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Category: Literature

Continuity Criticism!

Rose and I bought Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why this weekend, and I’ve just read the introduction and Chapter 0. I think this is going to be a fun book, and looks like it will have a lot to say about the concept of “continuity,” which I’ve been getting very interested in lately.

Few superhero narratives enjoy uncomplicated relationships with prior parent-narratives, which are (all too) present in the narrative. (p. 2) […] The path that gets the superhero from the reduction of chaotic continuity in a single fictional universe through the burden of continuity and tradition in Planetary’s Snowflake is the focus of this book. (p. 24)

Sounds like fun to me! I’m especially taken with Klock’s description of Crisis on Infinite Earths (which is not discussed at length in How to Read Superhero Comics):

The metaphor of this biblically styled story is unavoidable: by looking into origins, existence is splintered into a variety of mutually exclusive interpretations that have no center. The current state of the DC universe—all of the continuity problems and confusions and paradoxes, Umberto Eco’s oneiric climate—is the retroactive result of looking too closely for a guiding and originating principle. (p. 20)

I’m going to have to get Crisis tomorrow so I can read this for myself!

Also, as Rose noted, we’ve been reading The Invisibles, and I’m planning to get The Invisbles: Entropy in the UK as well tomorrow, which I believe goes to the end of The Invisbles volume one, so hopefully I’ll soon have read enough to share some coherent thoughts.

God Hates Shrimp!

God hates shrimp! It’s in the Bible! Join the crusade against all things which hath not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters. If you eat a lobster then God hates you!

Iliad Super-Lite

I don’t think there’s anything I could add to this, so I merely note that my friend Jeffrey has managed to sum up the good old fall-of-Troy story in limericks. I’m impressed.

The Moon Lord

I promised an update on sexual politics and more in the now tragically out-of-printThe Moon Lord. If you want a glimpse of the writing style, Amazon offers a little excerpt, which should whet your appetite for more, or not, as the case may be. Neither of the reviews I found give the names of minor characters, so I’ll just make them up as needed. So with that out of the way, I’m sure we’re all ready for a romp through a medieval romance.

Now, despite the introduction you may have read about the brave chevalier Tancred de Vierzon and his runins with Richard the Lionheart, it isn’t really his story. Well, it is, but it’s more importantly the story of Rosamund Bourton, mistress of Wynnsef castle. With her ne’er-do-well older brother away on the crusades, Rosamund is capably managing the household, though a fat, ugly, old, wealthy neighbor is trying to gain control of the manor and its mistress. His plans are foiled when Tancred and his troups, back from the crusade, overtake Wynnsef and claim it for themselves. Now things really get intersting. Rosamund, recognizing Tancred by his special symbols (Does this tie into the big Superhero Discussions) and his crescent-shaped scar, realizes she and the women of her household could be in for a rough time. So, in a brilliant flash of anachronistic insight, she calls upon Tancred’s well-known honor and makes him swear that he and his men will abide by what is basically The Antioch College Sexual Consent Code. No man will engage in any sexual activity whatsoever with any female in the household without first getting her explicit verbal consent, and there’s not to be any trickery with getting women drunk or anything like that, because that doesn’t count. The men grudgingly agree and take full control of the castle.

At this point, the plot boils down to a romantic comedy, in which Rosamund learns that this horribly vain and useless Tancred has actually occupied the castle to spite her brother, who had shown himself to be a scoundrel, not exactly news to her, by engaging in some traitorous act I’ve now forgotten, which was news indeed. Now Rosamund finds herself falling for the honorable Tancred in earnest, but he’s just too darned honorable! When she gives him his bath, he won’t allow anything that might give the impression of impropriety to go on, or when it seems he might, they get rudely interrupted. When she sneaks into his room to confront him, he has some Oriental herbs burning to ease his slumbers, and he refuses to take advantage of her in her inebriated state, having inhaled the toxic fumes, despite her repeated pleas that he do so. And Tancred, who originally took Wynnsef to anger Rosamund’s brother, finds Rosamund to be so honest and capable that he can’t help but fall in love with her completely. However, Tancred doesn’t think he’s good enough for such a beautiful and pure lady, because (at least as I recall) he had been tortured and molested by the Saracens who left the scar on his cheek.

Meanwhile, her best friend, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, a novice in a local convent, comes to visit and eventually falls for Tancred’s right-hand man, Mehmet or something like that, who happens to be a Saracen. Eventually Elizabeth gets excused from being a nun by her chipper Mother Superior and is able to get on a horse heading east with her beloved, off to start a multiethnic family. There are several more twists in the Tancred/Rosamund story, which does manage to reach its logical culmination, since this is a romance novel. But then Tancred is driven away by something or other. And Rosamund’s land is going to be repossessed and she’ll be married off to the hideous neighbor, but at the last minute there’s something very exciting that happens instead, and I won’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. And what a surprise it is! Ok, not really. It’s a happily-ever-after.

