Saturday, May 06, 2006

Passive Snark

Idiot at work: "...Yeah, but Kanye West isn't like normal hip-hop... he's much better than those guys."

Me*: "Different how?"

Idiot: "He doesn't use beats or samples. In his music, everything you hear is real!"

Me: "What, you mean he doesn't use samples like the ones that 'Touch The Sky' and 'Diamonds From Seirra Leone' are built on, or beats like the ones that are under EVERY BLOODY KANYE WEST SONG EVER?!"

Idiot: "Yeah, he doesn't use those."

Me: "ARGH!"

Why do people who don't normally like hip-hop frequently make such stupid arguments to support the hip-hop they do like? On a related note, why do people keep telling me that only Andre 3000's half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was good when Big Boi's cut had its fair share of standout tracks, and from this distance seems to me to be by far the more consitent record? Furthermore, why am I being such a grump today?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address...

*I would like to point out that I'm fully aware that I'm an idiot too. For the sake of keeping this passive snark-fest easy to read I decided against calling myself "Another Idiot At Work". Plus, what's the point in snarking if not to claim a little higher ground for yourself for the most spurious of reasons?
"It's funny to think that decisions affecting all our lives are being made by men in crotchless panties."

Let's talk about Pink's latest single 'Stupid Girls', shall we? I'll mostly be talking about the promotional video here, because the song... well, if I'm being honest I barely even notice that it's there. It just sort of passes me by, you know?

Most of you have seen the song on MTV by now, right? It sees Pink dressing up as various female celebrities and re-enacting some of their more embarrassing moments, while also taking a couple of more general stabs at female celebrity culture 2006. Which means that we get:

  1. Parodies of the Paris Hilton sex tape and of Jessica Simpson's 'These Boots Are Made For Walkin' video
  2. Pot shots at Lindsay Lohan's driving skills
  3. Jokes about cosmetic surgery, fake tan and vomiting to make yourself thin. More of the usual stuff, really...
It's a critique that is as tired and goofy as it is accurate. I mean, I'm obviously up for a discussion of whether or not women have to dumb down/sex up to make it in the modern world, but does that really mean we need more Paris Hilton jokes? Really?

Anyway, the video's amusing as these things go, but there are a couple of weird things about its ending that interest me. Basically, there's this little girl in the video, who's sitting in front of a TV and getting bombarded with the images that Pink is parodying. When the song ends, she is encouraged by the angel on her shoulder to go for a pile of "boys" toys (keyboards, sports gear) instead of the pink coloured "girls" toys that sit beside them.

I like the fact that Pink plays both the little girl's angel and her devil in this scenario, indicating that she is aware that she is complicit in the cultural climate she is mocking, but honestly: is aspiring towards a clichéd concept of masculinity really the only alternative? Is that really what girls should aspire to? I mean, Jesus fuck, the video ends with the little girl running out the room with an American football under her arm--does it get any more traditionally manly?

The lyrics, from what I can make out, are like the images only a little less specific, with Pink bemoaning the "epidemic" that's taking over the world and wondering where all the "outcasts and girls with ambition" are. Now, the more I think about these lyrics the less I like them, mostly because they're just not very on target.

I mean, there are plenty of outcasts on the outskirts of pop, and many of the women that Pink is taking a pop at here have a lot of ambition. It's just a matter of what sort of ambition is involved, and exactly what the girls in question are aspiring toward. Which brings me back to the question of whether adopting the clichéd trappings of manhood is really the only option available, and furthermore, what exactly this dichotomous worldview entails.

Enter Kill Your Boyfriend, a short, sharp, funny comic book by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond. It's a one-off story about a bored teenage girl who meets a hot, thuggish boy. He kills her boyfriend and then invites her into a world of sex, drugs and random violence.

