Monthly Archives: March 2010

More on X-Men Essentials #2

When in periods of extended sleeplessness, such as after the birth of a child, I have found myself more interested than usual in comic books. I read almost all of the various Ultimate omnibuses shortly after Henry was born, for example, and this time with Clara I read one of those black-and-white compilations covering 1978-1980 or so of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men.

This sequence contains the “Dark Phoenix” storyline, about which I actually wrote a paper in graduate school. (The premise had more to do with what I thought were interesting ideas derived from cognitive psychology about the narrative construction of the panels [or, how narrative sequence is constructed from them, a common topic in the secondary literature on comics] combined with some ideological analysis. Such syncretism informed a lot of what I wrote in graduate school for a certain period, and I can now identify it as a stage.)

Anyway, the main thing that I noticed about it this time was how heavy the sadomasochistic imagery involving the Hellfire Club (with some mild historical warrant, I would guess) and Jean Grey’s seduction was, esp. given the code which restricted content at the time. The costumes and such already lend themselves to this interpretation, and, had I not exhausted my snark with the Alpha Flight panel reproduced below, I would reproduce some of the White Queen/Black Queen imagery to show how blatant this is.

The imaginary geography of Scotland and Calgary (by which I mean being constructed out of popular ideas or brochures) contrasted to the way that New York is portrayed is also interesting. (The introduction of Dazzler was especially memorable here, coming as it did in 1980, long after the agreed-upon death of disco.)

The films would have been more interesting (and commercially successful) had they been period pieces that tried to recreate frame-by-frame the original panels, complete with excursions to the distant stars, etc., even if this involved the cheapest effects imaginable. With some more perspective on the matter, however, I’m now mostly interested in trying to recreate the influences and context for these plots. What variety of space opera could have been in the back of their minds, for example, or was the genre so medium-specific as to have long since cast off any effect from the text-heavy medium?

Also, what are inkers good for? I never figured this out. (I know what they do, but it seems less noticeable to me in the final product than the lettering.) Is there a chapter in McCloud about it? I don’t remember.

Snark

I was thinking a little today about the problem of snark. I haven’t read David Denby’s book on it, but I was able to work out after thinking about it for a while that the lowest form of snark possible on the internet would be snark about John Byrne’s Canadian superhero team, Alpha Flight:

(I apologize for the monochrome; I think I may own a colored original of this particular issue, purchased by my loving parents at the City News in Morehead City, NC when I was about five or so; but the mountains around me are tall and deep with snow, and I could never find it now.)

Gene Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House, or, Why I Like Puzzle-Box Fiction

For those of us who pre-order the latest Gene Wolfe novel and read it immediately, irrespective of the circumstances, the last two books have presented some difficulties. Wolfe seems to have entered a “late style,” where the natural suspicion, caution, and, to be fair, interpretive charity that veteran readers of Wolfe bring to the text have yielded unusual results. Pirate Freedom seems to have escaped much of the exegetical explosion that An Evil Guest received on the Urth mailing list for Wolfe enthusiasts, even though both books involve reality distortion and time travel (well, I think there’s some type of reality distortion in Pirate Freedom), fictional devices that admit no logical limits on narrative analyses. His latest, The Sorcerer’s House, certainly has reality-distortion (alternate realities in the form of the venerable faerie-land and also in the possibly demented imagination of one of the main focal characters); there’s also at least putative differential time-flow, though this is only considered time-travel by the scrupulous. I liked the book a great deal more than the last two, and it still remains a great mystery to me that I didn’t so much like a Lovecraftian pastiche written by Wolfe. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

Among many cute things about this latest novel is that it’s epistolary. Wolfe is usually careful to make up a frame story for his various fictions; The New Sun and Latro books rival this one for its ridiculousness, but it does give him a chance to make some coy paratextual remarks. Our main character, Baxter Dunn, has acquired two PhDs, one in 19th British literature (apparently from the University of Chicago; I believe this information is revealed to another character from a reading of the diploma, which is not terribly plausible) and the other in “ancient history.” He had a reason beyond scholarly interest in earning these degrees, it turns out, and he obviously does not seem to have been a very diligent or successful scholar. (Wolfe seems to have a slightly higher than normal resentment toward academics; one of the book’s lower points involves a nasty joke about a Mt. Holyoke Women’s Studies professor.)* Baxter’s letters to his twin brother George make up the bulk of the material, though there are also letters to Millie, George’s wife; to Sheldon, a former cellmate (filled with insinuation); and several letters of Millie to Baxter, Sheldon to Baxter, and a psychic to him as well. Wolfe’s “Compiler’s Note”** ends this way:

Baxter Dunn was unquestionably a most imaginative and picturesque liar, but all that he tells us cannot be false. By some means he came into possession of Riverscene, the Black House, and the house that had been Mrs. Martha Murrey’s. The back files of the Sentinel fairly bristle with Hound of Horror stories.

