Friday, June 30, 2023

Americana by Ray Davies

This is the book I neglected to mention when I read X-Ray, not quite a decade ago. It existed then - it's copyright 2013, and the US paperback I have in my hand was published in 2015 - so I can only blame 2016-era Andy's poor research skills and/or laziness. There already was a sequel when I sonorously declaimed "Davies hasn't gone back to tell us the rest of the Kinks story."

Americana - subtitled The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story - is more straightforward than the weirdly dystopian X-Ray, maybe because in between he'd written an actual volume of short stories, Waterloo Sunset, and thus disentangled the memoir and fiction-making parts of his prose-writing brain. Or maybe not: Davies has been telling odd, particular stories in just the right words - even leaving aside the music - for around sixty years at this point, so he gets the benefit of all of the doubts.

So this is the second memoir by a famous musician. And neither of those two memoirs are anything like what you would expect from that sentence. Americana may be less weird than X-Ray, but it's still quirky.

Davies starts in New Orleans at the turn of the century; he was spending a lot of time there for a few years mostly for loving-the-local-music reasons. (There are also a couple of composite characters, reflecting women he was involved with at the time, and I suspect that's a hint at another very strong reason he was in NOLA so much.)

From that point, Davies sets out in two directions, in roughly alternating sections: his life and work from 2001-forward, largely looking forward to a major event that happened to him in New Orleans in early 2004 and its aftermath; and how the Kinks engaged in America in general, starting with a brief look at a 1965 tour and then mostly picking up in the 1970s, when they made US domination a priority.

Like X-Ray, Americana shows that Davies was more competitive and success-driven than he might have seemed from the outside. But it's a cliché that no one ever becomes world-famous without wanting that more than anything else, so it's not surprising. It is eye-opening to see Davies writing about that ambition, about the relentless touring, about his relationships with various moguls and their record companies, and to see his viewpoint on the Kinks' late-70s resurgence in the US and their chart-topping status for close to a decade.

Like any memoir, there's both some dirty laundry brought out to public view and obvious cases where some pile of unwashed garments have been firmly locked behind a door and not commented on. Davies mostly comes across as thoughtful and honest, but no one is as clear-eyed about their own motivations and ideas as they could be, especially looking back over the decades. He is generally positive about all of the band members - even Dave, his brother, Kinks guitarist, and occasional wild child of the band - and a large number of their roadies, tour crew, record-company contacts, and others.

All in all, Davies is here telling the story of a few decades of hard work and occasional business fuckups (on his own part, mostly out of ignorance, bad luck or distraction, and on the part of record companies who didn't know what they'd gotten or didn't appreciate what they had), for an audience that loves Kinks songs and knows that history in at least enough detail to fill in some background along the way.

Fans of Give the People What They Want-era Kinks could start here; X-Ray is weirder and slipperier and doesn't get anywhere near their arena-rock period. But even those who loved the Kinks as an arena-rock band should know Davies was always quirkier and odder than that, more driven and inquisitive, so this will not be a straightforward account of those days.

Which is why I liked it so much, of course. Ray Davies knows how to tell a story, in a song or in longer forms. This is a good one.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Pop Gun War, Vol. 1: Gift by Farel Dalrymple

Maybe I thought going back to the beginning would give me some clarity: I've read Farel Dalrymple's work before [1], enjoying and engaging with it without actually getting it, so I dropped back to the beginning of his career.

I still enjoyed and engaged with Pop Gun War, Vol. 1: Gift, which collects the first five issues of his first solo comic - the edition I read is from 2016, but basically the same material was collected in 2003. And I have to say I still don't get it, though this is closer to stories I recognize.

Pop Gun War is urban fantasy, mostly: set in an unnamed City - there's a map before the story pages - where strange and mysterious things happen to a large cast with loose and tenuous connections. It's all street-level; they're ordinary people - well, ordinary enough, for this city, but I'll get to that - rather than mayors and tycoons or even store owners and mid-career professionals.

I should also say there are no pop guns, and no obvious war: the title is a metaphor. As usual for Dalrymple, I can't quite explain that metaphor.

The central character is Sinclair: that's him on the cover. He witnesses an unnamed angel fall from the sky and then pay a workman to cut off his wings. Sinclair grabs those wings out of the trash and runs away with them, later attaching them to his own back. This is urban fantasy: the wings work. (Or perhaps, as we learn later, those wings aren't what really works.)

The rest of the events circle him; he's a viewpoint and a center. But there's no linear plot, and the events don't necessarily align with each other, either. What we have, instead, is a cluster of characters doing things, some of them opposed to each other:

  • Addison, a bearded guy - maybe a bum? - who maybe finds meaning in his life by engaging with others, especially Sinclair
  • Emily, Sinclair's musician older sister, who might be supposed to take care of him but is often absent for extended periods, touring with her band The Emilies
  • Koole, a creepy smiling villain (?)
  • The Rich Kid, who is clearly not one of the good people, either, and sometimes seem to be in league with Koole
  • Percy, a giant, flying goldfish in glasses who nevertheless does not talk
  • Sunshine, a small man in a large top hat who grows over the course of the book - no, literally, he's as tall as a five-story building when he marches off into the sea with his good friend Percy. He's also probably "magic" in some deep way the story doesn't want to explain. It's unclear if he's a source or a symptom.
  • Mr. Grimshaw, a government (?) functionary who may be scheming to kidnap children and/or steal some vital essence from them and/or something vaguely in that story-space

There are also a group of unnamed, random neighborhood kids, who are both antagonists - trying to destroy Sinclair's wings, part of Koole and The Rich Kid's attempts to create chaos - and plot tokens, as they are dragged away from the normal city streets in Mr. Grimshaw's diabolical plans.

Again: all of these things do not connect with each other. My sense is that each of the five issues here is a story of its own, with the same essential cast, but it's more like a commedia dell'arte ensemble than a mini-series: everyone has their roles and functions, but they're doing a different iteration each time.

I still don't really get it, on the level that I'd like to. I love Dalrymple's inky drawings, and the way the story pops out into full-page color - mostly soft and muted, maybe watercolor? - here and there. His dialogue is quirky but believable, and this is an interesting, distinctive urban fantasy world even if I couldn't tell you how it works or what's important. That's how Dalrymple works, or at least how his stuff always strikes me: if you're interested in books that are interesting but stay tantalizingly out of focus to your conscious mind, try his stuff.

[1] See my post on It Will All Hurt, where I laid out my "I don't get Dalrymple" theory, and also Proxima Centauri and The Wrenchies.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Socrates Himself Was Particularly Missed

So I have this folder called "Reaction Images" on my desktop - I thought I would use them in messages or tweets or whatever. They're mostly flat JPEG files, almost all from comics, instead of animated GIFs, because I am Weird and Old.

