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Category: Literature

Debating Iron Council

Debating Iron Council: A bunch of essays about China Miéville's books, with a lengthy response from Miéville.

Via: Dave Intermittent (in a comment)

11 January 2005 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

Fair Trade?

I’m not very good with promises, but I’m aiming for one blog update per weekend (and I hope one during the week, but we’ll see) just to keep me going, because this has been an unexpectedly taxing autumn. To prove I can keep promises after a fashion, though, I once told Jim Henley I’d write more about my thoughts on The Filth and gender. And while I’m on a roll, I asked Graeme McMillan whether he thought Rosie in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a good guy, a bad guy, or neither, but I never responded with my thoughts.

Rectifying two old birds with one stone, in quasi-realistic situations (and it’s not entirely clear to me why I put The Filth in this class) we expect the good guys to avoid trading sex for information. OK, it’s entirely possible that this is just me and that the rest of the world assumes that the FBI adheres to James Bond standards of sexual involvement and intrigue, but I think not. And so in The Manchurian Candidate it set off alarms for me that Rosie was willing to become (I assume sexually) intimate with Ben to be a part of his deepest secrets. We see her doing other things like being involved in evidence tampering that make it seems she’s not interested in preserving truth and encouraging justice, at least as those terms are generally used. And then at the end of the movie she’s still with Ben at the scene of the crime that thrust him into this whole mess, and he’s letting some memory-heavy artifacts wash out to sea. Is she at his side because she really came to love this broken man she met on the train, this man she spied on and comforted? Is this part of her job, to keep him whole enough that he can finish the job of putting this plot in the past? Or is something more sinister going on? Sure, her work helps bring down members of the Manchurian Corp. conspiracy, but in a movie where every conspiracy is linked to something deeper and more far-reaching, why should we believe that this pulls out a root? Could she be working for some even more shadowy group to defuse this conspiracy and take control of Ben? Her demeanor doesn’t change from when she’s pretending to love him so she can keep him under surveillance to the time when she tracks him down at the scene of the assassination to their farewell to the past at the seaside ruins. Something strange is going on here, and it’s not just that she seems to use sex or even (worse?) love as a weapon but that this is so mundane. Perhaps it is in the normal world, although I don’t think many people could pull it off as calmly as Rosie seems to, but I think we hold our national security folks to higher standards, or at least I do.

And that brings me to a slight aside, which is that I don’t think it’s meaningless that I’m talking about female spies here. This is not Mata Hari-style seduction but is still a power play in a way that perhaps James Bond dalliances aren’t. After all, Rosie doesn’t have signature drinks or swank suits or anything obvious at all, but it’s the conspicuous lack of anything extraordinary, a seeming sweet absence of guile in a movie where everyone else churns with intrigue, that makes her suspicious. But sometimes it’s just the gender patterns that are suspicious. In gearing up for Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion, which I read this weekend, I reread his The Diamond Age last weekend. One of the strangest episodes, and one that has soured the book for me a bit each time I’ve read it, involves a cult called The Drummers who live in a sleeplike state under the sea while their dreaming minds interact to form a sort of metaphorical computer. They carry particles in their bloodstreams that enhance this process and they can exchange these particles through intercourse, basically sharing smart STDs. The way this is carried out is that periodically there will be all sorts of drumming and then a woman becomes the center of attention and men dance around her. Eventually, after much buildup, each of the men has sex with her in front of the whole group, during which time she gets hotter and hotter because each of these little viruses raises blood temperature, until eventually she explodes and releases the viruses like spores and the men have picked up her viruses and so it keeps on spreading. Now, the book never says that this is how it always works, but it also never shows us a man being this exploding vessel in the several times we see the scene played out. To me, that’s telling in the same way that it’s telling that Rosie’s mother/lover act seemed uncontroversial. If the genders in The Manchurian Candidate had been reversed and Ross had seduced Beth to be able to keep an eye on her and keep her out of trouble, I don’t think I’m the only one who would have found it weird and problematic.

