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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Ah Cheng on Writing

Great interview.

Oriental Outlook: But we haven’t seen you write any commercial films.
Ah Cheng: The directors haven’t asked me to. If they asked me, I’d do it. But would the movie sell? It’s not something you can simply will to happen.

Commercial stuff is very hard to do. It’s like a cow—everyone’s seen one, so if you’re even a little bit off, everyone can criticize you. Art is a ghost—since no one’s seen one, how do you know what I’m really thinking? Ghosts are easy to paint. Cows are not.

Oriental Outlook: When you were in the US, did you have to work for a living?
Ah Cheng: Of course. Do you think I held up banks? I worked a lot of jobs in the US, but I mostly did house painting. Painting doesn’t require any thinking. Who says I have to find a mentally-taxing job?

Oriental Outlook: What books are you reading these days?
Ah Cheng: I’m most concerned with primary sources, primary materials from society. Literature is not produced out of literature. If that were the case, it would be idiotic. Inbreeding always produces idiots.

I read the local news in the newspapers. People’s stories can help your thought process.

Oriental Outlook: What sort of help?
Ah Cheng: We normally live our lives within limits. Reading primary materials, you’ll see a different side of life, one that you’ve never had a chance to see, and you’ll discover lots of relationships that you never before imagined.

Oriental Outlook: So what is the appropriate designation for your current identity?
Ah Cheng: A person without an identity—you probably haven’t interviewed one before. I’m just someone a little bit better-off than those disadvantaged groups.

Oriental Outlook: As an author and an intellectual, how do you perceive the invasion of high culture by commercial culture?
Ah Cheng: First, as I’ve said, don’t call me an author. If you call me an author, you’re calling me a beggar.

Commerce is the foundation of production and of life. Without commercial culture there’d be no high culture. We cannot escape it for even an instant; we would cease to exist if we were to do so. There is nothing blame-worthy about commerce itself; the measure is whether a commercial product is of high or low quality. Hollywood films are commercial products of the highest quality. Domestic commercial films, shit, with quality as poor as that, they aren’t commercial films. They’re like low-quality fakes—toothpaste that doesn’t work when you brush your teeth. This is the crux of the problem.

We’re only trying to eliminate low-quality fakes right now, but we haven’t truly engaged commercialism. Only in a society with full financial and credit systems can we talk about commercial issues. Does China have real credit cards? Can someone without a job get a credit card? When you use a debit card you are spending your own money. In the US, utilities are hooked into the credit system, so your credit is built up gradually. If you don’t have that foundation, then you can’t talk about commercial culture.

Do you think that American beggars are all a certain sort of person? There are double PhDs all over the place, people who simply lost their credit and now are disconnected from commerce.

More on Ah Cheng.

Notes on Roberto Bolaño: 2666

Okay, let’s do this. Here’s the first sentence in the book:

An excerpt from “The Part About the Crimes” first appeared in Vice.

And with that preview, let’s begin. When I reviewed The Savage Detectives, I said that it was not Bolaño’s best or tightest work (I rate By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth as his best), so I was curious to see what he would do in his other large work. It’s told in pretty much the same sprawling, episodic manner as the earlier book, but at least in the first section, which I just finished, Bolaño sprawls within tight boundaries, detailing the quest of four scholars to locate the target of their studies, the mysterious writer Archimboldi. 160 pages later, after three of them have taken a long trip to Santa Teresa, Mexico, they have not found him.

Note that Bolaño is using a similar mechanism to the one of The Savage Detectives, in which the two poets central to the narrative (one of whom was Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s surrogate) never spoke for themselves during the major part of the book and were left only to be elucidated upon by a host of figures who had interacted with them over their lives. Here, though, Archimboldi remains wholly elusive, as Bolaño gives only tangential information on him and his work, using him as a MacGuffin for the drama that plays out between the scholars. The four of them, each of whom hails from a different country, are all seeking something in their obsessive search for the man, but whatever it is, it is subordinated to the quest narrative itself, and the romances that develop among the scholars.