And I don't think I've ever used a single one for what I thought I would. (Maybe because they aren't on my phone, which is the natural home for such things.)

But I just clipped one more, and have to share it, just because. It's from the current Existential Comics, which you should already be reading.

Finder: Dream Sequence by Carla Speed McNeil

To get it out of the way up front: I still have some problems believing in the bedrock details of this world. [1] Creator Carla Speed McNeil shows clearly that people are still as rapacious, greedy, and contentious in the world of Finder as they are in any other world, but her society has no clear mechanisms to channel or manage those impulses while at the same time explicitly saying there are some groups that are much better at violence than others. Without any kind of framework everyone agrees to, the violence experts are in charge, period. And they probably rule by decree.

That said, there is a representative of what seems to be a government who appears briefly in Finder: Dream Sequence. And we also see some bureaucratic maneuverings involving the ownership and organization of a big, profitable corporation. (And, as you know, Bob, corporations are creatures of the law: outside of that framework, even the best-organized and -focused group for maximizing profit is just a gang.) Perhaps McNeil is just not all that interested in depicting governance, but does have some ideas of how these domed cities rule themselves - I'm imagining something like the Doge and Great Council of Venice, where the local clans would have somewhat equal weight and there's some single figure to make the final decisions. But that would be on the individual city level, since McNeil has made it very clear they are each separate entities. And the clans tend to cluster, I think: each city has a few clans that are dominant, with others in smaller numbers. So I still think inter-city conflicts are still very likely, unless this world is so depopulated that thousands of miles separate what is only a handful of cities in the world.

(And, frankly, a lot of this world still reads to me as a horrible dystopia. Wastelands full of semi-feral tribes living Hobbesian lives. City people forced into straitjacket lives because their clan only can do three careers. Plus late capitalism in all its splendor and horrors, almost the same as in our world.)

But worlds don't need to be perfect, or wonderful, or even tolerable: they need to be interesting places where stories can happen. And Finder has that in spades.

Dream Sequence is the first book collected in the second omnibus, The Finder Library, Vol. 2. I read the first omnibus all in a rush, but I think I'm going to take these stories one-by-one.

The main character is Magri White, a tormented young genius who creates and maintains the VR realm Elsewhere in his head. Finder has a theory of mind that draws as much on '50s psionics as on '80s cyberpunk, so White was driven into this world by the weight of hearing everyone else's unpleasant mental chatter as a child - specifically chatter about him, and particularly negative chatter, so it's not entirely clear if this was real or his self-loathing assumptions - all of the time. McNeil presents this all in a SFnal context, and her characters have extensive brain augmentation and computer-connection available, so this is all "real" on some level: maybe psychological, maybe actual brain-to-brain communication. The people of this particular domed city - I think it's still Anvar, the site of most of the series to date - are often extensively brain-jacked, for both work and entertainment.

(McNeil, in her notes, also says "I don't think the voices Magri heard all the way back to age five were anything unusual," which implies she has a very different experience of life: I've never known anyone who claimed to hear other people's thoughts in their heads, and I would generally consider a person who did say that to be unbalanced at best.)

So: Magri has created a large, detailed, seemingly real place, which is hugely popular because it's the only one of its kind. Other VR realms are built on computers and maintained by computers; his is organic and clearly more human. A vast corporation, originally started by his distant, cold parents, has grown up around Elsewhere; Magri owns it but whether he could control it, even if he were less of a distracted tormented-artist type, is less clear. In fact, we see the be-suited men who run the corporation, who treat Magri as an annoyance and a resource to be exploited, the fallibly organic substrate that eternally complicates their crisp budget projections and plans and goals. Their schemes drive much of he plot of Dream Sequence; this is largely the story of how changes in Elsewhere provoke crises, how those suits plan to respond, and how Magri finally does something active, in both his interior and exterior world, for the first time in more than a decade.

From the beginning of Dream Sequence, we know something is wrong with Elsewhere: some malevolent force is stalking and maiming visitors there. McNeil uses that opportunity to play some interesting variations on the old "if you die in VR, you die in real life" standard. We see that Magri is coming more and more unglued: Elsewhere is him, so whatever is wrong with it must be coming from him in some way.

The suits find a scapegoat to blame the violence on - an actual person who looks something like the figure in Elsewhere, who as far as we can tell has nothing to do with it. (It's Jaeger, McNeil's main continuing character, which her notes had to tell me - he barely talks, doesn't get a name in the story pages, looks completely different, and his role here is purely as an innocent scapegoat.)

In the end, Magri does face the source of the problem head-on, takes responsibility and control, and moves forward: the ending we hoped for and wanted.

That's all the what of this story. What makes it special - why McNeil gets such rapturous reviews and glowing quotes - is the how. She's a magnificent artist and a thoughtful writer; this book is filled with complex pages that read precisely, with masses of background text and visionary images, long dialogue and monologue sequences, and a parade of amazing imagery, here set free by the possibilities of Elsewhere as a VR realm in general and its breaking down in particular. This is a deep, intense story on a subject very close to its creator, about trauma and creation and the terror of being in the spotlight, family and escapism and the rapacity of capitalism. I can quibble about some details - I did, of course - but it forms into a complete, self-consistent, inspiring whole.

[1] See my post on The Finder Library, Vol. 1, which collects the first three storylines, for more details, and some background on the world.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer & Benjamin Dewey

Every series needs a big flashback story. Usually it's to finally tell the Big Secret - the Noodle Incident, for example - that has been hinted about over and over again. Or at least a Big Secret, I suppose.

The alternative is using a big flashback to get a new cast and location, while still getting the benefit of starting off with all of the characters your audience already knows. That happens, too. I just read one of those, actually.

Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory is the fourth collection of "Beasts of Burden" stories, all set in a mildly Lovecraftian world with animals that talk to each other (and to a few magical humans), some of whom actively battle those mildly Lovecraftian horrors when required. The animals - with a heavy emphasis on domesticated dogs, though some other domestic breeds do come in, here and there - are the heroes, with humans in support roles at best.

The original Beasts of Burden series, from the late Aughts, is available under the title Animal Rites. The second big series, about a decade later, was Wise Dogs and Eldrich Men. And the inevitable collection of one-shots and anthology stories and crossovers - all of the stuff that filled up that decade between the big stories, and then some - is Neighborhood Watch.

The series was created by Evan Dorkin (writer) and Jill Thompson (artist). Benjamin Dewey took over the art side for Wise Dogs, and has been the main artist since then. Sarah Dyer has been co-writer since a couple of the last stories in Neighborhood Watch, and here as well. Letters in the Dewey era have been by Nate Piekos, and Jason Lusk is credited on this book for "flats," which is some aspect of the coloring-to-printing process that I've seen described multiple times but never quite retain.

