Friday, February 27, 2015

Music To Write By: Mat Kearney's "Just Kids"

Why Listen? For an example of iterated creativity; a downbeat, mellow tune great for background listening.

Surely I can't be the only person who wants stories to spring Athena-like straight from his head. Nothing discourages me quite as much as the nearly constant process of composition and revision, rewriting and repeating. Why does it take so much work to make the tale in my mind match the one on the page? I have no idea. But the title track off of Mat Kearney's fifth album Just Kids reminds me that creative iteration can yield fascinating results.

At first, "Just Kids" sounds more like the idea of a song rather than a song proper. It's deliberately spare. Squeaky samples punctuate a simple piano riff, and snapping fingers buoy Kearney's downbeat, monotone rapping. But that doesn't last long. Elements slowly start piling onto each other. Modulated hums bump up against tremulous strings. A fat, arpeggiated guitar flourish sweeps into lush synthesizer chords. Kearney's warm, melancholic tenor soars above a muted base drum. Then everything coalesces into a slick, fully realized pop bridge. It's almost breathtaking the first time you hear it. Of course, isn't that true when any successful creative endeavor melds its disparate elements into a cohesive whole?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Turchi on Narrative Flow

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova discusses the insights offered by Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze on the flow of good stories and good games. Excerpts:
In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.”
This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow -- that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger -- Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative. ...

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:
1. clear goals
2. no distractions
3. direct feedback
4. continuous challenge
The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance.
Read the whole thing. Dear reader, I have a vice, and it’s not pulp SF and splattery horror. (Well, I mean, those are some of them, but not the ones I want to discuss.) I like me a good video game from time to time, as you can probably tell. That’s why I find fascinating Turchi’s insights into the congruities between great stories and good games. Either can make hours move like minutes. With games, Turchi argues this state of flow owes to the interplay between challenge and skill. Too much of the former leads to anxiety, while a surfeit of the latter causes boredom. But when it comes to books, he states, “Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. ... The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

Of course, stories can increasingly challenge us. We simply don’t notice it at first. During an initial reading, we’re just peeling back the outer layer of plot. The best books, though, give us a reason to read again, and during that process, we sift through the strata of symbol and metaphor, character and theme, setting and style. And contra Turchi, such books needn’t necessarily be serious. There’s no natural divide between complexity and delight.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Adrian Askew; Hat Tip: @JRVogt)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Wind Never Quite Fills Mad Ship's Sails

Note: This review contains very mild spoilers.

I'm fascinated by the dynamics of trilogies. You'd think that this de facto path winding through virtually all fantasy epics would be worn wide and deep by now. But that's not the case. The narrative ebb and flow of three-volume stories is surprisingly varied. For instance, take The Star Wars Trilogy (of which I recognize only one, darn it). It started strong, reached the apogee of its excitement with The Empire Strikes Back, and finished with the surprisingly thinly plotted Return of the Jedi. (Note to George: Special effects never trump story.) From a flow perspective, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is more rutted than a backcountry dirt road. Interludes of exhilaration bump up against descriptive dips, and the action plunges into a ditch with the incongruous second half of The Return of the King. Of course, Tolkien's thematic commitments and desire to have his magnum opus read as a single large story explain much of that. I wonder if some similar dynamic is at work with Robin Hobb's uneven Mad Ship, the second volume in The Liveship Traders trilogy.

The Vestrit family lies in shambles. Financial straits have forced matriarch Ronica to desperate action in an attempt to keep her estate afloat, including allowing her son-in-law to turn the family's sentient liveship Vivacia into a slave vessel. Incensed by the decision, youngest daughter Althea has left their home of Bingtown for the open sea, determined to prove that she'd be a better captain of Vivacia. Oldest daughter Keffria detests her sister's actions, but has her hands full trying to manage her own daughter, Malta. For her part, headstrong Malta sees little danger in leading on the son of a powerful family that holds much of the Vestrit's debt. And no one at home realizes that Vivacia's maiden voyage has ended in disaster. Against this background of familial strife, storm clouds billow as a self-indulgent satrap turns his eye toward Bingtown, a sociopathic pirate eyes the title of king, and a clutch of deadly sea serpents start harrying the waterways.

Even with all that plot summary above, I haven't touched on the titular insane vessel of Mad Ship. I couldn't find a way to make it flow, and perhaps that hints at the book's primary problem: It's a tangle of subplots that entwine and unravel without ever twisting into overarching action. Characters come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but it all feels as though it's building to a climax that doesn't come. Not to say that it lacks action. Both a shipboard encounter with a sea serpent and a high-speed abduction by highwaymen thrill. Ditto for Hobb's robust take on femininity, which owes more to Hebraic ideas than modern feminism. Yet these are more the sauce than the meat of the story. The wind never quite fills Mad Ship's sails. But given the events set in motion, I'm willing to bet that The Liveship Traders trilogy be exhilarating indeed when read as a whole.