So the Archimboldi mythology so far reads to me as a mostly generic mythology, except for the great specifics given to his supposed final location, Santa Teresa, where the hundreds of murders to be detailed later in the book (and partly in Vice) have already taken place. I connect this to the greater reality given to the first and last sections of The Savage Detectives, the parts narrated as a real story rather than as hearsay, and whose second part ends in Santa Teresa as sort of a culmination of a youthful poetic pilgrimage. And thus the first part of 2666 reads as a tentative return to a place outside the civilized world which Archimboldi has fled, a place that is more real or at least more alive as literature. When the scholars meet the less refined translator and Chilean exile Amalfitano in Santa Teresa, their priorities are summed up:

“Exile must be a terrible thing,” said Norton sympathetically.

“Actually,” said Amalfitano, “now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate.”

“But exile,” said Pelletier,” is full of inconveniences of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that’s important.”

“That’s just what I mean by abolishing fate,” said Amalfitano.

So, onto the abolishing of fate. Following this section, which reads as prelude, the next part is about Amalfitano.

[One other thing: some people asked me why I thought Bolaño didn’t do female characters well, and now I cite Liz Norton in 2666 as evidence. She serves too much as a Deus ex machina, sleeping her way through the characters without ever becoming more than an enigmatic cipher. (Her somewhat interminable letter at the end of the section is weak and offers no explanations that elaborate on her character.) She reminds me of a similar woman-as-other character, La Maga in Hopscotch]

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun

I’ve been meaning to write on this series/book for years, but because I’m less than enthusiastic about it, I haven’t quite had the impetus. Thinking back on it now, there are striking bits and pieces that have stayed with me, but the work as a whole has not. But because Gene Wolfe is praised to the skies by many “intellectual” sci-fi fans while being ignored by everyone else, I think he represents a position that is worth exploring. I.e., why is Wolfe still occupying a marginal place in literature in spite of praise from the likes of John Clute and Michael Swanwick, while Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson have made it into the mainstream canon?

I think there are discernible reasons for this. Wolfe may not be any worse than Stephenson or Gibson, but his particular weaknesses are much more problematic for non-sf readers than theirs. This is mostly for the sake of people who have already read the book, since I’ll be referring to lots of things not apparent until the very end of the book, if then. For those who haven’t read it, I suggest reading “The Death of Doctor Island,” a brilliant story that bests anything else I’ve read by Wolfe. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is also rather good (read all three novellas, not just the first) and deserves inclusion with other highlights of post-colonial literature.

On to the massive, ambitious, creative, and flawed The Book of the New Sun: first, there’s the style. Wolfe tends to employ a somewhat high-falutin’ style using words that appear to be neologisms but are anything but, drawn directly or indirectly from archaic words and usages, often Latin-derived. Some people I know find the resulting style insufferably pompous and awkward; I don’t, but nor do I find it to be one of Wolfe’s particular strengths. It does, however, serve its purpose, which is to evoke strangeness while preserving a depth of meaning, and I give Wolfe credit for this. Creating effective neologisms is very, very hard. (cf. “whuffie.”) What it doesn’t do is make the writing beautiful, which is one big minus in being accepted by the mainstream. Dick’s style is clunky but doesn’t call attention to itself; Wolfe’s is clunky, and it can’t be ignored.

The next issue is the plot. Wolfe is very fond of elision and narrative unreliability. Central plot points are skipped over and only referred to in retrospect. Others are presented in a highly misdirecting manner. And others are simply never cleared up. Because Wolfe’s ideas manifest themselves primarily through plot machinations, this is more of a problem than it would be in, for instance, a Faulkner novel. In so far as the entire series revolves around an obliquely laid out science-fiction scenario having to do with installing a white hole into the sun, it’s necessary to derive the plot sequence properly in order to make sense of the layers of (mostly Christian) symbolism and allegory that Wolfe has quite definitely laid into the series. And often just to figure out what has actually happened. A flurry of significant answers are delivered at the very end of the series, but these following questions, as far as I could tell, do not have apparent answers:

  1. Why does the Claw only work sometimes?
  2. Why does Hethor want to kill Severian?
  3. Is Little Severian just coincidentally a little boy with the same name, or is he the next Severian, or Severian himself?
  4. Does Typhon have any significance outside of the section in which he appears?
  5. Was Severian raised in the prisoner/starship cave?
  6. Who is Severian’s sister?
  7. Isn’t it, like, really dangerous to have the autarch pass from one body to the next, relying on the alzabo-esque transition to keep the line going, when the autarch tends to behave in wildly unsafe ways?
  8. What other characters are “projections” of the machines of the hierodules? Dorcas?
  9. Is Severian the conciliator?

