Friday, September 12, 2014

Music To Write By: Model Engine's "Scarred But Smarter"

Why Listen? For an über-literary breakup song that simultaneously marries complication and clarity.

The phrase "thinking man's post-grunge" might seem oxymoronic, but if it does, you've obviously never listened to the music of Jeremy Post. Of course, that wouldn't be surprising. Post helmed two bands in the mid-to-late nineties (the idiosyncratically named Black Eyed Sceva and Model Engine), but never managed to find much commercial success. Some might attribute that to the fact that Post's lyrics made him sound as if he were a poet born in the wrong century. He liked to write about everything from 19th century French philosophers ("Comte's Perspective") to his internal thought process when clasping hands with an AIDS-infected drug addict ("Handshake") to a lyrical description of a street in Hamburg's red-light district ("Reeperbahn"). Not your typical subject matter, and few tunes illustrate his writing chops as well as "Scarred But Smarter" from Model Engine's The Lean Years Tradition.

An alternately pensive and aggressive breakup song, "Scarred But Smarter" is stippled with unconventional verse structure, complicated wordplay thick with assonance and antonyms, and allusions to John Keats, George Orwell, and Pontius Pilate. It's enough to keep a coffee-swilling undergrad Lit student happily occupied for most of an evening. Yet Post didn't get so caught in his craft that he forgot the virtues of simplicity. The final verse lays his theme out plain as day:
It's not
That I feel good. It's that I
Still can feel. That's good,
And that's all
That's good
For now.
Few can marry complication and clarity so well. Here's to hoping that the now-retired Post will one day deign to pick up guitar and pen again.

Spotswood on How Not to Write Anachronistic Girls

Over at Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks, Jessica Spotswood (Born Wicked) discusses how not to write anachronistic female characters when penning historical fiction. Excerpts:
Now, of course there have been women throughout history who have yearned for something more than their lots in life, who have wanted more for themselves than their families or societies expected. Of course there have been scientists, queens, athletes, inventors, writers, businesswomen, and artists of all kinds. But there have also been many, many women who were content to be wives and mothers (or perhaps they were not content, but went along with it anyway, because few other options were afforded them). Marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping are, after all, was much of what society has expected for women throughout the ages -- and considering all that went (and still goes) into keeping a family fed and clothed and housed and healthy, it’s no small task.

We all want our main characters to stand out, to be special. They are the ones telling the story or at the center of it, driving the action. ... However, there’s a certain problematic shorthand to making a heroine “strong” that involves making her Not Like All the Other Girls. And one easy way to do that is to make her disdain things the other girls like or want -- whether it’s an interest in fashion, sewing, watercolors, piano, or other ladylike pursuits of the era or the pursuit of marriage and family.
Read the whole thing. Spotswood offers a handy list of ways to avoid creating chronologically disjointed characters, urging writers to consider the mores society might've instilled in historical protagonists and (if an author wants to subvert them) the cognitive dissonance, familial consequences, and compensatory viewpoints that might result. It's a useful framework, but I would add another bullet point for folks who set stories in bygone eras: Stop and seriously consider why a particular civilization's standards existed in the first place. People in previous centuries weren't necessarily stupid, senselessly superstitious, or irrevocably hidebound. They had reasons for acting the way in which they did, and even if we disagree with them, we need to know what they were first. Unbiased understanding should always precede evaluation.

(Picture: CC 2009 by freeparking :-|; Hat Tip: @victoriastrauss)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Death's Doors Opens Upon Ideological Exploration

Most everyone has at least one hobby horse he likes to ride, and mine happens to be the role of religion in genre fiction. For whatever reason, genre writers tend to portray all organized faith uncharitably, despite the fact that it remains a motivating force for people across the globe. That's why I've so enjoyed the work of Lars Walker. A Lutheran with a love for gritty fantasy and a nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of Viking lore, he handles religious topics with an imaginative depth and philosophical subtlety that few can match -- at least most of the time. In truth, Walker has written one novel I didn't enjoy, namely Wolf Time. Composed in the same vein as Margaret Atwood's watch-out-the-theonomists-are-coming dystopia The Handmaiden's Tale, it inverted that volume's ideological perspective while retaining its dire tone. So, I was less than thrilled to learn that Walker's newest effort, Death's Doors, was a sequel of sorts. Would it improve upon its predecessor or stumble into the same dour ditch?

Tom Galloway faces a troubling future. Yes, he ghostwrote a successful popular account of Scandinavian history and is working on another title, but professional success doesn't guarantee personal happiness. Years ago, his wife terminated her life at the Happy Endings Clinic, and Tom still hasn't reconciled himself to it. He understands that the state allows citizens to voluntarily partake of state-sponsored euthanasia -- and provides the same service involuntarily to those who express existential despair through "subversive" activities. But he can't stand that his depressive daughter Christine seems set on following her mother's lethal path. He worries about Christine all the time, even when trying to infiltrate a local cult. Remember that second book he's penning? Well, Tom's agent wants something splashy this time, so Tom has joined the Mimirshoff group, an uber-tolerant reimagining of Viking spirituality. (Congregations have to tolerate most anything and anyone for the government to allow them to gather.) But the Mimirshoff group may be more than just a collection of manipulated dupes. Its charismatic leader claims she can open a door to the past, and a public demonstration of her power ends with a Viking royal getting transported into the present day.

