Archive for February, 2014

The Great American Novel, or just read The Great Gatsby

February 20, 2014

David Ulin offers a rebuttal to Lawrence Buell salon piece over the idea of the Great American Novel.  I get what Ulin is saying, but I’m not sure I agree with the reality of it. Celebrating our differences, embracing multiculturalism, and appreciating that the backgrounds and experiences of everyone in our society are diverse  and wide-ranging  are all true, good, earnest, whatever things.  I’m not knocking them. At the same time, I think there are some things that sit at the foundation of all our lives. All of us want some level of professional success that provides for a relatively stable life. How each of us defines stable and success might be different, but I think the majority of us want to achieve that for ourselves. We want to be productive. We want to accomplish something. We want to make connections with people. Big, broad things. For me, the Great American Novel tries to find how those things work in America, how we try to blend them together, how our ideas of accomplishment, stability, family, etc. is unique from Japan or France or India. Not better, but different. And I think this changes over time. If we want to say Huck Finn was a Great America Novel, it was great for the time it came out, the time it encapsulated, and the life it represented. Is it the Great American Novel of the “Now?” No, I don’t think so, despite it still staying something to us today about how we interact with each other and how we confront race.

The one book that stands out, for me, is The Great Gatsby. A novel of one character recklessly charging towards wealth and status in the hopes of finding love, only to be confronted with the hollow vacuousness of those he pursues and to eventually find his own death. All witnessed by the midwestern everyman who steps back at the end, sees the horror of it, and retreats to the heartland. It is an aspect of society I think we’ve seen repeated over and over again, in various forms from westerns to mafia movies to wallstreet.  It speaks to an idea of balance in success, weighing the costs of professional/material success versus the damage we do to ourselves in many intangible ways.

I think to dismiss the idea of the Great American Novel solely because we are a nation of differences (superficial and otherwise) or that people tend to drift towards White Guys being the recipe for the Great American Novel is a bit too careless. In an effort to dismiss the idea, it falls into a similar trap as those trying to aggressively sell the idea. Instead, the idea of the Great American Novel is something that should be explored, and that difference cultures in the United States should attempt to appropriate for themselves. While I think there are aspects of The Great Gatsby that transcends boundaries, I think the same could be said for Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Instead of dismissing the Great American Novel because of our differences, we should use it to illustrate the unity in those differences.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

February 17, 2014

I’ve never delved much into steampunk, the most involved I’ve gotten is probably the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki and about fifteen minutes of Wild Wild West. I think Wild Wild West sort of ruined it all for me.  So picking up Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was somewhat of a new experience for me, at least partially egged on by the title, the cover, and my wife’s obsession with theming our kid’s room around steam punk. Right now the room is mostly just orange. Not sure where she’s wanting to go with it, really.

But back to the novel. It’s really a blender full of tropes and ideas. We have Bram Stoker, Lady Bathory, mummies, an ancient weapon fueled by who knows what, dirigibles, the aforementioned mechanical girl, and a boy being thrown into adulthood as he…well, seeks adventure. So, what is Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl? (another question might be why I’m asking this question, why do we have to categorize it and why can’t it just be what it is and put afloat on the sea of Isness, and maybe I’ll get to that later) Well, as I said, it’s definitely steam punk, as it twists history over on itself, pushes forward with advanced steam and other technologies and just generally has a helluva lot of fun with itself.  It would be tempting to call it a metanovel, considering Bram Stoker plays a central role, and Sherlock Holmes is hinted strongly at. I don’t think it really fits, though.

I think it is really just a lot of fun. Barnett writes a quick, funny, human tale of the defining of humanity, self-perception, and ravenous frog faced carnivorous children of an Egyptian goddess. What more could you really ask for?

But to revisit this idea of why I (or we, as I think all of us do ask this question to a differing degrees) do we ask what a novel is? Is it scifi? Is it fantasy? Is it a murder mystery? Is it literary?   I think part of it is to create a personal shorthand for ourselves to easily delineate our likes and dislikes, for ourselves and for others. If you have  read some political thriller novels and you absolutely hate them, you can pretty safely cross that entire genre off the list of stuff you should aggressively pursue to read more of. It also gives you a quick way of telling someone else that you might not be the biggest Grisham fan.

A slightly more controversial aspect might be that it also infers some degree of quality or goal to the writing. When someone hears “scifi” and then they hear “literary” I would take a wild stab in the dark that the expectations for each would be markedly different. While it would be unfair to think of a “literary” work being of higher quality than scifi, I think it’s a common perception. Is it deserves? I am not entirely sure, but literature does have the benefit of a far larger backlist to draw from. Though part of that surely derives from the malleability of literature to eventually envelop anything deemed literary enough to fit. Old tails such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf would seem to have more in common with modern fantasy than what we would think of as literature, but I think they fall more accurately beneath the umbrella of the latter. Literature, the sort that is always  capitalized, has the benefit of being able to acquire anything for itself.

