Karen Russell brings the weird

Karen Russell

Karen Russell

Great podcast from the Portland-based literary magazine Tin House. This one features the incorruptible Karen Russell (one of the NYT’s much-ballyhooed “20 under 40”) talking about writing really weird fiction that comes to a very relatable emotional point. She covers everything from “The Metamorphosis” to Wells Tower, and makes some pretty intelligent points about all involved.

She’s a smart gal, one to keep around. Anyone read Swamplandia?

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New duds

I have changed up the theme of this blog once again. The last one was all right, but had some unctuous and persistent issues. Let me know how this one looks; hopefully I can stick with it for longer.

Pet peeve of the day: WordPress makes you pay a yearly fee in order to alter the CSS on your pages. How shitty is that?

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Artists in fiction

At the behest of a cousin, I have started reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I didn’t know a whole lot about this book before the past month, and what I did known had mostly to do with the fact that Nicole Kidman, at one point in time, wore a funny nasal prosthetic.

The book is a tri-part narrative, centered around the thematic lines of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, suicide, and yellow flowers. There are three narratives that Cunningham follows, one dealing with a housewife in the late 1940s, the other dealing with a publisher in the late ’90s, and the foremost dealing with Virginia Woolf herself, as she constructs Mrs. Dalloway. Reading the book has created an interesting question, which is this:

What’s the verdict on portraying artists in fictional settings? I know that Peter Schaffer’s portrayal of Mozart has seen its share of harsh criticism. Shakespeare in Love, while charming, provides what I feel is an extreme simplification of its subject.

I’m not enough of an authority on Woolf to cast aspersions on Cunningham’s portrayal, but I’m sure that purists will approach The Hours with hackles raised. Artists are so personal to us that I think any kind of a fictional portrayal that doesn’t match our personal interpretation runs the risk of seeming treasonous.

The Hours is a good book (artfully deployed themes, engaging characters, innovative structure), but it seems inevitable that it must have riled Woolf enthusiasts.

So what do you think? Portraying artists in fiction—necessary evil or oft-broken taboo?

Also:

Michael Cunningham has the most ludicrously handsome jacket photo I have ever seen.

Michael Cunningham

The dashing Mr. Cunningham

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Band name fiction

I come into contact with a good number of goofy band names in my “journalistic” (how’s that for abuse of the term?) work. I have decided to put some of them to a new use. Thus, I welcome you to the first edition of a possibly ongoing series: Band Name Fiction.

First up is the Portland pop quarter City Squirrel (which is actually a much better band than its name would suggest).

City Squirrel

Ollie Clemens had come up in the world, and he went to pains in looking the part. His hair was now cropped into fashionable order above his pale forehead; he wore jeans whose only function was aesthetic; the thought of flying for the weekend to New York was extravagant, but not beyond the realm of possibility, and Ollie not above letting this fact slip out in conversation. He had moved away from Burns, attended Oregon State on a Rural Education grant, and landed what was not a glamorous job, but a job that he figured was more impressive than anything else the Clemens family had attempted since its initial crossing of the Atlantic. He worked with computers, whereas his forefathers had worked with dirt, and his classmates from high school were still working with two Budweisers at lunch to take the sting out of a dying trade in agriculture. It was getting to the point where Ollie’s trips back home were taking on the character of deep-sea exploration. The threadbare rugs, the refrigerator stocked with deer meat and leftover rice—it all seemed small and grubby. He felt like a virus in his old house, his family hovering about him with the impeding instinct of white blood cells. His mother prepared dinners for him, mumbling as she served the mashed potatoes that she hoped this was “good enough.” They gathered after dinner on the secondhand sofa to observe with narrow-eyed suspicion that he “really seemed to be doing well.”

Ollie had learned to smile and await a change in subject whenever his parents wandered off along these lines. As he had been doing since the age of eleven, he let his parents follow their respective trains of thought to their terminal points while Ollie himself retreated into the more interesting warrens of his own mind to observe these sad creatures from a more studied remove. The conversation was annoying—“parochial,” that was the correct word for it—but it caused Ollie an amusing association, and he savored this slice of memory. As a child he had been for a summer obsessed with a picture book called “City Squirrel, Country Squirrel” in which the title characters, brothers by birth, met up after a long separation to find how one (the Country Squirrel) had grown in the intervening years to be physically robust, naively honest and absent of social grace. Meanwhile, his city-dwelling relation had become fastidious, moneyed and affected in his tastes. As Ollie vaguely remembered it, the two wound up coming together at the end on the grounds of their shared love of acorns, or something like that. It didn’t matter; what Ollie had retained from flipping through the pages of that yellowed picture book was the image of the City Squirrel. Erudite, supercilious, prancing about the gleaming world of the city in a suit of tweed—this is what Ollie imagined when people talked in cautious tones about his having “come up in the world.” He had grown up to be a moneyed rodent. He smiled at the idea, told his parents how he was just glad that he got to see them, and began counting the days until he could head back to San Francisco.

