Light Goes On

George R. R. Martin has become nearly ubiquitous since the advent of his massive, multi-volumed and cable-networked Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as The Game of Thrones (even though that is only the title of the first book in the series).  Before that, he successfully helmed a network television series, Beauty and the Beast, and before that he worked on the excellent reboot of The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s.

Even before that, however, he was establishing a reputation as a fine writer of speculative fiction and fantasy with a handful of novels and short story collections.  His first novel, Dying Of The Light, published in 1977, demonstrated his strengths and served notice that what would follow would be worth anyone’s time and attention.

Returning to early work like this can sometimes be a dubious exercise.  Writers grow into themselves, rarely doing anything approaching their best work in the beginning.  But sometimes the talent and skill are evident from page one and early work is as polished and significant as anything that comes after.  That appears to be the case with Martin.  Dying Of The Light is work one might expect from mid-career, a deft exploration of complex themes of identity and myth set against a background of rich cross-cultural shifts, all vividly portrayed.

Dirk t’Larien, living in the husk of a life in a city laced with canals, receives an esper jewel from the woman he lost years before.  t’Larien has been wallowing in self-pity and ennui ever since Gwen Delvano left him.  Before parting, they had these jewels made, psychic encodings of their emotional selves, and exchanged them with the promise that when one sent their jewel to the other, the receiver would come at once.  Dirk sent his, years before, and Gwen did not come.  He has mourned her since, mourned himself, and has been slowly crumbling in on himself since.  Now he has received hers, a summons he swore he would honor.

Should he, though?  She did not answer his call, why should he answers hers?

He does.  He has nothing else.  This is the last obligation, the last devotion he has.  Without Gwen, he has nothing.  As he sits in his room, debating what is undebatable, he watches a gondolier drift by in the waning light of day, and in that image we understand the story about to unfold.

This a journey to the underworld, a quest to rescue Eurydice from hell.  That gondolier is Charon and Dirk t’Larien is a phlegmatic Orpheus.  Worlorn, the rogue planet briefly brought back to a kind of life by its passage close to a group of stars on its way out of the galaxy, is a kind of Hades.

Too-close comparisons have the drawback of forcing a reading that limits truth-seeking.  The framework of the Orphic Myths is here, but it is only a framework, because our erstwhile Orpheus is neither a musician nor a particularly attentive lover.  He dwells too much on a past that turns out to be partly mischaracterized, as Gwen, when they are reunited on Worlorn after Dirk responds to her summons, bluntly schools him.

“I did call you. You didn’t come.”

A grim smile.  “Ah, Dirk.  The whisperjewel came in a small box, and taped to it was a note. ‘Please,’ the note said, ‘come back to me now.  I need you, Jenny.’  That was what it said.  I cried and cried.  If you’d only written ‘Gwen,’ if you’d only loved Gwen, me.  But no, it was always Jenny, even afterwards, even then.”

Dirk, during their time together, had created a persona for her which he—playfully, he thought, affectionately—used as a private sign of their love.  But “Jenny,” his alternate Gwen, was not Gwen.  And what Gwen teaches Dirk now, on Worlorn, is the power of names.  When you name a thing, she tells him, it becomes that thing.  Whether he intended it or not, Gwen had been becoming someone for him she was not for herself. She had to leave and when he called the wrong woman back, she had to refuse or surrender.

The novel is replete with this game of names.  The men, the “family” to which Gwen has tied herself, are Kavalars.  Kavalan is a harsh world, one that had been cut off from all the other human colonies by a long, savage war, part of which was conducted on Kavalan and formed them into the tradition-bound, violent society of codes and honor and ritual commitment into which Gwen—because she met Jaan Vikary while he was visiting one of the older, more cultured worlds and fell in love with him—has given herself.  Names mean everything, and yet they mask inaccuracies parading as history, myth as religious practice, race memory as an excuse to remain unchanged.

Vikary wants to change it all.  He is a scholar, something of an oddity among his people, and he has learned the real history of what happened on his world, and understands how that history had been transmuted into myth.  Now that the war is long past and recontact with the older colonies has been made, Kavalan looks like a barbaric, hide-bound world of obsolete ritual.  Vikary sees the necessity of change if his world is to enter as an equal into the fold of human civilization.

But it will be difficult, almost impossible.  Tradition is all the Kavalar have as a source of identity.

Dirk arrives on Worlorn well after the major event that clearly will one day become part of new myths.  The Festival.  When the world was detected and it was understood that its proximity to certain stars would thaw it, allowing a brief window during which it would support life, 14 of the human worlds came and built exemplary cities and held a great festival.  Doomed, to be sure, but a momentary, beautiful gesture, a testament of life against the inevitability of eternal night.  For as Worlorn continues on, it will once more freeze and die.  All the forests transplanted to its surface will perish, the oceans will turn to ice, as will the atmosphere, and these lovely cities will become fossils for the archaeologists of another galaxy to find and puzzle over.  A pointless gesture, in some ways, but a fist in the air and a rude gesture to the gods of entropy.

Gwen is here with her co-spouses because she is, as further resonance with the myth of Eurydice, an ecologist, a woman of the woods, so to speak.  She’s here to study the interactions of all these varieties of never-before combined plant and animal life, even as the world itself is dying.

Yet Dirk is convinced she wants to leave her Kavalar husbands, return with him, try again.  And for a short while it almost seems true.

What plays out subsequently is a contest between tradition, bigotry, and a desire to cast off chains.  Dirk is a catalyst in all this, the necessary ingredient to create the transformations.  In so being, he undergoes his own rebirth, which, after all, is the whole point of journeys through the underworld.

The dying in all this is not so nihilistic and tragic as the lines from Dylan Thomas might suggest.  The light is fading from several people and institutions in this novel, but that is not Martin’s major revelation.  He deftly weaves an understanding of how myth works and how traditions are created and at the same time shows how they become bonds that hold back even while they provide sustenance.  But it is not death at the center of this novel but enlightenment, and the things dying are ancient and near-parasitical distortions.  Misinterpretation, mischaracterization, and misapplications all dies in the full light of truth.  Jaan Vikary is casting light on his own past; Gwen shines new light on Dirk’s incomprehensions; the essence of human is newly revealed by fearless looking.  And even if it is not a wholly successful venture, a new accord is struck by the end, that new ways will at least be sought.

Paradoxically, Dirk, who is largely a cipher throughout the novel, finds the possibility of rebirth in an embrace of a very old and oft misunderstood trait learned from the Kavalars he has come to respect—honor.  In keeping with the game of names Martin plays throughout, Dirk’s name is telling. t’Larien. Larien is a variant of Lawrence, which comes from the Latin  Larentum—place of the laurel leaves.  Laurels usually indicate honors, but it can also be seen as a criticism, as is “resting on one’s laurels.”  This is the case for Dirk in the beginning—and also the case for some of the other Kavalars present on Worlorn.  At the end, Dirk decides it is time to stop living in the past.  It may mean a new name.  Certainly it means a new beginning.  Even as he goes to face a potential death, he has found a new way to live.

