I love genre fiction

•August 5, 2010 • Leave a Comment

My dad likes to tell me I’m elitist, or at least have elitist tastes in movies and books and such things. Lest you agree after reading my last two posts, I’m going to counter with an entry about a book I’ve just finished reading (for the second time!) that is wonderfully pulpy.

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg straddles both horror and detective fiction genres—according to the front cover, Stephen King has called it “The Exorcist rewritten by Raymond Chandler”. More people seem to have seen the movie Angel Heart than have heard of the book. This may be because of a notorious sex scene between Mickey Rourke, who at the time was still sex in pants, and a fresh-from-The-Cosby-Show Lisa Bonet. It was actually a really great, really well done scene; the whole movie is rather fantastic. However, as usual, the book is even better.

The story, if you don’t already know, concerns a private investigator in late-1950s New York City named Harry Angel. He’s hired by a mysterious rich man called Louis Cypher to find a singer named Johnny Favorite who’d disappeared on New Year’s Eve, 1943. That’s the Raymond Chandler bit. The Exorcist bit comes in the form of Voodoo ceremonies, Satanic black masses, ritualistic murders, and the distinct possibility that Louis Cypher is the devil himself (say his name fast).

Hjortsberg’s writing is littered with simile in the best pulp fiction style. The prose is taut and the tension builds as Angel weaves disparate threads of mystery into an increasingly ghastly tapestry of blood and horror.

You could tease out various themes of good vs. evil, the fluidity of identity, and, oh, let’s say the importance of age-appropriate sexual relationships, if you were so inclined, but mostly it’s just a cracking good read. In turns scary, erudite, and disturbing, but always completely engrossing, Falling Angel is a masterpiece of (*shudder*) genre fiction.

Catherine she ain’t

•August 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The thing about fantasies is that you get to concentrate on all the exciting, fulfilling parts without worrying about consequences. Picture Woman A: she’s grown up, independent, successful and in a normal, healthy relationship. But every life, every reality has its downside. Maybe her job is a bit boring. Maybe her husband leaves wet towels on the floor and chews with his mouth open and occasionally forgets her birthday.

Vicariously Woman A can experience the thrill and excitement of a relationship with someone who’s perfect (as Stephenie Meyer describes Edward ad nauseum). He’s beautiful. He’s polite. He’s exciting and a bit dangerous, but so completely committed to his intended and her well-being that he’s willing to neuter himself (ok, not literally) to be with her. And since it’s a fantasy, that’s all Woman A needs to think about. She never gets to the part where her life has essentially been taken over by someone who controls everything she does and steals away her freedom and independence. So the fantasy is perfect because it’s a fantasy. You don’t need to think about anything else.

I suppose that’s fair enough. I admit to a certain lascivious fondness for Heathcliff, whose complete bastardliness (bastardity?) is only slightly redeemed by his love for Catherine. But then again, Catherine is a total bastard too. She has depth and passion and while Heathcliff and Catherine are both obsessed with each other, as Bella and Edward are, unlike Bella Catherine could exist as a character without Heathcliff; it would diminish her, because so much of what makes her interesting is her passion for him, but she’d still be. Their love is complex and complicated, but it’s between equals: only Heathcliff can match Catherine and only Catherine can match Heathcliff.

That equality is what’s missing from Edward and Bella’s relationship. While he claims to be as possessed with her as she is with him, it’s in the way of an abusive husband instead of a partner. He knows what’s best for her and voices repeatedly that she needs someone to take care of her. She never feels worthy of him and is made to feel less so with his manipulative, “I’m leaving because I don’t love you anymore but really because I love you too much” mind game.

The one thing Bella wants more than anything is to be turned into a vampire by Edward (because God knows she would never want anything that doesn’t absolutely center around Edward) and this is what Edward refuses her “for her own good”. He doesn’t want to take away her soul.

OK. Let’s call a spade a club or whatever. Obviously, being bitten is a metaphor for sex. Hundreds of years of vampire fiction have taught us that. So in plain terms, what Bella wants is to have sex and what Edward wants is to keep her chaste so she doesn’t lose her soul, because premarital sex is a sin. It’s hinted that Edward’s bitten other people before (i.e. isn’t a virgin) but now that he’s found Bella he wants them both to abstain because he wants to save her.

