“The hardest thing of all, don’t you think, is not being able to say the word that’s coming.”
“Well, ‘butter,’ for example. Suppose I’m talking to you. I talk, talk, talk. Sentences, nothing but sentences. At a certain moment, I’m about to say ‘butter.’ I suddenly feel it. I was going to say it. I quickly say something else, fortunately. Because when you feel you’re going to say something, a word, ‘butter’ for example, even if you realize it just before saying it, your head was full of it beforehand willy-nilly. Your head was full of butter. You had to talk, talk, talk so that suddenly you could say ‘butter.’ But if you say it, hey presto, your head’s empty again, and you don’t know what to say next. It’s terrible when, what’s more, you realise that the person you’re talking to already knows that you’re going to say ‘butter’ or she is also thinking about it. Because then her head is also emmptied the moment you say ‘butter’ and you both stand there not knowing what to say next.”
[from Mahu, or, The Material by Robert Pinget]
September 21st, 2013 / 5:51 pm
[Note: This review discusses the entire film, and as such contains many spoilers.]
1. The World’s End is a challenging film that’s already well on its way to being misunderstood. I myself got it entirely wrong on my first viewing, after which I concluded that it was the simplest and weakest of Edgar Wright’s movies to date. After a second viewing, I can see more of the film’s intricate design, and now think it might be Wright’s most complex work, and possibly also his best.
Part of the problem is that I went in with wrong expectations. The World’s End is a very different movie than Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. It’s funny, but it’s not as funny as its predecessors, and I thought that a problem. I wasn’t alone—Anthony Lane, for instance, wrote of it in the New Yorker:
“the patter of laughs […] is less breakneck than it was before, and the result is strangely sour and charmless by comparison. […] I cannot imagine returning to it the way one does to ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz,’ hungry for fresh minutiae.”
But this is a film all about returning, and the minutiae are there. They’re just invisible on a first viewing.
2. The World’s End is indeed a soberer film than its predecessors. This isn’t a problem, though, because the film, while comedic, isn’t ultimately a comedy.
Wright & co. do try to alter our expectations. Consider the opening narration, in which Gary King triumphantly recounts a twelve-tavern pub crawl that he and his mates attempted in 1990. Although they conked out nine pubs in, King proudly pronounces the night the greatest of his life.
From there we cut to an unflattering shot of him seated in sweats in a rehabilitation center, decrepit, gaunt, and totally spent. It’s a funny transition, to be sure, but it’s uncomfortably funny, and more than a little bleak—our hero’s a drug addict, something the film doesn’t want us to forget. As others continue speaking, King zones out, lost in his memories . . . only to be replaced by an image of what he’s doubtlessly thinking about: a beautiful shot of a beautiful pint of golden beer, over which Wright applies the title: “The World’s End.”
And for King, that’s true: beer is the world’s end.
3. King begins the film a tragic character, his many flaws all apparent. Only he recalls the past as glorious. Everyone else is glad to have left it behind, and now thinks him mad—a loser unable to function in the world of 2013. King’s biggest mistake, his error, is that he never moved on, never shaped up, never got with the program—he never grew up. As such, he’s treated like a child—as he later cries, complaining about the rehab center, “They told me when to go to bed!”
The message would appear simple: This is going to be a film about learning to mature. “You can’t live in the past, Gary King!”
But what if it turns that out one can? What happens if we take Gary King seriously?
Beyond Apollo | 1972, Random House | 156 pages
The Men Inside | 1973, Prestige Books | 175 pages
Galaxies | 1975, Pyramid Books | 128 pages
(Note: all three of these books are out of print, but cheap used copies can be found. In Chicago, I bought Beyond Apollo for $2.95 at Myopic Books (in Wicker Park) and The Men Inside for $3 at Bucket O’ Blood Books and Records (Logan Square). Galaxies I purchased used through Amazon for $1.25 + s/h.)
1. On 15 August 2011, my pal Jeremy M. Davies emailed me and said that I should look for a book called Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg because it was “seriously beyond belief.”
I’m ashamed to say it took me until earlier this year to pick up a copy and read it. However, once I got started, I finished it under 24 hours.
2. Barry N. Malzberg was born in 1939. Since 1968, he’s written at least 66 books, if not more. (He’s worked under ten different names that I know of, which complicates compiling a full list.) Dozens of them are science-fiction novels—at least in theory. He’s also written story collections, essay collections, movie novelizations, crime novels, and pornography.
3. Galaxies (1975) at first glance tells the story of a young astronaut, Lena Thomas, the sole crew member of the spaceship Skipstone. Her cargo is an immense tank of goo filled with 515 human corpses. It’s the year 3902 and a person can pay to have his/her body ferried into space after death in the hopes that cosmic radiation will revive them.
Midway through the voyage, the Skipstone falls into a black hole, and the majority of the novel’s plot deals with Lena’s attempt to escape the ensuing hallucinatory free fall. During that timeless time she repeatedly dies and is reborn, recalls her lover John, consults with cyborg engineers, and communes with the dead, who have psychically reawakened.
But that’s not really what Galaxies is about.
4. Rather, Galaxies is a work of metafiction, concerned with its own creation, and presented as Malzberg’s notes on how he would write the novel Galaxies, if only he could. (He maintains that the novel is impossible to complete with present knowledge.) As such, most scenes are outlined rather than dramatically depicted. For instance, Chapter 29 begins:
And here could run yet another moody flashback concerning Lena’s relationship with John, dropped in to provide color and poignance, augmenting the mood of despair. Long sexual passages here could alternate with painful streams of consciousness in the present. Sex and space, orgasm and isolation could run counterpoint, and the author’s gifts for irony, which are not modest, would be exhibited to their fullest range. Also, in the traditions of modern science fiction, the sex scenes could be quite titillating, render the novel some extraliterary interest. A construct like this could use all the extraliterary interest it could get.