Mixed Signals

I listen to music every day. Intentionally.  I choose something to set my internal harmonic brainscape and listen.  It was a difficult and startling revelation to me back in my youth to realize many people don’t. That is, even when they have music playing, they don’t listen.  For many, it’s wallpaper, and this just struck me as sad.

But it explained what I thought of then as the execrable taste a lot of my acquaintances seemed to display in music.  I have never cared for so-called Top 40 tunes, with rare exception, because in my experience such songs were either the least interesting pieces on their respective albums or they were the zenith of a mediocre musical imagination.  Boring.  Listen to them three or four times and their content is exhausted.

I also used to have an absolutely absurd prejudice that if I could manage to play it myself, on guitar or keyboard, with only a few practices, it was just too insignificant.  This was ridiculous, but I’d been raised to appreciate technical difficulty as a sign of quality in most things.  It took a long time for me to overcome this notion and I still have not completely.

For good or ill, though, it informs my taste to this day, and in the presence of the technically superb I am seduced.  I have found technically accomplished work that was simply not as good as its polish, but I have more rarely ever found sloppy work that was so much better than its presentation that it didn’t matter.  Technical ability, precision of execution, polish…these are not simply ancillary qualities.  The guitarist may know all the notes of the Bach piece but if the timing is wrong, the chording inaccurate, the strings squeak constantly, it will be a thoroughly unenjoyable performance.  Likewise, if the guitarist has composed a beautiful new piece but then can’t perform it as imagined…who will ever know how beautiful it is?

Ultimately, technical sloppiness gets in the way of the work.  The better the technique, the clearer the art shows through.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about here.

The other day I sat down with two works that for whatever reason seemed to counterpoint each other.  Put it down to my peculiar æsthetic, as I doubt anyone else would consider them complimentary.  And perhaps they aren’t, but they shared a common quality, the one I’ve been going on about—technical superiority.

Ansel Adams is a byword for precision in art, especially photographic art.  His images are studies in excellence, from their composition to their presentation.  There is a fine-tuned carefulness in many of them, if not all, that has set the standard for decades.  I have a number of his monographs on my shelf and I have been an admirer and follower since I was a boy.  His set of instructional books, the Basic Photo series, were among the first I read when becoming a photographer myself.  Every year I hang a new Ansel Adams calendar in my office.  I have a biography of him, one signed volume of his Yosemite images, and I find myself constantly drawn to his work.  These photographs are replenishing.

So when a new collection came out this past year—400 Photographs—it was a given that I would acquire it.  (I do not have all his books—there’s a heavy rotation of repeats strewn throughout his œvre.)  I had it for some weeks before I found time to sit down and really go through it.  When I did I was surprised.

The collection is broken down in periods, beginning with some of his earliest images made when he was a boy, reprinted directly from the scrapbooks in which they were pasted, all the way up to the very early 1970s when he, according to the commentary, stopped making “important” photographs and devoted his time to the darkroom.  Gathered are most if not all his iconic images, many that will be familiar to those who have more than a passing acquaintance with his work…

…but also a number of relatively unknown photographs, peppered throughout, many of which show a less than absolute control on Adams’ part.  They do not come up to par.  Some of them, the composition is slightly “off” or the tonal range is not fully captured.

Which is not to say they are not beautiful.  Adams at his worst is equal to most others at their best.  But historically it’s interesting and instructive to see the “not quites” and the “almost theres” among the otherwise perfect works we have all come to expect.  But rather than detract, these works actually enhance the overall impact of the collection, because there is variation, there is evidence of “better”, there is obvious progression.  The commentary between the periods by Andrea Stillman is concise, spare, and informative as to the distinctions in evidence.  This is a chronicle of an artist’s evolution.

Looking at an Ansel Adams photograph, one sometimes feels that the very air was different around him, that light passed from landscape to film plane through a more pristine medium, that nature itself stood still for a few moments longer so the image could be recorded with absolute fidelity in a way given to no other photographer.

As I went through the images, I listened to a new album.  New to me, at least, and in fact it was released this past year.  Levin Minnemann Rudess.

Who?

Of the three, two had been known to me before this year.  Tony Levin is a bassist of extraordinary range and ability.  Besides his own work, he seemed for a time the player the serious groups called in when their regular bassist was unavailable.  Which means he played bass for Pink Floyd in the wake of Roger Waters’ exit.  He played bass for Yes. Dire Straits, Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, and even Paul Simon and Buddy Rich.

He was also one of the most prominent members of King Crimson during one of its best periods.  He is a session player in constant demand and his ability seems chameleonic.  He can play anything in almost any style.  He is one of those musicians who always works, is always in demand.

Given his associations, sometimes it is a surprise to hear his own work, which can either be described as a distillation of all his influences or as a complete departure from them.  Such would seem to be the case here.

Jordan Rudess plays keyboards and came out of the progressive schools of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, UK, and others, although the first band with which he was associated was the Dixie Dregs. He later joined Dream Theater, but like Levin has been a much in demand session player whose name I’ve seen pop up many times since the early 90s.

Marco Minnemann, then, is the only name with which I am unfamiliar, but that’s changing.   As a drummer, he’s played with former members of UK—Eddie Jobson and Terry Bozzio—and has been doing session work with metal groups.  I learned of him just this past year in association with guitarist Guthrie Govan, with whom he has formed a trio with bassist Bryan Beller, The Aristocrats.  He seems committed to that unit, so I believe the album I’m discussing may be a one-off, an experiment for these three musicians.  He is an explosively complex, solid drummer.

What does this have to do with Ansel Adams?

Not much other than what I began with—precision.  There is an overwhelming technical precision here that, for the duration of my study of the Adams book, formed a complimentary experience of sharp-edged landscapes and absolute control.  The LMR album is largely instrumental (which has slotted it into my writing queue) but fits no particular genre exactly.  Jazz?  Sure.  Metal?  Somewhat.  Fusion, certainly, but fusion of what?  Rudess’s runs evoke classical associations, but no single track is identifiable with a particular Great Composer.  This is experimental work, theory-in-practice, done at a high level of musicianship and compositional daring.  An aural high-wire act that is constructing the landscape as it records it.

As I said earlier, it happens more often than not that technical prowess can substitute for significant content.  “Too many notes” can mask as absence of substance.  Too-fine a presentation can distract from the fact that an image contains nothing worthwhile.