What fascinated me about this book, though, was what seemed like fairly radical content under its surface. I haven’t read enough romance novels to make any kind of informed comparison, but it seemed more overtly political than the books my classmates chose (except maybe the one about the lawyer for the evil land-grabbing corporation who fell in love with the lawyer who wanted to save the lakefront property as a bird preserve). I assume, like superhero comics, there’s a major aspect of wish-fulfillment going on here, and so I wonder if the author was trying to make an explicit point about issues of full consent and the like. And while the middle American readers might not be keen on multiracial couples (or maybe they are, which would be a fine thing in my eyes) they don’t seem to mind love matches between Franks and Musselmen (to use the book’s term) or, according to classmates, Apache and white settlers. If this were a realistic modern story of a woman with strict rules about sex and more pressure from her family than she wants (because Rosamund is more than happy to share the task of running the castle with the right man) who falls in love with a rough but sensitive man of his word who’s a troubled survivor of sexual abuse, I’m not sure whether it would find as many readers. Add in the best friend finding bliss in a relationship her society wouldn’t condone, and we’ve got something pretty much unlike what I’d expected from a romance novel.

The book was not without flaws, several of which I’ve already mentioned. I wasn’t really comfortable with the rape-fantasy aspects of it, although they were perhaps mitigated by the elaborate consent structure. I’m not sure what message to take away from that, that it’s good to have such structures in place but that it’s still nearly impossible for a woman to say “yes” when she means “yes” or what? And then there’s what seemed to me like a lack of historicity. I don’t like my historical stories to be so pristine and easy, although this one clearly had at least some reasearch feeding it. The “Saracens,” both good guys and bad guys, didn’t seem to get beyond cliches, but I suppose they’re not as cliched as the handsome, principled swordsman with a heart of gold. Still, since I had to read a romance novel, I think I made a good choice. It certainly seemed better once I realized the promiscuous characters in several different modern-setting books my classmates chose were named Rose. Usually they save a name like that for alcoholics and suicides! Anyway, those are the bones of it, and anyone who’s interested can read more. I’m almost tempted to try to dredge it up again, but I don’t think I’ll make any special effort. Once may have been enough.

Self-Indulgent Grousing on Taste and Kitsch

Edited to correct tags

I wanted to join in on the high/low discussions I found through David’s post (Dave? Curse you inconsistent nicknamed folks, and that goes double for you, Steven!) but I found myself unable to look away from Michael Blowhard’s Thread of Death, which is ostensibly about the distinction between movie people and book people, but the comments are only about books and about how everyone who reads the blog is better than book people. Since I was already grouchy from much meanness and nonsense at work, this thread has only worsened my mental state.

The basic argument I see is that movie people (and by this Michael Blowhard initially meant people involved in the movie biz, although I’m not sure this remained a consistent definition) like artsy, incisive stuff as well as the homespun lowbrow fun that packs them in at the local multiplex. They love the worlds of high art and trash, although perhaps they adhere to their own form of the Law of the Excluded Middle. Book people (ditto as appropriate w/r/t professional status) like pretentious stuff that no one reads except to get status points, the ideal being a book that’s obscure but not so obscure that namedropping it would be a waste of effort. Book people laugh at Stephen King and his silly bestsellers, apparently.

Now, there’s probably little doubt that were I to work in the publishing industry I’d be a book person. As it is now, I just get annoyed at the silliness. I mean, come on, people! “I’m so adventuresome and not at all prudish because I’m really proud to read books with explicit sex!” (and the sex theme annoyed me the most) “Trashy books are great!” “I love lots of YA authors whose names I can’t spell!” I don’t like anti-intellectualism ever, and it was even more annoying for me to see all the ad hominem attacks against literature professors. I didn’t take lit classes in the English department, but I hung out with the teachers, and they were all mixing in graphic novels and memoirs and all sorts of non-stuffy works. In the one English class I did take, I had to do a literary analysis of a romance novel, in part so that none of us could ever again say, “I’ve never read a romance novel.” (Mine was The Moon Lord, and I’m happy to expand on the fascinating sexual politics involved. I’m not kidding.)