Occupied Territory was a miniseries from 2021, with the classic "hey, who's that other guy in this old photo?" frame story, allowing series character Emrys to tell the story of how he and his then-human partner Jonathan went to Northern Japan in 1947. [1] Emrys is supposedly telling the story, but his narration boxes disappear quickly, and the frame is just at the very beginning and end - it's not the kind of story that drops back out to the frame for interjections or for each issue. Just one simple "let me tell you the story," and then the story.

As you might guess, this is the "all the cool stuff from Japanese mythology" story, which many supernatural series in various media have fallen into before. It's a bit of a one-damn-thing-after-another story; it does all hang together, but the plotline is mostly held together by "and then we ran over there to fight an Oni, and then we met the local dogs, and then the local dogs summoned the Parliament of Friendly Yokai [2], but they were no help, so we all ran over there to fight something else, and then...". As with most of the Beasts of Burden stories, the humans get left behind quickly so the dogs can do all the fun stuff in the woods.

I have trouble taking these stories seriously: these are stories about dogs barking magic spells at monsters to save the world. They're fun, don't get me wrong: good characterization, spiffy dialogue, and a lovely world that Dewey depicts in gorgeous immersive panels. But I always need to call in extra-heavy ropes to suspend my disbelief, and keep pulling on them throughout the story to keep that disbelief from sinking down to the floor.

I wouldn't start the series here: it's a sidebar at best. But it's another solid story of the same kind as the earlier stories, and - especially for animal lovers - an enjoyable light battling-supernatural-horrors romp.

[1] The heroes of this series are exceptionally long-lived, especially for dogs. I don't think we've seen exactly how long they can live, since lives of danger more often end in the field.

[2] Not called this. But it's what they are.

Monday, June 26, 2023

This Year: 1995

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

Another sad one for 1995: I have a type. Another break-up song, another slow, gauzy stroll through unhappiness.

Like Dirty Work, way back near the beginning of this series, this is a song about a lover who feels powerless. She wants to walk out, but she just can't.

Where I live, 

There's this lady

Who walks everywhere on her hands.

She don't trust where her feet want to take her

The song is Judas My Heart by Belly, and I think this was a consensual relationship. I think. But it's really close.

The singer is stuck in this relationship, which is entirely negative: the title calls it a betrayal of her heart. And this person is coming around again, and she doesn't seem to be able to stop him or keep him away.

I said I thought this was consensual, that this is a love gone wrong, a lover who's just bad for the singer. I mostly think that. Mostly.

This is the room where we met (not in here).

This is the dress I had on.

That's where I have doubts. Especially when she insists this is something he did to her. She has no agency, no control, and will have no control if/when he comes back again, which he may be doing right now, as she sings the song.

It's a quiet song, mournful - the pace is slow, like a dirge the singer is singing for her lost self. And there's no sign in the song that this is going to get better. There's no way out of this. It's an eternal now, the way a great song can be: one emotion, one feeling, one situation, a whole world in a nutshell.

Can I get a witness when you Judas my heart again?

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Incoming Books: Week of June 24, 2023

This is part three of the big box from Hamilton; see the last two weeks for more details. It's slightly cheaty to call this "incoming books" for "this week," but no one actually cares.

This time out: Other Stuff! Mostly fiction, mostly old and/or famous so you could call it "literature" if you want, with a couple of bits of non-fiction.

The outlier is Witty Comebacks, a quote book compiled by Tim Glynne-Jones (who is only credited at the end of his introduction) and published to be a small coffee-table book or otherwise read in small moments. I used to have a lot of books like these stacked up, but my supply has seriously dwindled - and I think books like this aren't published as much anyway; they've all turned into online listicles, which are better attuned to the attention span in question here.

I read a Matt Haig novel long ago - for the SFBC actually; it was The Dead Fathers Club and I think we offered it - and have looked at his other books since then, meaning to read more of them one of these days. Well, I got his non-fiction book Notes on a Nervous Planet, which seems to be partly the story of how he got over an anxiety disorder and partly his recommendations for how everyone should live in the modern, media-soaked world.

The Sun Also Rises is a 1926 novel by Ernest Hemingway that you may have heard of. I'm pretty sure the only Hemingway I hit during my academic career was A Moveable Feast - I got my English degree at about the nadir of his reputation - and every so often I think I should read something by him. Probably this, which is why I got it.

Goodbye to Berlin is the one book by Christopher Isherwood that anyone has ever heard of, because it inspired the musical Cabaret. Maybe I'll read it: it's short and now I have a copy on my shelves, close at hand.

The publishers of the next book don't seem to trust their audience - it's Jack London's 1913 memoir John Barleycorn, with the subtitle A Drinking Life much larger on the cover. Again, it's a book I think I'll want to read at some point, and now I can easily if "at some point" suddenly appears.

The Devil in the Flesh is a very short novel from 1923 by the very young Raymond Radiguet, about a teenager who has an affair with the wife of a soldier - apparently it's semi-autobiographical, was somewhat scandalous at the time, and that Radiguet died very young, soon afterward. That all sounds intriguing, so why not?

And last is Paul Theroux's 1982 novel The Mosquito Coast. I've been reading his nonfiction for a long time, and have a couple of his novels on the shelf, but have never actually read one. This is maybe his most famous/acclaimed book, so it's a good choice to have on hand if ever I decide to dive into fictional Theroux.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Quote of the Week: That New-Fangled Religion

The baker who bought me was a decent enough fellow, but was unhappily married. His wife was the wickedest woman I met in all my travels and treated him so badly that I used often to groan in secret pity for him. There was no single vice which she did not possess: her heart was a regular cesspool into which every sort of filthy sewer empties. She was malicious, cruel, spiteful, lecherous, drunken, selfish, obstinate, as mean in her petty thefts as she was wasteful in her grand orgies, and an enemy of all that was honest and clean. She also professed  perfect scorn for the Immortals and rejected all true religion in favor of a fantastic and blasphemous cult of an 'Only God.'

 - Apuleius, trans. Robert Graves, The Golden Ass, pp.203-204

Friday, June 23, 2023

That Was Long Ago In Another Country

I worked for the SFBC (and its various parent companies) for 5882 days, from April 15th, 1991 (Tax Day!) up through May 22nd, 2007 (my wedding anniversary!) I suppose I should be happy that the dates are easy to remember....

Since I have an excessively tidy mind, I occasionally count up those days, and how many days it's been since then.

5882 days since May 22nd, 2007 is June 23, 2023. So, as of today, I've been out of the SF field as long as I was in it. Go me!

