Sunday, April 05, 2015

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson


When I was reading this book last December, up popped a spookily coincident NPR story about new developments in ransomware, where hackers would only take payments in bitcoin to free up your locked files.  Bitcoin, meanwhile, isn't far removed in either concept or practice from in-world video game currency, and we all remember the karmic hilarity when its largest exchange, Mt. Gox (still hanging on to its original name, when it was made for investing virtual gaming loot), went ass-up a couple of years ago, with hundreds of thousands of electronic Fun Bux still unaccounted for.  In Reamde, Stephenson only got ahead of these stories by a couple of years.  Science fiction?  Maybe just barely.

The story is set in motion when reclusive billionaire Richard Forthrast and his niece Zula inadvertently cross paths with a small-time criminal connected to the Russian mafia.  Chases and movie violence follow, but the nut of it all is that our short-for-this-novel thug had been contracted to deliver some data to the mobsters, but it got locked up in ransomware that infected his computer while he was up the night before playing fictional online RPG, T'Rain.  Zula winds up kidnapped and dragged along with the Russians as they look for these hackers to get the data, and a growing cast of interesting characters scramble to respond.  (It already sounds complicated, right?)  Will the kidnappers realize they've got the niece of the guy who struck it filthy rich inventing the game?

And here's a confession: I played World of Warcraft sporadically for a recent year or two.  I didn't really play it right*--because hey, it's me--but I can certainly attest how compelling is the sheer size of the world and all its official supporting background lore, as well as the organic depth it has grown from all the people wandering around and feeling out the stories.  The fictional T'Rain is fashioned as the next generation of WoW, and Stephenson delivers a pile of backstory on how something so broad could come together. 

We're introduced to many of the fictional game developers, various sorts of geek obsessives who make Richard Forthrast (Vietnam-era draft dodger, erstwhile weed smuggler, with his family of borderline survivalist crackpots) look like a grounded member of normal society.  The game world is built on an inappropriately thorough (and otherwise uselessly fictional) geological model developed by one of its founding geniuses.  One conceit of T'Rain is that it does its world-building from, literally, the ground up--that is, it is a planet which generates its mineral wealth (a big deal when everything in it priced in gold pieces) by some academic-level approximation of natural processes.  The reason it isn't called Terrain is that Richard also brought on a couple of by-the-pound fantasy authors to crank out a world's worth of cultural backstory, one of whom is a prolific hack, unapologetic about chucking apostrophes into every proper noun.  (The other fancies himself a scholar and a linguist, and they drive each other amusingly nuts.)  Sadly, these guys amount to not much more than subplots, but it's a secondary challenge to somehow fold players' rogue behaviors into the proper game.

The other conceit of the game is that it's built to encourage gold farming.  Gps are transferrable to the outside world as currency, and players can fall under one anothers' vassalage.  Low-level users are effectively paid a pittance to mine out T'Rain (often using bots), while players with higher purposes typically pay dues and have better quests.  If WoW once gave economists a small thrill to observe it as a microcosm of a regulated economy, they'd go nuts about T'Rain, which has a permanent labor class and extraction-based wealth baked right into it.  Stephenson is a good enough writer not to make this into a polemic, although I think he wants it seen as more mutually beneficial than fundamentally unequal.  He does wind out a longer picture of the players behind all the exploited toons--the world where the Chinese hackers grew up, but those guys frankly end up okay.

So anyway, the key to some criminal filing cabinet is locked up in T'Rain somewhere, and all the best scenes in the book--mostly because they're so strange--have the characters chasing one another around in the game environment.  Outside, there is a real-world pursuit going on too, and we see these hackers and trolls get to see fleshed out as real people, which is something anyone who's spent time online wonders about.  (It doesn't take long for us to get squarely sympathetic with this guy who basically writes spam emails for a living.)  There's a tightly-plotted novel in those events, and some logical conclusions. 

And instead, we have a thousand-page monster here.  It's an undeniably entertaining one (this is possibly the fastest kilopage I've ever been through--I was up late reading it every night), but there's a great big action movie that grows out of the central plot like an aggressive tumor, complete with spies and terrorist extremists and numerous deaths just off screen, just to show how evil these terrorist assholes are.  It's enjoyable as entertainment, and I'm glad that Stephenson takes moments in all this to point out actual physics of ballistics and human endurance, but there's a sense of just cranking it all out at top speed.  Romances don't really go anywhere, some of those natural conclusions are forgotten about (why didn't Richard take Marlon the hacker under his wing, just like he did his niece?  that would have been perfect) and we kind of forget about all those eccentric game developers too.  And why are the baddies so cartoonishly evil, when there's such rich comedy to be mined by pitting them against the American version of jihadis (Richard's more eccentric relatives) in the final showdown?  Especially considering that getting the whole cast to this improbable point took so much effort.

I won't fail to recommend this one (and Stephenson isn't known for his endings anyway), but I would have enjoyed the carefully tied-together version more.  I like to think he was writing as fast as he could to keep current events from catching up to his speculation.

*I think to get the most of any MMORPG, you really have to go in for the team aspect of it, block off time, and talk out loud to others.  Instead, I mostly played as a means to randomly and quietly get away from people, which is pretty much the opposite thing.  You can play WoW as a solo quest game, but it only goes so far that way.  I still miss wandering around sometimes, though.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Review: 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

In the story of 2312, the emotional world of a gentle young acolyte explodes open when he discovers an ancient musical instrument in the caves outside Megadon city, under the twin moons of his home planet.  But, deterred by Father Brown and the other Temple priests, he suffers a mental breakd--

Oh shit.  Wait.  No, I'm describing the progressive rock epic, 2112.  The science fiction novel, 2312 is set a couple hundred years later.  Obviously.