He was living in the Mission District, in a walk-up situated above a bodega and a nearly abandoned storefront church. The apartment had been retrofitted, emerging butterfly-like from its original life as a warehouse. It boasted three bedrooms and a sunroom, or “art room” as Ollie’s roommates had christened it. They were a computer programmer, a law student, and a DJ who made part of her living working in a cafe. Ollie mostly ignored his other two roommates, but the DJ came up with good parties, and since Ollie had more money than everyone else, and was willing to pay for liquor, he was always invited. He worked early mornings during the week, so in order to party on the weekends he had to do coke or pick up a couple energy drinks, either of which would have him set. San Francisco parties didn’t ask too much out of you, was Ollie’s opinion. They required energy and excitement, but that was about it. They weren’t like the parties in Burns; they didn’t ask for blood.

He had discovered the same thing when he first went to college, and although he complained about it, he had secretly enjoyed the change of pace, which seemed better suited to his method of living. He’d never done very well at the Burns parties, just as he’d never done very well in Burns as a rule. About the closest he’d come to a moment of pure excitement was being kicked down the stairs at a house party to which he hadn’t been invited. It made him laugh now, to think back on that humiliation. He was better than those people, and he was glad that the universe had provided him with a chance to prove it. He had never been a fighter, but at least life had forced him into a couple situations where he had no choice but to fight. There was the time out behind Tyler’s barn, the bonfire where he’d gotten the shit beat out of him by Jeremy Whitaker after having spent all night working his way up to making out with Whitakcr’s girlfriend. He still looked down on his college friends, and now the San Francisco artistes, for never having had to face life on those terms. Who was he kidding though? Those were his terms now. He had earned the right to commute through cities by bike and worry about getting reservations at restaurants and lay down thirty dollars on a meal without succumbing to heart failure. Big bushy tail, big tweed suit.

At parties, when he was feeling dour and eloquent, Ollie would draw grand comparisons between his refurbished apartment and the city that surrounded it. “In the case of both,” he said, whiskey and ginger diving in frothy spume from the edge of his glass, “we have the privileged upper class coming in and pushing out the lower classes, but keeping the trappings of poverty. It’s fashion, really. You have all these art students and would-be poets who want to appear to be making the sacrifice of living in the ghetto without having the grapes to live in an actual ghetto.”

“So what does that make you, then?” It was a girl, a pretty one too. She sat on the kitchen counter, wearing a bowler hat cocked to the side of her head and her shoulders concealed by an Indian-looking shawl.

“Oh, I’m right there with the worst of them,” said Ollie, dipping his nose once more to the whiskey and ginger. “I save myself by being honest about it.”

“So are you an artist or a would-be poet?”

“Neither nor,” said Ollie. “I do something much cooler: network systems administration. I work with a subcontractor out by Palo Alto. We do grunt jobs for the Big Boys.”

“Wow.” Now that he could focus on her more clearly, Ollie was beginning to think that the bowler hat made her look too young, like a kid who had raided her parents’ storage boxes in the attic and was playing dress up. The shawl made it so he couldn’t see if she had any tits. “You make a lot of money?” she said.

“Big stinking piles of it,” said Ollie. “Big fat, fickle gobs. I might be the only person in this neighborhood whose parents aren’t paying his rent.”

The girl laughed. She was drinking wine, Ollie noticed, a middle-shelf chardonnay. She kept the bottle in her left hand and poured it into a stained wine glass that she held in her right. Why bother to put on that particularly cumbersome air? It seemed wasteful. These people. They hadn’t grown up rough. They hadn’t grown up at all. Why did he keep coming to their parties and laughing at their smug jokes and making do with this celebration of youth wasted? It was because of sex. He liked sex, and this is where it lived and set itself out like a buffet, ready for the taking. No. That, Ollie dear, is a lie. Don’t fool yourself. You can perform all kinds of abuses to your person, but don’t you dare fool yourself. You hang out with these children because you’re one of them. You have wanted to be one of them ever since you were a high schooler with teeth all a-shamble and hand-me-down jeans a half-size too large, sitting lonely and mocked, stinking up your private corner of the cafeteria. You have fought your way into this sordid scene—all those years of college and now shopping at the boutiques that your dear Ma and Pa couldn’t even walk into without looking about all nervous and clutching at their purses, worried they might break something. Out of place is what they were, outgunned. Well, now this is your place, and you best learn to enjoy it.

“So what am I?” said the girl. She was still talking to him; he was surprised. “Artist or poet?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Ollie, “but you’re an artist.”

