David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: science fiction (page 4 of 5)

Alexander Kluge and Peter Watkins

Kluge’s Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome is less successful than his earlier Case Histories because he decouples the human element from his reportage style. In Case Histories, the portraits of ordinary people corrupted (easily or with some difficulty) or destroyed by circumstances resonated because they so resolutely represented the ordinary in times of crisis. Here, the stars are four old Nazi war criminals who, in the near future, mastermind humanity’s expansion into space and the mass exploitation of, well, pretty much everything.

The trick is in the telling, full of vague pictures, recorded dialogues, and all sorts of obfuscatory tricks to frame the science fiction concepts in blandly “objective,” “scientific,” and “rational” phrasings. Kluge’s goal, as far as I can tell, is to produce enough distance from those mechanisms by means of the science fiction content to expose them for the manipulative forms of speech that they are. The technique is fairly effective, but Kluge overplays his hand by making the material too grand-scale and not giving enough insight into how the forms of reportage are being consumed. It’s propaganda without an audience.

Far more effective are the best moments of Peter Watkins‘s oeuvre, recently playing at Anthology. Watkins is an extremely clever filmmaker who is also extremely left-wing, sliding somewhere into the anarcho-socialist category. So Punishment Park is about a near-future extension of Vietnam where the authorities are locking up hippies and dissidents and sending them off in the desert with a bunch of trigger-happy National Guardsmen; The Gladiators shows all the generals of the world getting together quietly in a room to cheerfully direct wargames where their troops kill each other; Privilege is a MacGoohan-esque individualist tract about how a pop star is exploited by the state first to direct youth violence in harmless directions, then to persuade everyone to convert to Christianity and conform and so on. “Aren’t you using this young man to further your own agenda?” they ask the clergyman. He replies: “Well, in the middle ages the church used the inquisition to further our own agenda, and we think this is a lot less painful!” It’s farther out than Lindsay Anderson’s flicks of the same period (if…, O! Lucky Man) and about as entertaining.

But the matter at hand is a particular device that Watkins only inconsistently uses. He’s fond of voiceover narration (I believe in his own voice), often telling you the exact meaning of the scene, and the use of tropes used almost exclusively in documentaries. I have a distaste for many documentaries because, due to the need to organize messy material into a compelling storyline, the invisible hand of the editor/director is often far more apparent than if the facts could be smoothed over in fiction, and the result is all too apparently manipulative. Watkins exposes these methods and those used in news reports, often with stunning verisimilitude. In Culloden, a recreation of the battle done up in the style of a news report, complete with interviews and running commentary, the inflections and mannerisms of the commentators are not those of any other film; they’re those of the mid-60’s BBC. In Punishment Park, he doesn’t go so far, but he manages to capture some (apparently improvised) very believable conversations between older establishment types (most memorably a Phyllis Schlafly look- and sound-alike years before she appeared on the scene) and some young anti-establishment kids. They talk, they spew their dogma, and they fight, and it’s all in the trite, ideologically simplistic phrasings of received ideas that very rarely make it into novels or films. It’s incredibly depressing, but it’s also convincing because it captures some ineffables that fell out of Kluge’s work: incoherent speech corrupted by emotion, the verbal shorthand of preconceived notions, and the pompous, rehearsed tone of someone saying things that they’ve believed for years and have never questioned.

The Twofold Vibration, Raymond Federman

There is something niggling about this book. It is, as Ray Davis has described, one of those works which deals with a deep trauma through literary extravagance. You could even say that it is about dealing with deep trauma through such extravagance. The trauma is the Holocaust, and if the work is not as arbitrarily generated as Beckett’s Watt, it tries its best. And there is something niggling about the effort.

(“Niggling” might make a less pretentious and more value-neutral substitute for “uncanny.”)

It’s not the metafictional artifice, with its fourth wall eternally under construction. Federman introduces himself at the beginning and discusses how he came to arrive at the book, and how his two assistant narrators, Namredef and Moinous, are going to help him talk about this horny old Holocaust survivor writer who is about to be exiled to another planet on the eve of the millenium. (The book was published in 1982.) The old man, we’re told, was born in the same year as Federman’s father. Federman himself discusses the two narrators here.

It’s not the intentionally perfunctory science fiction trappings. Federman dispatches them early on and only returns to them obliquely, when he gets involved with the Jane Fonda stand-in “June Fanon,” clearly in her post-Barbarella phase. He drops Lem and Bradbury’s names, but is content to sling a few insults at generic science fiction: “most science-fiction tends lamentably towards unconvincing futuristic descriptions and explications of the impossible…with simplistic characters and melodramatic plots which animate elementary didacticism.” Most metafiction tends towards narcissistic tail-chasing, but let’s keep going.