People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles, but unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon, Wolfe puts so much effort into the hints and partial answers that it very much appears as though things will come together. And they partly do. Moreover, their not coming together would not serve any evident thematic purpose. When Gravity’s Rainbow falls apart, it ties into themes and motifs that have been present from the very first page. Wolfe’s story of rebirth and redemption is anything but entropic and chaotic.

But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian’s manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian’s lies, we can’t derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.

For all their faults, the other writers mentioned above make their metaphysics and their internal structures quite clear. Even the underrated Christopher Priest, who has made an art of unreliable narrators, is sure to place them within a determinate (or determinately indeterminate) context. But Wolfe uses these devices without appearing to have a larger sense of what they might mean; like the lesser Oulipo novels, they’re just a game. And it is this myopia that I think is his greatest debt to the flaws of science-fiction, and the reason why his crossover remains unlikely.

J.M. Coetzee: Slow Man

The collective aggrievement from critics that greeted Elizabeth Costello’s appearance in Slow Man was the sigh of the Nobel prize winner again not doing what he was supposed to do. Instead of writing another Disgrace, he brings back the consternating title character of his last book, this time in a metafictional conceit, as she proclaims herself the author of Slow Man.

I argued before that the critics mostly got Elizabeth Costello wrong, particularly in identifying Costello with Coetzee. Here again the reviews make a mishmash of this superficially simple book. John Lanchester makes the huge mistake of saying that the titular slow man, Paul Rayment, “will not act. He refuses to animate the narrative he is in.” A read of the book reveals this to be false: Rayment actually traces a traditional narrative arc through the book. After losing his leg in a bicycle accient, he entangles himself in the life his at-home nurse Marijana because he is attracted to her, and eventually comes to fund the education of her son, though not without some conflict with her husband. His actions with Marijana are impetuous and embarrassing, but the ultimate end is a happy one, perhaps the happiest ending Coetzee has ever committed to paper. The injury serves a higher purpose.

There is a post-colonial aspect to the narrative of a relatively poor Croatian immigrant acting as a nurse to an injured, privileged white man. The main difficulties in the narrative arise from the white man’s burden tactics Paul adopts to get closer to Marijana, and Marijana’s discomfort with them. Through seeing her son as a person, not a means to an end, Paul grows out of this type of relation, but the connections with earlier Coetzee works, particularly Foe and Disgrace, are inarguably present, if not blatant. Pankaj Mishra teases out some of these connections in his review, but falls short of fitting the pieces together.

But this time the postcolonial theorizing is fake, or at least highly artificial. For the first seventy pages, before Costello shows up, it is all in Paul’s mind. He has an accident, and he feels a bit of attraction to Marijana, but he doesn’t do anything about it. Every action he takes that moves the actual plot along is contrived or advocated by Costello. She arranges an affair that spurs Paul to make a move on Marijana, then either berates or flatters him into keeping it up despite Marijana’s clear disapproval. Without Costello’s intervention, it is clear, Paul would quite sensibly have never acted on his feelings for Marijana, and the story–the meat of the book–would not have taken place. Likewise, Costello provides Paul with impeccable facts about Marijana and her family that he could not otherwise find out and verify.

Costello’s presence illuminates exactly how unlikely Paul’s actions are and how contrived the circumstances must be for them to come about. Costello browbeats him: “Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” And he does. But Costello’s aims are hardly virtuous. She is not as irritating as she was in Elizabeth Costello, but her irrationality and wildly inflated sense of herself are still plenty obnoxious. We are given some excerpts from her fiction this time, and they are not good:

It is old plasticine, from the last Christmas stocking. The pristine cakes of brick red, leaf green, sky blue have bled into each other by now and become a leaden purple. Why, he wonders–why does the bright grow dull and the dull never bright? What would it need to make the purple fade away and the red and blue and green emerge again, like chicks from a shell?