Here's the girl, all kitted out in a red dress and a blond wig, just getting ready for a night on the town with her vicious deviant of an accomplice. Her life's went crazy, but it's okay--she's enjoying herself--finding a new lease of life. But for those of you who are already gagging at the clichés, don't worry, the girl knows the score and she got there long before you:

I know what you're thinking: Rebellion's all very well but does it really include becoming a blonde bimbo? I'm just a figment of his imagination. I'm no longer responsible. And that means I can do anything.
Kill Your Boyfriend is a dumb pop fantasy, and that's why hits so hard. It's a thrill ride through all the obvious territory that presents a tongue-in-cheek commentary on itself without ever disrupting the fun.

The comic presents us with a whole world of boredom filtered through the twin lenses of teenage angst and broad comedy. There are hapless parents, corrupt police officers, art students who are full of crap, politicians who have a whole heap of kinky gear in the closet... these are obvious takes on obvious targets, just like in the Pink video, but there's a cheeky wit and charm to the execution that sells it.

I mean, for one thing, there's the art. Philip Bond's characters are blocky, goofy and cool all at once. His line work is almost simple enough to work as graffiti, and is charged with all of the energy and character of the best examples of that form. Morrison's infinitely quotable dialogue mirrors these qualities, and the Glaswegian writer also makes sure that the whole thing resonates with a disaffected teenager's view of the world.

Kill Your Boyfriend's pop-tastic surface level ties in neatly with one of its most important themes: that of the various fantasy lives available to us in the modern world. Or, more specifically, the variety of fantasy lives available to women in the modern world. You can see this theme coming through in the quote about becoming a blonde bimbo I provided above. The comic walks an odd line on this issue, dramatising the thrill of giving in to various dreams and clichés while also making obvious the unnerving implications of abandoning yourself to these sort of ideas.

And this is what makes Kill Your Boyfriend a more effective critique than the video for 'Stupid Girls'. It makes fun of social roles in the same sort of blunt way, but it does it with more wit (in my opinion), and while also showing exactly what's so exciting about adopting these personas. The violent excess of its central characters is both thrilling and horrible, which is as it should be. This sort of fantasy can be fun to read about, but horrible is exactly what such extreme pop culture dreams become when transposed so fully onto the real world.

Kill Your Boyfriend also scores major points with me by making it obvious how many different possible clichés/fantasies there are out there for the taking. Here's the girl again, after the bangs and violence has settled, leading a seemingly normal life but still aware of the potentials for carnage and craziness that are available to her:

I'm a page three girl. I'm a Warhol superstar. I'm a dyke. I'm a riot grrrrl. I'm the Queen of Sex. I'm a housewife with a jar of rat poison
The sort of freedom described above seems to me to be a bit Foucualtian. The idea is that we (women in particular, but everyone really) are free to be what we want to be, within the bounds of the choices that society presents to us. This is a somewhat stifling concept, but it is still far more nuanced and, to my mind, accurate than the "stupid girl/manly girl" dichotomy presented at the end of the 'Stupid Girls' video. That view serves Pink well, of course, because her whole shtick is to present herself as a rougher, more credible alternative to most contemporary pop, but it's still bullshit all the same.

It should also be noted that imposing your inner fantasies on to the real world is probably not all that easy or any guarantee of happiness, something that works such as Brazil, Seaguy and The Iron Dragon's Daughter deal with in different ways.

Furthermore, I feel that I should mention that one important angle that Kill Your Boyfriend doesn't cover is the role that good old-fashioned love and understanding plays in all of this. While many Grant Morrison comics (Animal Man, We3, The Invisibles and The Filth chief among them) deal with the role of kindness in a world of cross firing fantasies and oppressive existential roles, Kill Your Boyfriend is notably free from such concerns. This is part of its strength (it's a very breezy and focused work, after all), but it's worth mentioning that all of this talk of taking on fantasy roles, people are still people underneath it all, blah blah empathy cakes...

More on this topic later, possibly.

Friday, April 14, 2006

About That Last Post Of Mine…

For those of you who don’t know, Karen is my girlfriend of almost a year and a half now. She’s a mild mannered biology student by day and a back-flipping gymnast by night, and as such she is almost too awesome. More to the point, she’s also been in various amateur productions, and was a very enthusiastic drama student when still in high school.