It (the novel) primarily serves as a wide-angle view of life in the civilized solar system that takes place on almost all the other planets of the solar federation.  It's conveyed mosaic-like, primarily filled with point-of-view character sections, soaring across diverse geography, liberally broken up with creative lists, encyclopedia entries, interpretations of contemporary art forms, and highlights from historical documents.  (I'd bet that Mr. Robinson has also enjoyed a John Dos Passos phase.)

The year 2312, in Robinson's history, is a pivotal one.  The plot is... well, there is a plot, I guess.  The story begins with an attack on the primary human settlement on Mercury.  Swan Er Hong and Fitz Wahram, our two protagonists, are connected in different ways to one of extended humanity's key independent political and scientific groups, and in that capacity, they chase the whodunit clues around the solar system.  I believe that, plot-wise, the effect is meant to be one of various paths intersecting, showcasing kind of an inflection point between the ages in that titular, and no solid climax is really intended.  That's fine, but it's centered on a mystery and a chase, and that motor doesn't propel things forward worth a damn--seriously, I recall finding myself 200 pages in, trying to catalogue whether any movement toward solving the central mystery had occurred at all--and even by the end of the book, all that's really revealed is that the human sphere is a little bigger than realized, and that there are new factions in it, with different motivations. 

But for all that, it's not an unpleasant traipse.  Robinson's schtick, as I understand things, is environmentally-themed sf.  If we presuppose that human capability could advance so far, then how the heck could it be done?  I believe that 2312 takes place in the same continuity as his more famous Mars trilogy (probably why it's skirted here in favor of everything else), in which Robinson took to task a plausible-within-known-physics approach to making the red planet habitable, complete with planet-scale engineering and challenging political ramifications.  (Or so I understand without having read them--this is a theme of interest to me, but with a new author, I preferred a standalone volume for an introduction.) 

2312 takes place in the century following an established Martian civilization.  Most of the rest of the system has been worked over similarly by that year, and Robinson takes care to describe how, in the case of each sterile alien desert, a stable human environment could conceivably be engineered, trucking nitrogen from Titan, for example, or cooling Venus and whacking it hard enough with celestial objects to give it a day.  And if people lived on that toxic, cataclysmic rock, then what would the transition be like?  Or could a city could thrive by constantly fleeing the blazing hellscape of Mercury's bright side?  How could small bodies could be turned into floating terraria of all varieties?  (Robinson creates a lot of cultural diversity in these outskirts, and he smirks at a lot of classic science fiction societies along the way.)  How could our own earth possibly be un-fucked?  Robinson really enjoys humanizing these landscapes (figuratively and literally), and he shows at least enough scientific grasp of ecology, and paints enough limitations and constraints, for me to suspend my disbelief.  Even in 2312, with the ability to shift matter throughout the system at will, humanity is starting to confront resource shortages.  And so it goes.

My disbelief in human cooperation was a little harder to suspend, though.  One problem for me is that his society me an unfortunate parallel with those John Varley Seven Worlds novels (which I love), which maybe didn't wrangle the angle of geological science in such a detailed way, but understood us hairless apes so very brilliantly, and that society spread hypothetically across the ecliptic plane was dysfunctional enough to accept.  Real governments and populations are so diverse and cloying--and Robinson worked at this, I realize, he was taking a good approach to express exactly this, but the locals were still not shown as stultifying enough or brutal enough to convince me they could overcome themselves.  Maybe it's just my cynicism: I can't convince myself that 20 billion of us would survive indefinitely in a state of high technology, even after extending the odds by moving into every abandoned shack in Sol's neighborhood and squeaking a few minor gods out of the machine.

Not to say Robinson's individual characters are unconvincing.  I liked them well enough, and they kept me reading.  I think he did succeed in creating very exotic and altered people who could, superseding every homer prejudice we would ordinarily have, be easily recognized as not only regular folks, but good, decent, and distinguishable ones.  Of course, if, before I invested in them, I had caught on that impulsive, self-destructive Swan was not only from Mercury but mercurial, and that patient, thoughtful Wahram, from Titan, was literally saturnine, I might have found it a hair too cute.  So I may have just ruined them for you, but it worked out for me.  In all, it was a enjoyable tour.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Review: Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh


it's the beard that does it
It feels a little silly that this review will take me almost as long to write (an hour or two, depending on my level of focus) as it took to read the book, but, you know, someone needs to tell you to go out and buy it.  It's not just that it's funny and insightful (it is), or that the author's primitively drawn dad is so darn compelling and handsome (he is!), or that you want to read the handful of strips of new content written just for the book (you do).  Do it because you'll feel better about finally sending a few nickels Ms. Brosh's way for the comics you enjoyed for free for years. Because, now that I made you think about it, your image of being a Good Person who cares about independent authors is finally coming into conflict with your cheapness and your glee about getting a quality freebie for this long.  Agonizing over whether to pay the writer will give you all the tools you need to love, hate, and become bemused with yourself, all at the same time, which is precisely the correct motivation for reading her strip in the first place.

Oh, and also there's general-purpose life stories and bits about dogs.  Here's a woman who knows how to tell you about the dysfunctional mind of a canine.  Another great reason.