But when substance and technique are combined at a stratospheric level of ability, when performance melds precision and depth, then we have something truly special.

All I needed that afternoon was a fine wine to complete the immersive experience.

Quantum Branching…As Literature Embraces Science Fiction, the Past is Again and Again

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life, is a remarkable achievement.  It’s several hundred pages of exquisitely controlled prose contain the story of Ursula Todd, who is in the course of the story, born again and again and again.  Each life, some so very brief, ends in a tragic death, accidental, malevolent, heroic, painful, and each time she starts over, comes to the point where that mistake was but is now sidestepped, turned away, avoided.  She lives multiple times, each one different, and yet she remains herself.

The novel opens with a shocking scene—Ursula, a young woman living in Berlin, enters a café wherein she finds Adolf Hitler, surrounded by sycophants, enjoying his celebrity.  She pulls a pistol and takes aim,

Then she is born.

It is 1910, in the English countryside, and snowing heavily.  The scene is reminiscent of Dickens.  She is born.  First she dies from strangulation, the umbilical cord wrapped around her with no  one around who knows what to do.  Then in the next life that obstacle is overcome.  And so it goes, as she ages, staggers through one life after another, growing a little older each time, her family battered by one damn thing after another.  Ursula herself, a middle child, watches as much as participates in the homely evolution of this middle class English family, and we are treated to an almost microscopic study of its composition—its hypocrisies, its crises, it successes, its failures.

Ursula endures.  As her name almost punningly suggests, she Bears Death, over and over.  She never quite remembers, though.  She has intense feelings of déjà vu, she knows such and such should be avoided, this and that must be manipulated, but she never quite knows why.  At times she comes perilously close to recognition, but like so much in life her actions are more ideas that seemed good at the time than any deeper understanding.

Unlike the rigor of traditional time travel, the past does change, but then this is not a time travel novel, at least not in any traditional sense.  You might almost say it’s a reincarnation story, but it’s not that, either, because Ursula never comes back as anyone other than herself.   At one point in the novel, time is described, not as circular but as a palimpsest—layers, one atop another, compiling.  The result here is a portrait more complete than most not of a life lived but of life as potential.  But for this or that, there wandered the future.  It is a portrait of possibility.

The big events of history are not changed, though.  Nothing Ursula does in her manifold existences alters the inevitability of WWII or Hitler or the Spanish Flu or any of the mammoth occurrences that dominate each and every life she experiences.

What she does change is herself.  And, by extension, her family, although all of them remain persistently themselves throughout.  It is only the consequences of their self expression that become shaped and altered.

We see who are the genuine heroes, who the fools, the cowards, the victims and victors as, where in one life none of this might emerge clearly, in the repeated dramas with minor changes character comes inexorably to the fore.

Atkinson does not explain how any of this happens.  It’s not important, because she isn’t doing the kind of fiction we might encounter as straight up science fiction, where the machinery matters.  She’s examining ramifications of the personal in a world that is in constant flux on the day to day level even as the accumulation of all that movement builds a kind of monolithic structure against which our only real choice is to choose what to do today.  Consequently, we have one of the most successful co-options of a science fiction-like conceit into a literary project of recent memory.

On a perhaps obvious level, isn’t this exactly what writers do?  Reimagine the personal histories of their characters in order to show up possibility?

Future Historicity

History, as a discipline, seems to improve the further away from events one moves. Close up, it’s “current events” rather than “history.”  At some point, the possibility of objective analysis emerges and thoughtful critiques may be written.

John Lukacs, Emeritus Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College, understands this and at the outset of his new study, A Short History of the Twentieth Century, allows for the improbability of what he has attempted:

Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate.

He then proceeds to give an overview of the twentieth century as someone—though he never claims this—living a century or more further on might.  He steps back as much as possible and looks at the period under examination—he asserts that the 20th Century ran from 1914 to 1989—as a whole, the way we might now look at, say, the 14th Century or the 12th and so on.  The virtue of our distance from these times is our perspective—the luxury of seeing how disparate elements interacted even as the players on the ground could not see them, how decisions taken in one year affected outcomes thirty, forty, even eighty years down the road.  We can then bring an analysis and understanding of trends, group dynamics, political movements, demographics, all that go into what we term as culture or civilization, to the problem of understanding what happened and why.

Obviously, for those of us living through history, such perspective is rare if not impossible.

Yet Lukacs has done an admirable job.  He shows how the outbreak and subsequent end of World War I set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989, the two events he chooses as the book ends of the century.  He steps back and looks at the social and political changes as the result of economic factors largely invisible to those living through those times, and how the ideologies that seemed so very important at every turn were more or less byproducts of larger, less definable components.

It is inevitable that the reader will argue with Lukacs.  His reductions—and expansions—often run counter to what may be cherished beliefs in the right or wrong of this or that.  But that, it seems, is exactly what he intends.  This is not a history chock full of the kind of detail used in defending positions—Left, Right, East, West, etc—and is often stingy of detail.  Rather, this is a broad outline with telling opinions and the kind of assertions one might otherwise not question in a history of some century long past.  It is intended, I think, to spur discussion.

We need discussion.  In many ways, we are trapped in the machineries constructed to deal with the problems of this century, and the machinery keeps grinding even though the problems have changed.  Pulling back—or even out of—the in situ reactivity seems necessary if we are to stop running in the current Red Queen’s Race.

To be sure, Lukacs makes a few observations to set back teeth on edge.  For instance, he dismisses the post World War II women’s consciousness and equality movements as byproducts of purely economic conditions and the mass movement of the middle class to the suburbs.  He has almost nothing good to say about any president of the period but Franklin Roosevelt.

He is, certainly, highly critical of the major policy responses throughout the century, but explains them as the consequence of ignorance, which is probably true enough.  The people at the time simply did not know what they needed to know to do otherwise.

As I say, there is ample here with which to argue.

But it is a good place to start such debates, and it is debate—discussion, interchange, conversation—that seems the ultimate goal of this very well-written assay.  As long as it is  debate, this could be a worthy place to begin.

He provides one very useful definition, which is not unique to Lukacs by any means, yet remains one of those difficult-to-parse distinctions for most people and leads to profound misunderstandings.  He makes clear the difference between nations and states.  They are not the same thing, though they are usually coincidentally overlapped.  States, he shows, are artificial constructs with borders, governmental apparatus, policies.  Nations, however, are simple Peoples.  Hence Hitler was able to command the German nation even though he was an Austrian citizen.  Austria, like Germany, was merely a state.  The German People constituted the nation.