Anyway, I've talked about my previous post with Karen, and she’s slightly concerned that it makes her seem a bit shallow. Now, while Karen’s fondness for shiny things certainly matches my own, I’d like to point out that any shallowness that comes across in my previous entry reflects a fault in my writing rather than in her judgement.

The post in question is a streamlined version of an actual conversation we’d had, which is supposed to dramatise some of the ideas I was dealing with in the Mogwai post. Bearing this in mind, I think it’s obvious that I’ve distorted both of our viewpoints in the name of thematic cohesion, and I hope both Karen and the rest of the world will forgive me for this bit of artistic license.

The basic idea was to make myself sound like a bit of a pompous ass, albeit one who has a point, and to make Karen sound like she was enthusiastically arguing for a different perspective. I think I mostly succeeded in that, though there are still some issues that I feel like I should address:

(1) There are only two bits of accurate Karen-speak in the post. The line about the Shakespeare performance being “obviously Brecht” belongs to Karen. I included it purely because I like the way it flows. The other honest-to-god straight-from-life dialogue snippet is the final line, which I kept because I felt that it as emblematic of the weird discomfort some folk have when they voice this sort of opinion. While Karen definitely has no issue with art that makes direct efforts to push you out of the story, while she definitely understands the intended function of such gestures perfectly well, she doesn’t find that this technique particularly illuminates anything for her. This seems perfectly fair to me, but there have been several exchanges between us in the past that have ended like this one did, with Karen shrinking into herself a little, obviously worried that I’ll look down on her preference for traditional storytelling techniques. You can probably file this under “dangers of going out with a pretentious English student”, but given that I try not to be a completely uppity snob about everything I’m not really sure that entirely covers it...

(2) If anyone is bothered by the one-sided nature of this post and the one before it then believe me, I’m right there with you. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to publish my original post at all, but in the end I decided that I was going to get back into this blogging thing at all then I was going to have to try something different... something that compressed a bit more of my actual life down into the blog and allowed me to loosen up a bit. I did invite Karen to comment on the post herself, but I don’t think she wanted to invade my space so she declined (damn her eyes!). So here I am… trying to discuss the issue without making myself look like a complete kook.

(3) It occurs to me that I have read every single Shakespeare play, but that I’ve never actual seen a single one performed on the stage. Sure, I’ve seen various cinematic adaptations or reinterpretations of these plays (some of which were good, and some of which were very bad indeed), but I’ve never actually seen them in the way they were written to be experienced. Then again, if you takes that train of thought far enough, you’ll end up bemoaning the fact that you can’t see the plays in the time period and social context(s) in which they were originally written, which is pretty absurd, really. Or is it just an overly literal extension of the desire to examine a work in relation to the events surrounding its creation..?

That’s enough of that for now. More when the mood takes me.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Theatrical Dialogue

Karen: "The worst performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I ever saw was one where they decided to do it without any colour or excitement. Everybody was dressed in black, and it was just BORING!"

David: "See, I get why it would seem like a good idea to do it like that... it's a bit like Brecht, you know? Trying to emphasise the artifice of the play and make you think about what's going on in a more detached sort of way."

Karen: "Yeah, I can see that, but it was still boring when I was watching it. I mean, it's the most colourful Shakespeare comedy, with all the fairies and everything, and they made it boring... they took out the fun!"

David: "I guess it's one of those questions of how much you can do that sort of art without taking away the things that people come to art for. The performance you're talking about sounds interesting--"

Karen: "But it wasn't interesting! In the best version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I've ever seen, the actors all sat around the side of the stage on chairs when they weren't on stage, and sometimes they'd read from their scripts while they were making big speeches, and there was this huge band behind them, so all of that was obviously Brecht, but you still got to enjoy the story."