I guess where I’m having trouble following all these people is the idea of reading things differently. I’m a fast reader, and always have been. I read three books last weekend and will probably finish another tonight, and that’s just during baths. This has never seemed like a big deal to me. And so I’m always less than impressed by people who read it in a single sitting! I realize that other people aren’t like this and I’d already been thinking about it this evening because of a classmate of Steven’s last semester who’d said of some book they were assigned that maybe she should read it “like a textbook” instead of a novel, and that that might make it more acceptable. I generally read textbooks just like novels. They’re still stories, and a good one should be gripping and have the same flashes of poetry. This is certainly true in the fields where I read most — classics, Islamic studies, anthropology, cultural criticism… (And since I mentioned Islamic studies, I deserve some sort of prize for not making any “People of the Book” jokes until now.) I don’t read knitting patterns the same way, or crossword puzzles or shampoo bottles, but I go into most books looking for the same things, ready to be impressed or inspired by the language and what lies behind that. Some comics thing online (The X-Axis? Maybe Gone & Forgotten?) made an “outside of a dog” pun and I swooned. I got just as excited translating (SPOILER!) Dido’s death (Ok, you can look) in The Aeneid and realizing there was a lovely allusion to some Greek lyric poetry.

Maybe I should file this under “Meta,” since I fear all it’s doing is making me look like the thing I hate, someone who thinks I’m better than everyone else. I actually think most people have an advantage over me, becuase my visual/image skills are really not great, although improving at last. The point is that I don’t want to be an arbiter of taste and I really don’t want people who don’t realize what pure cliches they are putting themselves in that position either. I like lots of things that are considered highbrow Big Culture, and also plenty of things all down the spectrum. I’m picky and I’m (probably rightly) considered a snob, but I do sample. I just want to be able to have fun with At Swim, Two Boys, which I bought and enjoyed after reading a New York Times book review that stuck with me for years, and with Joan of Arcadia (more on this later, I fear!) and Akiko and X-Statix. Reading texts of all sorts is fun, or at least fun for me. I’m just completely lost with this whole supposed dichotomy, since no one ever adheres to it. Of course, that’s the point of dichotomies, right?

At any rate, thanks to David and all the other people who are being reasonable about this. And, really, to all the people who commented on the Blowhards thread. There are a lot of fun books recommended there. I’m just being cranky and letting myself get annoyed, but if there’s one thing that really upsets me (outside of a dog, and certain coworkers’ habits) it’s the idea that criticism is bad, that taking anything apart destroys it. The point of texts (used loosely to encompass the domains of movie people and book people and still more other people) is that they live in an unkillable way, that the metaphors of live dissection just don’t hold. I realize there’s a related trope that innocence can’t be regained, but that’s just how things work because we work like texts, to get back to one of my current themes.

As an example the YA lovers can appreciate, I reread Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Changeling and, reading about the hints at one character’s homelife thought, “Whoa, she’s being molested!” I’m not saying this was “the right” interpretation, and maybe it’s because I don’t believe in such ideals that I can take texts apart and see what they look like when I put them together in different ways. But I couldn’t read the book without that question, even though it didn’t cross my mind to elucidate the abuse she suffered when I read it as a nine-year-old. What I don’t see is why anyone would want to go back to have fewer thoughts and less awareness and lack history and knowledge of life and the world. If anything, it made me happy that I had appreciated the book but that maybe it would have had special meaning to another child who understood that particular pain or to readers with interpretations I haven’t yet considered. Polysemy is not a curse. Words have meanings and meanings have meanings.

Somebody stop me before I reply to Peter David’s thoughts on the new Peter Pan or I make people stop reading this blog altogether. I will sleep, and in the morning I will be happier and then at 7 am I’ll be at work. And the story could go anywhere from there.

The Dark Tower

[Edited 2003-01-05 5:21 am UTC]

I’ve just finished the new revised and expanded edition of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. I detect a lot of the changes—much of the dialogue has been rewritten in the distinctive dialects developed in subsequent books. Several references (to LaMerk Industries and North Central Positronics, among others) are in this text that I don’t think were in the original, but I could be wrong. Oh, and there’s a reference to nineteen which I don’t remember from the original, but I could be misrembering. There’s only one change I noticed that I really regret: the second sentence of the original text is something like “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.” Now that sentence reads, “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, standing to the sky for looked like eternity in all directions.” Damn, but that sentence in the orignal was great. You’ve got your Clint Eastwood gunslinger trekking after the man in black through the alien deserts of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (as a kid reading The Gunslinger for the first time I’d never seen a Sergio Leone movie, probably didn’t even know very well who Clint Eastwood was, but Leone and Eastwood’s Westerns are deeply enough embedded in pop culture that I instantly got what King was evoking), and that word “parsec” immediately disturbs things. “Parsec” isn’t a word you generally expect to find in the second sentence of a Western story or a non-sf fantasy story, what’s it doing here?