Lukacs—valuably—shows the consequences of confusing the two, something which began with Wilson and has tragically rumbled through even to this day.  States rarely imposed a national identity, they always rely on one already extant—though often largely unrealized.  And when things go wrong between states, quite often it is because one or the other have negotiated national issues with the wrong part.

Which leads to an intriguing speculation—the fact that nativist sympathies really do have a difficult time taking root in this country.  Americans do not, by this definition, comprise a Nation.  A country, a state, a polity, certainly.  But not really a Nation.

And yet we often act as if we were.

Questions.  Discussion.  Dialogue.  This is the utility and virtue of this slim volume.

End Times

The Sixties.

Depending on what your major concerns are, that period means different things.  For many people, it was revolution, civil rights, the peace movement.  For many others, it was music.

For Michael Walker, it was evidently the latter.  In his new book, What You Want Is In The Limo,  he chronicles what he considers the End of the Sixties through the 1973 tours of three major rock groups—The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper.

His claim, as summarized in the interview linked above, is that after Woodstock, the music industry realized how much money could be made with this noisy kid stuff (which by Woodstock it no longer was—kid stuff, that is) and started investing heavily, expanding the concert scene, turning it from a “cottage industry” into the mega-million-dollar monster it has become.  1973, according to Walker, is the year all this peaked for the kind of music that had dominated The Sixties, made the turn into rock star megalomania, and ushered in the excesses of the later Seventies and the crash-and-burn wasteland of the Punk and New Wave eras (with a brief foray into Disco and cocaine before the final meltdown).

The bands he chose are emblematic, certainly, but of the end of the Sixties?  I agree with him that 1973 is the year the Sixties ended, but the music aspect, as always, was merely a reflection, not a cause.  What happened in 1973 that brought it all to an ignominious close was this: Vietnam ended.

(Yes, I know we weren’t out until 1975, but in 1972 Nixon went to China, which resulted in the shut-down of the South China rail line by which Russia had been supplying North Vietnam, and in 1973 the draft ended, effectively deflating a goodly amount of the rage over the war.  The next year and a half were wind-down.)

Walker’s analysis of the cultural differences before and after 1973 are solid, but while the money was certainly a factor, a bigger one is exhaustion.  After a decade of upheaval over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, people were tired.  Vietnam ended and everyone went home.  Time to party.  Up to that point, the music—the important music, the music of heft and substance—was in solidarity with the social movements and protest was a major component of the elixir.  Concerts were occasions for coming together in a common aesthetic, the sounds that distinguished Woodstock acting as a kind of ur-conscious bubble, binding people together in common cause.

Once the primary issues seemed settled, the music was just music for many people, and the aspects which seemed to have informed the popularity of groups like Cream or the Stones or the Doors lost touch with the zeitgeist.  What had begun as an industry of one-hit wonders returned to that ethic and pseudo-revolutionary music began to be produced to feed the remaining nostalgia.

(Consider, for example, a group like Chicago, which began as socially-conscious, committed-to-revolution act—they even made a statement to that effect on the inside cover of their second album—and yet by 1975 were cashing in on power ballads and love songs, leaving the heavily experimental compositions of their first three albums behind and eschewing their counter-culture sensibilities.)

To my mind the album that truly signified the end of that whole era was The Moody Blues Seventh Sojourn, which was elegaic from beginning to end.  The last cut, I’m Just A Singer In A Rock’n’Roll Band, was a rejection of the mantle bestowed on many groups and performers during the Sixties of guru.  With that recording, the era was—for me—over.

Also for me, Alice Cooper never signified anything beyond the circus act he was.  Solid tunes, an edgy stage act, and all the raw on-the-road excess that was seen by many to characterize supergroups, but most of Cooper’s music was vacuous pop-smithing.  The Who and Led Zeppelin were something else and both of them signify much more in artistic terms.  Overreach.

But interestingly enough, different kinds of overreach.  Walker talks of the self-indulgence of 45-minute solos in the case of Zeppelin, but this was nothing new—Cream had set the standard for seemingly endless solos back in 1966 and Country Joe McDonald produced an album in the Nineties with extended compositions and solos.  Quadraphenia was The Who’s last “great” album, according to Walker, and I tend to agree, but two kinds of exhaustion are at work in these two examples.  Zeppelin exhausted themselves in the tours and the 110% performances.  The Who exhausted the form in which they worked.  After Quadraphenia, all they could do was return to a formula that had worked well before, but which now gained them no ground in terms of artistic achievement.  As artistic statement—as an example of how far they could push the idiom—that album was a high watermark that still stands.  But the later Who Are You?  is possibly their best-crafted work after Who”s Next.  “Greatness”—whatever that means in this context—had not abandoned them.  But the audience had changed.  Their later albums were money-makers with the occasional flash of brilliance.  They were feeding the pop machine while trying to compose on the edge, a skill few manage consistently for any length of time.

“Excess” is an interesting term as well.  Excess in what?  The combination of social movement with compositional daring had a moment in time.  When that time passed, two audiences parted company.  Those who wanted to party (often nostalgically) and those who were truly enamored of music as pure form.  They looked across the divide at each other and the accusation of excess was aimed by each at different things.  The one disdained the social excess of the other while the latter loathed the musical excess of the former.  People gleefully embracing Journey, disco, punk, and a gradually resurgent country-western genre thought the experimental explorations of the post-Sixties “art rock” scene were self-indulgent, elitist, and unlistenable.   People flocking to Yes and Emerson,Lake & Palmer concerts, cuing up Genesis and UK on their turntables, (and retroactively filling out their classical collections) found the whole disco scene and designer-drug culture grotesque.  Yet in many ways they had begun as the same social group, before the End of the Sixties.

The glue that had bound them together evaporated with the end of the political and social issues that had produced the counterculture and its attendant musical reflection in the first place.  Without that glue, diaspora.

And the forms keep breaking down into smaller and smaller categories, which is in its own way a kind of excess.  The excess of pointless selectiveness.

Is the Novel Still Dying?

In 1955, Normal Mailer was declaring the death of the novel. A bit more than a decade later, it was John Barth’s turn.  There have now been a string of writers of a certain sort who clang the alarm and declare the imminent demise of the novel, the latest being a selection of former enfants terrible like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.

Philip Roth did so a few years back, adding that reading is declining in America.  The irony of this is that he made such claims at a time when polls suggested exactly the opposite, as more people were reading books in 2005 (as percentage of adult population) than ever before.  In my capacity as one-time president of the Missouri Center for the Book I was happily able to address a group of bright adolescents with the fact that reading among their demographic had, for the first time since such things had been tracked, gone precipitously up in 2007.

And yet in a recent piece in the Atlantic, we see a rogues’ gallery of prominent literateurs making the claim again that the novel is dying and the art of letters is fading and we are all of us doomed.