Similarly, I worked in book publishing from August 1, 1990 [1] through February 28, 2015. (That includes a couple of stretches of unemployment between book-publishing jobs, which I think is fair, but it may be an asterisk.) That is 8978 days.

And, doing the same exercise: 8978 days since Feb 28, 2015 is September 28, 2039. I'll be 70 years old at that point, so presumably retired. If this blog is still around then, maybe I'll make note of the day.

This all means nothing. But it is yet another stark reminder that we all get older, time never stops passing, and we're none of us as young or special as we think we are.

[1] I had a job before the SFBC: my first out-of-college position was as an Editorial Assistant for Gale Research, a mostly-reference publisher which at the time had a NY office. One month to the day after I started, they decided they didn't want to have a NY office anymore, so it closed at the end of that November, putting all of us NY Galeites out of work for Christmas. One might note that I have, so far, never left a professional job under my own power.

The Golden Ass by Apuleius, trans. Robert Graves

At what point does a translator become as important as the original author? Is there a point where the translator becomes more important?

I read a bunch of things that are translated from their original languages, because I want to appear as a modern man with wide, cosmopolitan tastes. (Or maybe I just read a lot of comics originally from France, but don't read French.) And I write about them all here, by habit or compulsion. When they're translated, I've tended to put the translator in the body of my blog post, somewhere, and sometimes note where I've read different translations of the same underlying work, or otherwise think I can discern something about the translation itself.

This time, though, I feel like the translator is important enough to get an author credit - maybe because the book cover does that, maybe because he's famous on his own, maybe because this is a nearly two-thousand-year old religious romp translated by one of the greatest prose writers of the last century.

According to the cover, this is The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Generally, it's just called The Golden Ass. It was written by Apuleius (Lucius was his given name, but, like Madonna or Cher, he's usually called by the single name) around the year 180, and translated in 1947 by novelist Robert Graves, who also provided an introduction.

I'm not enough of a historian to know if this is the oldest surviving picaresque novel. Probably not: there are always earlier versions of everything. But it's early, and it's picaresque, and very obviously and maturely so: this is a story made up of stories, almost fractally, and they're all told with grace and humor and a quietly bawdy air. I'm pretty sure most of the stories in here are versions of things circulating at the time, familiar from storytellers and earlier novels or plays or whatever. (My knowledge of the publishing and literary scene of the mid-second century Latin world is shockingly small.)

So I came here from later picaresques - most obviously, and recently, from Jack Vance's Cugel novels, which also feature a roguish young man with an eye for the ladies traveling across a landscape filled with danger and magical transformations. And the first thing I would say about The Golden Ass is that it is fun to read: Graves' translation is still modern enough to be quick and lively and engaging, and the story is cynical and honest in turn in ways that will resonate just as well in the 21st century. This book is almost two thousand years old, but it's presented in clear language and features people that modern readers will recognize: their religious concerns are very different, but how they interact with each other is instantly familiar.

Apuleius is telling a story ostensibly about himself, about Lucius, a young man traveling in Greece, looking to work as a lawyer and fascinated by stories of witches. This is all true, he claims - it's that kind of book, from that tradition. Along the way, he'll tell us how he was transformed into an ass, and what happened afterward. Even more so, he'll tell us other stories - stories he heard along the way, stories that were told to him, stories upon stories.

It's structured like one long night with a master storyteller, who starts out by telling his own "no shit, there I was" story, gets sidetracked for long periods with "oh, and while I was there, I heard this fascinating tale," but always comes back to the core narrative and ends all of those stories well. In the end, it's actually a religious parable, I think: but the fun part for a modern reader is that it's a pagan Latin parable, all about how you need to devote your life to the correct mystery cults, and then wealth and success will follow you in your life forevermore. (Or something like that: Graves has some details in his introduction, and the last chapter is Apuleius directly talking about all of his successive initiations and why they were each important.)

This is one of the most frivolous and light-hearted "classics" I have ever read. It does have a moral at the end, as I just noted, but the moral comes out of such a different world and set of expectations that most modern readers won't even take it as a moral. I can recommend it even to readers allergic to morals, and anyone who likes stories within stories, picaresque adventures, or good-natured rogues.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Johnny Appleseed by Paul Buhle and Noah Van Sciver

There are twenty or thirty "facts" that most Americans learn in childhood. We don't all remember all of them later. Any one of us maybe didn't learn all of them, and they come in and out of vogue - what my generation learned isn't same as what my sons learned. Many of these "facts" are dubiously true at best - the cherry tree, the log-splitting, the guy with the big blue ox. But we learn them. They're part of the national culture and idea of itself, like any nation.

That a guy named John Chapman called himself Johnny Appleseed, wore a pot on his head, and wandered around what was then the frontier (western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana) in the early 19th century, planting apple trees, is one of those facts. We tend to assume "apples" means Red Delicious, which is totally wrong. We tend to think of Chapman as a kind, nature-loving, open-hearted man and his story fit for very young children, which is basically true. The story is mostly correct, basically - what really happened, seen through the usual haze of hagiography and national myth-making.

The 2017 graphic biography Johnny Appleseed: Green Spirit of the Frontier tells the real story, as much as it can be known two hundred years later, and is pitched at adults, unlike the vast majority of books about Chapman. It was written by historian Paul Buhle and drawn by Noah Van Sciver, a cartoonist with an affinity for projects about the 19th century who usually writes his own material.

Buhle is aggressively putting Chapman in context here, which means that nearly half of the book is about other things - from Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose philosophy was hugely influential on Chapman, to a long list of later ecologists, writers, thinkers, and wilderness-wanderers. But that's OK, since Chapman's life is full of gaps and he seems to have spent several decades doing exactly the same thing: coming to a new area, on the edge of settled America, leasing plots of land, planting apple orchards there, and then selling those plots to new farmers and settlers as he moved on. It might be possible to plot those areas on a map, but Buhle doesn't do so: he's much more interested in the why, the philosophy behind what Chapman did rather than the physical question of how many acres Chapman covered with trees over the forty-ish years he was doing this.

Reading Johnny Appleseed, I wondered a lot about the physical details of Chapman's life: did he build huts to live in, on each successive piece of land? Or did he usually have lodgings in some nearby town? He seems to have done a lot of real-estate transactions, though probably for low values and making minimal profits at best - did he work with banks? Did he have accounts? Or was this all on the honor system with the unofficial mayor of the town or the local big landlord? But Buhle is more of an intellectual historian: he want to tell the story of Chapman's thinking, how he helped to spread a certain type of liberal Christian theology across the frontier, and what that mean for American religious life for the rest of the century.

