A Return to Science Fiction

In high school I desperately wanted to write science fiction, to the point that writing in other genres hardly seemed worth the time. In middle school I wrote hard boiled detective stories, which must have been laughable, given that I was 12, but Star Wars and Star Trek were always around and those Pocket Book Star Trek novels were my friends apart from comic books. I think I tried to write my first Star Trek novel by freshman year in high school. I even submitted it to Pocket Books. I forget what it was about but I’m sure it had Klingons, Romulans, the original cast and explosions. I did think to solicit the guidelines and tried to follow it closely, so there were no crossovers with The Next Generation.

Soon after, I was reading Isaac Asimov, partly because he wrote not only stories but about how he got them published, how much he was paid and how he trekked from Brooklyn to Manhattan to bring his carbon copies right to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction. I even subscribed to the digests of the 1990s — Analog and Amazing Stories. This was the life I saw for myself.

An English teacher in high school broadened my horizons a bit. To be fair, they all did, but one in particular turned me on to Woody Allen, which led me down the path of playwriting, humor writing, and telling stories about real people, even if magical things happen to them.

During our junior and senior years, my best friend and I still wrote a science fiction novel, but then we went off to separate universities where we both found more grounded literature and I pursued journalism and playwriting and by the time we got back together in Ireland after graduation, I think I wanted to be a cross between Hunter Thompson and Mac Wellman.

GOLDEN AGE SCI-FI: 1934–1963 – HILOBROW
Just a pair of dimes!

But science fiction was always around. The cool kids at the college paper got me to read Snow Crash. The cool kids in theater got me to read The Illiminatus Trilogy and just what was Infinite Jest, anyway, if not science fiction? Also, in high school I learned that I could read any Vonnegut, as fantastic as some of its premises were, and get credit for reading literature. I even have Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Half Shell.

These days, it’s creeping back into my life. I just read Scalzi’s first entry into his Collapsing Empire series and rather loved it. I just downloaded a cheap copy of Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova and I enjoyed reading the first two of the Murderbot books last year.

While I’m not feeling an itch to write science fiction, I think I am looking to it to inspire some high concept contemporary fiction. Not that you asked. I just have stars and robots, intergalactic empires and artificial gravity on my mind.

Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

Plague Time Reading

Everywhere I turn, I’m seeing lists of movies to watch and shows to binge while under self-imposed (or, outside the U.S., government-imposed) quarantine. But this is really the best time for reading.

Haaretz has put together a list of novels for the novel corona virus, including Jose Saramago’s eerie Blindness, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Plague (natch) by Albert Camus and Love in the Time of Cholera (also natch) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

photo by Conor Rabbett

Personally, I’d spin a quarantine reading list in another direction entirely. I would avoid books about pandemics and seek out comedies, farces and fantasies. My current booklist includes:

Until the End of Time by physicist Brian Greene

White by Brett Easton Ellis

Algiers, Third World Capital by Elaine Mokhtefi

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski by Noah van Skiver (ships next Tuesday)

Readers Are the Resistance

Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.

Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.

Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.

Power to the readers.

Read Fleishman — It’s as Good as They Say

It’s a little weird to push a debut novel that’s already won rave reviews, comparisons to Phillip Roth, a nomination for the National Book Award and was subject of a 10 producer bidding war for limited series rights (won last fall by FX).

But I absolutely loved this novel.

Fleishman is in Trouble is mostly about the divorce of Toby and Rachel Fleishman, he a hepotologist and she a high powered talent agent who helped turn an off Broadway one woman show into the Fleishmaniverse’s Hamilton. They have two children, an awkward and introverted son and a daughter on the verge of adolescence. It’s a book about privilege and rich people problems, yes, but there’s so much more going on.

The story is told, The Great Gatsby style by Libby, a former writer for a men’s magazine who reconnects with Toby and then with Rachel, during a crack-up August as the two finalize their divorce. Like Nick Carroway, she’s an interested observer, though not objective. Unlike Nick, she has her own issues to work out that parallel and add to the story. Since Taffy Brodesser-Akner is also a magazine writer, readers will assume Libby is a stand-in for the author, but all of these characters are so fully imagined that I would not make that leap.

The cover design is so cool, I suspect Chip Kidd.

It’s amazing how every character gets their due in this book, with the notable exception of Miriam, who just can’t seem to be fleshed out towards redemption because she’s so… well, you’ll see. She’s really ugh.

It’s poignant, it’s funny, it’s a little sexy and if you have time to pick up and read a copy before the mini-series comes out, it’s more than worth the trouble.

Epic Theatre in Pre-Literate Societies

Fascinating article today about Milman Parry, the Harvard scholar who worked out how pre-literate societies like the ancient Greeks were able to compose, memorize and perform epic poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Parry found examples of this type of storytelling in other cultures, including the Bosnia of the 1930s. As with so much else, the capacity for Homeric storytelling seems to be a universal human trait.

Milman Parry at Harvard University.

What we’ll never know, but is fun to imagine from my perspective, is how these stories changed when told by different bards. I’d imagine each bard had their own style, based on their politics, religion, philosophy or homeland. I’d bet some were quirky and some serious. Some were angry and some were in awe.

How many ways can you tell the story of Odysseus’ voyage home? How many ways can you explain the motivations behind the invasion of Troy? What about all of the other Homeric hymns and the lost stories? Was their an epic Homeric universe?