Before buying the book, I hadn't checked the Hyperbole and a Half blog since she'd apparently left the game, ostensibly to assemble the book, but also with a cliffhanger about depression, which is a hell of a place to last see anyone.  (She followed it up two years later, and, reassuringly, there's an unrelated new-ish post up there as well.)  I don't share the manic, imaginative side of Brosh's temperament, which is why I will never create a comedy routine out of it all, but I get all too well the inward-looking side, where self-awareness comes perilously close to self-image, and as another person who perceives himself as just barely smart enough to detect my own delusion, irrationality, and inadequacy, I understand how it can get you down, and farther down.  (The bits about identity got to me most.  As for depression, I sometimes think the only thing that staves off the clinical version is my abject terror of getting trapped in there without the tools to get out.)  You, dear reader, probably know this balance pretty well yourself (introverts of the world, unite! think quietly about this by yourselves), and I commend Brosh for the ability to write poignant (and sometimes silly) jokes about the kinds of things that can go on in the deep places.

Although it's illustrated, the form is not really a comic, and although it's written, it's not really a book or an essay either.  I wish the thought were original with me, but I've read the form of Hyperbole and a Half described as the text equivalent of a standup routine.  To capture the timing of that delivery is very impressive, and it couldn't be done without using the pictures, without an intuition of how long it takes them to convey the content, and without reducing that content to some kind of essence.  They're crude, yeah, but they're brilliantly crude.

So buy it, or, if you're too cheap, go troll the blog.  Laugh mostly, and cry when you need to.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Review: Home, by Marilynne Robinson

Way back in April, I reviewed the novel Gilead by the same author. In a comment, Bright (who as usual was right) recommended the followup Home maybe a month later. I eventually got to reading it a month or two after that, and, finally, I'm just now am writing something about it. I guess that's how things are these days.

The reading part flew by though, a flickering instant in my current slow time. I don't even know how it could have been such a page-turner. It fills in the other half (or the other third--it looks like Robinson has recently followed up with Lila as well) of the story that was told in Gilead, but it does so straightforwardly, without layering in new mysteries or misdirection, or much new plot. Lost is that strange meta element from the last novel with its weighty and unspoken secrets to decode (some of those relationships don't look so meaningful from the other side, sadly), but it kept my interest just the same. It's the story of Jack Boughton (imagined by John Ames of the last novel as some kind of secret-sharer, but now just a man) and his return visit home, now filled out from a closer perspective.

Jack remains irresolute, although he's more likeably so this time, because we see him trying so hard to overcome himself. We get to know his sister Glory as the primary point-of-view character too--the lone sibling who stayed home with their father--and it's satisfying to watch her (inhabited by her own doubts and failures) form an uneasy alliance, and eventually a genuine understanding, with her brother. Neither, in their way, has lived up to their family ideal, but then that perfect family is given to be a bit of a veneer too, and one which has worn through with the passage of time. It's as though the Boughtons were the family that tried a little too hard to express a joyous bond, the one that laid on the Christian middle-American values a little too thickly.  (Their reverend father had no worse motive than practicing what he preached, but his version of the story wasn't quite big enough for the world.)  The edifice itself, even, is a big pile of kitsch, with an unused tire swing and red barn in the view, and choked inside with dusty bric-a-brac, loaded up with tired ideas of family. The Boughtons never solved the inevitable scandals and disappointments in their lives with love, but they used a prescribed kind of love to paper them all over.

(Their house, by the way, reminds me of my grandparents' house, and Mr. Boughton a bit of my grandmother in her late days. It's a little uncomfortable.)

To this Jack returns, a ship at sea, either fleeing or seeking harbor, take your pick. His father is in failing health, and although it's not really why he came back, Jack can't avoid facing him in his decrepitude. It's no stretch to paint the old man as the fading embodiment of home itself, and I feel very guilty about it, but he's irritating. Whenever a real conversation starts to develop between Jack and Glory, in dodders old Boughton to demand attention, always diverting the story into the boring territory of meals, naps, and efforts at comfort. He keeps interjecting these small vanities, and it builds up to a sad climax where he finally judges, finally castigates Jack after all these years.  And thus spent, he's at last free to drift away for good.

I could relate to Jack and Glory's discomfort in their home and with their father, and with their degrees and methods of distancing.  Some ideas of "goodness" are really in contrast here (in terms of worldly matters like equality or American hegemony, Jack is by far the better man; in terms of preserving their father's idea of love, overlooked Glory is by far the more noble of her several siblings).  Jack's difficult to connect to just the same, as his rebellion is a matter of his constitution, and his sins remain big ones, even though a desire to poke a stick at his postcard existence makes sense to me.  Glory's hidden shame (living in sin, OMG!) was easier to relate.  Her descent, such as it is, is more inadvertent, and there's a balance here between accepting her own agency and society's in making her life choices into false dilemmas.  I kind of wish Robinson had removed a few of the pancake breakfast scenes in order to paint these personal vs. social notions of goodness more starkly.