David: "I don't know... I guess I just don't want to write off art that plays with your expectations, and maybe doesn't give you what you're looking for. I mean, I like the more enjoyable and visceral side of art, and I think it's kinda devalued in criticism. It's like... maybe there's a bit too much of an "eat your greens" approach to art, you know? Like, if it doesn't taste nice, it must be good for you. But... I still don't want to say there's no value in something like a Brecht play. Do you like Brecht?"

Karen: "Well... I've seen Mother Courage, and I get it... I get the alienation thing. But the bit where she's beating the drum, that's a really powerful moment, and when I saw it performed they cut away at that point... they stopped acting it and started explaining it."

David: "Ah, now that's strange, cos in the version of the play that I saw, they didn't break that bit up, and that pushed against the alienation angle they'd established earlier. It made that moment with the drum involving in the way a play is supposed to be involving, which is messed up, because it made it harder to take the play on any one level. It didn't quite work as a play you had to watch from a distance, and it wasn't traditionally engaging all the way through so... I found myself sort of fascinated by the weird mix of styles that I was seeing onstage."

Karen: "I think I just like to get caught up in the story a bit more than you do, and I don't always like it when I get pushed that far out of it."

David: "And do you feel embarrassed about that?"

Karen: "A little."
Here Be Monsters

For all the cheeky venom of their interviews, when it comes to actually making music Mogwai have always been an earnestly ambitious lot. For ten years now they’ve been pursuing their oddly modernist muse, throwing out much of what normally makes rock music exciting (pace, energy, vocals, choruses) in favour of… well, something else.

And so their new album Mr Beast starts with ‘Auto Rock’, a simple piano part repeating itself over and even simpler beat while a variety of other instruments pulse underneath. This short track is a masterpiece of restraint, with guitars and electronics pushing against the song’s central piano motifs without ever rising above them in a way that indicates that the band are straining to push harder but holding back. This should undercut the song, but in the end it only makes it a more subtle and complicated work. It could easily be a thunderous anthem (and don’t get me wrong, it’d be a bloody good one!) but as it is it’s obviously affecting without being obvious. This idea is important to what Mogwai are really all about, so hold it in mind and I’ll come back to it in a minute.

Before we get into all of that, though, let’s talk about how Mr Beast fits into the steadily-expanding Mogwai canon. Mr Beast is without a doubt the most direct and concise album that the band have ever made, a fact that is sure to draw as much criticism as it is praise. After all, isn’t the whole point of Mogwai that they draw things out and make them difficult? Well... yes and no.

Taken as a whole Mr Beast lacks both the epic scope of the band’s early records and the depth of sound of their most recent albums, but its slim ten tracks each compress one element of the band’s style perfectly. So: ‘Glasgow Mega-Snake’ lives up to its name, with multiple guitar parts twisting and sliding in and out of each other before rising up to strike; ‘We’re No Here’ takes one of the band’s mid song noise fests and makes an entire track out of it; and ‘Folk Death 85’ sees the band using that quiet/loud/really fucking loud dynamic one more time, as if to prove that they can still do it better than anyone else. All three tracks feature some truly titanic drumming, and have guitars that can easily compete with the best of modern metal. As such, these songs will please those listeners who come to every album looking for noise. This raises the question of whether or not Mogwai are the art-rock Woody Allen? You know: "We preferred your earlier, noisier stuff." If so then some quarters might feel that this album is a "return to form", because it’s the noisiest album Mogwai have made in years. Such praise, however, would be incomplete, because there are plenty of quiet tracks here, and they’re every bit as good as the loud ones.

‘Acid Rock’ and ‘I Chose Horses’, for example, are glorious examples of the band’s experiments in texture, layering pedal steel guitar onto soft electronic beats and Japanese spoken word onto ambient sonics respectively. Meanwhile, ‘Team Handed’ is the archetypal quiet Mogwai song, with the band playing hushed alien blues like all the weight of the world rested on their shoulders.