And that’s why I’m not sure what to make of this issue in The Filth. The way Greg/Ned changes from nobody to superspy is through psychedelic sex with agent Miami. But how does she change over, then? And is this in her job description? That’s what I kept thinking as I read, wondering whether she enjoyed this aspect of things, this being a virus that translates a man into part of a larger being/organization and I don’t think there’s any way to know. Jim wanted to know whether female characters were fully realized enough for female readers to make guesses about their motives and so on, and while right now I can’t look at the book because I’ve lent it to a friend who is probably reading this and feeling guilty, I can say that I wished I knew better what was going on in Miami’s mind, but that we never really knew what was going on in any of the character’s heads. If Jim’s theory that the women are all playing almost archetypal roles of what men expect from them, maybe that’s why the absence of Miami’s viewpoint seemed more poignant than that of the unnamed female Dreamers or Rosie, who at least seems to have a mind of her own in there somewhere. At the core of this, for me at least, is curiosity about to what extent sex like this is fully consensual for the (admittedly fictional) women involved. If it’s your job to have sex with guys to make them remember how cool they really are, do you hate your job? I realize I’m probably making too much of this, but it’s something that stuck out enough that I still think of it months later and I really don’t know what the answers are. I do know I’m probably having a nonstandard response to all of this, but I accept that too. I just think it’s interesting that sexual ethics don’t necessarily follow the same track as political ethics (or perhaps, in The Filth at least, they do) or professional ethics and yet this disconnect is commonplace enough that I haven’t seen people commenting on it. I suppose once this is posted, though, I will have, and that’s what counts.

31 October 2004 Update Just to be clear, since I’m pretty sure I didn’t say this outright, I have no problems whatsoever with people choosing to trade sex for whatever they like, although my general ideal is that everyone should be as close to fully aware and fully consenting as possible. I do think it’s problematic for employers to expect their employees to have sex as part of their work, especially if this is something expected only of female employees. And if, in the case of The Manchurian Candidate, we assume that this is Our Tax Dollars at work, I imagine that would ruffle some feathers too. But I’m not trying to be anti-sex or opposed to these texts in general, because I think their creators were trying to grapple with just these sorts of messy issues and I’m glad that they did as it gave me something to think about and post.

My End of the Shelf

So Steven has filled an imaginary bookshelf, but I assume there’s still a bit of room at the end for me to toss in a few titles. And the bookshelf can remain imaginary, becuase the plan when books are unpacked completely is (I think) to stick with alphabetical order, rather than any kind of idiosyncratic personal-resonance filing system. But here are the books that have been core for me, leaving out all the ones Steven already tackled. In thinking of “me” I tend to start counting at around age 11, so I doubt anything older than that will show up on the list. I’m sure I was basically the same person, but 11 was a core year for descent into self-doubt and fury, and so it always seems like a good turning point.

David Fiore got to it first, Robert Benchley’s My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew deserves a prime spot as the first book I remember making me laugh aloud. (The story in question was “Talking Dogs,” which I still find funnier than it probably is.)

For the same reason I Capture the Castle would be there, except that every time I buy a copy I give it as a gift. Luckily this is an imaginary shelf, though, so the only Dodie Smith book I’ve ever read (and I’d gladly read her diaries but plan to keep avoiding 101 Dalmations) gets a spot for its incredible voice and consistency and just plain fun.

Notes from Underground was my version of The Catcher in the Rye, a book that seemed to incorporate all of the idealism and agony of my adolescent experiences into one slim volume in a way that made pure sense to me at the time. Fyodor Dostoyevsky probably deserves more spots on the list, but this is the clearest winner.

Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch is probably my favorite collection of retold fairy tales, but she hit my life first and hardest with Stir-Fry. I used to have a little piece of paper (maybe still do) with all the quotes I found meaningful scribbled all over it with page numbers. I have not reread it as an adult, since it’s the only of her books I’ve never found in a used book store, but I’ll go back to it someday, when its meaning will be a bit different.

For maybe five years afterwards from high school into my early college years, I had an answer when someone would ask what my favorite book was, though the answer changed. I went from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I don’t think I ever gave the last as an answer, because when I figured it could supplant The Satanic Verses I decided I might as well give up on that listed favorites thing.