Say what you will about statistics, such a chasm between fact and the claims of those one might expect to know has rarely been greater.  The Atlantic article goes on to point out that these are all White Males who seem to be overlooking the product of everyone but other White Males.  To a large extent, this is true, but it is also partly deceptive.  I seriously doubt if directly challenged any of them would say works by Margaret Atwood or Elizabeth Strout fall short of any of the requirements for vital, relevant fiction at novel length.  I doubt any of them would gainsay Toni Morrison, Mat Johnson, or David Anthony Durham.

But they might turn up an elitist lip at Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tannarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, or, for that matter, Dennis Lehane, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson (just to throw some White Males into the mix as comparison).  Why?

Genre.

The declaration back in the 1950s that “the novel is dead” might make more sense if we capitalize The Novel.  “The Novel”—the all-encompassing, universal work that attempts to make definitive observations and pronouncements about The Human Condition has been dead since it was born, but because publishing was once constrained by technology and distribution to publishing a relative handful of works in a given year compared to today, it seemed possible to write the Big Definitive Book.  You know, The Novel.

Since the Fifties, it has become less and less possible to do so, at least in any self-conscious way.  For one thing, the Fifties saw the birth of the cheap paperback, which changed the game for many writers working in the salt mines of the genres.  The explosion of inexpensive titles that filled the demand for pleasurable reading (as opposed to “serious” reading) augured the day when genre would muscle The Novel completely onto the sidelines and eventually create a situation in which the most recent work by any self-consciously “literary” author had to compete one-on-one with the most recent work by the hot new science fiction or mystery author.

(We recognize today that Raymond Chandler was a wonderful writer, an artist, “despite” his choice of detective fiction.  No one would argue that Ursula K. Le Guin is a pulp writer because most of her work has been science fiction or fantasy.  But it is also true that the literary world tries to coopt such writers by remaking them into “serious” authors who “happened” to be writing in genre, trying ardently to hold back the idea that genre can ever be the artistic equivalent of literary fiction.)

The Novel is possible only in a homogenized culture.  Its heyday would have been when anything other than the dominant (white, male-centric, protestant) cultural model was unapologetically dismissed as inferior.  As such, The Novel was as much a meme supporting that culture as any kind of commentary upon it, and a method of maintaining a set of standards reassuring the keepers of the flame that they had a right to be snobs.

Very few of Those Novels, I think, survived the test of time.

And yet we have, always, a cadre of authors who very much want to write The Novel and when it turns out they can’t, rather than acknowledge that the form itself is too irrelevant to sustain its conceits at the level they imagine for it, they blame the reading public for bad taste.

If the function of fiction (one of its function, a meta-function, if you will) is to tell us who we are today, then just looking around it would seem apparent that the most relevant fiction today is science fiction.  When this claim was made back in the Sixties, those doing what they regarded as serious literature laughed.  But in a world that has been qualitatively as well as quantitatively changed by technologies stemming from scientific endeavors hardly imagined back then, it gets harder to laugh this off.  (Alvin Tofler, in his controversial book Future Shock, argued that science fiction would become more and more important because it taught “the anticipation of change” and buffered its devotees from the syndrome he described, future shock.)

Does this mean everyone should stop writing anything else and just do science fiction?  Of course not.  Science fiction is not The Novel.  But it is a sign of where relevance might be found.  Society is not homogeneous (it never was, but there was a time we could pretend it was) and the fragmentation of fiction into genre is a reflection that all the various groups comprising society see the world in different ways, ways which often converge and coalesce, but which nevertheless retain distinctive perspectives and concerns.

A novel about an upper middle class white family disagreeing over Thanksgiving Dinner is not likely to overwhelm the demand for fiction that speaks to people who do not experience that as a significant aspect of their lives.

A similar argument can be made for the continual popularity and growing sophistication of the crime novel.  Genre conventions become important in direct proportion to the recognition of how social justice functions, especially in a world with fracturing and proliferating expectations.

Novel writing is alive and well and very healthy, thank you very much, gentlemen.  It just doesn’t happen to be going where certain self-selected arbiters of literary relevance think it should be going.  If they find contemporary literary fiction boring, the complaint should be aimed at the choice of topic or the lack of perception on the part of the writer, not on any kind of creeping morbidity in the fiction scene.

Besides, exactly what is literary fiction?  A combination of craft, salient observation, artistic integrity, and a capacity to capture truth as it reveals itself in story?  As a description, that will do.

But then what in that demands that the work eschew all attributes that might be seen as genre markers?

What this really comes down to, I suspect, is a desire on the part of certain writers to be some day named in the same breath with their idols, most of whom one assumes are long dead and basically 19th Century novelists.  Criticizing the audiences for not appreciating what they’re trying to offer is not likely to garner that recognition.

On the other hand, most of those writers—I’m thinking Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Hardy, and the like—weren’t boring.  And some of the others—Sabatini, Conan Doyle, Wells—wrote what would be regarded today as genre.

To be fair, it may well be that writers today find it increasingly difficult to address the moving target that is modern culture.  It is difficult to write coherently about a continually fragmenting and dissolving landscape.  The speed of change keeps going up.  If such change were just novelty, and therefore essentially meaningless, then it might not be so hard, but people are being forced into new constellations of relationships and required to reassess standards almost continually, with information coming to them faster and faster, sometimes so thickly it is difficult to discern shape or detail.  The task of making pertinent and lasting observations about such a kaleidoscopic view is daunting.

To do it well also requires that that world be better understood almost down to its blueprints, which are also being redrafted all the time.

That, however, would seem to me to be nothing but opportunity to write good fiction.

But it won’t be The Novel.

Persistent Ghosts

Recently I read two novels that, after some thought, work as examples of effective and ineffective sequels.  I confess up front I’m stretching things to make a point here and I in no way recommend a similar reading strategy.  I’m indulging myself in this in order to explain something.

I haven’t read Philip Roth since Portnoy’s Complaint came out in paperback.  Yes, I read it that long ago and, yes, I was probably far too young for it.  My impression of it at the time is hard to recapture, but it left me kind of stunned.  For one, I hadn’t encountered that kind of writing before (not even in some of the porn magazines I’d snuck into the house) and to see it in something on any best seller list was a shock to my 13-year-old psyche.  For another, the self-conscious analysis of an adolescent “matter in transition” surprised me.  I’m not sure it helped or just made me feel that the malaise in which I found myself then (and for a few years to come) was inevitable, which was depressing.

For whatever reason, I never went back to Roth.  From time to time I’ve thought that might have been a mistake.  He’s a Big Deal and maybe I’ve missed something.

