasy because their vocabulary is not scientific, and because they are placed in vaguely medieval worlds that are not historically connected with our present. Yet time travel is just as magical as turning lead to gold. The distinction is in the history, or the lack of one. Any fantastic motif can be science fiction if a history is even implied that leads from our world to the world of the text. If this history is dispensed with, the text is a fantasy.

-- Kim Stanley Robinson, The Novels of Philip K. Dick, p. 26

Friday, November 24, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Some men interpret nine memos.

-- Palindrome by William Irvine
Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?

-- Palindrome (author unknown)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Three themes of anime: carnival, elegy, armageddon.

-- Seen on the internet; source lost [I read this in an Oubapo posting, more than a decade ago, and copied it.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

If America ceases to be a free country, you won't necessarily notice. It won't smell different, dark clouds won't gather on the horizon, the roads will remain open, movies will still play in the theaters, and television will, most assuredly, stay on.

Like the mass of people who lived in the Soviet Union, or who are now living in Iran, you'll go about your business, making accommodations, and trying to get by...

We're a long way from a mullacracy in the U.S., but we're definitely closer to being one than we were a few years ago, and, I'll say it again: what's most disturbing is how many people are unperturbed. And what those who are upset should understand is that, contrary to what we think we know in our bones, there aren't many effective arguments from self-interest in favor of freedom. Being free just isn't a matter of convenience, and being unfree isn't necessarily inconvenient. It's a matter of principle, and of pride. I don't think many people care about the principle, but, for a couple of hundred years, Americans have been fiercely, even violently, proud of being free. Are they still?

-- "Ogged" at

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Since I started doing interviews, I’ve answered the "preaching to the converted" question more than any other. It seems to me predicated on an unthinking use of the terms "preaching" and "converted." It’s not as if all preachers, including for instance John Donne, were merely dispensers of predigested, soundbite rhetoric and cliché; good preachers are gifted articulators of the thorniest, juiciest, most dangerous, most contradictory problems, dilemmas, controversies. It’s not as if the "converted" are always only Moonies lacking any sort of spiritual liveliness or freedom of thought. Quite the contrary. The converted, the congregation, united by certain beliefs, share amongst themselves bewilderment, despair, hope needing amplification, confusion needing examination and elucidation, and avenues of interesting and productive inquiry. Lockstep congregations are a sure sign of a moribund faith, of the absence of anything Divine. A good preacher rattles her congregants’ smugness and complacency, and congregants to do the same for the preacher. Good preachers are exhilarating to listen to, and the converted have a lot to think about. So this "preaching to the converted" question doesn’t address all religious practice, or all theater — just crummy religion and inept theater.

If one’s intended audience is "the unconverted," one is an evangelist. The evangelizing playwright usually makes dreary plays, cautious plays which try to woo and seduce hostile, recalcitrant people, people less enlightened than the playwright — plays of condescension, in other words, plays which arrange their glib, necessarily simplified certainties in neat rows and send them forth, marching into battle. Ugh. That’s a degradation of the power of theater, of the purpose and power of art. As I said, art suggests, describes, explores, tests ideas; art doesn’t issue marching orders. There are far better, more effective ways of organizing people than playwriting. And while art educates, it’s never sufficient as a means of instruction; at some point a more reliable narrative must be sought. Art should strive for a level of complexity and depth that mirrors the complexity and depth of life, and for that matter that mirrors the complexity and depth of politics.

Although there are times when a good, nasty skit is called for.

-- Tony Kushner (NY Times, June 4, 2004, "10 Questions for... Tony Kushner")

Monday, November 20, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Youth is a quality not unlike health: it's found in greater abundance among the young, but we all need access to it. (And not all young people are lucky enough to be young. Think of those people at your college who wanted to be politicians or corporate lawyers, for example.) I'm not talking about the accouterments of youth: the unlined faces, the washboard stomachs, the hair. The young are welcome to all that — what would we do with it anyway? I'm talking about the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine. When I was younger, rock music articulated these feelings, and now that I'm older it stimulates them, but either way, rock 'n' roll was and remains necessary because: who doesn't need exhilaration and a sense of invincibility, even if it's only now and again?