(Picture: CC 2006 by efilpera)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Profanity Needs to Pack a Punch (Blackbirds and Mad Ship)

Note: From just looking at the title, I'm sure you can make an educated guess about this post’s content.

I'm a lazy reader. I don't mean that I have a hard time picking books or that I never finish them. Far from it. The Middle Shelf mitigates both impulses. No, my problem is that my "currently reading" stack all too easily becomes a merry go round with multiple titles getting dizzy while they wait for me to pluck them off. Usually, this renders my reading a bit fragmentary. Disparate characters bump against one another. Plot developments get muddled. Symbols blend together. But sometimes that very juxtaposition can prove instructive. Recently, it made me consider the different ways in which two simultaneously read novels -- Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds and Robin Hobb's Mad Ship -- handle profanity.

Though I enjoyed Blackbirds, I make no bones about being irritated with its liberal attitude toward obscenity. It's funny the first few times that protagonist Miriam Black drops the f-bomb in the middle of a witty bit of dialogue. By the novel's mid-point, though, it's so old as to have gotten downright annoying. Contrast this with Mad Ship, a high fantasy about sea serpents, sentient trading vessels, deadly pirates, and internecine familial conflict. It's not without grit. A couple of scenes describing amputations pre-anesthesia made my stomach flip. But it is almost completely without profanity -- at least up until the following scene.

(Some background, if I may. This scene features three members of the Vestrit family. Matriarch Ronica is desperate trying to stave off the souring of her family's fortunes brought on by the untimely death of her husband. Her youngest daughter, Althea, believes the family ship should've gone to her instead of her brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law's daughter, teenaged Malta, loves nothing more than manipulating Althea and being a general nuisance.)

Malta let Althea get almost to the door before she asked curiously, "Are you going to go see that bead-maker again?" She made a pretense of rubbing her eyes as she set aside her own pen.

"I might," Althea said evenly. Malta heard the restrained annoyance in her voice.

Ronica made a small sound as if decided whether to speak. Aunt Althea turned back to her wearily. "What?"

Ronica gave a small shrug, her hands still busy with the flowers. "Nothing. I just with you would not spend so much time with her, so openly. She is not Bingtown, you know. And some say she is no better than the New Traders."

"She is my friend," Althea said flatly. [...] "Mother." Althea's patience sounded strained. "There is a great deal more to that story than you have heard. If you wish, I'll tell you all I know. But later. When only adults are around."

Malta knew that little sling was intended for her. She rose to it like a shark to chum. "The bead-maker has an odd reputation about town. Oh, everyone says she is a wonderful artist. However, as we all know, artists can be strange. She lives with a woman who dresses and acts like a man. Did you know that?"

"Jek is from the Six Duchies or one of those barbarian lands. That is just how women behave up there. Grow up, Malta, and stop listening to dirty little whispers," Althea suggested brusquely.

Malta drew herself up to her full height. "Usually, I ignore such gossip. Until I hear our own family name dragged into it. I know it is scarcely ladylike to discuss such things, but I feel you should know that some people say that you visit the bead-maker for the same reason. To sleep with her."

During the ensuing shocked silence, Malta added a spoonful of honey to her tea. As she stirred it, the sound of the spoon against the cup seemed almost merry.

"If you mean fuck, say fuck," Althea suggested. She enunciated the crudity deliberately. Her voice was cold with fury. "If you are going to be coarse, why be circumspect with the language?"
Boom. Hobb lets that word fall like a bomb into a book that hadn't featured any language stronger than the very occasional "damn." The effect is palpable. You can almost hear the shards of faux civility come tinkling down. And that's how it should be. Profanity exists to shock, to transgress, to violate. Scattering it everywhere in your story does exactly the opposite (not to mention the negative social effect of deadening readers to it). Obscenity impacts best when used sparingly.

(Picture: CC 2008 by macwagen)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thoughts About Art and Influence (Newsweek's "Fifty Shades: Exploring the Sexual Revolution" Special Issue)

While walking through CVS the other day, I passed by the magazine rack on my way to the pharmacy. I don't really read magazines, so I've made a habit of glancing at their covers while in convenience stores, sort of dipping my toe into the pop-culture waters to test their temperature. Normally it's more of the same. Cosmo hawking insecurity and desperation in equal measure. Hobby mags slinging superlatives. EW trumpeting the next blockbuster. Newsweek having a Very Serious Discussion about consensual sexual violence.

Wait, what the ...?!

Yes, a double take revealed that Newsweek had devoted a special issue, which is usually reserved for human health, global ecology, and great historical figures, to the celluloid version of Fifty Shades of Grey. That cover got me thinking not about BDSM, a topic of which I have about as much knowledge as interest (which is to say none), but about entertainment's influence on culture. Following are some thoughts on the matter in no particular order of importance.