June Fanon is one of many women the old man is involved with, and a fair amount of time is spent detailing his successes with wild abandon. But it’s all in the past since he’s about to be exiled as part of some mysterious exile program, which is not actually exile, Federman explains, but a dumping of society’s refuse into space. The process is never clearly explained, but it’s very definitely a Holocaust metaphor. The old man is a survivor, and the two fulcrums at work are his hesitation about what has happened in the past, and the haziness and blankness of his upcoming exile. As a contrast we’re offered specifics–his continued anger at Germany, culminating in him expectorating (and worse) on a bed of Deutschmarks, and his rabid activism, all of which are not related to either of his exiles.

The book is driven by a generation of realistic but absurd plots that all proclaim their independence from the mysterious Holocaust and the mysterious exile. Most strikingly, the old man seduces a starlet by telling her the story of a boy narrowly escaping the camps by jumping from one train to another. She’s convinced it’s him: “I know it’s your story, the way you tell it, has to be your story.” He scores, but hates her and hates himself, and continues to insist that it was not him, “just a story.”

The underlying spirit at work, more than Beckett, is that of Edmund Jabes, whom Federman mentions twice. The only part of Beckett present is his playfulness, not the sparseness nor the precision, and without such stark contrast, the result can seem frivolous. “But that’s the point,” a response could go, “to focus on the quotidian which can be described to elucidate what cannot.” Jabes also worked in the space around what he believed he could not speak, and Federman ultimately seems to be marking territory with “Keep out!” signs. The problem is that the lightly comedic quality of the rest of the material references the dark center without illuminating it.

That niggling quality: it is that you can work through pain and suffering and the most awful thing in the world, and you can have fun doing it while making sure to be conscious of the unconscionable past and future, and you can even write all about that, but that elliptical quality that Jabes references, illumination, is, perhaps intentionally, absent. Left instead are pure aesthetics, hovering without reason, seemingly treasured.

Oulipo Tangent: John Sladek

I was always surprised that there wasn’t more overlap between the Oulipo and science fiction, since both fields were among the most ready to dispose of character and meaning in search of advances in their respective fields. Calvino had Cosmicomics and T-Zero, but those are more fantasies than anything resembling generic exercises. There have been a few sf authors over the years who have tried Oulipo experiments, and probably more recently that I don’t know about: the latest I know of is Geoff Ryman’s 253, which also happens to be one of the more successful hypertexts out there. I believe it succeeds on its own terms, but it does come off as a bit of an exercise, a left-brained excursion in assembling fragments that’s closer to computer programming than to writing a novel–which is not a criticism. It is also, of course, not science fiction. Why Ryman chose ordinary reality for his experiment is not for me to answer, but perhaps, as with Harry Mathews’ Tlooth, it’s more coherent to maintain the physical rules of common reality if you’re going to play havoc with the metaphysics of coincidence, symbolism, and structure.

(There is an old EC Comics story, I think from Weird Science, in which a man mows his double down with his car shortly before finding a time machine, and, well, you know the rest, but the best part of the story is the appendix, in which the entire loop is graphically represented and explained for teenagers who hadn’t yet read “By His Bootstraps.” This type of structure, in its simplest form in this story, requires as much contrivance as some of the Oulipo techniques, and may offer a similar form of getting-out-of-a-jam.)

I suspected that 253 was inspired by Thomas Disch’s 334, a fix-up collection of linked stories laid out in appropriately Perecesque fashion. But Disch seems to be toying with the device with less than full passion; it’s his friend, the late John Sladek, who always read as the most influenced by the Oulipo metaphysics. (If you aren’t convinced, Sladek references Mathews and people like Robert Coover and John Barth in this nice interview.)

Nearly all of Sladek’s books are set up like Rube Goldberg machines with the strings in plain sight, as he maneuvers all his pieces into place for a final conflagration. Sometimes, as with his massive 800-page Roderick, about a robot Candide, he lets the chain of events go slack to focus more on episodes of straight satire (which is always there to the degree that it’s not being steamrolled by the plot). Other times, as with The Muller-Fokker Effect, whose protagonist disappears very early on after his mind is transferred onto computer, the overwhelming drive is action, action, action towards that blowout at the end. Consequently, he doesn’t have time to develop most characters beyond caricatured monsters–corrupt professors, foolish hicks, parochial megalomaniacs–which happen to be exactly what the stories require.

The exception is Bugs. Whether it’s because of a slightly less complicated plot or a focus on one particular character, Bugs feels more rooted in several specific places and their corresponding emotions, the most striking being the dreary gray computer company. It’s working on nutty cybernetics, but in the spaces between plot points there’s a melancholy that seems more identifiable with a technical writing job in Minnesota (Sladek’s other profession) than anything else he wrote.