I guess can see why King might have wanted to take it out—the narration is focalized on the gunslinger, and parsecs are not a concept he’s probably familiar with. Nevertheless, I would rather King did a little narrative cheating than lose a classic line like that. But maybe King was right to take it out… the story doesn’t necessarily gain anything from giving away its sf influence so soon, and maybe it makes it more interesting to find out in the middle of the book that this story is more ambitious than a spaghetti-Western-influenced quest fantasy, when we learn that the gunslinger knows about atomic power (but doesn’t know what a TV is). Oh well, I’m just sad the book lost one of its great lines.


The Dark Tower is very much a story about telling stories—Most of the first part of The Gunslinger is narrated in flashback as Roland tells a story to another character. He spends a fair amount of the second part telling stories to Jake. When he finally meets the man in black, the man in black spends a long long night telling him stories. Wizard and Glass is almost entirely a story that Roland tells his companions. At least a third, maybe more, of Wolves of the Calla is one character, Father Callahan (who is also a character in Salem’s Lot, which I’ve not read), telling Roland and Co. the long story of his life. I bet there are many stories told in The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands, but it’s been long since I read those books and I don’t remember a lot of them. Related to all this tale-telling, The Dark Tower also seems to be a story about how a character who begins with no name and no story gains both. “The gunslinger was not a man to dwell on the past; only a shadowy conception of the future and of his own emotional make-up saved him from being a man with no imagination…” (p. 91 of the revised edition) He has a past, a story, but seems not to have thought much on it until events in this book forced it on him.

The subtitle of this book is “Resumption,” and the man in black surprises Roland by saying he has resumed his quest—the gunslinger never stopped questing, so how could he resume? Is it because the gunslinger had drifted without a name or a story (without an identity) and only now events (orchestrated by the man in black) in this story force him to make decisions and sacrifices which bind him to his quest? There are maybe other things in his past which bind him, but they’re revealed in subsequent books, they come later in the narrative order of the story. And in a story such as The Dark Tower in which narratives are so centrally important, might the flow of the narrative take precedence over chronology?

Well, I don’t know where King is going with these narrative-related themes, but I’m interested.

Oh, and it really bugs me that the gunslinger is now named at the end of the first part! It was very cool and tied into the “Man with no Name gets a name and a story” theme that Roland is named only in the (increasingly frequent) flashbacks until the end of the book when the man in black names him in the narrative’s chronological present. Now that’s been negated.


So far, the major drawback to Quicksilver is that it doesn’t lend itself to bathtub reading. The deliberate (I assume!) anachronisms are endearing and the story trips along steadily. I’m ashamed I’m not breezing through it, but I save it for bedtime reading. Since my Christmas hints went unnoticed, I might as well toss out that an excellent birthday present would be a little shelf that fits over the bathtub and facilitates safe book-balancing. It makes a perfect gift for someone who hates my writing, since I’d never bother with the internet if I could live in my bath.

Political metaphors in New X-Men

Sources used in this post: Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. New York: Viking, 1998.

How common is the idea that the X-Men are a racism/race-relations metaphor? Because I notice people seem to say it a lot (e.g. here), and why do people say it so much? I don’t see it. OK, I see it, but it seems limiting to suppose the X-Men are merely a racial allegory. There’s the gay metaphor too. But there’s more. The most common criticism of the racism and gay metaphors I see is that gay people and Hispanics don’t have superpowers. Oh, but it’s a metaphor! It’s something inside that’s so powerful, so liberating but also uncontrollable, and once you let it out there’s no going back. It’s pride, black pride, gay pride, whatever. The X-Men are a fantasy of political activism. When you’ve been silenced and made invisible for whatever reason, and then you decide to take pride in whatever makes you an invisible and you stand up and make people notice you and your pride, people will, yes, hate and fear you. That’s what the X-Men are about. I don’t see any need to make it about any one kind of pride/activism.

Does this have anything to do with my analysis of New X-Men in terms of “creation of self through narrative?” I think it may. If you’ve read any stories by Jorge Luis Borges or the novel Vurt by Jeff Noon (I’m not quite changing the subject here), you’ll probably know what I’m talking about when I say both these authors (and many other authors, but I’m using these two as an example) write fantastic narratives in which the world is a text. I mean, there is no illusion (or the illusion is exploded) that the world of the stories is “real”—the world of, say, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is no more real than an encyclopedia, and in fact it ends up being superseded by a fantasy world described in a fictional encyclopedia article. (I have some essays on Borges’s and Noon’s work that go into more depth, I should put them on the blog at some point.) Noon especially writes a protagonist who is empowered by the realization that his world is a textual world.

Borges’s stories aren’t just clever but inconsequential metafictional games. They propose a way of looking at our own world:

Then years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – could spellbind and hypnotize mankind. How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: “inhuman laws”) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

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