But even that’s not really what Galaxies is about.
6. Rather, Galaxies is about what science-fiction should look like in the year 1975. Malzberg is surveying contemporary literature and asking: How should science-fiction respond to the then-recent literary experiments of John Cheever, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, and others?
7. I’m not making this up. On page 48 Malzberg writes:
For instance, as the ship falls, there could be some elaboration on the suggestion that neutron stars might be pulsars which would be most intriguing, if the reader has not been intrigued sufficiently by the notion that all of “life” as we understand it when we glimpse the heavens may be merely an incidental by-product of the cycle of neutron stars.
So there, Cheever, Barth, Barthelme, Oates. What in the collected works would touch that for angst?
8. Malzberg calls those authors out again on page 85:
“Madness,” Lena says, shaking her head, “that’s utter madness,” but the author, busily pulling the handles of this little dumb show, sweating behind the canvas, casting a nearsighted, astigmatic eye every now and then through the cardboard of the set to see whether the audience is paying attention, how the audience is taking all of this, is thinking take that Barth, Barthelme, Roth, or Oates! Pace Bellow and Malamud, and may your Guggenheims multiply, but what have any of you or those unnamed created to compare with this?
9. If I haven’t convinced you yet to spend $2–3 on a used copy of Galaxies, you might as well quit reading now.
April 1st, 2013 / 8:01 am
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs
Dell Publishing, 1973
179 pages / buy at Powell’s
- I first read this novel when I was a kid, checking it out from the library. Actually, I first read John Bellairs’s novel The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978), which I picked it up because of its Gorey cover and illustrations. And it’s through these novels, I think, that I first learned about Edward Gorey.
- I got my current copy of THwaCiIW from my friend Rebekah, last November, at her Friendsgiving party. And it’s only appropriate that Rebekah should have given me a horror novel, because my nickname for her is “Ghost Mouth.” (Thanks, Ghost Mouth!)
- THwaCiIW is a Gothic horror novel for kids, and it’s genuinely spooky. For one thing, it’s about a house with a goddamned clock in its walls! And not just any clock, but a doomsday clock that, when it goes off, will bring about the end of the world. The book’s protagonist, Lewis Barnavelt, along with his Uncle Jonathan, can hear the clock ticking all throughout their house, but they cannot find it. (The evil wizard who made and hid the clock cast a spell that causes the clock’s ticking to sound the same from inside every wall). And so neither the heroes nor the reader know when the clock will go off and cause the world to end. Which is like . . . Christ!
- The whole novel is tremendously suspenseful. Rereading it now, I still wanted to zip through to find out what would happen.
- I remember that, as a kid, the book scared the crap out of me. I found it frightening even now, reading it as an adult. I mean—it’s about a house with a goddamned doomsday clock hidden in its walls!
January 24th, 2013 / 9:53 pm
The role tautologies play in writing; or saying the same thing a different way when making a story or a poem
So far in this series, we’ve been looking at Viktor Shklovsky’s early book Theory of Prose (1925/9), asking what insights it might have for us as writers today. In Parts 1 and 2 I provided an overview of Russian Formalism and Shklovsky’s concepts of “device” and “defamiliarization.” Then, in Part 3, we started applying those ideas to writing, looking at how repetition allows artists to both build patterns and deviate from them. We also saw how repetition can be used to decelerate a pattern’s advancement—how repeating text delays the work’s inevitable conclusion.
Today, I want to examine another “rule” that Shklovsky identifies: tautologies, which are essentially repetitions, but repetitions using synonymous language. And I want to demonstrate this principle, and some of its potential effects, with examples taken from Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver. (I chose them because it’s in their stories that I first learned to see this.)
Let’s start with Donald Barthelme’s well-known short story “Me and Miss Mandible” (c. 1964), examining how much language Barthelme devotes to tautological constructions:
This follows Roxane’s Tuesday post, and Jami Attenberg’s initial observation/criticism of something she heard Franzen say. Their defense of Twitter/Facebook/etc. is of course right: small press writers and publishers need those tools to promote themselves and their works. But I’m less convinced that Franzen has “lost perspective,” as Attenberg puts it, or “doesn’t understand what Twitter is for,” as Roxane claims. Instead, I think Franzen is making a deeper, more disturbing criticism—the latest salvo in a decade-long attack on certain writers, certain kinds of fiction, and ultimately, a certain construction of art itself.
To grasp all of that, let’s look more closely at a different part of his complaint:
[Twitter is] like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’…It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.
Um—huh? What do lipograms have to do with social networking? And how are they irresponsible?
I was really thrilled to read all the responses my last post generated; thanks to everyone who chimed in! And I wanted to post something that clarifies some of the things I wrote there, since it’s apparent I caused no small amount of confusion…
This is a response to Roxane’s recent post, “How the Hell Do We Teach Creative Writing?”
I am a firm believer that creative writing can be taught; I’ve been teaching it for years now (at DePaul University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, and StoryStudio Chicago). Below, I’ll break “creative writing” down into five pedagogical areas (I’m a rather analytical fellow); when viewed from that perspective, I think, a whole host of practicable exercises and activities become apparent. (Note that this will be a blanket overview; I’d be happy to discuss any of this in much more depth.)
In college I went through a stage of searching for and printing off as many David Foster Wallace interviews as I could find. I remember printing of the interview he gave to Larry McCaffery and reading it and stumbling into the passage wherein he speaks of ‘the click.’
At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click in literature, too. It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction. The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don’t know whether I have that much natural talent going for me fiction wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there is a click.
Of course, I had to go find a copy of “The Balloon.” I had never read and Barthelme, had only vaguely heard of him and for some reason thought he was an author writing in the 1800s.