How much is true? How much fabrication? Perhaps we shall never know. (300)

The experienced Wolfe reader, and probably anyone, really, will take that last statement as a direct challenge to re-read the text and figure out exactly what is real and what is fabrication. The “perhaps” is a dare and also a paradoxically authoritative statement that the textual evidence is there, if you’re willing to find it. I was willing at the start to claim that this was madness, and that we have to get out of the habit of giving Wolfe this much leeway on the example of some of the short stories, Fifth Head of Cerberus, etc. On what grounds are we to decide how any of this farrago is to be believed? At one point we learn of a GEAS corporation that has owned the mysterious house which drives so much of the plot. I amused myself thinking that, unlike a substantial portion of his audience, Wolfe in all likelihood did not learn that word from AD&D. Baxter does seem to have had a geas placed upon him, but he’s also precisely the type of figure who would, through indirect suggestion, create an elaborate fantasy in which this happened.

Here’s an example of the book’s difficulties. In the early going, Baxter writes that he encounters a young boy in the apparently abandoned house he’s squatting in. After a struggle, the boy drops a candle and a peculiar apparatus. (We are later going to learn that this boy is also a twin, and either a time-displaced version of Baxter or George or an imaginative projection of such.) The apparatus has three rings inscribed with various sigils and a pointer; its true name, unsurprisingly, is triannunlus. Baxter deduces that its use involves lining up three similar sigils on the rings and pointing the arrow at them. (Each expanding ring has symbols that are not on the inner, which leads to questions about what else the device is capable of.) By accident, he is able to fulfill the requirement’s of the device’s function, and three fish, for this is the symbol he chose, are soon brought to him. He learns, or tells us that he learns from Emlyn, the apparently good parallel brother, that he has catastrophically misused the sorcerous device by allowing the candle to go out before its request was completed. Now its numen (this is the word that the boy uses) is unbounded. Emlyn tells Baxter that he was using the triannulus to find a face-fox, which is type of female reverse lycanthrope (the human incarnation of which is another one of the book’s slightly objectionable bits), though it seems more likely that he was actually looking for something else.

If we are to take all of this at its word, it’s hard enough to make sense of. Faced with the strong possibility that this is some type of projective or transformative fantasy on an arranging narrator’s part, however, it seems almost impossible. And yet I enjoy the challenge and difficulty here in a way that I tended to resent and dismiss as encroaching incompetence in An Evil Guest. I am not prepared to give a full interpretation of the book now, needless to say. The last book I wrote about, Banville’s The Infinities, also had a great deal of subtle narrative tricks and reality distortion in it, and was written in a far more ornate style. Colin Burrow had this somewhat piercing comment about it in his LRB review (possibly subscriber only):

It’s just that such a writer is not likely to be entirely likeable, except perhaps by people who are a bit like Banville people, those who combine aspirations to universal knowledge with doubts about their own identities, and who have a fascinated sense of their own singularity. We often call people of this kind ‘men’; sometimes we call them ‘academics’.

Wolfe’s style, on the other hand, does not achieve the type of malice and sophistication that a Banville narrator has. And, Greek gods and all, Banville’s fictive creations do not lend as much credence to the fantastic and speculative as Wolfe’s, but Wolfe’s are still far more puzzling in terms of reliability and event. I am probably not doing a good job of describing just how difficult and challenging this can be, and I thought that this well-known remark from Eliot about Poe might help:

That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty. The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights: wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and cyphers, puzzles and labyrinths, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation.

Of course this wasn’t fair about Poe, and it doesn’t apply completely to Wolfe. But I wonder sometimes if my affinity for Wolfe does derive from the same source as my love of puzzle-filled interactive fiction and games like Rhem, which, according to King Bolo, is arrested development.

*A member of the mailing list disputed my interpretation of this, so I will reproduce the passage here for you to decide. A bit of context: Millie is writing here about how she understands that her husband (and other people) only value her for her looks:

A lot of the girls did not like me at Mount Holyoke and made jokes about blondes. As if I would not know that I had to buy a ticket.