First, it's never just a story. Back when The Magazine wrote my paychecks, I spent my days analyzing movie content. Detailing themes. Describing violence. Counting profanities. That sort of thing. Interestingly, plenty of people got irked when they learned what I did for a living. "Lighten up!" they'd say. "It's just a story." Only it's really not. Narratives necessarily incarnate truth claims, put fictional flesh on assertions about the nature of reality. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Uncle Tom's Cabin made the subject of slavery a national conversation. Fifty Shades of Grey turned spankings and riding crops into water-cooler talk.

Second, you don't own your art. Longtime ISLF readers might do their own double take upon seeing the above header. After all, I've repeatedly defended the idea that authorial intent is the sun around which interpretation ought to orbit. I still believe it. But application is something else entirely. No author can control how an audience receives his work -- or what it does with it. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfic, a sexed-up riff on an LDS housewife's supernatural tribute to abstinence. More than a little ironic, eh?

Third, enjoyment immunizes against elites. Arbiters of critical influence, popular taste, and moral authority all agree: Fifty Shades of Grey stinks to high heaven. It's poorly written. It's morally objectionable. It's socially injurious. It's really not sexy at all (content warning). And none of that matters. The book is the fastest-selling paperback ever. Even if they know they shouldn't, readers like what they like -- the consequences be hanged.

(Picture: Copyright 2015 by Loren Eaton)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blackbirds Turns Blue

Note: This post contains obscenities used in quotation.

When I look back on my undergraduate literature education, I often find myself thinking about Dr. Leland Ryken. With a predilection for sweater vests and a wit dryer than the Sahara after a sandstorm, LeeLee (as he liked to be called) made an impression. He loved to comment archly on the inadequacy of students' attire. ("My, John, looking like we escaped from the asylum today, aren't we?") He'd engineer comically mismatched romantic pairings in front of the entire class. He'd puff candy cigarettes while reading avant-garde verse. In addition to all that, he also taught us about literature, everything from explicating poetry to understanding the basics of critical theory to helping us discern what an author would want us to think about a protagonist. "Tell me," he say, "would you want this character for your roommate?" It's a question I kept circling back to while reading Chuck Wendig's supernatural noir Blackbirds. Why? Because that book's main character makes just as much of an impression as LeeLee.

Miriam Black has wandering feet, a nigh-perpetual nicotine buzz, a predilection for bad boys, and a tongue so sharp it could cut you. Oh, and if she touches you, she can tell you how you'll die. Skin on skin, that's all it takes for her to see your final moments. Hard to put down roots when you have a "gift" (note the quotation marks) like that. But it's pretty easy to snatch a wallet from a still-warm body. Miriam has tried to warn people before, attempted to steer them away from the train tracks and the dark alleys, the bottle and the blow. Never worked. So now she drifts from state to state, town to town, bed to bed. She's content to profit from watching fate unfold -- until she meets Louis. A goodhearted bear of a man, he picks her up while she's hitchhiking one night. And as he offers her his hand, she sees the inside of a lighthouse. She sees him tied to a chair. She sees a cadaverous assailant wielding a rusty filet knife. And she see him put that knife through Louis' eye and into his brain.

So, Miriam as a roommate? Yeah, not ideal. Beside the whole "figure out when and how you kick it" thing, Wendig imbues her with profane erudition. No one escapes her ribald ridiculing. "He's at least half-retarded," she intones at one point when trying to talk her way out of a barroom brawl. "Though I'm willing to put money on two-thirds retarded, if you're up for a friendly wager. Mom used to feed him lawn fertilizer when he was a kid, I think as some kind of retroactive abortion attempt." Such sarcasm extends to the narrative style. The "scout's honor" gesture (a paired index and middle finger) gets recast as "a proctologist's silent threat." Chapters are winsomely titled "The Sun Can Go Fuck Itself," "The Sunshine Café Can Go Fuck Itself Equally," and "Ain't Torture Grand?" Honestly, the crass shtick starts to get tiresome pretty quickly. It's like a teenager who can recite pi to the two-hundredth digit while gargling tapioca, equal parts bizarrely impressive and tremendously annoying. Wendig seems to understand this. At the midpoint, he kicks into gear both the plot and some interesting themes. I won't spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the mythic idea of the psychopomp takes center stage, as does the idea of fate. Does determinism override human responsibility? Can we ever righteously abdicate our moral duties? Should we continue to strive even when assured of failure? Blackbirds' language may turn it blue, but it certainly asks all the right questions.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Wiechert Visser)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Tea-rannosaurus Rex"

The teapot nearly leapt off the table as the theropod shifted a taloned foot.

Igor winced.

"See," the Doctor explained, "episone integration alters the chorda tympani and --"

The theropod's other foot crashed onto the lab's damp cobbles. The teapot jumped again.

"-- then comes the operant conditioning chamber. VoilĂ ! A Cretaceous carnivore consuming camellia sinensis."

"But, doctor," Igor wheezed, "what about its arms?"

The theropod peered down mournfully. Its stubby forelimb tried to guide the contents of a pink china cup into its maw.

Darjeeling spattered scientist and assistant.

"Yes," the Doctor mused. "That might've been an oversight."