While all of the aforementioned tracks are gorgeously constructed so as to remind us of all the things Mogwai do best, the most impressive tracks on Mr Beast are the ones where the band stretch themselves a little. Since Mogwai are ostensibly an avant-garde rock band, this happens to mean that their least typical songs are also their most accessible.

‘Travel Is Dangerous’ is the closest Mogwai have come to recording a straight-up rock song since their first few singles. It’s relatively up-tempo and has a traditional verse/chorus/verse structure, but its elegantly obscure guitar parts, half-murmured vocals and jubilant bursts of noise ensure that it’s still very much a Mogwai song. Indeed, it manages to sound both defiant and triumphant all at once, its meaning still mysterious though the feelings it conveys are clear. ‘Friend of the Night’ does the same trick the other way round, taking one of the band’s typically delicate instrumentals and building something more solid and melodic out of it. Pianos rise and fall over a gentle wall of drums, guitar and SFX, becoming more and more emotionally resonant as they do so.

This is where we come back to ‘Auto Rock’ and the question of how Mogwai manage to make music that is obviously affecting without being obvious. Both ‘Auto Rock’ and ‘Friend of the Night’ have piano melodies that could be made into huge sop-rock hits, but as they are they have a strangeness that expresses the same big emotions without smothering them in clichés. And this is what Mogwai have always been about, deep down. The wandering, repetitious song structures and layers of strange instrumentation are but means to an end. The sweet, simple melodies and head-melting guitar noises for which the band are famous are very direct and visceral in the end, and Mogwai’s entire project has to be to make these elements more effective by limiting the amount of tired shite they frame them in. Mr Beast is a bold gamble, as it sees the band ridding themselves of a lot of their sonic defences. To these ears, however, it’s an outrageous success, keeping enough of what makes the band unique while opening up their music and letting its sheer formal beauty obvious to all.

Another cheery wave from stranded youngsters then? Yes please!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Life With/Without God

After writing about The Iron Dragon's Daughter I went looking for the blog post that made me want to read the book in the first place, and found it. Here's Stephen from Peiratikos, writing about the novel's themes from an angle I didn't approach in my post:

The dangerous thing about finding God and asking your questions is, of course, what if God won't answer? Or can't answer? What if He answers but the answers make even less sense than your own feeble guesses? What if the only useful thing you got out of your meeting with God was a reminder of the idea of free will--and you couldn't even get God to tell you whether you actually have free will or if it's just a comforting fiction you invented yourself? Are you even capable of dealing with the responsibility for your own stupid mistakes and fucked-up life, the liberating and terrifying fine-print clause in the free-will contract? (And why didn't God ever ask if you wanted to sign that contract?)

(In other words, what if you were human?)
That last line's a kicker, isn't it? It certainly got my attention, and the novel was even better than I was expecting it to be from Steven's promising description on it. But re-reading Steven's comments in the context of the entire post (in which he names and comments on some of his favourite books and comics) made me think of Swanwick's novel in a slightly different light, one that makes me want to write a couple of blog posts comparing it to a handful of Grant Morrison comics (Seaguy, Animal Man and The Filth) as well as Alasdair Gray's Lanark, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and a couple of the longer Beckett plays. I don't know whether or not I'll ever get around to writing about all of this, but if I do here are some of the ideas I'll be talking about:

Circular narrative structures and what they can mean; meta-fiction and the difficulties of living in a universe created by a flawed god; the relationship between cruelty, self-delusion and self-absorption; the difficulties of living in a world without any god to give it clear meaning; the power and futility of escapist fantasy, and the question of how much we ever really learn from our experiences.

On top of all that, I'd probably take a stab at showing how all of these themes fit together in the aforementioned texts.

Lofty goals, eh? But when the hell will I get the time to actually write any of this? Who knows, but hey--I figured I might as well note this down here for future reference.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

New Every Morning... Face In The Grass...

I've seen two versions of Samuel Beckett's Not I in my time.