But my grades were bad and that helped. Except for Prof. Foley, who gave me good ones in Women’s Studies. She was really down on all men and wanted to hold my hand so I let her. (238)

The aforementioned correspondent thought this just meant “hold her hand through the work.”

**I understand that this note cannot be automatically assumed to be diegetically closer to the implied author than anything else in the text and may in fact just contain lies.

My Daughter

You can’t really see her face here, but I’ve uploaded some more pictures to Flickr, if you’re interested.

Clara Madeleine Goodwin was born at 7:33 AM on Friday. She weighed 8 lbs. and was 19″ long. She shows all the signs of being a good baby, and her big brother is both tolerant of and occasionally interested in her presence.

While in the hospital with Clancy, I read about two-thirds of Gene Wolfe’s latest, The Sorcerer’s House, which I so far like a great deal more than his last two books, even if Wolfe is drawing upon some fairly outlandish academic stereotypes. More soon.

A LibraryThing Oddity

Like, I suppose many users of LibraryThing, I am curious about statistics the site provides about its users. While I understand why Harry Potter, Twilight, Douglas Adams, and a series of high school and college staples would be among the most popular books owned, I don’t quite see why Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex would be the sixtieth most-owned item, with an astounding 14,000 copies listed. (Oh. Wikipedia just told me that it was in Oprah’s book club. I still don’t think I have a good handle on the LibraryThing demographic, though.)

Why are there more than a thousand copies of Charles Palliser’s The Quincux and usually only several hundred for most of Lem’s works? Mysteries of this type abound. I suppose they wouldn’t surprise me as much if I knew more about sales figures, but there’s little chance, is there, that the LibraryThing user overlaps substantially with the book-buying public at large? Well, probably. It does seem to have an improbable number of users.

Banville’s The Infinities

Hermes, the god of pathways, appears at first to be the narrator of John Banville’s The Infinities. The rapid shifts in perspective at the end of the novel reveal that Adam Godley, a mathematician who’s had a stroke, has been creating a type of parallel world, one apparently predicted by what he thinks are his mathematical accomplishments, in which those accomplishments have been at the center of world-historical change. This change extends both backwards in time and forwards—Elizabeth Tudor was beheaded before Mary, Queen of Scots, acceded to the throne (36), for one example. (Another, where Banville’s own wishes seem to overlap those of his character, is that Kleist has the stature of Goethe, and vice versa. Kleist’s Amphitryon is alluded to directly and is a significant influence on the story.)

In the present, Wallace’s theory of evolution has been overturned. Chronotrons, based on Godley’s predictions, have outmoded quantum physics and relativity; cold fusion is a reality. Cars run on brine. Significantly, little in the way of monetary reward has seemed to find its way to Godley; the character of Benny Grace, whom the Hermes narrator identifies as an incarnation of Pan, seems to have been a panderer and supporter who supplied Godley with money over the years. In Godley’s imagination, his mathematical work has allowed a reality to emerge in which the Greek gods exist, so Pan would owe him, so to speak.

Another of Banville’s favorite techniques is to create malicious and unreliable narrators: The Untouchable and The Book of Evidence are two good examples, and the Hermes persona here is very similar. The malice comes with a great deal of erudition, which I suppose we might expect from the god of interpretation. But Godley’s first wife committed suicide, and his second, Ursula, has been driven to drink, at least partially, it would seem, by his philandering. And, even in a coma, he seems to refer to the Amphitryon story as a way of imagining himself as Zeus taking his son’s form, for he lusts after his daughter-in-law, Helen. (Her name is not left alone by the Hermes-narrator at all.) Helen is an actress, who has recently been in a production of the Kleist play which was, curiously enough, set at the time of the Vinegar Hill rebellion (175). The doubling of identity that tantalizes Godley is thus projected backwards into this alternate history, one where he has received a Cesare Borgia prize for humane contributions.

I found myself wondering at certain points if Banville was imitating or satirizing the Woolf of Mrs Dalloway or, with Mr. Ramsay in particular, To the Lighthouse. The unity of time combined with the shifts in perspective and certain aspects of the prose read as if they are derived from Woolf a bit, though the tone is quite distinct. I haven’t yet read any of Banville’s pseudonymous crime fiction, though I can imagine that he excels at the genre.

Names

I’m going to write a review of John Banville’s The Infinites before too long. As I was preparing, I came across this interesting interview where Banville says: “John le Carré, for instance, not a great novelist, but he has a genius when it comes to names. I mean, all the names called in his cast are absolutely perfect. Henry James is similar.”