Fred Jones is an English writer who, possessed of little character except for literate decency, gets caught up in the usual antics, but Jones is sympathetic enough that Sladek sticks by him even more than he did with Roderick. There are scenes that don’t figure at all in the plot, as when he applies to a newspaper to write book reviews (“I’m Fred, and literate” is how he introduces himself) and is led into a backroom teeming with shelves of undifferentiated rack-sized fantasy books. “See, about ten years ago somebody made the mistake of reviewing one of these and the word got out. I mean, Christ, they print fifty of these fuckers a month!” says the editor, then the shelves collapse and bury him.

The robot soon goes berserk after Fred has it read Frankenstein and the pace picks up, but there is still a similarity between Sladek’s games of satire and the Oulipo’s reductionistic approach to character. It’s more noticeable in Bugs than it is in Sladek’s other work, or even, for example, The Day of the Locust, because the setting is intensely realistic and very contemporary. Fred remains the only real everyman character Sladek used, and his placement in the book amidst architected madness suggests an attempted escape from the specifics of his personality through a sort of super-detailed cartography of plot. Other characters get completely sucked into the machinery, but Fred remains psychologically present, and his own experiences, though carefully contrived, are more bitter.

The conclusion? That the structural, mathematical antics used by the Oulipo-ians are inspired by the same spirit that drives Sladek’s Rube Goldberg plot machines: it’s not an inherently avoidant technique, but it is one that moves away from what characters like Fred are supposed to represent. Bugs doesn’t resolve that tension, but neither does it fall apart.

(That same architectonic spirit is also what makes chapter 10 of Ulysses a diversion rather than a sequential component of the book. To me, the book holds unexplored answers to all these dilemmas.)

Sladek suggests in the article above that he was going to go further in his never-finished project Maps, where the novelistic structures would extend, Oulipo-style, into the metaphysics of the novel. It sounds like it might have been too fanciful and too arid for Sladek to manage, because his application of structure did not encourage perfect structure as much as it did satire.

Barks’s Successors

When I was a kid, and I mean a cheerful, oblivious 8-year-old who was gobbling down Donald Duck comics, I couldn’t tell the difference between Carl Barks’s artwork and the rash of those inferior artists who succeeded and co-existed with him. I knew that his writing was better, though Gold Key/Whitman’s endless reprinting of his painful “Riches, Riches Everywhere!” story occasionally put that into question. But out of a sheer lack of visual acuity, I couldn’t see why it was that his drawing was so much more skilled, so much more well-proportioned, so much more careful. There actually was one difference that allowed me to identify Barks, once I figured it out: Barks was the only artist to use pie-cut eyes for all of his characters. Quality of artwork? Mystery to me. I hear these days that Tony Strobl wasn’t such a bad artist compared to those who followed, but at the time I couldn’t even tell.

Then the wave of fans who’d been Barks fans came around, with Another Rainbow and Gladstone doing their best to reprint the choice stuff and find new work of a higher grade, instead of picking randomly and often rather badly. Daan Jippes, William Van Horn, and Don Rosa were the big names. They used pie-cut eyes. They were committed to recreating Barks’s particular vision of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, the nephews, and all the other incidental characters. Since by that point I’d exhausted the collected works of Barks, I gobbled down the new work, which seemed as good as Barks’s stuff. And I liked Rosa the most, because he seemed to buy into the greater mythology of it all; he was the most obsessed with past references, with dense storylines, with establishing new characters in the old continuum. The willingness to work with huge amounts of archival material as gospel and yet go no further (any sort of rewriting, much less “deconstruction”, was strictly verboten) may be summed up best by this Q&A of a Disney animator:

Q: Who’s your favorite Disney character?
A: Love Dewey, hate Huey.

Now I look back and I see it as a breed of fandom much like those in science fiction and mystery circles. Rosa got too caught up in writing sequels to old Barks stories and eventually got lost in his “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” project, which is so focused on cramming in offhand references from every Barks story ever written that the characters end up as bizarro-world versions of themselves, carrying out actions without a context. I didn’t care for it at the time and next to “The Son of the Sun” and “Cash Flow,” which are solid, entertaining yarns, “Life and Times” gets bogged down in hero worship and the self-imposed majesty of the project. It is not quite a story; it is closer to Harry Blamires’s Bloomsday Book.

Rosa is unapologetic. In The Comics Journal #183, he said:

Strangely enough people ask, “Aren’t you excited about creating your own characters?” And I say, “No, I want to use Barks’ characters!” That’s the thrill, not creating my own. It’s taking one of his characters and doing something else with it that I love. Because Barks used so many of them only once I can actually use these characters a second time!