[This raises the point that Costello is not likely to be the author of the pristine, controlled prose of Slow Man.]

Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel–this postcolonial narrative–self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul’s reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello’s presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.

I believe that Slow Man is more than anything a critique of Disgrace and his other past works, a way of Coetzee undermining his past techniques and renouncing the artificial narrativity that Galen Strawson has so pungently described. Costello is not a surrogate for Coetzee, but rather an incarnation of any writer’s will and the desire to shape reality into pleasing novelistic shapes through unpleasant means. I had issues with Disgrace because I believed that the character’s acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey. (James Wood makes similar points.) Slow Man appears to be Coetzee’s confession. Always very self-aware, Coetzee seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty.

John Crowley: Great Work of Time

In reviewing Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, John Clute points out that complex time travel stories (not simply going to some other time, but changing the past and having it affect the future, paradox, etc.) have evolved as such a genre into themselves that writing one is difficult: either a writer will retread territory already covered, or the writer will assume a background knowledge of time travel tropes that only a seasoned science-fiction reader will know:

Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the fantastic as a whole, the premises, assumptions, narrative strategies, affect chaos, paradox-mongering convolutions and general abandon of the time travel story make it almost unreadable. (Bones is a lot less contorted than most, but it is still no book to give to a stranger.)

Stanislaw Lem wrote an essay on the architecture of time-travel stories, or rather, the two architectures of time-travel stories. It would need expanding today, but its fundamental premises have remained the same. And so I find myself wondering, in reviewing Crowley’s brilliant, monstrous (120 page) time-travel story, whether I should target the science-fiction reader or the general reader. And I wonder what Crowley thought when he constructed this story, because it comes a good way towards meeting each side halfway. Or so it seems to me; I was schooled on Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and “–All You Zombies–“, so I can’t speak for the novice.

At any rate, Crowley uses the time travel plot and its attendant tropes–characters meeting future/past versions of themselves, alternate timelines, the negation of the past–but mitigates it in two ways. The first is a long introductory section presenting a simple excursion to the past by a man who goes back in time and mails a rare stamp to his grandfather, followed by an explicit description of the time-travel model Crowley is using. In short, it’s the many-universes model; i.e., each change to the past simply causes a fully alternate timeline wholly divergent from the original. The second mitigating factor is that Crowley uses the entirety of time travel allegorically, as a metaphor for British colonialism.

The British entrepreneur and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes left money after his death for a secret society to work to preserve the British empire in all perpetuity. Crowley runs with this idea: the conceit is that the society thrived and, through surgically changing the past, has enabled the British empire to survive while minimizing certain horrors. World War I is made less tragic by preventing the invention of the machine gun. The second World War never occurs, and Jews are deported from Germany, not massacred. (A friend asks if this means that Crowley shares Daniel Goldhagen’s position on innate German anti-semitism.) The British Empire remains ascendant. The world is more pleasant and much more colonial.

The subsequent breakdown of this world, manifested in lizards, dragons, and an ironic vision of the Perpetual Peace Rhodes dreamed of, exists in tension with the allegorical structure of the novella. At the literal level, Crowley presents the colonial effort towards order as a nullifying force; in adjusting the past to create a preferable future, the secret society creates an ever-expanding explosion of chaotic degeneration. Allegorically, the message is that the attempt of the empire to exert control over fate has the opposite effect. Their hubris is polluted by tiny imperfections and variations, which unravels their own plans. The time machinations do not need to be compreshended precisely to reveal the thrust of the story: time and empire are not compatible; empire collapses under its own ever-expanding weight. It unmakes itself.

Crowley does not privilege the allegorical over the literal or vice versa; the story remains true to both to the very end, leaving an unresolved complexity when the two levels overlap but do not quite correspond. Like another masterpiece of allegory-telling, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Crowley uses science fiction tropes as novel analogies for history, and the result is far deeper than the often limited analogical vocabulary of science fiction, where the science-fiction content so often only allegorizes trite sentiments about love, power, and other conventional wisdom.

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