Okay, okay, let me take a deep breath. You know that big block of text you just got done reading? Wipe it from your mind. It barely begins to explain Death's Doors. In fact, I'm not sure that I can do so in a reasonably sized review, but I'm going to try. Imagine a blender. Chuck in Atwood's aforementioned novel, Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and Walker's own West Oversea. Add a generous pinch of profanity, a scoop of Christian church history, and several comment sections plucked at random from various Huffington Post articles. Now pulse for two or three seconds. Voila! That's Death's Doors. Yes, it's just as lumpy as it sounds. But it's also works.

Let me explain what makes Death's Doors better than Wolf Time. Part of it is Walker's clarity of purpose. He wants to provide a narrative exploration of the ideals proffered by America's elites while making an apology for the virtues of living on in a painful, broken world. But even that might've failed had he not taken pains to humanize most every character and fought hard against stereotypes. A racist fascist waxes poetic over the history of Western Europe. A gay member of the Mimirshoff group confesses to Tom that he and his Republican lover have both been diagnosed with AIDS. Shiites and Libertarians take up arms together against invading radicals from the Islamic Republic of Michigan. A woman who commits a terrible crime ends up becoming an unexpected love interest. Yes, the novel's a bit too talky. Sure, not everything seems equally plausible. (I can't imagine a society that would regulate reproduction and religion while mandating that smokers can light up wherever they want, including others' homes.) Yeah, it contains enough controversial content that most everyone will get mad at some point. But read it anyway. Doors opens upon fascinating ideological exploration.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Abas Koro)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Two a.m., tinny screech over the baby monitor.

Jim fairly ran into Robbie's room. The three-year-old lay twined in sheets, snoring.

"Jim?" his wife's voice crackled over the speaker.

"Robbie's fine." Jim weaved into the living room, yawning. Then frowned.

A chill curled around his ankles, front jalousie windows cracked an inch. Outside, sprinklers chattered, and beyond the security lights' cast, a pair of hunched shadows slid, one seemingly dragging the other.

In his son's room again, Jim knelt, saw damp dirt in the whorls of a heel.

The boy sat up, squinting. "Daddy? What's wrong?"

Jim had no answer.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Your Critical Framework Matters (Far Cry 3)

Note: This post contains spoilers because it has to. You'll see. Just keep reading.

In my continual quest to squander lunchtimes on electronic entertainment, I recently picked up 2012's Far Cry 3, an open-world, first-person-shooter for which I held out a lot of narrative hope. The game's protagonist, Jason Brody, is a twentysomething from an uber-wealthy family who finds himself and his friends captured by pirates while vacationing on an Asian archipelago. After escaping by the proverbial skin of his teeth, he ends up embroiled in an ongoing struggle between the marauding pirates and the island's tribal warriors. Only by learning the tribes' ways and overcoming his own privileged immaturity can he hope to save those he loves.

You'd expect lots of character development with a setup like that, right? Well, Far Cry 3 has some, but what players end up getting in spades is a lesson as to why a writer's critical framework matters.

During Jason's adventures, he meets a sexy jungle priestess named Citra who molds him into a warrior through dangerous trials and drug-induced visions. She succeeds, as you very well may imagine, and Jason soon transitions from a sniveling slacker to a Rambo-esque figure with few qualms about filleting baddies with a big knife. Sounds clichéd, right? Well, the ending changes that. After saving his little brother (who is the last of the captives to be rescued), Jason returns to find that Citra and her men have stolen his other friends a second time. The final confrontation goes disastrously wrong when Citra doses him with a mysterious powder, and he comes out of the hallucinations it induces to find himself with a knife pressed to his bound girlfriend's neck. The game then offers players a choice: Save Jason's friends or sever -- quite literally -- all connections to his past and join the tribe.

I'm not going to talk about the "save your friends" ending, because it's pretty standard stuff and you can watch it yourself right here (content warning). But the other deserves some discussion. Select it, and one very bloody throat-slashing scene later Jason ends up noisily copulating with Citra as the priestess mutters about how his bloodline will help secure the tribe's future. Then, without warning, she rolls over and guts the clueless protagonist with a ceremonial blade. As the light fades, she intones, "You are a warrior. Die a warrior. You won."