Jack, of course, doesn't stay, and Robinson is unlikely to ever let us know what happened to him next.  But he can't really ever separate from his own life either, and his general disconnection, it's clear, is a lot like homelessness.  The question floats up near the end, is home the soul we can't get away from?  It's an artifice, but is it essential to our humanity just the same?  We are all, after all, written into the world.  How much distance can we really get away from the plot? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

Maus, as currently published, is a collection of graphic stories that were serialized between 1974 and 1991. (It has been previously released as two volumes--My Father Bleeds History, and Here My Troubles Began, and this edition combines them all.)  I'd heard of it over the years, but finally read it after my daughter was assigned a copy for her history class. (At 17, it was the kid's first experience with the comic book format, which makes me feel as though I've failed as a parent.) It's a family memoir, his father's recollection of the Holocaust, and the author's own reflection of the legacy it left on himself and his family. I've been finding it difficult to review, and obviously it's taken me some time.

I can't do much service describing Spiegelman's significance in the underground comics movement (go to Wikipedia for that), but suffice to say, don't think superheroes and adolescent nerds here: this is a man who advocates cartooning and comics as an intellectual art form (Maus is the first publication in this format to win a Pulitzer), and experiments with the dense quality of the medium for storytelling. He is particularly invested, I think, in working out which sorts of things comic frames are particularly well-suited to convey, and how working concepts out in that medium can add something unique to the storytelling, with a taste for pushing boundaries. (In an explicit example, there's a clever segment discussing how voices and stories can be impositions on memory, but graphic art is unique in that it can communicate wordlessness.)

Although it's told in a visual medium, Maus, as a comic, relies less on the spectacle of those visuals than you might think--it's not a painting, in other words, it's a narrative, and the art serves as an ongoing comment to the plot and character, and often bears the forward motion and rhythm of the story. (The book is entirely in black and white, which I tend to prefer, but it's drawn somewhat roughly and is heavy on the inks.) Speigelman draws humans with animal faces, different ones for different cultures. Jews are mice, rooted out by the Nazi cats. Christian Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, and there's an occasional French frog or Gypsy cricket in the mix. To me, it called to mind those vintage Donald Duck comics I had in the pile as a kid, and eventually I came to realize that the evocation of Disney was intentional--Maus as the Mouse--a borrowed iconic motif. But the drawings didn't remind me of Mickey and Donald so much as those chimerical dog-faced creatures--whatever the hell species Goofy and Pete are supposed to be--that seemed to populate the entire cast of Disney comic extras, and I found the effect creepily anonymizing. The few times Spiegelman draws the characters with human faces, they get some sudden impact as individuals. 

Sometimes the animal faces are shown as masks. When old Vladek pretends to be a non-Jewish Pole, his piggy face is tied on with a string. And the times when Spiegelman the author gets a little closer to the fourth wall, his mouse mask is revealed too. Is cultural identity something you wear or something you are? I like to think it's the former, but I realize that's a privileged opinion to have. The Polish Jews had no choice in the matter.

Vladek's story is given to his son in a matter-of-fact way (they are based on real-life taped interviews with his father), and even as the world constricts around him, he gets right on with what was happening then and what happened next.  The old man often erupts in incredulity or irritability, and he recalls many people fondly, but the sorrow and the loss are deeper emotions for him, clearly harder to access.  His story is one of luck and uncanny pragmatism as he evades one scrape, buys a bit of time till the next (worse) one, networks within his limits, shaves any tiny advantage, bails when he must.  He and his wife give their first son to an imagined safer haven, and the poor kid and his cousins are poisoned rather than face capture by the Nazis.  One of the scenes that sticks with me is how, at the war's end when prisoners were shipped from the camp, stuffed into railroad cars by the Nazis, Vladek manages to hoist himself up on a hammock made out of a hoarded shirt, while the crowd is jammed in below him.  How can you survive as people suffocate and die in piles below you without shutting off some chunk of your empathy?  And yet it's when his wife--another survivor--commits suicide years after the war, that the old man finally turns into himself, the last moment we see of him before crossing over to inflexible geezerhood. 

It makes it hard for the American son.  Nearly half the story is set in the book's present day, with Art dealing with his relationship with his father, trying to put his own grownup feelings of guilt and inadequacy and irritation in a context he can grapple with.  In some ways, Vladek is everyone's aging parent, caught behind modern sensibilities and too old to care too much about them.  But not much deeper than that, it's been impossible to live up to a dead older brother, or to a dead sainted wife and mother, and given what the old man has been through, it's got to feel incredibly selfish to demand any kind of attention.  So Spiegelman gets him to open up about the experience instead, lets it serve as both therapy and tribute, and the world gets Maus

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wave Upon Wave Of Demented Avengers March Cheerfully Out Of Obscurity Into The Dream

You know, I was looking forward immensely to using that title, and meanwhile, despite my best plans to hoist it up there in a timely fashion, Captain America came and went. Today, the X-Men will take the reins of cinematic superheroes-of-the-month, which actually gives me some good points to compare and contrast (and a reason to finish the post!), even before I see the movie.

But first, I want to say that I enjoyed the hell out of the new Captain America flick. My first thoughts about it were less to do with the title character, or with comic book movies in general, and more to observe just how far action movies have come in these late days. Winter Soldier doesn't really develop as a cerebral Cold War-style political thriller (maybe they thought Robert Redford would carry the office scenes? He didn't.), and maybe that wasn't the intent, but it does communicate the emotional immediacy that I associate with movies of that era, now with a sense of explosiveness that modern cinematography can actually deliver, which kind of balances the whole equation. As viewers, we know that the rumbling threat of shit going down, can, if necessary, and with good enough direction, be delivered with full fan-splattering spectacle.