Van Sciver, as always, draws gloriously detailed panels, framed by clumped leaves outdoors and cross-hatched walls inside, full of grumpy-faced, sweaty men grappling with agriculture and eternity. (There are a few women in the book - I'm sure of it, even if I can't bring any to mind or find them flipping through the pages - but this is a story of men and their intellectual and farming work.)

Inevitably, Chapman is a hole at the center of his own book. We really don't know much about him. We know what he did, and have his Swedenborgian zeal to explain why - but that's awfully thin to explain a whole life. Chapman comes off, here as everywhere else, as one of history's great monomaniacs, devoting his entire life to one narrow activity.

But that's what we have. Buhle and Van Sciver present everything we know and everything we assume and everything we can extrapolate here, in a series of chapters that circle that Chapman-shaped hole at the center of their story. I'm not saying anything here they didn't already know when making this book: that's the point. That's the deal with John Chapman. And, if you ever wanted to know more about that Appleseed guy that you learned about when you were five, this is the place to go.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Black Hammer Reborn, Part II by Lemire, Ward & Sheean

Looking back over my posts on the vast Black Hammer saga, there's one thing that jumps out: I'm not actually that fond of derivative superhero stories, particularly ones without clear endings. You, Dear Reader, might rightfully ask: why do I keep coming back?

Well, it's fun to complain about things online, obviously. And Black Hammer stories let me sample some superheroic stuff without getting into the insane continuity tangles of the Big Two, or contributing to their bottom lines. And I do actually have a lot of respect for writer Jeff Lemire, even if I think he's massively slumming here. Plus a lot of interesting artists have worked on the series.

All that said, I am probably not going to be particularly complimentary to this fifteenth (!) collection of Black Hammer stories, Black Hammer Reborn, Part II. (Along with everything else, this is pure middle: the central third of a twelve-issue series, with no real beginning or end.) But, before I get into that, let me say that Lemire and his artistic compatriots - this time, Malachi Ward and Matthew Sheean; Ward also did the colors with Bryce Davidson as flatter - do solid work in the superhero mines, creating exciting pages of people punching each other and declaiming dramatic things and contemplating cosmic vistas and all that crap.

(Some potentially useful background links: the first Black Hammer story, the first part of Reborn, and the time a book called Sherlock Frankenstein triggered my loudest rant. A search for Black Hammer will bring up all my related posts, gawd help you.)

So: as we saw in the first part of Reborn, Lucy, the second-generation Black Hammer, is fortyish in the modern day (mid 2010s), having retired from the superhero biz around fifteen years ago for a reason that we see in this series. It's a big dramatic thing, of course: everything is a big dramatic thing in superhero comics. No one ever moves to Schenectady for the spouse's job, or gets really busy with the PTA for a while, or has that annoying lumbar issue and gradually realizes the whole superhero deal just isn't fun any more.

Meanwhile, the Big Bad of the series may be stirring, even though he was supposedly Destroyed Forever. Skulldigger, the Punisher-esque grim n' gritty '90s hero, and Doctor Andromeda, the Starman-esque Golden Age science hero, are both involved somehow, as is, inevitably, Doctor Weird. (Boy howdy is he involved, but I will not spoil the idea that Lemire has here stolen from Alan Moore.)

Oh, and it's Crisis time again! Because modern comics are All-Events, All-The-Time, every "core" Black Hammer story is actually about saving all of the worlds everywhere from final destruction. There is another Spiral City in the sky above "our" Spiral City, which is of course getting closer.

Superhero fans will be happy to see that Lucy is in-costume this entire book, after mostly being in civilian clothes in the first part, and that she hits a bunch of things with that big hammer. It doesn't resolve anything, since this is still all middle, but you do get a lot of pages of punching and clobbering and assembling and emoting, which is what you want, right?

It's not done yet, so it's not as disappointing as it could be. It's still all potential, which is the fun part of a superhero story: the moment before the big fight Changes Everything, never quite in the way that we were hoping. That all will be in Part III, I'm sure.

And, y'know, I'm pretty sure that Worlds Will Live, Worlds Will Die, Nothing Will Ever Be the Same, as usual. Until the next time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

Can we say that Late Gene Wolfe is problematic? I still haven't read everything - because an author is not "really" dead until you finish that last remaining book - but it feels like everything from at least Pirate Freedom, and maybe even "The Wizard Knight," are the works of a writer who resolutely refused to engage with the actual world, and circled further and further into his own obsessions and concerns.

Typing that out, I expect a lot of people will respond, "Oh, you mean like every other old, respected and far-too-comfortable Famous Writer?" And that's true: it's not an uncommon problem.

But Wolfe, I think, is an interesting case, since he's supposedly a SF writer, but his late books typically jettison actual SF rigor in favor of SFnal surfaces. They're set in impossible worlds, supposedly extrapolated but missing things already existing in the real world at the time he wrote, based on stereotyped or wrong-headed or anachronistic or just dumb ideas of human behavior and society, with backgrounds sketched at best in order to tell fairly straightforward post-thriller tales in which women are always the problem. For the last decade or two of his career, he wrote books that were less convoluted - in their plots, their telling, and their details - than previously, and set them in fairly bland retro-futures that frankly I never found believable.

This time I read A Borrowed Man, Wolfe's 2015 novel. I could also mention Pirate Freedom, An Evil Guest, The Sorcerer's House, and Home Fires. [1]

Women are always a problem in Wolfe's books: at his best, they're mysterious and interesting; at his worst, they're flighty, silly and tedious. No matter what the book, they never seem to be people the way men are people. More and more towards the end, they were the same kind of rich, gorgeous, unreliable femmes fatale - fourth-generation descendants of the Sternwood daughters. And Borrowed Man, as we get to the very end of Wolfe's career, has some musings from the narrator about women that would not be out of place from your Uncle Lou to his bowling buddies in 1956.

Borrowed Man is set in an indeterminate future, in a depopulated world, where the board has been tipped up, and everything is smaller, simpler, and more sedate in this New America where none of the place names are familiar. Wolfe never even hints about how this world came to be, but none of the concerns of the actual world of 2015 have anything to do with this future. Instead, it's a retro-30s world, with robot cars, ubiquitous "screens" that don't seem to have anything like social media on them, and vaguely corrupt cops who I keep picturing pushing their hats back on their heads. Let me be honest: it's not a future I believed we could have gotten to a century on from 2015, as the flap copy says. I'm dubious we could ever get to this world, but I'd give it a pass if we were assuming three or four hundred years had passed.

Our narrator - the typical Late Wolfean man, with an ingratiating aura, amazing powers of ratiocination and observation, and unexpected skills to tackle anything the plot throws at him - is E.A. Smithe. Or, rather, a "reclone" of Smithe, who was a moderately famous mystery novelist of the previous era.