One of the reasons for the witch scares in the middle ages was the stereotype of the licentious female. Women were wanton and sensual and men had to steer them into the path of righteousness, even if that path led to a stake in a pyre. Even now we’re still reminded that good girls don’t because they’re told not to, and they’re told not to because female sexuality is power that can subvert authority. Medusa was originally the most beautiful handmaiden of Athena, the chaste goddess, in certain versions of the myth. She was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple and her transgression (because obviously her beauty forced Poseidon to rape her) caused Athena to transform her into a monster whose very glance turns men into stone. You really don’t need Freud to tell you what that’s about.

So I don’t believe that women should wait until after they’re married to have sex. I also don’t believe that women should have sex before their married. I don’t think there’s any should in it. If women could own their own sexuality, in the same way that men are taught to own theirs, there’d be no shame in sex. Women would do it when they were ready and not when they were told to. Because being coerced to wait until you’re married is in many ways no different from being coerced to have sex before you’re ready; it’s allowing someone else to control something that belongs to you.

You wouldn’t think we’d even be talking about this in 2010, but Twilight’s popularity suggests that this is still an issue (oh, and please don’t even get me started about promise bracelets). Bella completely surrenders her own power to decide when she’s ready to Edward. And by extension, she gives up part of herself.

This is why the fervor for the series worries me. Even if mature, sophisticated women indulge purely for escapist fantasy there is still an insidious message that the road to happiness lies in surrendering your own choice, your own control, to not only patriarchal societal pressure but specifically to the object of your (thwarted, until you convince him to marry you) desire. I’m wary about the “truth” being peddled in this fiction.

Oh, and by the way, Buffy really would so kick Edward’s ass.

Like 2005 all over again

•August 1, 2010 • 1 Comment

I haven’t touched this blog since 2007, so it’s fitting that I write about something else I’m behind the times with. I decided, finally, to read Twilight. It wasn’t because I thought I’d enjoy it; rather it was because I’m constantly slagging it off and felt a bit hypocritical about it. To be fair, I did watch the (crappy) movie but figured it was still wrong of me to denounce the whole franchise without actually reading the source material.

And…yeah, I was completely right. Twilight is pretty bad, though, intriguingly, there are some parts I didn’t absolutely hate. I was expecting the prose to be akin to a Dan Brown abortion; instead, I found that some of it, especially the descriptions of the Pacific Northwest, to be quite beautiful. There are even some characters that are interesting: the Cullens (minus Edward—I’ll get to that in a minute) and the Quileute tribe both hinted at story possibilities that could be both imaginative and interesting.

However I had two major problems with the book. The first is that I hated Edward. While he seems slightly less naval-gazing than RPatz’s movie version, he’s still a control-freaky, passive aggressive stalker.

The second, and probably more damning, problem is that I absolutely hated and despised Bella. Seriously. I just wanted to slug her. This is a girl as an empty vessel—her entire existence is meaningful only because of the others around her. She isn’t a real character in her own story.

After I finished reading I made a tactical error. I thought, well maybe the first book was just an introduction to the characters and background of the story. Maybe as Meyer’s overarching story matured and grew it would become more multidimensional. Maybe the secondary characters would get more time instead of the oh-so-irritating relationship between Bella and Edward. After all, The Sandman didn’t become indisputably brilliant until The Doll’s House. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t really pick up until the second season. I thought, maybe I should give New Moon a chance.

Oh God was I wrong. 576 pages of whinging and whining later, and I can safely say that New Moon vies with The Da Vinci Code as the worst book I’ve ever read.

Bella went from annoying to insufferable. Edward decides to leave for Bella’s own safety (which he makes pretty clear) and she spends about 500 pages moping about why he doesn’t love her anymore. Granted, she’s a teenage girl and obviously immature and unworldly and emotional, but why would anyone want to read what amounts to hundreds of pages out of a teenager’s diary?

To break out of her depression she takes up extreme sports—sort of metaphoric self-mutilation for the adrenaline rush. And the part that appeals to Bella the most, the part that makes her keep nearly killing herself, is the fact that whenever she tries something dangerous she hears Edward’s voice in her head admonishing her behavior. In his absence, Edward has transformed from Bella’s self-appointed and omnipresent protector into literally her own conscience. She actually surrenders part of her own self to become him. If that’s not creepy and scary and absolutely anti-feminist, I don’t know what is.