For poetry, I need Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and probably her Sappho translations, too, with the lovely facing Greek. I’m not sure yet what else, as I’ve been gone from poetry for so long. Some Zbigniew Herbert, certainly. I have a collection of poems I love by Forough Faroughzhad, but can’t think of the title right now; it was salvaged from a trash can when a professor was unloading unwanted books. Jorie Graham. Marge Piercy, maybe Early Grrl.

Perhaps I like short stories best, but for now I’ll leave them off my list for now. It’s getting long enough. And no non-fiction, either, reference books and Montse Stanley’s guide to knitting and lots of histories and biographies and anthropology and criticism! This is why I can’t have a shelf, because I wouldn’t know where to stop until I had practically all the shelves I have anyway. But since I don’t feel a deep need to have all my meaningful texts nearby to harness their talismanic power or anything like that, it’s fine that the shelf is imaginary.

The Bookshelf

I don’t have a special shelf for my favorite books—not even an imaginary one, because I lack whatever psychological trait that allows people to easily create hierarchical categories of the things they like. I have books I especially love, but I never know where to draw the line between “favorite” and “not quite.” But Rick Geerling created a meme, list the books on your special shelf of favorite books, which has been spreading through the blogosphere (Ken Lowery, David Fiore, Dave Intermittent). I suppose I’ve caught the meme as well.

On David Fiore’s comments thread, Jess Nevins notes that the problem with this meme is that “The Bookshelf” (as Rick calls it) is going to end up with hundreds of books on it. Actually, I think it’ll probably end up with too many or too few, depending on whether your listing is governed by an obsessive completism or a reticent hesitance to include every book you know you really should. To save both you and me some time and boredom, I’ll choose the latter governor.

Before I start my list of favorite(ish) books, though, I want to note something I’ve just noticed. Many of the ones I’ve chosen are about what Rose calls “creation of self through narrative” and David Fiore calls “identiy-formation through narrative-building.” These are narratives that literalize narrative: the characters in these stories usually know or figure out they’re in a story. Sometimes they get to meet the Author. I think if we humans were offered a little discussion time with God—not just your standard prayer or divine visions but a meeting in which you could get some real answers—most of us would eagerly accept the offer. Even those of us who don’t believe in Him would, I think—wouldn’t you like to know what God would have to say about all those clever arguments atheists have come up with to “disprove” Her existence? I know I would. Can God create a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it?

Why is there suffering? Why didn’t you ever answer my prayers—is it just because I didn’t believe in you? If you had a chance to get not just the answers but The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything—well, who wouldn’t be tempted by that? We have all these questions we’d love to ask God, but She doesn’t answer (if God exists then He seems to have been out to lunch for the last few million years, and I never trust people who have a personal relationship with Jesus). The only place we can get God to answer our questions is in our fantasies, that place where we’re more powerful than God and get to tell Her what to do. I think that’s why there are so many stories about meeting God. But then, God (creator of the Wor[l]d) and an author (creator of words) have a lot in common, don’t they? J.R.R. Tolkien discusses writing, especially of fantastic stories, as a reverent imitation of God’s creation of the world in his essay “On Faerie Stories.” In Animal Man, Grant Morrison and God are the same.

My Bookshelf (for now) consists (largely, but not at all entirely) of fiction texts that take on these intersections of text, authorship, and humanity’s own search for cosmological answers.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick

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?)

The Dark Tower, Stephen King

The fantasy epic about a gunslinger straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, on a quest for The Answer, which lies at the highest level of the Dark Tower—or does it lie in the home of the young writer of Salem’s Lot? King thinks the opening sentence of The Gunslinger, the first book of his Dark Tower series, may be the best opener he’s written in his career: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I like the next sentence even more: “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.” It’s the “parsecs” that makes it great—any writer with the audacity to put “parsecs” in the second sentence of a book like The Gunslinger, and the skill to actually pull it off without sounding like a jerk, is a writer worth reading. (In the recent and ill-conceived revised edition of The Gunslinger, King foolishly replaced “parsecs” with some safer and forgettable word. Too bad for him.)