First of all, there was the live performance I saw at The Arches a couple of years ago. This was good, but didn't quite match up to the versions of Play and Waiting For Godot I saw as part of the same season of Beckett plays. More recently, I saw the cinematic interpretation of the text that Neil Jordan contributed to Channel Four's Beckett On Film project. While not as good as the best films from that endeavor (Endgame, Act Without Words I & II, I'm looking at you here!), it's still hugely impressive all the same.

For those of you not familiar with the play, Not I is of Beckett's shorter, stranger works. A monologue delivered by a woman's mouth in the darkness, it makes for a profoundly visceral viewing experience, either up close or through the relative safety of a TV screen. It's been claimed by some that Not I can be taken as the antithesis to Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses. I'm not 100% convinced, but there are interesting points to be made by way of this comparison. For example, where Molly Bloom's words build up a mini-history of a troubled romance that finds its peak as an intense wave of affirmation ("yes I said yes I will yes"), Mouth's monologue seems to be an angry tirade against the whole process of birth, living, thinking and talking that it enacts in gibbering fragments ("flickering away on its own"). This is something that comes across much better when you actually see the play rather than merely read it. When you hear the text read aloud, its rhythms and contours are amazingly tight, the words racing forward, occasionally looping back to repeat a refrain ("god is love") and then turning stacato when Mouth feels as though her status as a third person narrator is being threatened ("What? Who? No! She!).

While the live version I witnessed trumped the filmed one in terms of sheer impact (especially during that strange, jarring scream), Neil Jordan's version strikes me as being a far more successful adaptation on the whole, largely due to the way that the medium of film enhances the robotic, dissassociated nature of the play's central image. I've heard it said that in truly great performances of this play Mouth's body works as an almost subliminal accompaniment to the constant barrage of words emanating from that lonely, isolated orifice. This may be true, but it certainly wasn't the case in the performance I saw. Neil Jordan's version, on the other hand, starts off by showing Mouth (in this case, Julianne Moore) getting into her chair. This is a controversial decision, but I think it works. After all, it neatly foregrounds everything that the rest of the play denies, i.e. the totality of Mouth as a human being. After that odd intro, though... that's when it gets really good.

Jordan keeps the focus in tight throughout the play--holding to the one close-up of Moore's mouth, only breaking to a different angel to accompany one of the text's repetition. It may not be subtle, but it's damned effective, making the monologue a frighteningly mechanical thing, with Mouth's upper teeth remaining still while her lower teeth, lips and tongue shift around frantically, struggling to articulate the maelstrom of thought and un-thought that passes through it. It really emphasises the distance that Mouth tries to place between herself and the words she's speaking, all the while reminding us of the human origin of the words by virtue of how damned fleshy those lips are at such a close distance. It's a mesmerising piece of work, really it is, and I can't help but be held in awe by the steady speed of Moore's delivery.

There's been some debate in the past about whether or not Mouth is describing a rape, and if so whether this is what she's trying to distance herself from by denying so forcefully that she is talking about herself. Beckett himself was apparently appalled by the idea, but for my part I think the words of the text are so vague that while it would be hard to say that this is definitely what the play is about, it is also hard to completely dispel this interpretation. I will say, however, that this didn't strike me as being a concrete part of the play. Instead, I think it's a text that resists such clarification, with the performances I've seen of it instead conveying nothing so much as an overwhelming sense of a self trying to negate its own existence and failing. Imagine trying to talk yourself out of being: how terrifying a prospect is that? And yet, how impossible...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Spiral Staircase

A few notes on The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, by Michael Swanwick.

Part coming-of-age story, part grotesque fantasy, this novel plays a dangerous game in its integration of clashing genre tropes. Take the novel’s first sentence for example:

The changeling’s decision to steal a dragon and escape was born, though she did not know it then, the night the children met to plot the death of their supervisor.