What I find most interesting, and most frightening, is the popular reaction among women to these books. Girls’ infatuation with them I can understand, if not exactly like, because Twilight is a distillation of messages they are fed from the time they’re little about what a girl should and shouldn’t be and what a girl should hope for in life. But adult women are also obsessed with this story—more than one stranger excitedly asked me which part I was at while I read on the bus. I know it’s fantasy but the metaphors that fascinate our society often give hints to society’s hidden mores. What is it about a story in which the protagonist is so passive as to make her non-existent, whose love interest has complete control over her, in which messages about sexuality and relationships are troubling, to put it mildly—what is it about this book that attracts women so completely? I’ll try to theorize next post, and also try to explain why it scares the hell out of me.

* * * * * *

While looking for a picture for Twilight I came across what may be the best blog ever–link below to my favourite page. Seriously. Visit it.
http://geekcrafts.com/13-geeky-baked-goods/

Harry Potter’s wand

•April 11, 2007 • 4 Comments

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When I was in high school I took a class called Actor’s Craft. One of the monologues lying around was from a play called Equus by Peter Schaffer. A psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, is telling a colleague about a dream he’d had the night before. In it he’s a Mycenaean high priest presiding over a sacrificial ritual. In front of him stretches a line of children and as each approaches he is grabbed by assistant priests and thrown on an altar. Dysart, in a golden mask, then eviscerates the victim and casts his entrails upon the ground to be scried over by the assistants. The problem is that Dysart is beginning to feel “distinctly naseous” by the process and knows his face is turning green and sweaty behind the mask. He also knows that if the assistants realize this he’ll be the next across the altar. Again and again he cuts the children and soon he feels the mask begin to slip. The other priests can see his green pallor and grab him, throwing him across the altar… and then Dysart wakes up.

This monologue has fascinated me ever since then and I honestly don’t know why. It could be the ritual, the blood, the horror of a nightmare, but when I heard they were staging it on the West End I knew I’d have to go see it. Even better, it turns out the play is THE talk of London since it stars Dan Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, running around naked.

I liked it, it was really well produced and well acted (though I kept worrying that Richard Griffiths, playing the psychiatrist, was going to drop dead on stage), but I’m not sure how I felt about the play itself. See, the main characters are the boy, Alan, who is passionately fixated on horses for a bunch of psycho/religious/sexual reasons, and Dysart, the psychiatrist, who is late middle-aged and becoming disenchanted with his profession and his life. He feels, in contrast to the boy, that he has NO passion, exemplified by his relationship with his wife whom he cares about but with whom he has settled into a drab routine (his wife isn’t a character, just referred to). He says that he’s never in his life felt about anything the passion the boy feels about these horses and envies him for it.

So the theme of the play, and Dysart’s dilemma, seems to be: is it even desirable to “cure” the boy when it means taking away this passion? It’s an indictment of psychiatry turning everyone into drones for the sake of making them “normal”.

My problem with that is the corollary to it: is it right to keep someone in torment because it, by proxy, alleviates the dissatisfaction you have with your own life? I mean, the kid is obviously tortured and if someone gave him the choice he would undoubtedly choose to not have nightmares every night and to not feel impulses to, say, blind horses. There’s a minor character who brings up that point, but the play obviously favors the other side.

The thing is, and why as a play it failed for me, is that it presents these two extremes (keeping the kid passionate and crazy or passionless and normal) and nothing in between, which is far too simplistic. Sure, it makes for better drama, and you really wouldn’t have a play if you alleviated the tension between the two extremes by introducing a compromise, but I can’t buy into the dilemma if it’s an artificial one.

What else? Oh yeah, Harry Potter’s bits. I know that’s what you really want to know about you pervs. We were too far back to see anything clearly. Whether that’s a statement on our seats or Harry’s wand I can’t help you.

Dvblin

•April 9, 2007 • 2 Comments

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Last weekend I finally made my way to Dublin, a place I’ve wanted to visit for years and years. It’s a beautiful city, a livable city. Whereas in Paris the greatest attractions are in tourist, landmark spots, in Dublin they are found in pubs and the walkway along the river Liffey, in everyday activities.

The exception is one simply unbelievably awesome tourist trap: Dvblinia.