Vurt, Jeff Noon

Labyrinths are almost as important a theme in this genre as the quest for God, labyrinths as a metaphor of the text. The goal at the center of the textual labyrinth is meaning… but there’s a nasty structural ‘flaw’ in the labyrinth: there is no center! There is no one perfect interpretation of any text—even the simplest of texts may have several plausible interpretations. (This is not to say all interpretations of a text are equally plausible—the lack of one correct interpretation is not the same as the lack of any wrong one.) And don’t fall for the intentional fallacy—a statement of the author’s intended meaning may look like a map to the center of the text, but it’s only another textual labyrinth. What do you do with a centerless labyrinth (the only escape is not to read)? Why not be a writer yourself, a creator of labyrinths?

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

In some shelf of some hexagon [of the Library], men reasoned, there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has perused it, and it is analagous to a god. …I pray the unknown gods that some man—even if only one man, and though it have been thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. …May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may Thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.
— “The Library of Babel”

Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
— “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

More books…

And now, since this is going to be ridiculously long and time-consuming if I keep writing so much about each book, I’ll list the rest of the books with no more than one or two explanatory sentences each…

  • If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino. The book is narrated in the second person, so you the reader become the protagonist as well.
  • The Invisibles, Animal Man, The Filth; Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of few comics creators I’ve encountered in my short career as a comics reader who gets into these metatextual themes (and, more importantly, deals with them intelligently) (I have no doubt there are plenty of other comics creators who do as well, but I’ve not yet discovered many of them).
  • Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco. I read an essay by John Updike in which he claims Foucault’s Pendulum shows what might have resulted if Borges had attempted to write a novel. He may be right about that, but his belief that it’s a flaw in Foucault’s Pendulum probably shows why I don’t waste my time reading Updike.

For this next book I’m afraid I need to go back to a longer format:

Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson

In this book, Craig Thompson emerges as a young comics master: In the purest narrative form he tells a highly charged personal story, crammed with pain, discovery, hijinx, penance, religious conviction and its loss… and along comes self loathing. In this story of family and first love, that which goes awry in life, goes well as art. Mr. Thompson is slyly self-effacing as he bowls us over with his mix of skills. His expert blending of words and pictures and resonant silences makes for a transcendent kind of story-telling that grabs you as you read it and stays with you after you put it down. I’d call that literature.
Jules Feiffer

Feiffer is writing about Thompson’s Blankets, but he could just about be writing about Good-Bye Chunky Rice. The funny thing is, what he writes makes a lot more sense if you pretend he is writing about the latter rather than the disappointing (and generally redundant, after Good-Bye Chunky Rice) Blankets.

Even more books…

This is getting way too long. OK, here’s the rest of my list:

  • Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition; William Gibson
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, et al.; Philip K. Dick. If I kept going I might end up listing every one I’ve read. Dick’s books are often incoherent and clumsily written, but no other writer inspires quite the same fascinating effect of simultaneous desire to throw a book across the room and unwillingness to stop reading long enough to throw it.
  • Robert Howard’s Conan stories
  • Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

I guess that’s it. For now!

Apocalytpic or Necrotic?

By which I mean my life at the moment. Somehow these 11-hour workdays are not agreeing with me. But I stole my title from Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book for a reason. I’ve just finished Michael Swanwick’s In the Drift, which I briefly thought meant I was now caught up on Swanwick, but a quick search shows I’m wrong. And it’s a book from 1985 about a post-apocalyptic United States.

There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with such stories, though it was admittedly after 1985, which was the time when I was obsessed with Narnia to the point where I could recite full pages from memory. In the Drift explores East Coast civilization after Three Mile Island, or rather after an accident at Three Mile Island in which, unlike in our history, catastrophe wasn’t averted. I can’t recall other books in which the nuclear apocalypse is not weapons-related, which added intrigue here.

