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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