One of the odder (and central) bits of worldbuilding here is that this world - which had some kind of massive population crash that, at the very, very best, saw seven or eight billion people die without having any children at the end of happy and fulfilled lives, but more likely involved most of them dying much, much earlier and in horrible ways - has the technology to create perfect clones, but only uses it for stupid pointless things.

So they don't create clone armies of workers as an underclass. They don't seem to clone beloved parents or spouses to reunite with them. They don't clone the great geniuses of the past to make them create new gewgaws and devices. They don't even seem to plan to clone themselves to extend their already notably longer lives.

No, they clone writers, and stick them in a library, where they're mostly ignored until their low circulation leads them to be burned. (Yes, killed: clones are not considered human, of course.) This is the premise of the novel, so the fact that it makes no sense is I suppose forgivable.

But it doesn't make any sense. At all. On any level. Libraries are not a major element of this society: physical books are barely read, and authors are not much more interesting. Interlibrary loan services are smaller, badly run, and vastly less professional than the one I know about in my own community right now. And yet libraries are substantially larger, with more complex operations than in our day - they have to house and feed what seem to be dozens of authors, in admittedly Spartan conditions, sure, but just think about adding that to your local library and think about how the budget would handle it.

Frankly, it seems like Wolfe had the idea "what if a library lended authors" and then just stuck it into the same kind of bland retro-future he'd been writing for a decade, and no one pointed out to him that the two things didn't mesh at all.

Anyway, Smithe is checked out by the requisite dame, Colette Coldbrook, the sole survivor and heir of a wealthy family: her father and brother have both recently died in unexpected ways, and a book by the original Smithe is apparently part of the mystery surrounding their deaths.

As usual in Late Wolfe, Smithe and Colette talk a lot about logistics and feelings and how women and men are completely different creatures and what they're going to do next and how to stymie potential listening devices and a whole lot of other things. It almost made me yearn for the days when conversations in Wolfe novels were elliptical and inevitably ended just before the most important question was answered because the end of chapter triggered a jump-cut to a completely different situation.

Smithe and Colette travel in air-cars and ground-cars. They go to the requisite palatial estate. They are menaced by thugs and separated. Smithe soldiers on alone, and finds other allies. Other thugs pop up - oddly, looking back, I don't think any of the individual thugs (many of whom are, or at least claim to be, police of various kinds) return in the book: they show up, stick around for their scenes, and they drop out of the narrative for good.

Smithe does help solve the mystery. His being Smithe isn't actually important to his help - it's much more that he's That Wolfe Guy - but c'est la vie. There is an unexpected, and utterly unexplained, SF element that crops up very late, and leads to philosophical implications that were much more Campbellian than I expected or enjoyed.

Wolfe was a smooth, professional writer. A Borrowed Man is a pleasure to read on a sentence and paragraph level, and it tells a moderately play-fair mystery in a mostly straightforward, engaging way. Objectively, it's vastly more accessible than works like "The Book of the New Sun" or The Fifth Head of Cerberus. But it's much lesser than Wolfe's best works, thinner and slighter, telling a second-hand story in a second-hand world with a second-hand moral.

And, in the name of all that's holy, this is the book that Wolfe wrote a sequel to in his last years. I still have that one to read; I might wait some time to do so.

[1] My first theory was related to Wolfe's longtime editor, David Hartwell, who I knew a bit in my SF days, respected a hell of a lot, and who died in 2016. But then I realized Wolfe's even longer-term agent - and, I think, first reader - Virginia Kidd died in 2003, and that seems much closer to the time of the change in Wolfe's work. I don't think the details will ever be known, but then we never know how much of a writer's work is "really" due to the influence of spouses and editors and agents.

Monday, June 19, 2023

This Year: 1994

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

The best songs express who you are, who you want to be. They can be about that moment of your life when you hear them, or they can look to the future.

My song for 1994 was about the future, at the time. It's since become the past. I hope I lived up to it. I hope this song helped me think about that part of my life. I think it did.

It's Whip-Smart by Liz Phair, a song that made me want to be a better, smarter, sneakier, more interesting father four years before my first son was born.

It's a song by a woman - a woman who has always been clearly feminist - about raising a son, using a lot of imagery and ideas more usually associated with girls growing up. And, yes, that is the feminist part, and yes, that is what I loved and still love about it.

And I'm gonna lock my son up in a tower

Until he learns to let his hair down far enough to climb outside

That's the line that always gets me, drags out the huge smile - the Rapunzel double reversal, first putting it on the boy rather than the girl but then doubles down by making it about freedom and choice. It took me years to learn to let my hair down far enough to climb outside. I hope my boys can do that at least a little quicker.

And this is another song with a great rhythm that kicks it off - a demanding, syncopated beat that starts after a few seconds of quiet pastoral sounds at the beginning and underlies the whole song. To my ear, it almost sounds like a machine: maybe the steam-loom someone is using to spin straw into gold, maybe the machine building the tower, maybe something even sillier.

But what makes this song so special is that core feminist reversal: it's all about lessons Phair learned as a woman, and how she's going to transmute them into things a boy should know. It's all forward-looking, all focused on this boy, who may or may not already exist.

All about that core parental idea: I want you to be better than I was; I want you to be able to avoid these things that I tripped over; I want better for you than I had.

I love that, and I loved the specific lessons here. I probably didn't live up to my hopes as a parent; no one ever does. But that beat in Whip-Smart is still there chugging along, and my sons are both home for the weekend as I type this, and I can keep being the father I want to be as long as I'm still here.

And I'm gonna tell my son to be a prophet of mistakes

Because for every truth there are half a million lies

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Incoming Books: Week of June 17, 2023

This is something of a cheat. As I said last week, I got a big box of remainders recently, and this is the middle third of them: the books that are SFF or something similar.

(I'm doing this in three batches because of two competing urges: I want to list all of my new books, but I also don't want to sit doing twenty-some books in a row. So I do a Caesar-in-Gaul act instead.)

And so here are:

Longer, a Michael Blumlein novel from 2019 that I think was his last work. This looks to be less...disturbing than most of his books, since it seems to be more-or-less straightforward serious SF about life-extension and such. (Blumlein was a doctor, and his work often came at SF from a horror slant - or maybe vice versa - with novels like The Movement of Mountains and X, Y and his great disturbing collection The Brains of Rats.)

Carmen Dog is a short novel by Carol Emshwiller, who I've read very little of. This one is about women who turn into animals and vice versa; I don't think it's officially a fable but it probably aims towards that territory.

I Am Providence is a novel by Nick Mamatas, a murder mystery set at a Lovecraftian convention. So maybe this generations Bimbos of the Death Sun, perhaps? Mamatas is suitably cruel and willing to burn bridges, so I have reasonably high hopes.