-- Nick Hornby (NY Times, 21 May 2004, op-ed page)
In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of "David Copperfield," the novelist David Gates talks about literature hitting "that high-low fork in the road, leading on the one hand toward `Ulysses' and on the other toward `Gone With The Wind,' " and maybe rock music has experienced its own version...

Maybe this split is inevitable in any medium where there is real money to be made: it has certainly happened in film, for example, and even literature was a form of pop culture, once upon a time. It takes big business a couple of decades to work out how best to exploit a cultural form; once that has happened, "that high-low fork in the road" is unavoidable, and the middle way begins to look impossibly daunting. It now requires more bravery than one would ever have thought necessary to try and march straight on, to choose neither the high road nor the low. Who has the nerve to pick up where Dickens or John Ford left off? In other words, who wants to make art that is committed and authentic and intelligent, but that sets out to include, rather than exclude? To do so would run the risk of seeming not only sincere and uncool — a stranger to all notions of postmodernism — but arrogant and vaultingly ambitious as well.

-- ibid.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

The graveyards are full of indispensable men.

-- Charles de Gaulle

Saturday, November 18, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

-- Joan Didion

Friday, November 17, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

An excuse uglier than the guilt.

-- Iraqi saying, as quoted on the internet (so take with salt!)

"…a cosmos in which rude pictures of beats and monsters had been painted with flaming suns"

I spent the remainder of the night staring at the stars; it was the first time I had ever really experienced the majesty of the constellations… How strange it is that the sky, which by day is a stationary ground on which the clouds are seen to move, by night becomes the backdrop for Urth's own motion, so that we feel her rolling beneath us as a sailor feels the running of the tide. That night the sense of this slow turning was so strong that I was almost giddy with its long, continued sweep.

Strong too was the feeling that the sky was a bottomless pit into which the universe might drop forever. I had heard people say that when they looked at the stars too long they grew terrified by the sensation of being drawn away. My own fear—and I felt fear—was not centered on the remote suns, but rather on the yawning void; and at times I grew so frightened that I gripped the rock with my freezing fingers, for it seemed to me that I must fall off Urth.…

At first all the stars seemed like a featureless mass of lights, however beautiful, like sparks that fly upward from a fire. Soon, of course, I began to see… shapes, some corresponding to constellations of which I had heard, others that were, I am afraid, entirely of my own imagining…

When these celestial animals burst into view, I was awed by their beauty. But when they became so strongly evident (as they quickly did) that I could no longer dismiss them by an act of will, I began to feel as frightened of them as I was of falling into that midnight abyss over which they writhed; yet this was not a simple physical and instinctive fear like the other, but rather a sort of philosophical horror at the thought of a cosmos in which rude pictures of beats and monsters had been painted with flaming suns.

— Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor, chapter 13

Thursday, November 16, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.

-- Sidney Hook

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

The only completely consistent people are the dead.

-- Aldous Huxley

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

-- William Pitt

Puzzle Literature: A Querry

I have a question.  I'd like to list examples of a genre I shall call (for want of a better term), "puzzle literature".  I will define puzzle literature as literature whose narrative essence is a puzzle: which is to say, which can't be understood on a surface level (what Jews refer to as pshot) without unraveling various mysteries.  I want to refer to it not as a genre (since I don't think it has the social support and interlocking influence networks of a genre) but as a mode: a type of writing different writers can use, occasionally or regularly.

I shall take as my twin holotypes (yes, yes, I know you can't have more than one, feh) for the mode Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Gene Wolfe Book of the New Sun.  (Both authors write in that mode repeatedly, but those are my favorite examples.)  The most basic facts about the plots of each book — who is Kinbote (is he Botkin? Shade wearing a disguise? A real king? A madman actually named Kinbote?) in the case of Pale Fire; the nature of multiple basic events in the plot in the case of Book of the New Sun — are not only up for grabs, but are not remotely clarified.