And they got the kinematic balance right in this one, in a big way. The scenes in Washington traffic were great, as one small example. Somehow people and cars were depicted at the right first-person level--the aggravation and frantic energy of disrupted driving in that town was believable--and when the holdup turns out to be an armed weirdo standing stock still in the middle of the road, it was incredibly intimidating. I'm reminded of Paul Greengrass style tension again, and maybe that's part of the development of the art, except that these couple of guys were apparently directing sitcoms two years ago. What a break for them.

As a character, Captain America was always a tough sell in a modern age. Like Superman, he's one of the lazier concepts of the comics world, and like Superman, he's a throwback from a time when readers were, apparently, more comfortable with silly patriotic hyperbole. I thought the first Cap movie was somewhat enjoyable in its attempt to bring the yay-rah goofiness into a contemporary framework. The movies confront it (as did the comics, or so I understand) head-on. The first Captain America flick gave a big hat tip to the cuffed boots and dollar-bill shield of the character who once punched Hitler in the jaw (putting silly patriotic hyperbole right where it belongs--in entertainment!), and it wisely allowed some measure of cynicism about it from people who were the actual bloody, tired fighters. I've read that the directors of Winter Soldier intentionally kept the CGI to a minimum, as though people are finally learning that even with comic exaggeration, these movies aren't better as cartoons, and Chris Evans does a very good job of communicating the character with a kind of pure-hearted capability--Americans as we pretend ourselves to be--struggling to find a footing in a more cynical time, and his performance in the role gives credibility to everything else.

I only really read comic books with any kind of seriousness for a year or two of my life. Even then, I didn't care enough to actually spring for the damn things, and if my friend hadn't convinced his mom to buy him a stack every month, I was unlikely to have smeared as much teenage acne grease over as many collectible pages as I did. I never got much from the power fantasies they laid out, but I did relate to the otherness that these characters endured with such over-the-top pathos, and I absolutely loved the full-spectrum weirdness that Marvel added with a combined universe--where every story is epic, and you have gods, war heroes, scientists, freaks, aliens and athletes working at similar purposes and on improbably equivalent scales, and everyone looked impressive in spandex, which they probably needed less to show off their abs than to keep the requisite two tons of angst crammed tautly into every 180-lb body. I admit it was fun while it lasted.

The Marvel universe was just huge, with a gigantic B-list of characters, connected to itself on hundreds of levels. It was brilliant in its way, but it was also a problem, because with so many writers pulling these characters in different directions, it proved impossible to keep anything like a consistent story or even vision going. And it didn't take me long to realize that even within a given title, any investment I made in the story, setting, or character growth would never be rewarded, doomed instead to be split prematurely on the rocks of the next writer's unfaithful (and inevitably worse) vision, buried unceremoniously in some awkwardly shoehorned retroactive continuity. The word "retcon" comes out of the comics world in the first place, thanks to this pervasive, and fundamentally inconsiderate, practice. It's one of the main reasons I stopped reading them. (The other one was that in those days, nerds weren't cool.)

Adaptations in the movies have suffered the same problems, and also added new ones. Even with the ability to lift and adapt the best stories from decades of comics, it's a challenge to stuff something that develops slowly over many issues, using a large cast, into a two-hour film. I am looking forward to the next X-Men flick, but Days of Future Past is one of the few arcs I do remember from my brief fandom, and if I'm hopeful that it's maybe an easier (that is, shorter) one to adapt, even as they omit or combine characters, I still haven't forgotten that the "Dark Phoenix" storyline, goofy and elaborate as it may have been, couldn't have been Ratnered any worse in X3, so we'll see. A diversity of directors and writers have utterly wrecked any hope of continuity for those mutants, and poor Spiderman's a similar mess of reboots and overstuffed villains. So that part is just like the old comics, then, and it's kind of a shame.

I think the most forgivable way to look at all these disorganized and diverse efforts (some of them ranging over 70 years), is that through repetition and retelling, they've produced icons, characters that have been averaged out to a set of timeless and identifiable traits, fighting characteristic battles over and over again, living and dying, but never really changing. Ironically, this imbues them with something like the mythic status they originally copied.

Well, it was like this until recently. Captain America and the rest of the Avengers properties are taking a different and (for this kind of material) innovative path. I know from reading the nerdblogs that the film rights for the Avengers cast are owned by a different studio than the others (which means they'll never meet the Silver Surfer), and the tie-ins and cameos have all been intentionally part of a loose, overarching plan by the producers. (I'm on record as thinking this approach was gratuitous and unlikely to work. And I was wrong--it's great.) It's allowed for hit-or-miss individual films (really, this is the first one that's as good as the original Iron Man), in a variety of styles, but it's brilliantly correcting something that ruined the comics for me 25 years ago. These characters are actually developing over the course of the big arc. They're aging (live actors give you little choice on that one), and they're getting wiser. Superheroism is affecting the world around these guys, and those changes keep growing into more developed settings for the next movies. My inner fourteen-year-old fanboy is squealing at finally seeing the dream done right. And it's big, it's weird, and it's all kinds of fun.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Well, I suppose I should finally get around to reviewing this novel, now that Donna Tartt has gone and let Pulitzer get all over the thing. It's taking up a lot of room in the pile anyway.  I'm embarrassed to find myself riding the critical bandwagon for those these sweet, sweet Google hits (dozens of them!), but I want you all to know that I read it and formed opinions of my own a good month or so before it was Literary.