There are plenty of words in there that set you up right away for a fantasy story (‘dragon’ and ‘changeling’ chief among them), but the scenario that is hinted at by the overall meaning of this sentence contains the embryo of a different sort of story; a bildungsroman in the Dickensian mould. The novel’s first section develops this uneasy setting wonderfully, creating a dark mesh of both story types that plays one angle that both genres promise to satisfy when they’re played straight: the urge to believe that people can escape their environments, that they can develop beyond their station in life and find a higher, more exciting place for themselves elsewhere. And this is where the danger lies in this particular genre mash-up. It’s certainly not the mixture itself that is risky; as I’ve already noted, the stylistic crosspollination is not only conducive to the perturbed atmosphere of the novel but also works on the thematic level described above. Instead, it is the way that Swanwick plays with the readers’ expectations of both genres that makes this combination of stylistic tropes potentially hazardous.

Let me make my point clearer by way of example. After setting up the possibility of escape in that first sentence Swanwick proceeds to throw a spanner in the works by having Jane escape from the factory with the dragon and then… settles down at a school. This hints at the more difficult aspects of this novel’s mechanics, as while this plays perfectly into the expected progress of a bildungsroman, it somewhat jars with our expectations for fantasy adventure. And what are we meant to make of the fact that while Jane may progress from factory worker to schoolchild to college student, she doesn’t actually seem to learn anything or make any progress as she does so? The fact that this element of the plot is tied into a cyclical pattern that is, in turn, related to the magical “true names” of the people Jane meets in each of these environments is indicative of the ways in which Swanwick subverts both genres through combination. Much has been made of this effect in the field of science fiction and fantasy criticism, and rightly so, because the mixture of Faery and modernity that is at the heart of this novel makes it one of the most avowedly anti-escapist fantasies ever written. Within these pages we have Wicker Queens burning on TV, Dragons that are both sentient bombers and cruelly nihilistic manipulators. These odd combinations serve to make the fantasy elements more potent and jarring by virtue of their incongruity with the more urban/contemporary story elements, thus providing the novel with one of the most perversely compelling fantasy worlds ever created.

Less seems to have been written about this story’s status as a coming-of-age story. It’s possible that I’ve just not been looking in the right places, but it seems equally likely to me that this situation has been created by the fact that most of the people who have given the book the attention it requires are already fans of the fantasy genre. I can easily imagine many readers of a more avowedly “literary” bent turning their noses at this book from the title onward, but maybe I’m wrong and it’s just that this element of the novel excites and interests me more than it does most readers. Whatever the case, the fact remains that the way Michael Swanwick handles this genre fascinates me every bit as much as his treatment of the fantasy stuff does. Coming back to my initial claim that there’s something risky about the handling of genre in this novel, I’d like to further clarify that by saying that to play elements of these two genres against each other without satisfying the promise of escape that they both contain risks leaving the reader frustrated when they reach the final page. In the end, however, this isn’t a failing of the novel; in fact I think it might just be its greatest strength. Jane doesn’t seem to learn much as she moves through this story—really, the mistakes she makes begin to look bigger and bigger as the novel goes on—and while this can be frustrating, it’s also key to the novel’s success. As another character says to Jane at one point:

We are all of us living stories that on some deep level give us satisfaction. If we are unhappy with our stories, that is not enough to free us from them.

This is a tough fact to swallow, and is the opposite of what any number of self-help books would have us believe. It teeters on the brink of defeatest nihilism, and is all the more essential for it. By dangling the promise of escape and transcendance in front of us from the very beginning, and by carefully playing with our genre-based expectations of exactly how this progress will be made all the way through the novel, Swanwick casts fresh light on old questions of exactly how much freedom we can achieve, regardless of how self aware we become. That said, while the web of repitition and manipulation that plays out in this strange, wonderful book is definitely worthy of consideration, you’ve got to be careful to take such ideas as potential descriptions of the world instead of simply projecting them outwards and giving up all hope. This distinction might sound obvious, but as a fan of narratives that thrive on depictions of circularity and human impotence, and a survivor of a course on postmodern literary theory, I’m pretty sensitive about the ways in which such ideas can be taken as absolute, undefeatable fact, crushing any sense of personal and political responsibility before them. As I’ve already said, I don’t think changing your life is as easy as buying a self-help book, but that is not an excuse for being a shit human being, nor should it be taken as such. We’re all bound by crazy social and psychological patterns that are beyond us, but to give in to this, to make it an explanation for your own failings, is a decision that you make and can be held responsible for. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter ends on what could be a note or hope, but could also be the start of another trip round the block. When you think about it, the novel couldn’t end any other way. Jane’s back at square one, and what happens next is up to her. This is both thrilling and terrifying in its open endedness, but not excessivley so. After all, it’s just like real life...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Things That Are Currently Rocking My World