So a month or so back I found a couple of used copies of his later novels, picked them up, and the first one I read was Exit Ghost.  For those who’ve kept up, of course, this is one of the ending books in his ongoing Zuckerman series.  From this novel, I gather Zuckerman is a kind of alter-ego for Roth himself.  A famous and successful writer (they aren’t always the same thing) moving through the travails of his fame and success, observing with his writer’s eye the changing landscapes around him.

In this one, Zuckerman has been living as an isolate in the country for several years, especially after prostate surgery which has left him both incontinent and impotent.  He returns to New York on the promise of a new procedure that may at least address his incontinence.  Roth vividly allows the reader to feel the misery of Zuckerman’s condition.  While in New York, Zuckerman meets a young couple who wish to leave (this is the aftermath year of 9/11) for some place Not New York, and offer to swap their apartment for his cabin for a year.

Zuckerman falls headlong into lust for the wife.

He begins working on a fictionalized treatment of their potential liaison, cleverly counterpointing it with what actually happens, at least in their conversations, which he (fictionally) idealizes.  The fictional treatment makes her more self-possessed and himself cleverer.  While all this is going on, Zuckerman finds himself dealing with resurrected ghosts of his literary (and erotic) past and the fact that he no longer knows how to function in this New York after having been away so long.

The writing is beautiful.  There are sentences here superbly crafted, achingly fraught with meaning.  I can see why Philip Roth is considered so highly.

But there is, in the end, only one ghost present which is seeking exit.  Portnoy.  It seems he is still writing about the problems of wanting to get laid, not getting laid, and wishing ardently to not feel guilty about either condition.  Fifty plus years after my last Philip Roth novel, I find that the work is still, at least in part, about the same things.  At least, in this instance.

Portnoy, however, is rather pathetic as a ghost.  He doesn’t disturb much other than the memory of erections no longer possible.  He moves around in the ruins of what was once a vital life, trying to find a way of accepting things as they are, not quite succeeding, and changing nothing.

Tim Powers, however, gives us much more tangible—and dangerous—ghosts in his Hide Me Among The Graves, which is at least a thematic sequel to his The Stress of Her Regard.  As in the previous novel, Powers gives us vampires, but not of the usual sort.  Powers’ vampires are not half-rotted corpses rising, undead, from graves, former humans with a thirst for their living cousins’ blood and a desire to replicate themselves.  Rather, Powers gives us the Nephilim, the remnants of a race that once dominated the Earth before the rise of the oyxgen-breathing, fast-living creatures of a Cambrian eco-system with no place for silicate-based life.  For Powers, these holdovers are the Lamiae, and they feed on iron and love in a grotesque symbiosis, one byproduct of which is artistic brilliance.  Among their captive suitors are Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Coleridge.

With their attention comes madness and the destruction of all competitors for the obsessive love they seem to crave.  Long life, genius, and ultimately a kind of moral corruption that ends up justifying any destruction in the name of…

Well, continuation, really.  These are ghosts that seek actively to persist.

While they come from outside the psyché, they are profoundly dependent on it.  On the willingness of their human partners, on their devotion, their protection, really, and therefore, for Powers, everything comes down to a matter of will.

In The Stress of Her Regard, the artistic center is represented by Byron and Shelley.  In this new novel, that center is the Rossettis—Dante Gabriel and Christina, specifically, with Swindburne as a sort of fifth wheel who learns about the lamiae and very much wants their attention, pining for the brilliance that results from it.

And as in the previous novel, it is those on the sidelines who are instrumental in ending the possessions of the ghosts.

As in the Roth, sex is very much at the heart of the infection.  There is spiritual V.D. in the relations Powers depicts.  We all bring our ghosts along to bed with us, but in the case of the Nephilim these are ghosts with lingering, almost incurable consequences.  And yet, celibacy is no guarantor of health.  Those with whom one’s cousin sleeps could kill you just because.

The brilliance that is a symptom of their infection strikes one as kin to the apparent genius unlocked by syphilis, as in people like Nietzsche

Powers’ ghosts move amid ruins as well, in this case the ancient tumbledowns of a London burned by Boadicea, who is herself become one of the Nephilim.  The new London often seems not much more than an incipient ruin itself as the protagonists, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee—both collateral damage in their own ways of the bigger game being played among these ancient monsters—strive to defeat them so they can save their daughter and try to have something like a normal life in which simple love dominates.

In this, Powers shows us a place of solace, a resolution, a condition wherein the ghosts can quieten finally, and peace has a chance to succeed.  The ghosts are recognizably Outside and putting them back outside offers a chance to go on wholly according to one’s self will.

Roth, on the other hand, shows us someone whose ghosts are completely of his own contrivance who treats them as if they are (or should be) something Outside—that can be run from, hidden from, denied.  The failure to recognize them for what they are—ultimately failures of will—condemns Zuckerman to a sophisticated kind of adolescent denial of reality.  Success—however it is defined, no matter how modest—is impossible.

In this, curiously, there is one other similarity between the subtexts of the two works, and that is that genius can be a trap.  What we might sacrifice for it can cut us off from kinder choices, saner trajectories, blind us to certain obvious realities, and give us a justification to cause harm without acknowledging that its expression, too, is a matter of will.  Powers, of the two, shows us clearly that genius is no excuse for embracing monsters or giving our lives over to ghosts.  I’m not altogether sure Roth would accept that formulation.

Jack Vance: No Place At Saponce

Jack Vance wrote idiosyncratically in a field of idiosyncracy.  The very lushness of his prose bespoke an era well past its prime that, when sought, could never be found.  Azure, jeweler’s brass, roseate and softly crystalline.  Contradictions made to coexist and cross-inform.  Footprints trace a path along the the receding shore of a sea once filled with more deliberate monsters than now, the waves gilded by a fading sun that somehow shines proudly if wearily, attesting to empires whose ruins are more wondrous than any new powers might contrive.

He often wrote of the stuff of melancholy, while avoiding melancholy itself.  One could see how tales told about these times and places might turn maudlin for greatness lost, but not yet, not now.  Now we must see what fascinations recomplicate in a present not yet to form a past still waiting.

Was it science fiction? Fantasy?  Did it matter?

Suis generis is sometimes used only when imagination fails to pigeon-hole, where appreciation falls short, and the thing judged is greater than those judging.  Works can signify its proper definition, but more often individual writers are better gauges.  Jack Vance wrote science fiction (The Last Castle, Araminta Station) and fantasy (Lyonesse, Maduouc), and amalgams of both (Mask: Thaery, Dragon Master, The Dying Earth) that even within their clearly defined provinces did not quite fit with expectation.  He was an altogether sensual writer more concerned with moving the reader slantwise into a state of mind to perceive in unique ways places that ran counter to any norm than might be applied.

Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet.  Such was Mazirian’s garden—three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations.  Certain plants swam with changing iridescenses; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow.  Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal…

He established a quasi-mystical ground for what might loosely be called science-fantasy, worlds where physics and genetics obtained but suggestively and where the motivations of alien minds twisted landscapes into ur vistas against which struggles for power played out in atypical fashion.

In The Languages of Pao power resides in grammars, linguistics the key to control, and a strong and unusual acknowledgement that cultures are latent repositories of destiny.  In The Last Castle a comfortable ruling class is suddenly face with the fact that their servants have become more powerful than they and because thought was never given to them as more than labor, any basis for negotiation is completely unknown.

Vance seemed to write most eloquently about the days just before declines begin.  A last Indian Summer played out sometimes across galactic stages.  He was never less than grand.

The impact of an artist can be seen in his or her heirs, those who internalize their vision and produce new works.  Gene Wolfe paid homage to Vance in his Book of the New Sun even as he did something wholly his own and in some ways superior.  Vance was certainly not the first to try to combine science fiction with fantasy, but he was one of the most successful, and writers like Roger Zelazny, Lin Carter, and Michael Moorcock benefited from the results.

There is a bit of Tolkein to be found strewn throughout his prose, but Vance began publishing before Tolkein’s epic appeared, so the apparent influences are coincidental only.  They shared, if anything, a sense of the vastness of time and the importance of even forgotten history.  Vance’s stories are weighted with the awareness of pasts.

Vance retired from writing several years ago.  Eyesight failing, health precarious, he withdrew.  Now he has gone.  Other writers of his generation—Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, Silverberg, Williams—seem to have garnered more attention.  At least more vocal advocates.  But each of them held Vance in high regard and the enormous body of work Vance has left us seems to be tenaciously inspiring new works and reassessments and gaining new readers.

“There is your home; there is Saponce.  Do you wish to return?”  

She shook her head.  “Together we have looked through the eyes of knowledge.  We have seen old Thorsingol, and the Sherit Empire before it, and Golwan Andra before that and the Forty Kades even before.  We have seen the warlike green-men, and the knowledgeable Pharials and the Clambs who departed Earth for the stars, as did the Merioneth before them and the Gray Sorcerers still earlier.  We have seen oceans rise and fall, the mountains crust up, peak and melt in the beat of rain; we have looked on the sun when it glowed hot and full and yellow…No, Guyal, there is no place for me at Saponce…”

Guyal, leaning back on the weathered pillar, looked up to the stars. “Knowledge is ours, Shierl—all of knowing to our call.  And what shall we do?”

Together they looked up to the white stars.

“What shall we do…”

 

Breakneck Mousetraps—Past and Future in Cloud Atlas

It begins in the past.  Not one past, but three, and then a kind of present.  Then a future.  Two futures, but the furthest is so much like the past as to be functionally the same, only reversed.  The great ship of the technologically advanced is the image fading in the center of this novel, as if the reader has risen to a height of inevitability that can do nothing now but sink back through the layers that cannot support it.  The hyperbolic arc of human trajectory achieves its limit, turns, and falls back to the point where the mirror reality of that insubstantial future rests.  We cannot stay in that future because it is built on anticipation and hope, contending with dread and cynicism, which rob it of any force of inevitability.  It looks real, substantial, has within its possibilities everything we know and everything we are and everything we can be and everything we should not be.

There were once places in the world (and maybe this is still the case) notated on maps as Obscured By Cloud.  Unknown. Protected areas, mostly, in the islands around New Guinea and New Zealand, valleys where the weather systems conspire to keep a permanent layer of cloud cover over them, and which, in somewhat belated attempts at responsible behavior, colonial governments placed off limits.  They are not mapped.

Much like the future, even though we have now more than a century of “futurism” behind us, attempts at forecasting, and not simply confined to science fiction.  We might be tempted from time to time to believe that the future is knowable, even set.  Perhaps we’re not wrong in that, but likely not in the way we might think. Divining the future is very like doing cartography on clouds.  The effort is substantive even while the results are necessarily transitory, because in doing so we learn something about the essence of “cloudness” and perhaps something of the predictability of form.

One of the secondary characters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas explains it this way:

…The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
* The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will…Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.

Which is what Mitchell has accomplished in this curious novel of nested narratives, linked by the most tenuous of threads, like the fraying tag-ends of clouds pulling apart.  The connections between the six distinct—and distinctive—fictions are circumstantial, coincidental, and, on some level, genetic, but unlike novels in which such connections coalesce into resolving tissue upon which the entire plot depends, none of these surface connections does much more than influence the atmosphere.  They are clouds contouring the background against which a bigger game is being played.

Cloud Atlas

There is a journal written by a notary on a long sea voyage, which is discovered by a musician who is composing a sextet that will be the crowning achievement of his short life, which is recorded and printed by obscure labels and found by a reporter working to uncover major corporate corruption, whose story informs a book proposal an unlikely specialty publishers reads while trying to free himself from bizarre circumstances, whose life becomes a film seen by a clone-cum-messiah in a corporate future, who is herself the source of a Buddhist-like liberation faith in a future witnessing a collapse of civilization back to the level found in the first narrative.

Another connection is a curious birthmark shared across time, a suggestion of reincarnation.  Mercantile concerns dominate the cultures throughout, the making of money a driving force in all but one. Servitude.

On the surface, the novellas comprising the total work, except for these superficial connections, seem as disparate and unique as the styles in which they are written.  The journal, written with the stiff formality of a somewhat pretentious educated young man of the 1840s; letters written by a refugee from the Lost Generation to his best friend; a detective story told in third person; a manic tell-all written by an aging publisher with the possibility of a movie in mind; an interrogation session, question and answer; and a first-person oral tale by a semi-literate inhabitant of a future past the collapse of global technical civilization.  Mitchell displays enviable skill in each idiom, moving smoothly not just between periods but among the voices of both the times and the genres in which his narrative(s) unfold.  (A cloud is always a cloud, regardless its particular shape.)

What links them that they should appear as a unified work, as a novel?

Mitchell, in each and every one of them, is writing about slavery and emancipation, and the costs of both.

Certainly the manifestations are unique to each period, but the essence is there throughout, in some more blatantly than in others, but with rigorous consistency.  Freedom, he shows us, means different things to different people, but bondage is the same regardless.

The result of Mitchell’s considerable craft and intelligence is a largely thematic work that doesn’t read like one.  Except for a few passages scattered throughout in which circumspection melds with introspection, the stories of these various actors scattered across time are their own, not the theme’s.  To do otherwise might perhaps suggest the inevitability (and perhaps desirability) of the very bondage under examination. If not approval, at least acceptance.  It would have been easy enough to lose control of his material and produce exactly that validation by writing about his disapproval too obviously.  Instead, we find a work in which the judgment is rendered through the lives depicted and not through the author’s too-pointed explications.