The Menace from Farside is a novella by Ian McDonald, apparently loosely related to a recent trilogy set on the moon. I haven't read the trilogy, and haven't read any McDonald for at least a decade, but I liked all his earlier books that I did read, so why not? I also like novellas these days, since my reading time is shorter and more fragmented.

By Force Alone is a big Arthurian novel - I think in the "grim & gritty" camp - by Lavie Tidhar, who I've generally seen working the SF side of the street. From my chair, it looks like it was supposed to be his big breakout book, but I don't think that succeeded - maybe it was too different from what he'd done before, or maybe the starts just weren't right.

Lent was Jo Walton's new novel for 2019, and some kind of historical fantasy in which Savonarola (maybe the historical figure, maybe some other guy; I'm not an expert on the period) can see and cast out demons. I'm a few books behind on Walton, but she always does distinctive and thoughtful books, and this one stands alone, so I might be able to find time for it.

And last is The Accidental War, another book in the "Praxis" series by Walter Jon Williams. I may be slightly confused, since there are some novellas in that series, and not all of them are available in printed form, but I think this series is mostly two trilogies, and this book is the beginning of the second one. I was a big Williams fan back in the day, but he's someone whose work I somewhat lost track of when I left the SFBC and was no longer reading SFF in bulk and having it delivered every day to my office.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Quote of the Week: It's Literary Criticism, Jim, But Not As We Know It

It was stated that while the novel and the play were both pleasing intellectual exercises, the novel was inferior to the play inasmuch as it lacked the outward accidents of illusion, frequently inducing the reader to be outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters. The play was consumed in wholesome fashion by large masses in places of public resort; the novel was self-administered in private. The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic.

 - Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (p.21 in The Complete Novels

Friday, June 16, 2023

Heroes of the Comics by Drew Friedman

I try not to let the best be the enemy of the good. Something can be just fine even if it's clear that it could have been much better if only one aspect was slightly different.

But when it's my own choice that downgrades something to "good," I have to at least point it out.

I read Drew Friedman's 2014 book Heroes of the Comics electronically, on a standard-size tablet.

Don't do that.

This is an oversized book, meant to be read at its real size. Even more so, the point is to be able to see the full-page portraits while you're reading the text on the facing back, glancing back and forth from one to the other. In a digital format, none of that is available.

Friedman has been making books like this for about two decades, starting with Old Jewish Comedians in 2006. The three Comedians books were pretty minimalistic, without much text and only a couple of dozen portraits in each. His books on cartoonists - I've previously read his later book on the underground scene, Maverix and Lunatix - are much larger and expansive.

Heroes has eighty-three full-page portraits of Golden and Silver Age creators and industry professionals, from Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson to Alex Toth, Will Eisner to Marie Severin, Al Feldstein to Lou Fine. If you don't know who any of those people are, this is not a book for you.

They're all presented in mid-career - not as the Young Turks they mostly were when they mostly did the stuff we remember them for, but as middle-aged or on the cusp of retirement. Friedman likes drawing distinctive, damaged faces, of course, so this is not a surprising artistic choice. And they are all identifiable to anyone who knows what they look like in the first place. That depends on the reader and the subject, obviously - there are very few people who have any idea what Max Gaines looked like, while Jack Kirby (our cover boy) is very recognizable.

So this is a book of pictures of mostly white-haired, mostly white, often Jewish guys sitting and smiling at the "camera," as if in a publicity still or heroic portrait, over and over, with a potted biography on the facing page. Even though they all did some great work, and were instrumental in the rise of a major American art form, it all gets pretty samey and potted by the time the book is over. There's only so many times you can say "this guy started out in the Eisner/Iger Studio."

This is an interesting book. I'm glad it exists; I'm glad Friedman has a career making his unique portraits, and that he's been able to catalog so many areas of pop-culture that he cares so much about. But, frankly, it's a little boring. It might be best sitting on a coffee table, so you can pick it up randomly, look at one or two guys, and put it back down.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Selected Poetry by Emily Dickinson

I don't know if this is a plus or a minus, but one feature of writing about every book I read is that I fairly regularly need to throw my hands up, admit that there are some pretty fundamental things I just did not get, and try to assemble something coherent out of my confusion and misreadings.

Not actually changing the subject: I'm getting to a book of poetry about once a year, these days: not a lot, but more than a lot of people, so I guess it balances.

This year, it was Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson, an attractive little edition published as part of the "New York Public Library Collector's Editor" series in the late '90s. [1] I thought I would be simpatico with Dickinson's work; she seemed like a fun, quirky writer and that I would enjoy her allusive poems.

This mostly was not the case.

Now, Emily Dickinson is a world-famous poet, whom many great writers and readers have found inspiration and delight in for more than a century. But not every reader is for every writer. 

I did find a few things that spoke to me, but most of this book was deeply opaque, on multiple levels. I never quite figured out how to read Dickinson's famous dashes: close to a majority of them seemed to not even break the meter, so they weren't breaks or pauses or anything I could figure out. [2] Oh, sometimes they could be used as pauses, but not consistently - they felt more like greengrocer's apostrophes to me, thrown in whenever the writer felt like fancying things up. (Which I'm sure was not the case, but it's as close to a theory as I had.)

And the topics of the poems were often vague at best, with Dickinson's churchy and high-falutin' 19th century language mostly serving to obscure whatever it was she was talking about. About half way through, I formed a theory: Dickinson's poems were either about some random natural thing (a beetle, for example) that was common outside her house in 1860 but went extinct twenty years later, or about Death in a vaguely Protestant way, or occasionally about some other human being whom she would never name or explain.

So I'd read a poem, think, "this is an allegory for a birch tree, maybe" and move on. And then the next one would be "OK, so somebody is dead, I think." And then would be one that was probably about a cloud, and then another about what her life would be like after she was dead. (That last category seemed very common.)

I did find Dickinson's late poems were clearer, that they made sense to me more consistently. I'm not sure if that was a shift in her work, or just that I'd read enough Dickinson that I'd clicked - I think the former, since she used far fewer dashes towards the end.

But my main takeaway was: just because something is declared to be Great doesn't mean it will work for you, today or ever. There's no shame in that. It doesn't mean it's not Great for someone if it's not Great for you. And the goal of writing about art is to try to see what is or can be Great in there - where's the spark that inspires or thrills or excites.

Dickinson was a fizzle for me, mostly. But I'm not sorry I read her poetry, and I hope having read them will set me up to read other things in the future, and, I hope, to find them Great in unexpected ways.