“Oh yeah?” She smiled into her wine glass. Perfect teeth. “How can you tell?”

Ollie let the question ripen for a second. He was in no hurry. He investigated the ice in his whiskey ginger, observing the melting cubes as they clacked against each other and drew together by means of a sticky, fluid principle. He’d been forced at some point to learn the specific name for that cohesion. What was it called? Hydro-something.

“It’s because your cunt stinks,” Ollie said to his drink.

“Excuse me?” The wine glass dropped from her face.

“I can tell you’re an artist because all artists’ cunts stink. They don’t shower and so everything starts to stink. I can smell it from all the way over here.”

She laughed, but it was really more of a cough, like someone had poked two fingers into her diaphragm. She stood, looking about with a smile that flickered on the edge of angry tears. Ollie watched her, grimly obsessed. He felt like he was floating, suspended in a translucent fluid that separated him from the crowded kitchen and all its diverse sounds and smells of life. He was ready to receive whatever sort of slap or invective was, deservedly, headed his way. He almost liked this feeling. It was like the moment before a roller coaster begins its sharp dive or before you smoke pot for the very first time. Pain sat in its terrifying preparation. But the girl disappointed him. She stood, wine glass in hand, and stormed out of the kitchen, taking care not to look at Ollie. “Jerk,” she said, under her breath.

Ollie sniffed. He tipped his whiskey and ginger—now watery from the ice—up to whet his lips. It crossed his mind that he should be looking over his shoulder for a boyfriend, or some other valiant, coming to try and break his nose. It wasn’t like he’d be a hard person to pick out. Ollie was dressed better than pretty much everyone else here, had a haircut that had been performed by a barber, rather than executed on one’s self. He shouldn’t have said that. There was no reason to say that to her, she was probably perfectly nice. Stupid stupid stupid. He pursed his lips and made a scan of the kitchen, trying to catch accusing eyes or other such impediments. He was planning to duck out of doorway or prepare a functional excuse. But there was no one coming, just the shaggy heads of the chattering crowd, the dull hum of laughter and the thump of a stereo. This wasn’t the sticks, he reminded himself. These were civilized people, and they didn’t do that kind of thing here.


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Wow. Fantastic Speech, Gabriel

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I came across Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and, good Lord, is it a doozy. Try this on for size (speaking in regards to One Hundred Years of Solitude):

I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

The rest of the speech is full of a series of similarly chilling and profound revelations, both about literature and Latin America, especially in regards to both of these things’ relationship with Europe. I highly recommend reading the speech if you are interested in Latin American literature (as you all should be) or if you’re interested in Marquez (as I assume most of you are).

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For your consideration: Maurice Pons

Maurice Pons

French author Maurice Pons

I just read “The Baker’s Son” by French author Maurice Pons in the latest issue of Tin House. Check this guy out; he’s worth it. According to Edward Gauvin’s introduction to the author (in that same issue of Tin House), Pons is somewhat of a cult figure in France, splitting his time between writing, acting, and filmmaking.

So far I have only been able to get my hands on an English translation of “The Baker’s Son”, but if I can find any more of Pons’s work I’m going to be sure to snatch it up. The guy is good. “The Baker’s Son” is somewhat of a supernatural mystery, though its paranoia is very subtle and the story never makes it clear where conventional reality ends and the fantastic begins. Pons never overplays his hand, in terms of both plot and style. His writing is spare, and avoids resorting to flash in situations where patience is more appropriate.

Check out the story in Tin House if you’re interested. If anyone knows where I can find more of Pons’s books they should send that information my way.

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“At the Mountains of Madness” – Part 3

In which Mr. Lovecraft and I come to the end of our journey and amicably part ways.

Biplane

Artist's rendering of Dyer's flight over the City of the Old Ones

Since I’m feeling clever today (shut up, it happens) I am happy to report that I have “summited” At the Mountains of Madness. What a strange, needlessly expansive trip it has been.

When I first started the book I was intrigued by Lovecraft’s mythology and somewhat put off by his never-ending descriptions that don’t really describe anything. At the novella’s end I find that…well, I find that my attitude is more or less the same. But still, it was very interesting meandering down this road. While I find Lovecraft to be a frustrating storyteller, I can’t help but become all giddy over his abilities as a lover of all things strange, and it is with this in mind that I attended to the final quarter of At the Mountains of Madness.

I left off as Mssrs. Danforth and Dyer were heading down into the subterranean city that once housed the Old Ones. They had just finished consuming a surprisingly detailed history of the race from a series of paintings found in the Old Ones’ aboveground city, and now, spurned by curiosity, they are going to see what lies beneath.