Postapocalyptic fiction as I know it had its heyday in the late 80s, and I hope to revisit some of the titles I remember well. A lot were geared toward young adults, or at least the ones I read. Young adult books seem to be set in the time of the crisis featuring teenaged protagonists trapped in a world they didn’t create, trying to make sense of love and horror, which is to say just normal young adult books. This could be a small sample size problem, though, because the only exceptions I can think of at the moment are In the Drift and A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I reread last month and which seemed much more profound when I was 12. Both have standard future-story problems with pop culture references. It’s 70+ years after Three Mile Island and a journalist’s heroes are Hemingway and Ernie Pyle? Or perhaps I’m just frustrated because I had to reread the chapter of 3001 today in which a space captain in the titular year has a photograph of early 1900s explorers and explains a whole bunch of nonsensical multicentury history that makes no sense in the order in which it is given. Think, authors, think!

At any rate, I plan to come back to this when I’m awake, and I’ll focus on the two books just mentioned as well as the excellent Brother in the Land, which has another title too, and the After the Bomb series and the Tomorrow When the War Began series, which I haven’t finished because they’re really well after my time, as well as the entire phenomenon that was Stamp Out Sheep Press. And more, if I think of them.

I realize I was a grim little girl to be so taken with these stories of destruction and fleeting beauty, but maybe that’s why I didn’t get around to reading comics until adulthood. I don’t think I really understood the Cold War paranoia necessary to accept a lot of the stories as directly applicable to my life, but they were awfully meaningful to me nonetheless. I don’t know if there are books like this for my littlest brother and his classmates, born the first time our country was at war in Iraq. I don’t think they’d think their threats were the same, but I didn’t care about the bombs and not having a clear Red Menace didn’t make the stories less powerful to me, especially because the moral was always that you have to be at least as worried about “our” guys as “theirs,” and most worried of all about yourself and what you love.

A Virus from Outer Space

Last night’s bedtime reading was “Sociolinguistic Attitudes and Issues in Contemporary Britain,” by Paul Alceo, an essay in English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics, which cost me a dollar at Half Price Books and has been well worth the investment. I was fascinated to come across something entirely new to me:

Polari survives in only about 100 words, the remnant of what was probably once a fuller criminal argot derived in part from Lingua Franca, a Mediterranean pidgin. It is a vocabulary, rather than a full language, used by vagabonds and homosexuals in the theater and navy.

In looking at word lists I realize I’ve read many of the words before, admittedly mostly concerning “homosexuals in the theater” rather than those in the navy or vagabonds of any sexual orientation. Still, while I’d known that subcultures, particularly persecuted or marginalized ones, have their own inflections and code words and circumlocutions (something I was rather obsessed with as a teen, in fact) I’d never thought of this as a separate language. It makes me wonder when and how current argots will be discussed and codified, from 1337sprach to stupid cyberknitters’ acronyms to all the other sorts of shared shorthands that the internet and blogs in particular create and nourish. This is something I like to watch while reading message boards and blogs, and I should probably pay more attention and keep track, but I don’t think I’ll ever do real sociolinguistic commentary on it.

As for Polari, the definitive source seems to be Paul Baker, who has written a history and a dictionary (still in print!) of Polari. I intend to hit the library.

“The loaded table made her feel gluttonous”

Before any substance, I apologize for yet more lack of Animal Man, but it’s been a crazy week at work and home and I haven’t gotten around to rereading or getting my thoughts in order. Poor Steven has very limited internet access now, so he’s not going to be posting either until that situation improves.

So instead of comics, I’ll quickly review the book I finished early in the week, sowing that I haven’t actually kept to my plan of just quickly reviewing all the books I read. This was Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, copyright 1969. The copy I have is a paperback from the thrift store, the cover a woman-shaped refrigerator in a dark kitchen with an overflowing sink. The worst thing about it, though, is the blurb on the back cover:

Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can’t eat. First meat. Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds – everything! Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she’s being eaten. She really ought to feel consumed with passion. But she just feels…consumed.