The goldfinch in the novel isn't a bird, but rather The Goldfinch, the famous painting by Carel Fabritius, reproduced way down below.  In the alternate timeline* of the novel, it goes missing in a terrorist attack on the New York gallery that it's touring. (The attack is an undisguised parallel--and really, all the big metaphors in the novel are out there in the open and enjoyably discussed--to the artist's life, which reached an early end when the gunpowder factory next door to his studio blew up, taking the poor man out, and most of his work too. Tragically so: Fabritius was the most respected pupil of Rembrandt, and to read Tartt describe him, he was innovative almost to the point of anachronism, a rockstar back in his day.) In the mayhem around the museum explosion, the small painting falls into the hands of 13-year-old Theo Decker, and even the actions that lead the boy to keep it are innocent enough at the beginning--he couldn't be more traumatized--but as the novel unfolds, the piece persists through his young life, hidden under beds and in secret lockers, a token of undeniable significance that he feels lends similar significance to his own life struggles.

The Goldfinch is a long one, but it flies right by, even while including its share of heavy thoughts. I find a lot to admire in Tartt's writing style. It's as though every scene washes in and washes out in a heady wave of intelligent free-associative goodness, but it never lingers too long, never bogs down in the details. And if the plot, at times, appears to be tacking back and forth a bit, it doesn't stop moving, and doesn't lose its momentum. It's as if the author has found some interesting new middle area between tightly-mapped literary convention and what the sloppy course of a life is actually like. The dialogue reads like this, too. It's full of the inhibiting awkward pauses and stutter-starts that infuse real conversations, but it doesn't lack the usual storytelling impact that dialogue gives. It just makes it feels a little more natural.

[And since it came up at one point, does Tartt have any tells as a female author? Well, about 40% of the novel discusses Theo's relationship to his mother, and for a bildungsroman, it doesn't focus much on the usual checklist of boys' "firsts."  And as in the last novel, the role of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl is now occupied by a full, complicated female character who could have had a story of her own.]

Or maybe what's telling is more an old-school sort of character development. The book reminded me a great deal of Great Expectations (and if there's a character named Pip in there, then probably this can be taken as intentional), which I admit I haven't read since high school. I find that to be a bizarre connection in some ways, because Tartt really doesn't share anything I could spot of Dickens' voice, and certainly isn't infected very deeply with his morality. Nor is there anything in any of the settings that I would remotely describe as "Dickensian." But on the other hand, our protagonist does, like the original Pip, skirt among the gray spaces between upper-crust society and underworld criminality though he doesn't really belong in either sphere.  It's a schism struck by a random event, and the book takes us readers on a tour through both worlds. He's given a benefactor, given a love interest by dint of authorial placement (damaged, magnetic Pippa), of similar non-chemistry as Pip and Estelle ever had, but with a conscious statement to make about all of that. And if our new cast members fit perfectly modern molds, the characters have that same kind of fullness and extravagance as Dickens', here pulled up short of caricature (at least most of the time**).

As he develops, Theo comes to incorporate both poles, class and corruption, into his character.  After the startling loss of his free-spirited nurturer of a mother, we turn to sad, grand outskirts of Las Vegas and his alcoholic gambler of a father, possessed of a kind of blowsy self-centered charm and lurking viciousness.  (He probably doesn't deserve his fate either.)  Theo develops into a bright underachiever with a self-destructive streak (ha--unlike Pip), and gravitates into the world of antiques and fine art, which is the commercial side of that same morally vague intersection. I don't actually think I like Theo all that much Nicholas Hoult as Theo[and I need to mention this somewhere: my mental images of characters are almost never cast as real-world actors, but in this case, he's clearly played in the movie version by this kid], but I do like how he looks at the world. He has a good eye for the flaws in beauty--like the natures mortes style that his mother describes--the chain on the golden bird--but he values the beauty for its own sake too, which is richer and somehow sturdier for the vulnerability it can't escape. 

Life, of course, is infected by death, treachery, decay. And we, artists and observers, look to uncover the universals that make it beautiful. Does the painting make Theo's life significant? I think we, as per the novel's themes, have to concede that in his life, this is a conceit, but we also are left to recognize that if Theo's life can turn over one of those artistic truths, then that is a worthy thing to have done. Theo's infatuation with Pippa is unfounded, and even he knows that it's not real love, but then, blobs of paint (that, as composed, draw attention to themselves as paint) aren't a living bird either.  Nor, of course, is a gigantic stack of words a real life--Theo and Pippa don't exist any more than the bird does.  But on one very important level, it doesn't matter. There is power, truth, (and irony), and permanence in what these fleeting things can make us feel.



Regarding the painting: several prints of it can be found online, but the lighting was apparently different when some of them were photographed.  There is a set that is a weak sea of browns--the print that's supplied on the page of the book is like this too--while others quite nearly glow. I tried to catch one of the latter, which is more how the book describes it.

* It doesn't fit into the flow of the review, but there is something just a little hinky about that timeline, and though it's a small complaint in what I found to be a great read, I can't quite let it go. I read the first 50 pages of the book thinking the whole thing took place 60 years ago, and it wasn't until  people whipped out cell phones and laptops around the museum that it became clear to me that it's a relatively modern setting, though the precise when is even then not quite pinned down.  (I was looking for reference points by then--I believe Theo says he was alive on 9/11, so we have a range.)  Late on, when Theo's 27, the date is revealed as 2012, which puts the bombing in 1998--would people have had ubiquitous cell phone video cameras then?  (She evidently wrote the book over approximately this span.  Did she write it out linearly?)  Tartt lets the characters watch well-loved old campy movies, but she is mostly vague about current ones.  And for some reason, the kids devote time to video games that I am pretty sure don't exist.  I got the feeling that some art doesn't make her radar.