[1] If I remember correctly, my then-colleague Barbara Greenman at what was then the Doubleday Book Clubs was involved with the series, though I don't know on what level. But they're lovely books, and the clubs sold all of them, and I grabbed copies of every one I could and still have a few two-plus decades later.

[2] I tried reading some poems out loud, pausing or not at dashes, which didn't help. I'm sure there is some method to it, but I didn't manage to stumble into that method.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell & Troy Nixey

First must come the consumer warning. I read this digitally, which means flipping through the pages would have been more cumbersome than with a physical book, and I took the "152 pages" as an indication of the length of the story.

Reader, I was misled.

Only the End of the World Again is a 48-page story, bulked out by an sketchbook section exactly twice its size that shows the thumbnail layouts and un-lettered final inks for each page side-by-side, presumably for fans of art to take a magnifying glass to them and make various low appreciative noises in the back of their throats for the next several hours. I did not do so; that's not how I read books.

If you do want to spend several hours with those earlier versions of the same story, though, this may well be a positive for you. It takes all kinds to make a world, after all.

"Only the End of the World Again" was originally a short story by Neil Gaiman. It first appeared in the 1994 Shadows Over Innsmouth anthology edited by Stephen Jones, and a few years later was collected in Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors. This graphic novel, part of a big series mostly adapting his best-known stories from the '90s, was scripted and laid out by P. Craig Russell, drawn by Troy Nixey, colored by Matthew Hollingsworth, and lettered by Sean Konot.

As is usual with this series - see also my posts on Chivalry, Snow, Glass, Apples, Troll Bridge, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties - this is a very faithful adaptation. Russell makes Only a very heavily narrated comic, and gets what seems to be 85+% of Gaiman's original words onto these pages. (To my mind, that defeats the purpose of adaptation, but fans want things to be exactly like the original, only in a new form they can pay money for, so I see why.)

The story was deliberately a pastiche, not quite an in-joke but including a nudge or two to the ribs of fandom, in which an adjustor named Lawrence Talbot found himself in the mist-shrouded Massachusetts town of Innsmouth and, more by fate than by plan, foiled the end of the world. As the title implies, the story hints pretty heavily that this is Talbot's life: he wanders into a random town each month, supernatural stuff happens, and an apocalypse is averted.

(It may also have been somewhat inspired by Roger Zelazny's 1993 novel A Night in the Lonesome October, which has a related premise. The timeline is plausible - Night was published in August of '93, with galleys circulating a few months before that, and Shadows came out in October of '94.)

This version has a lot of Gaiman's atmospheric prose, as I said - in prose, this was a story of voice, and the comics version does its best to keep that voice and layer in more atmosphere with Nixey's Lovecraftianly lumpy people. (Nixey is a great artist for stories about Innsmouth, and maybe Lovecraftian topics in general; he can make people fleshy in unpleasant ways that hint at inhuman shapes.)

As usual with this series, I'm somewhat uneasy about seeing so much effort and care going into making sure as much of Gaiman's prose is still present in the comic version as possible - it seems a sin against the idea of adaptation, somehow. As if the adaptors aren't allowed to actually transform the story, to actually fit it into its new form in any way that would make it deviate from the original.

But I am clearly a minority opinion in that.

This is a fun Lovecraftian story, with sneaky Gaiman prose well manipulated by Russell and illustrated with relish (some kind of cold, blue-greenish relish, smelling a bit more of the sea than anyone you know actually enjoys) by Nixey. But don't be surprised to pick up this book and find the story is done a third of the way through.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

Some of these posts function like reviews, because there's a decent chance that I can tell people something useful about a particular book, especially a new one. And sometimes I'm revisiting a book I read before, perhaps even one I was professionally connected with during my misspent youth, where it's also reasonable to assume I have something to say.

But sometimes I read an old famous book for the first time, and I want to be honest: I don't really expect anyone will care. I might wander my way into saying something interesting, and, if I'm lucky, it will be a relatively new or felicitously phrased thing, but that's not the way to bet. Old famous books get that way because people have been writing about them since they came out: some people who actually got paid for their opinions, others who got tenure for their opinions, and I'm a guy who's going to get, at best, a few dozen random Internet eyeballs for my opinions.

So! At-Swim-Two-Birds! A 1939 novel by the Irishman Brian O'Nolan, written under the name Flann O'Brien! A pillar of Irish literature, though in an older mode than I expected, given its metafictional structure and High Modernist reputation!

On top of everything else, it's the kind of book that's difficult to sum up: the unnamed narrator, a university student in Dublin, is writing a novel about a guy who's writing a novel, and the characters of the second guy's novel, a few of whom are heroic figures from Irish folklore, gang up to overthrow novelist #2, largely because (this is subtext) it's in a modern misery-loving style and so they all have to do horrible things and be bad people in Unnamed Novel #2. That's the "plot," but it's not a book of plot; that comes together mostly at the very end of the novel, but then fizzles, because it's also the kind of book that's mostly about things that fizzle. The book is mostly about the random thoughts of the first novelist, the university student who is likely some transmuted version of the author himself.

Most of the quotes are about how funny it is, and it does definitely have humor in it, but - and this is a big but - it's the kind of humor that connects most strongly if you are:

  • Irish
  • living in 1939
  • No, like, not "Irish" in the sense of a mook from Boston, but born in Dublin and living there your entire life
  • preferably born there in the first decade or two of the 1900s, actually
  • probably Catholic, too - couldn't hurt
  • deeply familiar with Irish legends
  • also deeply familiar with the then-contemporary Irish literary scene
  • also also at least vaguely familiar with the popular Western novel (as in cowboys, herding cattle, etc.), for some reason
  • a university student, preferably in Dublin
  • knowledgeable about the physical layout of 1939 Dublin

I don't want to say it's entirely a book of its time and place - I read it, I found bits amusing, and I still plan on reading O'Brien's second novel, The Third Policeman, someday - but that, if you don't check a lot of those boxes, you should discount all of the "this is incredibly funny!" quotes approximately as much as an inflatable Santa on January 8th.

There are lots of amusing bits, but, in general, it comes off as a novel full of signposts that say "this was massively funny to the author and his close compatriots eighty years ago." It is probably more funny to modern English people than to Americans, for proximity reasons, and (obviously) even more so to the actually Irish. But any reader going into At Swim-Two-Birds should know what they're in for: a whole lot of drinking, a whole lot of epic poetry, a smaller bit of pseudo-epic poetry about drinking, the exploits of Finn MacCool and several related persons, and repeated kibitzing from the narrator's uncle about the narrator's lack of academic rigor.

Now, as I type that, it does sound funny. And At Swim-Two-Birds genuinely is funny. Occasionally. How many occasions, as I said above, will depend on what you bring to it.