Of course, we’re still retelling these stories. Over the last two years, I’ve read a bunch of these new takes on old tales and I recommend them all:

  • The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallidatides (translated by Marlaine Delargy, Other Press, 2019)
  • The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.)
  • Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Ecco, 2012)
  • Wake Siren, Ovid Resungby Nina MacLaughlin (Macmillan, 2019)
  • Eurydice by H.D. (from: Collected Poems 1912-1944 (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1982: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51869/eurydice-56d22fe6d049d, though the poem was originally published in The Egoist in 1917.)

Marquez, Kafka and Original Sin

In Woody Allen’s Love & Death, Boris is awaiting execution for the murder of Napoleon, a crime he didn’t commit. “But isn’t that life?” he wonders. “Aren’t we all condemned to die for a crime we didn’t commit?”

I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold and am so reminded of the sentiment. Our narrator returns to his home town to investigate the revenge killing of Santiago Nasar after a large wedding is ruined by the discovery that the bride, sister to the killers, is not a virgin. She names Nasar as the man she’d slept with before marriage. But it clearly never happened and so Nasar never suspects that anyone wants to kill him and when he finally realizes his danger, he has no idea why it’s happening. He dies, knived to death by butchers, holding his innards.

Image result for Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Which reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novella The Trial in which Josef K. is informed that he has been charged with capital crimes and will be judged for them, though the accusations are never stated. Josef K. is also found guilty and sentenced to death. When he is butchered on a public street he can only think that they have killed him, “Like a dog!”

There’s a lot going on in both stories about the inhumane social and legal systems we subject ourselves to while living in a society. But the heart of it all is Woody Allen’s observation that we will all die, saints and sinners alike, as we were sentenced from the start for the crime of being born. This seems to put the search for some original sin into perspective, though the culprit is probably remorseless entropy.

The HR-ification of Daily Life

As a former magazine employee (though really after what’s now remembered as a last “golden age”), I might find it too heartbreaking to read the Dan Peres memoir about Condé Nast. But as it was published, I’d finished reading This Could Hurt, a workplace novel by Jillian Medoff where the heroes all work in the HR department of a market research firm that’s been upended and hobbled by the Financial Crisis.

It’s a solid office-based book and I’m a big believer in fiction that portrays the working life. Very often, to set an interesting plot in motion, an author will rely on some deus ex machina to reduce or eliminate the pecuniary needs of the protagonists. One way to do this is to just make the main characters wealthy enough that they only have to work by choice, if at all. Or maybe there’s an inheritance, or a benefactor with other motives… it is nice to get our characters out of the office and into a small town in Thailand, when we can. But most readers have to go to work and they deserve our attention, too.

Among the reactions I’ve seen to the Peres memoir are people who are shocked or surprised that people might take drugs and then go to work, or that they might drink alcohol at lunch.

Medoff’s novel, published in 2018 and set in the early part of that decade, gets a lot of its plot from people stretching and breaking the HR rules as they develop overly personal relationships with one another, in and out of the office. I dare say that though the novel is written by a high-level HR pro, that much of the behavior in her book would not be tolerated in a real workplace, were it unearthed by the wrong people.

Now, in the old days, especially in media, drinking was tolerated in the workplace — well, not for everybody, because nothing was ever for everybody. The guy who indulged in the 3 martini lunch wasn’t a lush with a problem who is messing up the health insurance premiums for everybody, he was a guy with an expense account and enough clout and influence that he could be tipsy or lazy in the afternoon. So if you wrote a workplace novel back then and had a character tip back strong cocktails in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, the reader would immediately get that they’re reading about a man of influence.

My guess is when presented with that same character in 2020, most readers would see a man with poor judgment and impulse control and a potential villain. Maybe a modern Falstaff would be the best possible outcome.

When I used to work at Forbes there were tales of a long-abolished office drink cart. We 20 somethings wondered, “why don’t they bring that back?” But we knew why and knew it wasn’t coming back. Now people don’t even think it would be a fun idea to bring the drink carts back. They see it as evidence of our collective past dysfunctions.

Cockroaches and Epiphanies

Last night I read The Cockroach a novella by Ian McEwan where a cockroach undergoes a purposeful, though Kafkaesque transformation into the British Prime Minister. It is a lot of light-hearted fun.

McEwan’s novel got me thinking about potential fictional representations of America’s president and those thoughts crashed into Josh Marshall’s observations about the behavior of post-impeachment Trump, a man who seems beyond all epiphany.

Which brought me to the moment of great change in the last part of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

“Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!”

How would that end, were his Scrooge our Trump? I see: “Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”

“‘TOTAL EXONERATION!’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.”

What other ending could there be?

The Ending of Candide

“The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.” -Gustave Flaubert

I’ll never be able to sum that up as well as Flaubert. The famous ending is, after all of the calamities, misfortunes, tortures and pains endured by Candide and his friends Pangloss, Cunegonde, Cacambo, Martin, the Old Woman, Paquette and Girofleo, that the only solace is productive work and that excessive philosophizing is just a path to superfluous misery.

“We must cultivate our garden,” says Candide, dismissing another of Pangloss’ arguments that everything has turned out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. By this point in the story, Pangloss has renounced him optimism but has decided to keep arguing for it anyway, because that’s what philosophers do.

It’s nice to see the roots of literary and theatrical absurdism creep out from a satiric epic. Though Voltaire would likely skewer an observation like that.

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