** Okay the other faint damn amid the praise.  I loved Theo's puckish bad seed of a friend, Boris, but that accent did cross the line.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

In order for me to get to what I found interesting about Marilynne Robinson's short novel Gilead, I think I need to first describe the basic shape of it, the turns it took, and as such, this review is chock full of spoilers. So you know.

The book is framed as a long, open letter from Congregationalist minister John Ames to his son. Ames is in his seventies, a man who has married (for a second time) late in life to a much younger woman after many years alone. Now he has been diagnosed with heart disease, and he writes in part to fill his time as the living winds down, and more overtly to offer an account, as well as what wisdom he possesses, to the boy whom he realizes will grow up without him. It's a lovely tone in these beginning parts--sweet, slow-paced, and contentedly lonely. Ames is a thoughtful and humble man, and a deeply loving one, who sees fatherhood and family as an expression of Christian grace, and his philosophies feel like wise ones, informed by his theology.* He's an inquisitive soul--well read--but he's also an accepting one, declining the excursions from the obsolete old abolitionist settlement that others in his life had taken. He's at peace in Gilead.

And so it's going to be that kind of book then, just like the cover blurbs would have you believe. Except that it's not.

Returning to town in these days is one Jack Boughton, that is to say John Ames Boughton, the son of his best friend, who was named after the old pastor. Jack's a charming man and an uneasy soul--your better sort of scoundrel--and one who, despite the name connection (or more likely because of it), old John has never felt comfortable around. There is a dynamic between them as if the younger man had always insouciantly challenged the older to solve and save him, but the older one never figured out an access point. Ames' narrative starts concentrating unduly on his godson, who grows from a snag in his thoughts to a full-on obsession. (And it's not even just Jack: Ames' old firebrand grandfather is clearly not as put to rest as he'd hoped either.) The pastor understands and respects reasoned debate, but it comes out that he has an insurmountable difficulty with people who don't accept existence at face value, who are restless and uneasy in it.

It's flat-out unpleasant to read the old man's narrative veering off from his peaceful adages, but it's also fascinating, and I truly didn't anticipate the story going that way. Though he still keeps his unbreakable decency and his calm religious persepectives, the reader can see that these tools are now failing him. Jack is a man of many sins, but his mortal one was to father a child (when he was college age) with a broken-homed, criminally young girl, and then more or less ignore her. His revealed secret at the time of Ames' writing, which comes late in the novel, is that he's returned less to care for his elderly father and more in hopes of finding a home for his new and already troubled mixed-race family, which in the early 1950s might not be an easy fit, even in a town founded for the cause of abolition.

It took the featured biblical story of Hagar, about halfway through this novel, to clue me in that there's some subtext going on as well, that doesn't quite penetrate the consciousness of the kindly old man. He pictures himself in the sermon as dutiful old Abraham, trusting the godly advice that his difficult actions are indeed for the best. But let's not forget that this is also one of the more perverse Old Testament stories (and sure, hello The Handmaid's Tale), which in novelistic terms, must present some kind of meaning. Old man, young slave, creepy inappropriate sex, reluctant but obligatory shunning. The map isn't perfect, but I still jumped from here to the conclusion that Jack and Mrs. Ames surely had some kind of history with one another, and this is in fact confirmed before long. And although it is not made explicit, it didn't take me much longer to suspect that this young woman (thirty years younger than John and ten younger than Jack), this quietly-spoken woman of mean upbringing who chose to walk into a more socially well-adjusted world, is the very same feral girl that Jack knocked up years before and thereby nailed shut the coffin of his own ruin. Is there a better reason that she would be drawn to curiousity about the first John Ames? If it's not the same person, then it's her deliberate analog.

There is some weird goings-on too, I want to add, about names. The young wife is named only once (for all her presence, she's usually "your mother"), and not by the reverend. She's an interesting character, and I wish we could have had her presented her more as herself. The boy (also deeply present as "you") is not named at all, nor is Jack's Folly (if she is someone different from Mrs. Ames), and her tragic child with Jack, it's noted, is further impoverished by never receiving one in the first place, despite living to three years old or so. Meanwhile, John and Jack are connected by name. "John Ames" is the source of their bond, and of their difficulties as such radically different people.

And okay, I guess I'll make a nod after all to the German-style dialectic as I see it here. John breaks out of his unsettling focus on Jack by opening up about the passion he felt for his wife, in a way he had elided before. It's an innocent sort of passion to be sure, but he was still an old man who fell improbably in love with someone, and he had all the usual symptoms. He truly and genuinely doesn't give a calm fuck about his wife's past, whatever it is, and he loves her for precisely who she is. Which is really a pretty awesome thing. And it's over this understanding where he at long last finds a bond with his living antithesis. Old Ames is as decent a man he believes himself to be, but the wisdom of his days delivered him a late-burning fire in his belly that his rootin' tootin' forebears would have understood. His accepting worldview doesn't leave him, but he's now leaving the world as a whole person. It's brilliantly done, the whole thing.