That’s not really what the book’s about, but it’s an interesting story itself. I don’t know why they thought a feminist horror book would sell, although perhaps that is sort of what The Edible Woman is, if a strange and ambiguous one. It’s set during the sexual revolution, when nice single women of middle-class backgrounds want to have sex and enjoy themselves and still be considered respectable by the sort of people who don’t approve of such things. At least that’s Marian’s situation when she agrees to marry her dull but functional boyfriend, and then her life gets much more strange. She’s losing her identity, her willingness to say what she thinks or what she wants, but at the same time she’s beginning to arrange trysts with an enigmatic, cadaverous literature grad student. Food becomes a weapon, but she’s not sure how to wield it, not sure how her body will betray her next in refusing to accept various forms of nourishment. She doesn’t know what pleasures are the ones she wants and whether they’ll be pleasures if she takes them.

I read my first Atwood as a very young teenager, Surfacing. The writing was lovely, but I found the story incomprehensible. The only story element I liked was a segment in which an Anglophone character remembers being mocked at school for translating vers libre as “free worms.” A decade later I understand well how educated women make foolish choices that leave them furiously searching for a source for their own unhappiness, so The Edible Woman makes sense. And that’s what I think is going on. It doesn’t matter how great or awful Marian’s fiance is if having a fiance is making her turn into something she hates and doesn’t recognize. It’s not a horror story in which an evil man is the villain, but interaction with a corrupt and confusing society. It’s a story about a quest for autonomy and self-awareness, not exactly achievable goals.

The Edible Woman lacks the poetry of later Atwood writings and its metaphors and trajectory are obvious even to the characters. And yet I liked it enough to stay up too late two nights reading it, though not enough to devour it in one. I still prefer Marge Piercy for frothy feminist novels, but Marian made a compelling protagonist, especially because of her ambiguous and only somewhat self-conscious analyses of herself and her peers. I was especially interested in it as a historical document of a setting where women can retire upon marriage and where even when you can be mistaken for a prostitute while wearing a girdle. The frivolous male grad students are a fascinating group, too, and are smugly excited by how shocking topics like S&M in Lewis Carroll are. All in all, it’s a very quick read and in many ways a frustrating one, but I enjoyed it.

“Woe to people under a ruler without a sense of shame.”

Last night I finished reading Naguib Mahfouz’s book Arabian Nights & Days. It’s a beautiful, brilliant work, a set of interlocking stories about the habitues of the Cafe of the Emirs and what happens to them when stories are set loose among them. The sultan’s wife Sharzhad has just finished telling her famous tales only to find that her life has been spared, that her husband Shahriyar has lost his desire to wed and kill the city’s virgins. But the tales’ lives are not over, as Sindbad suddenly feels an urge to go to sea. And there are treasures and genies and magical rings and plenty of thievery. And assassination and regime change.

In some sense, regime change is at the core of almost all the stories. Various men get various kinds of power and, while thinking themselves good men in good standing with God, they decide (or are coerced) to use their power to bring about what they see as right, which typically results in the death of the governor of the Quarter, not to mention other people involved. Several men serve as police chiefs, and widows and daughters are married off. At the center of this tumult and change are some genies and even an angel, Shahriyar and his immediate family, and the implacable Sheikh Abdullah al-Balkhi. And yes, there’s plenty of creation of self, and self-characterization and self-delusion. It’s not that power corrupts but that people who aren’t used to it don’t know how to wield it, and those who have it can’t survive without.

This is a book they ought to be using in those everybody-reads-the-same-book programs, because the power of an open metaphor is constantly evident. It would be a hit with the antiwar folks because of quotes like the one in my title, though Shariyar’s shame drives him through the looking glass to madness and love. And there are more than enough corrupt officials to be compared to the modern set of the reader’s choosing. There are also men killing for the sake of their understanding of Islam and men who refuse to kill or refuse to die. Women are a subtle, subversive undercurrent, despised and desired but incomprehensible. They know and tell and understand different, hidden stories. There’s romance and violence and magic and religion, and it’s all packed into precise and simple prose. I had to force myself to put it down and go to sleep, or I’d have read it in a night.

Arabian Nights & Days is more than a fairy tale revision, if it’s that at all. It’s an explosion of stories into reality, a picture of the way narratives move and stories change and people change. It’s not clear that Sindbad knew of Sinbad’s adventures when he embarked on his own, but he figured out how to deal with rocs nonetheless. We all know how our stories will end, but this is a clear reminder of the numberless ways to get there, the unexpected jolts in life, out own character development. And after any story ends, another takes its place, but perhaps that means it doesn’t end at all.