Consequently, we have another rarity—a successful work on a profound theme that is actually fun to read.

Mitchell’s pasts are vibrantly-realized, just as the futures are both exotic and familiar at once.  As his “theorist” continues, however, in the passage on actual and virtual pasts and presents:

One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past.  The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

As has always been the case, fiction is about the present—distorted through the lens of past or future in order to make a particular case about Now.  (Nowhere is this distortion more obvious and sometimes poorly-used than in science fiction, but only because of the inherent exoticism of the seemingly unknowable.  Mitchell admirably escapes this pitfall.)

Which suggests that in a world wherein actual slavery has been and is being abolished but virtual slavery is on the rise, it is worth trying to distinguish between virtual emancipation and actual emancipation—which is the struggle each one of the people in Cloud Atlas engages.  As he carries his theme into the future, he inverts our gaze and shows us that no matter how elusive and indefinite our terms, virtual slavery, if unrecognized, will become actual slavery.  In between, we must define what constitutes emancipation and choose between the virtual and the actual.

But the shapes change.  Much like clouds in competing fronts.

It is perhaps no accident that the title appears within the novel in relation to only one thing, a piece of music.  Music by its nature is infinitely malleable, even while it remains ostensibly the same.  Mitchell gives us our map in Zedelghem, Belgium.  If we required any further evidence of his thematic telos, here it is.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet is composed in a place where, historically, one of the largest complexes of concentration camps was built, and which today remains a largely military area.  The ironies implicit multiply under scrutiny.

All of which unfolds and is watched over by the silent judges of history, the dead.  In the beginning piece, an alcove is discovered by the narrator of Adam Ewing’s Journal on the island upon which he has been awaiting the repair of the ship he is to take home.  Within this alcove, the discovery of which nearly kills him, he finds carved faces along the wall, obscured from above.  A collection of memorial carvings, icons, the faces of past denizens of this island.  He tells no one, other than those who might read his journal, fearing its destruction (because memory is one of the things conquerors most seek to obliterate).  In the far future, where the world is returning to this pre-20th Century condition, the faces are once more present, gathered in a cave where their caretakers go to pray and be in the presence (the Present) of a past (virtual) they no longer remember (actual).  The icons of the dead frame the time passing and give us our final connective thread.

History as vapor made momentarily stable, visible.

Multitasking

Me-Colored EyeHow many books do you read at the same time?

Once in a while, a book so grabs me that I can’t read anything else till I’ve finished it.  (Also, once in a while, I have to read a book that is by its nature a struggle and if I read anything else during the effort I’ll never get through it.)

There are days I miss the ability to do multiple things at once—read, listen to the radio, watch television, carry on a conversation.  I think we all remember a time when we could do this, but I also wonder if we remember how much we actually got out of it.  I know that if there are voices around me now, spoken or sung, reading is impossible.  I write to music—instrumental music—but that’s the limit of my cross-discipline multitasking.  (I’m writing this to Glen Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto.  I find myself recognizing passages during the pauses between thoughts, but the rest just flows by, creating a kind of aural creative cushion, a continuity that fills in the gaps left by interrupted imagination.)  I rarely read to music.

But I do generally have three or four books going at the same time.

Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and at the same time working my way through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.  (Does that count as a kind of musical background?  Nah!)  In between, I’ve been reading short stories in current issues of Asimovs SF  and I’m about to start research into Madame de Stäel for the next book in the trilogy I’ve been working on.

The trick is to mix them up.  I almost never read two novels simultaneously.  History and a novel, essay collections and a novel, science, politics, etc.  From time to time they color each other, to interesting (but I’m not sure to superior) effect.  I recall once reading Michael Moorcock’s marvelous The War Hound and the World’s Pain and C. V. Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War more or less at the same time.  Whatever else I might have been reading got overwhelmed by the totality of those two books.  Sort of like reading Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and a biography of Admiral Halsey together, or just a good history of World War II in the Pacific.

While we read with our entire brain (especially fiction, in which the internal creation of images is strongest), it seems we can compartmentalize detail.  I wonder sometimes if when I put down one text and pick up another, what I’m doing is giving my subconscious an opportunity to process the first text.  It feels curiously relaxing sometimes to go from one to another, like changing up an exercise routine.

I am a slow reader.  I read roughly 80 books a year, cover to cover (probably if I added in the total page count of articles, short stories, partial reads, and such it might get closer to 120, but nevertheless) and it can sometimes take me a seemingly inordinate length of time to get through a book.  (Having done two works now with a reading group—Ulysses and Dante’s Commedia—the upper range now stands at seven years to get through a text.)  Many factors are involved, the chief being the time to sit down and read.  Life interferes.  Where once it seemed I had a whole day to go through a book, now I read them in 20 minute to 2 hour chunks.  And the depth of the text places its own constraints on how quickly it will be absorbed.  (I can read a standard murder mystery in a couple of days, but I’m looking at a book on my shelf that I know will take a month at least—Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1815 to 1848.  The older I get, it seems, the more attention I find I must give to such books.  I zipped through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school and did it in less than a week.)  “Processing time” is more necessary, but the urge to keep reading is abated only by picking up a different book for a while.

I have yet to confuse texts.  I always manage to keep whatever I’m reading this way separate.  That might change were I to read similar books simultaneously.  (In fact, I do recall confusing sources during a period of intense research into the Civil War, wherein I switched from one text to another regularly in an attempt to glean a collective comprehension of the period.)

Almost all of my reading, however, is linear (as probably is most people’s).  There are some I’ve known who open books at random and read in the middle, then the beginning, then somewhere else (though not novels, but I wonder how this might work in history?) but not me.  Beginning to end.  Yet I keep them all separate—multi-linearity?—which might seem difficult, since I put one down to pick another up and each return is like starting over.  Yet…

It makes for an interesting, often fascinating journey.  Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Versailles at the height of the Sun King’s reign and finding the legation from Vega waiting in the trans-Plutonian consulate fora.  Metternich and Monroe are over there in corner, at the end of the buffet, discussing the Euro with Aragorn while Peregrin and Meriadoc introduce Nero Wolfe to delicacies from Canopus.  There are serious issues under discussion among the gathered dignitaries, not least of which is the true location of the Maltese Falcon and whether or not the heirs to the Dukes of Burgundy have right of return, for which cause Chingachgook represents them to the Culture Minds who may or may not intercede.  The whole arrangement of the imaginative universe could be altered.  Everyone is waiting for arrival of the next book in the series.  in the meantime, we read widely to grasp the multiverse in which existence itself is given meaning…