Was he thinking of Fanny Assingham? I have a paper on Le Carré that’s coming out soon and have read almost all of his novels, and I can’t say that his facility with names ever caught my notice. Lacon, maybe. (Not for the silly reason that may come to mind. Or the other silly reason.) Barley was also fairly inspired. Kurtz I’m not so sure about.

Bad Books

Far be it from me to chide Professors Bérubé and McGowan, but their opinions offered here are unfortunately wrong.

First of all, the “great W. Y. Tindall” ? I interpret this as characteristic slyness and as a clear sign that nothing else is to be taken seriously, or else I would have to point out that this jeering attitude toward Lawrence is mere anachronistic sophistication. (Esp. toward his prose. His incidents and plotting, well. I also perceive an esoteric purpose in not choosing one of the truly objectionable Lawrence novels, such as The Plumed Serpent.)

If John McGowan doesn’t understand the fuss over McCarthy, he should read Blood Meridian. And perhaps he has. But No Country for Old Men, while evidently a screenplay, is in fact a well-written and often philosophically interesting book.* (And it compares very favorably with most genre crime fiction.) Why indict McCarthy, of all people, for detachment and precise description of hardware and objects? It’s not as if he always writes that way.

I was pleased to learn about Dildo Cay, however.

*I am contemplating a paper entitled “The Moral Philosophy of Anton Chigurh.” Seriously.

LibraryThing

I am a late adopter of LibraryThing, but I have slowly entered most of my books into it over the last few weeks. A goodly number have incorrect editions, and I was too impatient to fix them.

The “members with your books” feature also seems to update sporadically, which is mildly annoying. I also am not sure I understand the weighting algorithm, though I hope it’s based on books shared by you and the fewest number of other folks.

It’s a neat thing to see similar libraries, though no one’s seems to be as similar to mine as most are to other people’s. (I am also surprised by the number of primary texts that I’ve used library copies of through the years without buying my own. It’s a bit embarrassing, in fact.)

A Few Questions about DeLillo’s Point Omega

I just read this, and I have to admit that I resent its price. Moving past that minor objection, I have read a few of the reviews (FT, CSM, McGrath piece in NYT), and I would have liked for them to have tackled what seems to me be an important question about the book–i.e., what happens to Jessica. They chose spoiler avoidance, which is understandable, but I have no such compunction. Jessie is Richard Elster’s daughter. Elster is a former Pentagon consultant and intellectual architect of “reality-based community”-like ideas, who’s become, in his Spenglerian declining phase, a Teilhardian. Hence, “Point Omega.” Jim Finley wants to do a Fog of War on him. Jessie meets our anonymous narrator for two sections during a screening of Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour Psycho. These two sections begin and the end the book, while the rest takes place in a desert retreat where Finley tries to persuade Elster to participate in the film.

Jessie, who’s been getting calls from the shy film buff, who’s apparently too shy to say anything on the phone, which causes the mother to send her to the desert. She stays with her father and Finley for a few weeks, then disappears one day, never to be seen again. A knife is found in a ravine, but its status is ambiguous. Finley suspects the “boyfriend,” but the narrative leaves little clear evidence, at least that I noticed on a single read, about what happens.

Jessie has some type of mental disturbance, the nature of which is not precisely described. DeLillo’s intention seemed clearest to me when he describes an academic article on the subject of renditions, apparently written in a Straussian manner, that Elster had written early in the course of the Gulf War. (The paper may have lead to his invitation from the Pentagon.) Here’s what I think is an important paragraph:

Toward the end of the commentary he wrote about select current meanings of the word rendition—interpretation, translation, performance. Within those walls, somewhere, in seclusion, a drama is being enacted, old as human memory, he wrote, actors naked, chained, blindfolded, other actors with props of intimidation, the renderers, nameless and masked, dressed in black, and what ensues, he wrote, is a revenge play that reflects the mass will and interprets the shadowy need of an entire nation, ours. (34)

Elster’s ideas about emerging consciousness, thought as an organism, are closely related to his sense of guilt. Or at least this seems to be Finley’s interpretation. So the disappearance into the desert of his daughter is either a wished-for punishment or retribution brought into being by an emergent order, or an act consciously carried out by Finley, for example, who appoints himself agent of these processes. That our anonymous narrator has traveled to the desert to recreate, in his small way, a scene from the slowed film strikes me as implausible. But I would need to read this again to decide for sure.