I don’t think the basis of fandom is simply one of arrested adolescence; the scenes that you see on the internet, at conventions, and in specialist bookstores are a parallel culture to the more traditional literati, with completely different mores and notions of status. But the urge to so completely inhabit a world delineated by an idolized master creates a ghetto for such work pretty quickly. (Again, there are Joyce “scholars”, and there are Joyce “obsessives.”) There is a similar stigma that surrounds Gustav Janouch’s dubious Conversations with Kafka, which, nonetheless, contains quotes that “If Kafka hadn’t said, you really wish he had.”

I’m not going to pass judgment on Rosa’s approach, but I will say that for a while he succeeded. When I first read the early stories, they might as well have been new Barks stories as far as I was concerned. Maybe this speaks to a lack of discrimination in my prepubescent years; it doesn’t matter, since the new stories weren’t intended for an eye that would be first drawn to Rosa’s more crowded and worked-over art rather than the basics of plot and character. They were aimed at someone who would read them as though they were additions to the master’s oeuvre.

Kobo Abe

Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night also reminds me of Kobo Abe, particularly his insane works of the 70’s, The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous. As long as we’re drawing cross-continental comparisons, William Burroughs is there too, but Burroughs more surrealist, later work is pedantic and decadent in a too-familiar way. These two books of Abe’s aren’t familiar. They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness. Apart from Inter Ice Age 4, an early work which gets mired in the tropes of science fiction, most of Abe’s translated books do have a purity about them.

I discovered Abe through The Woman in the Dunes. At the time I was a huge Camus adherent, and the summary of a man trapped in a sand pit with a woman who has lived there for years, makes it sound similar to any number of existentialist works of fiction. It’s not. Attempts to draw a metaphor do not work, since the book remains focused on the constraining of the man with a fundamentally unresponsive woman, and his very real interaction with the sadistic villagers keeping him there. The slow madness that overcomes him stems from the particular (and odd) circumstances rather than any speculative human condition. Far from existential, the story has more in common with Nabokov, especially the finely-ground fantasies Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, though it’s far more realistic than either. Teshigahara’s film of the book also seems to misunderstand it (though it has an amazing, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu), adoping long shots of dunes that don’t fit with the relative lack of desperation on the man’s part.

By the 70’s, Abe had headed away from anything close to realism. The Box Man revolves around a series of men who walk around with boxes on their heads, with doppelgangers and fakes, disconnected memories and self-consciously pompous meanderings on the integrity of being a box man. Michaela Grey offers an excellent description of the book, but I disagree with her tying it to Derrida: Abe remained focused on personal identity and integrity and was never concerned with purely textual matters. But the book is nuttier than what comes out in the article, since Abe never builds up any credibility in the narrative. The only strand that rings true is one about the noetic nature of being a box man, an affirmation that can’t be obtained externally. This in turn implies that any individual section of the book is dubious, since in total they are the ramblings of one or more men whose ability to place themselves in the world is falling apart. Apart from the surreal surface, here is where there is the most commonality with Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, in its resolute lack of commitment to any particular reality.

Secret Rendezvous is more narratively coherent, but only furthers the idea that individual plot points, characters, and settings are losing all intrinsic meaning short of inciting a vague, sickly psychosexual aura. The narrator’s wife is abducted one morning by an ambulance, and he journeys through the labyrinthine hospital attempting to find her. There is a nice twist on Kafka, when the frustrated narrator is allowed full access to the hospital’s surveillance tapes, only to find that there are so, so many hours of tape that he’ll never be able to derive anything from them. Again, the mental state of the man is subordinate to the organic disease around him that he seems oddly distant from. When, at the end, he ends up leading an entourage including a girl whose bones are dissolving, the enviroment mirrors the girl by not remaining firm enough to grasp. The parallel to Kafka is most appropriate here, but the “characters” are as indeterminate as the landscape. Where Kafka dealt with amorphous persecution, Abe simply pulls the rug out from everything he touches.

There is, at the heart of these books, very little interest in character or psychology, despite the trappings that appear. The next book he wrote, The Ark Sakura, is far less disorienting, but the main character, a paranoid survivalist, spends the last third of the book with his leg caught in an industrial toilet and the other characters are one-dimensional. The book is essentialy a Stevenson-like adventure story, and the abrupt end pushes the unreality of what’s gone before, as he finally emerges from his cave into the light:

Beyond the transparent people lay a transparent town. Was I transparent, then, too? I held a hand up to my face–and through it saw buildings.

The situations Abe deals in do not raise epistemological or existential questions; they are deranged treatments of metaphysics. The question is whether the shifting realities and, in The Box Man, pseudo-philosophical ramblings amount to something that is prior to experience and organized thought. With Donoso, I believe it is. With Abe, they seem detached from thought altogether: some sort of objectification of humans. The perversions in his books often come off as heartless, but Abe may be pushing for metaphysical heartlessness.

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