Think of the cheesiest exhibit at a Renaissance festival possible. Now imagine it sprawled across 3 floors of a darkened 19th century neo-gothic building connected to the oldest cathedral in Dublin and you’ll have Dvblinia. Amazing.dvblinia-1a.jpg

After paying for your tickets at a desk manned by a bored older couple you enter a dark, empty, slightly musty smelling “Dublin fair”. Apparently Dublin fairs were often attacked by zombies because it had the eerie feeling of someplace abandoned and left to rot; motley colors mocking an aborted celebration. The “fair” twisted around a make-shift corridor created by “fair” booths: food, armor (with a sign encouraging you to try on a helmet; I don’t even want to know what might be crawling around in those helmets), spices, scribes. Exhibit after exhibit, empty even of fake people.

I reached the end of the “fair” and could hear a banging coming from the next room. In it was a woman, a live visitor, throwing something at another display. I figured maybe it was a reproduction of some medieval throwing game Dubliners played. But as I moved closer, I could see that it was a scene of a fake woman in stocks. The live woman was throwing fake vegetables at the fake woman. Over and over again she threw red plastic tomatoes: thwomp, thwomp, thwomp. I swear she did it for 5 minutes.

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The best display was the one about the Black Death. It was the liveliest.

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After two floors of such exhibits the third and final floor explored the life of ancient Vikings. Apparently they were insanely violent because all I can remember of it is a display of severed fake animal heads fake rotting on fake spikes. They didn’t really describe why Vikings decided to display rotting animal heads. They were just happy enough to reproduce it.

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The last time I was in Coney Island I went on a haunted house ride that’s the best ride I’ve ever ridden. It’s not scary exactly, but if you’re in the right frame of mind it’s a good four minutes of screaming and laughing. It’s just fantastic. Dvblinia is the best post-modern time I’ve had since then. If you ever go to Dublin and are in the mood for some old-fashioned po-mo, I highly recommend a visit.

I love mushy peas

•March 22, 2007 • 3 Comments

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I really do. There’s something just so abominably, wonderfully wrong with them. Their color should not appear outside of radioactive waste. They have no texture and a really weird flavor. But I love them.

God help me, I’m going native.

Sorry, Surrey

•March 21, 2007 • 3 Comments

We had an off-site meeting at work the other day and I was walking to it with some co-workers. I’m always interested in where people live, both within and without London, though my concept of geography is an embarrassment. Not just English geography, but American geography as well. Hell, even NY geography baffles me. I’m not as bad as my sister, though: the first day she drove herself to high school she got lost. In the town where we grew up. On her way to a school she’d been to daily for two years.

As we were walking to the meeting Hannah was telling me about her town. “It’s a little town, I’m sure you’ve never heard of it. It’s south of London.”

Ah-ha! I knew the county south of London!

“Is it in Kent?” I asked.

“Sorry?” she said.

“Is it in Kent?” I repeated.

“Sorry?” she said.

I thought, Wow, my accent is really terrible if someone can’t understand a single syllable word. I repeated it very carefully: “Kent…”

Before Hannah could answer again Roland, who’s from Chicago, said, “She’s saying Surrey. Not sorry, Surrey.”

And that was pretty much the amusing high point of the entire off-site meeting. It’s good Roland said something because that could have gone on forever.

Another time a co-worker, Mark, told me he was from a place near the Scottish border called Carl Isle.

“Oh cool! Is it really an island?” I asked this because of the whole Isle of Dogs not really being an island thing. He just looked at me blankly. “You know, because of Isle? Carl Isle? Is it really an…” And then I realized he’d been saying Carlisle, which is a city up near Hadrian’s Wall, and that there probably aren’t many islands in the northwest of England.

To be fair to myself, accents are more than just the elongation of vowels and glottal stops. For one thing intonation can be different. Hannah’s “Surrey.” sounded like a question to me because of how her tone rose on the second syllable and so I translated it to “Sorry?”. Likewise breaks and pauses in words and sentences may be different. I would pronounce Carlisle with no break in between syllables: “Carl-lisle,” while Mark pronounced it as almost two different words: “Carl-isle”.

It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Of course, he was Irish.

Here’s a link to an interesting blog I found about the differences between American English and British English. (She’s a far more regular blogger than I am. I promise to try harder. I’m talking to you, Mo’leary.)