Shortly after heading underground, D & D come across the remains of their lost colleague, tied gruesomely to a sled. Near this discovery, they happen upon a cavern where someone (or something) has been prodding around with the camp’s stolen scientific equipment, apparently trying to see how it works. Next to this discovery, Dyer also comes across a map of the underground caverns, rendered in “the artistic style of the Old Ones.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dyer’s disregard for caution in these situations has seemed odd at best, and it’s at this point that Lovecraft apparently starts to feel the sting of implausibility as well. Our fearless narrator is now in a situation where it is pretty clear that the Old Ones have come back alive (somehow) and that they are wandering about in this underground city. But Dyer does not turn back from his quest. Oh no, instead he plows right on ahead, trailing behind him a list of excuses that don’t really add up. Lovecraft chalks Dyer’s continued exploration up to “inquisitiveness”, “scientific curiosity” and “I don’t know why we didn’t turn back.”

At the Mountains of Madness

Hey, it could happen.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it seems at this point like Lovecraft realized the implausibility of his narrative and had to backpedal a little. Dyer’s continued journey into the Lost City of the Old Ones is, at this juncture, clinically insane. I’m pretty that Dyer himself is the only one who, by this point, has still not figured out that the Old Ones are alive and well in some form, and that it would be better to leave them the hell alone. But he doesn’t figure this out. Instead, we get lame excuses and giant penguins.

In one of the novella’s better sight gags (and a scene that better make it into the movie, if the movie does wind up getting made) Danforth and Dyer mistake a lumbering, subterranean penguin for a murderous, inhuman monster. They are working their way down a poorly lit corridor and see something mysterious at the far end. They panic, but the creature turns out to be an albino penguin—blind and six feet tall. According to Dyer’s speculation, this animal must have been living down here for thousands of years, thus relinquishing use of its eyes. Over the remainder of the novel, the mega-penguins make regular appearances, serving as kind of a Greek chorus. It’s an appreciably weird facet of the novella’s final act.

From here Danforth and Dyer continue downward until they finally, at long last, run into one of the Old Ones. This creature, however, is far from the world of the living. It has been recently murdered, its star-shaped head torn off and its body covered in an odd slime. Again, Lovecraft releases the scene at such an agonizingly slow crawl that it’s hard to feel its full effect, but here, at long last, we encounter the Old Ones in person, as well as the dreaded Shoggoths.

No sooner do D & D attempt to examine the corpse of the slain Old One than they are chased from the tunnel by a living member of that same species, a creature that they assume wants to kill them, but that actually winds up showing a display of distress at its lost comrade. While Danforth and Dyer are running from this Old One, hoping that it doesn’t notice them, a Shoggoth appears, thus explaining the demise of the first Old One, and the more general demise of the Old Ones’ Earthly civilization.

This blob-monster doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but in the time it is allowed, Dyer is able to give us a thorough description of how disgusting, loathsome and foul-smelling the beasty winds up being. Lovecraft kind of kills his chase scene by stopping in the middle to provide for several paragraphs of description, but by the time our heroes are escaping once more to the surface, we’ve at least gotten a decent “look” at these Shoggoths—the loathsome undoers of the mighty race of the Old Ones. If you’re not interested in reading that extended passage, then I provide this précis: they look like big circular blobs that can shape shift.

Once on the surface, Dyer and Danforth flee. They return to the cushy seat of academia where “young” Danforth goes incurably mad and Dyer goes on to warn the world of the perils of Antarctic exploration, though not before ruminating at length on his experience at “the mountains of madness.”

At its best, I thought At the Mountains of Madness read like really good fan fiction. It didn’t have the sophistication of story that you usually see in most “mainstream” science fiction, but there was a loving commitment to its mythology and an enthusiasm for the narrative world it constructs.

Having reached the novella’s end, I have to report that I will probably not be returning to Mr. H.P. Lovecraft for future sci-fi fixes. There is a lot to like about him, but, as we learned from the ill-fated Star Wars prequels, good mythology can only be allowed after the establishment of good characters, never in lieu of. Lovecraft, while eager to provide us with a detailed five-million year history of the Old Ones, is patently unable to establish any of Mountain of Madness’ human characters to any degree beyond a rudimentary description of what they’re wearing.

What I would actually be eager to see is some fiction based in Lovecraft’s universe that maybe takes his pre-established phantasms in different directions. The idea of Cthlulu is more fascinating to me than its reality and, as I mentioned earlier, the most engaging parts of Mountains of Madness were those wherein we were treated to the epic background of the Old Ones and the adventures that that race had undergone.

As to the actual human drama of the story, and the tension arising therefrom, it falls pretty flat. But were it to be treated by someone who had a better concept of both the human and the alien, it could make for a science fiction classic.

I am excited by the fact that Guillermo Del Toro has exactly those chops. He certainly has the monster movie experience, and Pan’s Labyrinth proved his ability for constructing character as well.

I’m excited for this movie. C’mon Universal, let’s see a green light.

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