Back to Blithedale

Yesterday I teased that I’d compare The Blithedale Romance to Joan of Arcadia, but what it really reminded me of was I Capture the Castle. It’s perhaps not immediately obvious why I’d think about the story about becoming a woman amid a family of eccentrics in the English countryside while reading about a poet becoming an older, crankier poet among utopians in Massachusetts, and if it is obvious you can probably safely stop reading now. Actually the commonalities that jumped out at me don’t lie in idealistic eccentrics trying to make ends meet in a bucolic setting. It was that both feature brashly uncensored narrators. I started to say “unselfconscious,” but both Cassandara Mortmain and Miles Coverdale are intensely selfconscious and self-aware, though both have a tendency to miss or mistake crucial issues. And they’re about trying to distinguish love as it happens from the Platonic ideal of love that you can think about, which is perhaps impossible if you want to maintain that ideal.

Really, these are narrators and narratives obsessed with the overlap between ideals and dreams and realities, with the questions that arise from observation and a search for certainty. And how much murder guilt should you feel if the death is not at your hands? How long do love and promises hold? Or are promises only wishes and dreams? Can you really be a martyr if you revel in your doom? And should you have noticed those clear, inauspicious signs, or were they only visible when you looked back? Is it worth not being rich to be honorably poor? And why don’t people behave like the people in books? or do they?

I’m getting too tired to think more about this, but I’m going to go ahead and publish this in hopes it will urge me to clarify my thoughts further, which hasn’t worked yet. I’m not sure whether this means I believe in hope or the redemptive possibilities of publicly stated goals or just that doing a lousy job is better than nothing at all.

Skating on Happy Valley Pond

Well, I’m wrapping up a comics-free weekend, and it’s been a good one. I’ve just returned from a ceili in which I actually danced and didn’t play music at all. (Aside to those not in the know, a ceili is an Irish set dancing party, basically extreme square dancing. And I’m awful.) I always manage to forget how good it feels to exercise, but I remember right now and it does feel good. This perhaps goes hand-in-hand with my other major adventure this weekend, naps!

In between all that exciting activity - not to mention laundry! - I managed to finish Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, obviously inspired by David Fiore, who has managed to build a life around it. This is one weird little novel! I think it would benefit greatly from being read aloud, but that might make it funny when it’s supposed to be serious. The trouble is that it’s hard to take it seriously when it’s about a bunch of self-absorbed artists and mystics and dreamers and philanthropists trying to make a go of a Utopian farming community. Dave, if you push me, I could explain how it’s like Joan of Arcadia, like any narrative of adolescent enthusiasm. But I think what really matters is that it’s about a poet who scorns mystics and mesmerists yet finds himself wishing he’d noticed portents at the time. It’s about a feminist who has all the womanly flaws imaginable, in addition to rare beauty. And there’s enough discourse on poverty and revelations of shocking family histories to put Dickens to shame. Miles Coverdale, the narrator, gives the book a clear, consistent voice, though a quirky one. It’s a story about the disjunction between who people want to be and who they are and the longings that arise because of this. Perhaps the unexamined life is the only livable option.

I’m most intrigued by what sort of needlework Priscilla used to make her cunning little silk purses (and any pig-related insights are unwelcome) but I’m assuming that Hawthorne may have been ignorant of needlecraft and didn’t elaborate for that reason. I was rooting for more knitting scenes! Of more general interest is the problem with philanthropy. I was a bit surprised to find that a group of idealistic artists would be opposed to systems for rehabilitating criminals. I was never able to figure out exactly what it was about this idea that made it so abhorrent to Coverdale, who admired (and idealized) honest poverty. I thought at first it was a sort of moralistic position that people needed to pay for their mistakes rather than get help, but by the end I wasn’t sure if it was more that the people with the power/wealth/influence to be philanthropists can’t even save themselves and shouldn’t be attempting to save others.

There were striking insights and lovely quotes on almost every page, but more will have to wait for another day when I’ve adjusted to the time change and gotten some rest.