If labeling a novel, such as Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, a steampunk novel, am I helping or hurting it? I am accurately describing it. If you have experience with steampunk and know what to expect when seeing the term, then Barnett’s novel is certain to not disappoint. But it could just as easily foster some negativity because either a dislike for steampunk or a misconception of what steampunk is, or for another of a variety of reasons.

The short answer is I don’t know, but probably a bit of both. for what it’s worth, though, Gideon Smith is a wonderful read. It’s quick. It’s inventive. It’s fun. It makes me think strongly of how I felt about Nick Harkaway’s Gone Away World. Here’s the B&N link.

Links links links

February 13, 2014

In case you’ve been living in a hole this morning, you’ve probably heard about how Comcast is looking to buy Time Warner Cable.   Personally, I don’t get how this doesn’t hurt consumers. Removing choice, removing competition, putting more companies under fewer umbrellas..yeah, great for rich people, kinda bones the rest of us, though. What’s especially scary is how this could work with a world without net neutrality. It’s a defacto regulation of the internet where a handful (or maybe just one) company can set prices to play. Want a blog? Pay this. Want to publish a video podcast? That’ll cost ya. Want to stream video over the internet that directly competes with legacy television powers? Oohhhh, netflix needs to find a nice bridge to crawl under and die. How does this affect publishing? Well, look at Amazon’s push into that market. Look at the gobs of fan fiction. Look at the various lit blogs (hello!) that still litter the net. If access to these forms becomes restricted in some way, don’t think they will only come for the big boys. They might be first, but they won’t be the last. The control may come from nothing else than Comcast being able to make cable so cost prohibitive (and service so miserable) that people forgo it.  People don’t trust the government because of a fear of it becoming too powerful, but don’t trust these corporations, either. We need the government and the business world to counterbalance each other, never getting too friendly and never getting too antagonistic. The problem is they’ve been buddy-buddy for too long, and maybe the idea of the internet falling under an ever smaller net will be very appealing to an espionage heavy government.

Do you write? Are you supposed to be writing right now but you are procrastinating instead? You’re not alone.

Finally, I made these today. They are still cooling in the fridge, so I won’t know how they are for awhile yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I had another lit link or two, but I want to re-read them first. Things have been a bit up in the air in Casa el Loose Leaf Bound. We’re looking at buying new flooring for the house, I’m finishing a cedar chest and a writing desk, and we just found out the wife is pregnant with a parasite…er, kid. Yeah. They only become parasites later, right? as they leech off your time, your vitality, and your will to live. Anyway. There ya go. Also, I ate too much peanut stir fry and I’m kind of nauseous now. Too much info.


Books Links

February 6, 2014

Well, Haruki Murakami has horribly insulted some town in Japan.  Within his newest short story, a woman tosses a smoke from her car window and the main character makes the comment that all people from this woman’s town must be horrible litterers. I omit the name of the town from my blog in fear of bringing their wrath down upon me.

Amazon is venturing into publishing.  Okay, they’ve been there awhile but the Seattle Times is finally writing about it. Good read.

Alright, so JK Rowling isn’t exactly thrilled with having Hermione and Weasley become an item.  I’ve since seen debates springing up across the web about it. Yes, Harry was perfect for Hermione. Weasley and Hermione had a genuine romantic give and take.  The only one perfect for Harry was Ron. Wait…no, I think that last one was just me.  My only real response at this point  is who cares?  She wishes she had written the books differently. Okay. Most authors probably have similar wishes at some point. She isn’t kicking your dog, she isn’t irrevocably destroying your faith in God. She’s just saying, “hey, maybe I could have done something different.” Big deal.

Philip Seymour Hoffman RIP

February 3, 2014

It’s been a day, and I’m still not sure what to make of this. I’ve already seen way too much talk  (NYT link, fyi), though what he left behind has been steadily gaining – I especially like this post at Kateopolis. . If you’re following this at all, you’ve probably already seen some of the ugly details leaked about it. I think it is a tragic loss. He had three very young children with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell.

CNN  has my favorite write-up so far. And here’s something from 60 Minutes. And one of his last video interviews, this one with the LA Times.

I keep going over all of the movies I’ve loved with him in them. The Savages has become an increasingly important movie for me, as I move into middle age and my parents move into their senior years. Boogie Nights was one of my first DVD purchases, though primarily for all of the sex.  Love, Liza was a raw, aching performance of being the one who was left behind by a loved one committing suicide. All of them left impressions, all of them were of an actor who brought everything he had to a role.

He’s thirteen years older than me. That might be what hits the most. Not that he’s accomplished so much more, or anything like that, but how quickly he went. How he is already just gone. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m still processing this. I think I’ll sit down and watch a few movies.