Narrative games are a commonality here, as are games and jokes of other sorts. Unreliable narrators are another, although not all unreliable narrators qualify (I wouldn't say that Ford Maddox Ford's A Good Soldier qualifies, for instance.)

To further clarify my definition, let me list some things that it is quite specifically not.
• It is not mysteries, that is, works which present conundrums as part of their plot but which then overtly and clearly solve them.  So not Dickens, and not Agatha Christie.
• It is not works which are, in a sentence localized-way, hard to parse, or thematically/symbolically rich.  Ulysses is, as Joyce famously said, sufficiently full of puzzles that it will capture a generation of scholars; but the basic narrative is more or less clear.  That's not what I mean.  (This is presumably the category which is going to be hardest to distinguish from puzzle literature; but I think it is different.)
• Similarly, puzzle literature tends not to be extremely difficult on a sentence-by-sentence level; the puzzles are larger. So not Finnegans Wake, and probably not The Sound and the Fury either, although I am less sure about that one (does Faulkner count? I dunno.)
• In some sense, one can use the reading protocols of puzzle literature on anything.  James Kugel, in effect, argues that "scripture" as a textual category is created by treating a text as puzzle literature, so that minor inconsistencies become theological, require unraveling, etc.  It creates rich readings. But I am talking about books (presumptively although not necessary post-Gutenberg ones, with identifiable authors) which are written to be puzzle literature.

That hopefully clarified, my question: can we list works of puzzle literature beyond the basic holotypes?  Who else writes in this mode, whether occasionally or routinely?

I am also interested in some related questions:
• Are there writers who work in puzzle mode only sometimes?  (Do Wolfe and/or Nabokov ever not work in that mode? Could one tell, since once one is expecting it it tends to dominate reading?)
• Are their works of other forms that are in puzzle mode? (Some candidates: the films of Shane Caruth (Primer, Upstream Color) and Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Inception). Alan Moore's comics come close, but I think ultimately fall into the Ulysses category: thematically rich with lots of decipherable puzzles, but there is no basic question as to what happens in them).
• Are there any good critical essays/books about this topic (including, presumably, better names for this category than I am using)?

So: thoughts?

Update: I posted this on my Facebook page as a public post; much discussion ensued, so if you're interested you can read the comments here.  But let me also add some of the clarifications/emendations I made in that discussion to this post. So:
• I should stress that whether or not something is puzzle literature is not an evaluative judgment. I do love both Nabokov and Wolfe; but to say a work is or is not puzzle literature is not, in my mind, to praise it. (I actually go back and forth on the whole notion, which is one reason I asked the question.)
• (in response to some suggestions)  I don't think either difficulty of the text, nor ambiguity about the story, nor the unreliability of the narrator counts. What distinguishes VN/GW for me is that there are puzzles in the work, and ones that touch on the fundamental nature of the narrative. Puzzles: meaning there are pretty clear and definitive answers. But puzzles, meaning also you can read the book, even several times, and NOT get it (and some, doubtlessly, we still don't get). It's different than ambiguity or difficulty. (One further example: the name of the narrator in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is never given. It was several years, I believe, before ANYONE figured it out. Most people didn't even SEE that it was a puzzle! But once you see it, it is SO obvious that it is hard to imagine that anyone ever did NOT see it.)
Two possible criteria that might help clarify: to count, the puzzle must be missable: that is, it's not something that anyone who's read the book (seen the movie) would get; but the puzzle must also be solveable, that is to say, it's not simply an ambiguity that can be read multiple ways. Maybe that'll help.
Another one that I think clearly fits: Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.

-- Tacitus

Sunday, November 12, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

You say you have a counterexample to my argument, but you must be misunderstanding me, because I did not intend for my argument to have any counterexamples.

-- David Lewis

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Photographic Novel, Happenstance, Is Now Being Serialized Online

So some of you know that I spent much of the past decade working on a (photo-based) graphic novel titled Happenstance. I'm pleased to announce I've begun serializing it online. My plan (kenina hara) is to post new images twice a week, Monday and Thursday (where each image is a two-page spread: the contrast between the pages becomes important down the line).

The graphic novel to date can be read here:

So please check it out, like & share with your friends!