"You won"? Sure doesn't seem that way, does it? I mean, that's about as unsatisfying a conclusion as you could imagine. A quick survey of gaming sites would show that Far Cry 3's conclusion enraged fans -- which is exactly what writer Jeffrey Yohalem intended. In an interview with The Penny Arcade Report, he said:
"Sex, violence, and the player is killed. Here are the things that satisfy our animal side as men, but they’re subverted because it’s a female doing it. Here you’re thinking of the princess in the castle. It’s like if Princess Peach stabbed Mario. Now that I’m thinking about it, that final scene should have been Citra castrating Jason. Seriously, that’s the point! It is like, ‘You win, [expletive]!’ It’s totally like, ‘[Expletive] you, you misogynist idiot!’”
Far Cry 3 is far from the only story to morally implicate the audience in its own plotline. Joe Wright's cinematic version of Atonement did so with a gentle touch, while Michael Haneke's Funny Games used a sledgehammer, but the final message is the same: "Hey, you there in your comfy chair, you're to blame because you helped create this meaning of this piece simply by being here."

But does storytelling actually work that way? Not really. In the best narratives, the author lays down commonly agreed-upon symbols (i.e. words, images, sounds, or what have you) in an attempt to communicate his ideas and the reader carefully examines those symbols in an attempt to discern them. The latter isn't creating constellations out of stars scattered across the firmament by the former; he's tickling tumblers to unlock the door of meaning. The framework is one of mutual submission between writer and reader, each humbly reaching out to the other -- not adversarial bludgeoning. In the end, Far Cry 3 lambasts players simply for partaking in it. No wonder they got angry.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Joshua Livingston)

Monday, August 25, 2014

"All Things Come"

"All things come to those who wait," Zeke's father liked to say. It didn't work that way for Zeke. No Ivy League degree, corner office, pearl-wearing wife. He got community college, a Domino's delivery route, sitcom marathons.

Then unexpectedly, the world ended.

The cuevavirus moved so fast it never got a name. At the pandemic's 36-hour mark, Zeke saw a pale figure stopping at every door on his street, turning the never-locked knobs. The screaming started afterwards.

Zeke was the only one it passed by. As he watched it go, he could've sworn a small smile curled its thin lips.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In Which I Do Not Actually Review Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep

Oh, how I wish I could review Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep.

Regular readers know that I have a somewhat strict blogging policy: To satisfy FTC regulations (and for general ethical reasons), I only review books that I've secured with my own resources. That means no ARCs, no packets from promoters, no electronic copies from self-published authors. But some time ago, I sent to Patti Abbott a copy of a novel that I thought she'd enjoy, and in turn, she asked me if I'd like a copy of one of her Edgar Award-winning daughter's mysteries.

I'm a reader first and foremost. What do you think I was going to say?

So there's the dilemma. I've just finished Bury Me Deep, a noir based off the 1931 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, and I can't review it. Can't talk about how Abbott walks a tightrope over the chasm between the literary and genre worlds, every sentence showing her knowledge of the writer's craft while the subject matter stays committed to delighting the reader. Can't mention how she manages to make Thirties-era slang both sound simultaneously authentic and comprehensible to twenty-first-century ears. Can't discuss how the novel falls firmly in the noir-as-ethical-instruction camp.

Not being able to opine at length about that last point really irks me.

See, Bury Me Deep focuses on Marion Seeley, wife of a morphine-addicted doctor who departs for a three-year stint as a mining company physician, leaving her in Arizona with naught but a marginal nursing job. Marion soon finds friendship with a nurse named Louise and her tubercular roommate Ginny, working-class girls who only scrape by thanks to the largesse of various "gentlemen" whom they meet a wild parties held in their house. It's at one of these parties that Marion meets Joe Lanigan. Handsome Joe, wealthy Joe, a staunch Irish Catholic who counts himself a member of numerous influential civic organizations. This Joe takes a shine to Marion, and Marion takes a shine to Joe, and soon Joe begins to call on Marion, and not long after that Joe has Marion flat on her back at the end of every evening. She thinks it's just a private affair, but private dalliances have a way of becoming public in spectacularly violent ways.

Were you to compare the Marion on page one of Bury Me Deep to the Marion of its final chapter, you'd be shocked. Had I purchased the novel myself, I'd now talk about the way in which Abbott steps her down from a prim, Dutch Calvinist girl to a battered fugitive with the stench of gunpowder on her dress. And what tiny, utterly believable steps they are. "Marion, there are things you are sure you'd never do, Louise had said to her once. Until you have." And Marion most certainly does them, each small sin swelling into an oh-so-slightly larger one. She spends the first half of the book bemoaning her husband's weakness for morphine, "but then she thought about her own: here a man with a way of smiling so and doffing hat and tilting head just so. These accumulations of gesture and a tender word or two and then she pliant on any bed, seat cushion, what have you? Well, if that wasn't a weakness, what was?" Marion -- and Abbott -- understand that guilt comes not from some extraordinary crime. It's the universal human condition.

But you can't take my word for it, after all. Guess you'll just have to read it yourself.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Madalena Pestana)