Iron Council, by China Mieville. This didn't grip me right a way like Perdido Street Station and The Scar did, but the more of it I read the more impressed with it I became. In amongst all the cowboys and golums, this novel sees Mieville showing his interest in politics far more overtly than before. There's all sorts of mythic and concrete political baggage on display here, which is deeply fascinating in such a high fantasy context, to say the very least. I've still got a good third of the novel to read, so I can't quite judge it as a whole yet, but yes... this is definitely an interesting development.

'The Admiralty Spire', by Vladimir Nabokov. I just read this story in the Penguin 70's collection, and damn is it ever great! Like Pale Fire condensed into fifteen pages. It also reads like a very well told joke, which probably adds support to David Foster Wallace's that the two forms are closely related.

Ghostface--The Pretty Toney Album. I was trying to speed up the arrival of summer by listening to this album on repeat this morning. It didn't work, of course, but it was worth a shot. Well over a year after its original release (in fact it might be close to two years now!), the mix of cold hardman attitude and warm, soppy soul you get on this album still sounds inspired to my ears. I definitely need to start using "Holla" and 'It's Over' when I make up mix CDs for other people, 'cos those songs are just plain excellent!

Lost At Sea, by Bryan Lee O'Malley. This isn't quite as fun and streamlined as Scott Pilgrim, but it's still a pretty awesome encapsulation of a very specific sort of teenage angst. It probably helps to be young enough to vividly remember the sort of thoughts and feelings that this book deals with, though. I get the feeling that the first person narration might serve to distance you from the comic a bit if you weren't able to get into it. Which would be a shame, really, because this is good stuff, and I'm already looking forward to re-reading it immensely.

Paul Auster's City Of Glass, as adapted to comic book form by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. Hey, all of those other reviewers were right -- the extra layer of visual linguistics that is on display here really does add something to this Babel-obssesed narrative. But is it really an improvement on the original? Y'know, I think it just might be!

'Faster', by The Manic Street Preachers. This harsh, relentless song made the perfect soundtrack to some of my bleaker and more self-absorbed teenage moments, and listening to it right now its punky judder is still immensely satisfying, which is good, because I was actually pretty worried that it wouldn't hold up. So much for that though, eh? "I AM AN ARCHITECT!/They call me a butcher"--ooh, listen to how nasty that guitar sounds! And those drums! And... and... yeah, you get the point I'm sure.

'We Don't Play Guitar', by Chicks On Speed. They may not play guitar. COS may not play guitar. But I play guitar. Bigsunnyd plays guitar. And I love it!

The Three Stimata Of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick. Why did it taken me so long to get around to reading this novel? It's brilliant! All of Dick's usual tricks are in evidence, and this time around the nature of the uncertain reality which the characters inhabit is tied very directly into all manner of social factors. This certainly isn't unheard of in Dick's ouvre, of course, but nevertheless the emphasis on hallucinatory spectacle as a sellable commodity is notable here, and not early as cut and dried as I've just made it sound.

Mean Girls. Is this the most quotable movie ever or what? "Danny Devito I love your work"--ha, that bit rules! And, erm, anyway, this is also a good film about cruelty and manipulation, but you knew that already, right?

So... ah, hello world, I guess.

(How many times have I done that routine now?)

Will anyone even see this post, or have I finally shaken off what little audience I had?

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