* If there's conflict evident in this stage, it's a philosophical discussion with the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach, the pet philosopher that his late brother had once taken home. And even that ends up as a gentle chide, respecting the atheist's joy of life, but finding it incomplete without the axiomatic divinity that informs his own spiritual views. (Feuerbach evidently took spirituality as a kind of anthropological epiphenomenon. On those grounds, I'd probably like him quite a bit.) Unfortunately, I'm not a good one to tell you how deeply this philosophical argument underpins the novel, but based on Ames' limited name-dropping, there very might well be a sort of dialectical structure to sniff out here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Notable Corporate Actions Following the Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius Decision Going To The Plaintiff in the Summer of 2014

August 6, 2014: Bain Capital cancels the complimentary employee expense account with CoffeeStop Cafe at the ground floor of the home office building, saying consumption of caffiene conflicts with Mr. Romney's Mormon principles.

December 18, 2014: The staff of Google, Inc. is surprised to find that their expected Christmas bonuses have been canceled because they do not comport with the founders secular humanist beliefs. (This creates a minor lawsuit, but Google lawyers hold the day by pointing out that a "private company" doesn't necessarily mean a privately-held one, just a company that is owned by shareholders and not the government.)

January 23, 2015: Earthlink (which apparently still exists) strikes all prescription coverage from their company health plan. According to founder Sky Dayton, just too many medical drugs interfere with the mental and spiritual wellbeing of thetans, and he and the current owners have a religious objection to providing them.

April 1, 2015: The managers of The Christian Science Monitor completely remove medical benefits for the entire company, because, duh, Christian Science. Prayer consultation, however, is offered at a discounted rate.

June 20, 2015: The Boston Manufacturing Company requests that female employees remain on campus the entire day, all week, locked in with low light, so that their good Christian morals remain uncorrupted by the external world. Oh wait--sorry--that happened in 1815.

February 12, 2016: Citing their devotion to Mammon, Goldman Sachs announces that they will completely suspend the pay for all janitorial staff, then the office assistants, and finally all positions up to low-level brokers by the end of the year, even though everyone will still be expected to work. In press interviews, senior management embrace former CEO (and now Treasury Secretary) Lloyd Blankfein's 2009 claim that 'god's work' gets done at Goldman.

January 10: 2042: M. Cletus Sitwell, current CEO of Massey Energy, requires that employees supply all of their own safety apparatus, although it is discouraged entirely around the flaming pits, especially on bring-your-kid-to-work day. "Don't forget," said Sitwell, "the M. stands 'Molech,' and when I am in charge, every year is a bull year for Massey!"

[Edit: Um, that is, "Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius." Who's suing whom, Keifus?]

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You Suck at Romance, and Here's Why

In honor of Valentine's day, I present to you a couple of quick links to stories that have somehow penetrated my gruff, jaded exterior to find the tender-hearted boy within and wake him up with a mighty slap across the face. (Which of course reminds the little weenie why he built the scabrous shell in the first place, but I guess it's nice to know that he's still breathing in there.) Here are two stories touching enough to get even to me:

When I think of a template for the world's most romantically devoted men--Romeo, Orpheus, McLovin--about the very last person to come to mind would be Carl Sagan. Yes, I am talking about the popular astronomer, the man who drawled Cosmos on tv when I was an impressionable kid, the professional skeptic and rationalist who, on his deathbed, refused to accept any faith at all. That guy. I could imagine an academic sort of passion from a person like that, a bookish devotion to knowledge, but to another human being? It seems so unlikely, and yet there it is.

Sagan worked on the famous Voyager message, the gold record that was sent along with the craft. During that time, he was close, as friends, to his collaborator on the project, Ann Druyan. While exchanging phone messages about one of the musical entries, they discovered something more compelling than their work and stronger than their friendship. With the clichéd suddenness of Cupid's archery, they both realized they were deeply, impulsively, and irrevocably in love. [It worked out so sweetly for Carl and Ann, but what his wife at the time came to think of all this is not part of the story.] There is certainly a rare power in discovering chemistry with someone, but that is not even the part of the story that makes my inner romantic get misty-eyed. What Sagan and Druyan proceeded to do was to put an audio translation of her brain patterns onto the record, and the human biological noises that were added were also hers. The idea of pitching a doomed probe eternally into the void is sad and sweet and hopeless enough all by itself. In the infinitesimal chance it's discovered by alien civilizations, if they manage to decode it (if they even even get so far as to put together that we odd beings perceived the universe with gestalt images of narrow-band scattered light and linear mechanical vibrations), then it will happen millions of years after our species has guttered out and gulped its last. And if these hypothetical intelligences do get the LP turning properly, then what they will hear is the heartbeat of a woman who is newly and crazily in love.

[I first heard this on an NPR story a year or two ago, and it made me cry while driving into work.]

We humans lack the span of billions and billions, but hidden messages seep forward even from our meager past. Some 900 years ago, people in Norse cultures (when they weren't sailing away to massacre my ancestors) would write messages to each other, and remnants of carved notes on wood or bone are found occasionally in archaeological digs. Although Norse writing is known and can be translated today, these small totems can be hard to decipher, sometimes because they were copies of messages chiseled in by illiterates, but the carvers would also tend to get playful with the writing, using phonetic codes or decoratively bastardized script, which were pretty accessible then, but can be hard to pull from context when you don't happen to live in medieval Scandinavia. When one of these "Norse rune codes" was cracked last week (link via), it was a big deal.

What does the message say? What was important enough to painstakingly gouge out of a plank and pass on? 

"Kiss me."

Awww. Now go get my insulin.