December 9, 2015

Aesthetically Engineered Confusion and Gene Wolfe

I just finished the second novella in Gene Wolfe's collection of three novellas, The Fifth Head of Cerebus. It is called, "'A Story' by John V. Marsch." I have no idea what to make of this tale. It is filled with ambiguities. Attempting to paraphrase the plot seems trite, a disservice to the narrative technique and style, which I would described as "aesthetically engineered confusion." Let me try: the novella seems to treat the spirit quest of a pre-technological humanoid named Sandwalker and his struggle to become a friend of the Shadow Children, a mysterious race who exists on multiple dimensions. Although it is frustrating, I recommend the story and its worth your effort. I was constantly in a state of confusion, but not the confusion of a story badly told but an invigorating and challenging confusion that always seemed just about to evaporate (although it never does). Although Wolfe is a science fiction writer, I think his novella is comparable to a proto-modernist work like Henry James The Turn of the Screw. Both tales cannot be easily interpreted.

December 8, 2015

The Map of Final Fantasy

I beat the NES game Final Fantasy I (1987) yesterday. The final boss is an entity named "Chaos," a horrible monster and a long boss battle. I had never beat Final Fantasy before. My first video game RPG was Final Fantasy II (the U.S. version), and I didn't play that until 1992, when I was nine. I had to borrow Final Fantasy II from my friend, and I never had enough time to beat it (he always wanted it back). By the time I finally got Final Fantasy I, it seemed antique to me. It was during the late 16-bit era when I purchased FF1 from a toy store in 1995. They were clearance selling their 8-bit video game stock. The version of FF1 purchased was a re-release and it included this awesome strategy guide, a full map of the world, and some other material, I think a poster. I couldn't get into the game then. There were subtle differences to the gameplay that my impatient twelve-year-old mind couldn't handle. For example, if you chose to have one of your warriors attack a monster, and that monster died before your warrior had a chance to attack, then your warrior would attack empty air and you would get an "ineffective" message. This was the source of so much frustration for me then. Of all the elements associated with that game that I remember, the thing I recall most clearly was the print map that came with the game. It's beautiful. At the very top of the map are these suggestive lines: "Here is the map of the entire Final Fantasy overworld. Surrounding the map is a list of most of the places you will journey to."

December 6, 2015

Embracing Abstraction

I have been trying to write poetry. This is rare. I consider myself more of a fiction writer, memoirist, and literary critic. Nevertheless, I have been writing poetry lately. After I shared a first attempt with my wife, she introduced me to a poem, "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," by James Wright. You should read it. Such a wonderful poem. My wife shared it with me because she thinks it demonstrates an important use of the concrete image, irrespective of genre: fiction, poetry, memoir. Wright's poem is a series of stark, beautiful images. For the majority of the poem, it "shows" rather than "tells." However, it completely changes strategy in the last line, which is "I have wasted my life," an abstraction. This is the idea of the poem that the images outline. Sometimes I get frustrated with too concrete literary aesthetics. Current wisdom in creative writing pedagogy is avoid abstraction at all costs. But with this poem, the abstraction is fully embraced. What an interesting move.

December 5, 2015

How Do You Choose Your Form?

I recently listened to a song by Joanna Newsom, titled, "Divers." Such a beautiful and haunting song. Check out the official video. There were a couple of lines that gripped me. First,

"In an infinite regress: / Tell me, why is the pain of birth / lighter borne than the pain of death?"

The second,

"But how do you choose your form? / How do you choose your name? How do you choose your life / How do you choose the time you must exhale, / and kick, and rise?"

From my perspective, this song is thinking about being before and after death. It is imagining a situation before we are animated matter. In this way, it draws a compelling parallel between our lack of experience before the time we can remember and the time after we are no longer experiencing time, i.e. after we have passed.

Newsom's harping contributes to the antique quality of this song.

December 4, 2015

The Same Force that Made the Stars

I have my students listen to David Foster Wallace's, "This is Water" speech, the commencement address he gave to Kenyon College in 2005. It's a wonderful speech about the value of a liberal arts education, its ability to train the mind in awareness and imagination, and also the value of cultivating these qualities. After meticulously describing an ordinary trip to the grocery story in all of its horrible banality, Wallace makes this assertion:

If you really learn how to pay attention, then [...] it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

This is lofty, even bathetic. And Wallace strikes a diminished, embarassed note after this moment of mania: "Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true." I love that. For me, Wallace is doing something very compelling here: he is presenting the absolute singularity and glory of the cosmos as an ordinariness, as a boring and even self-evident idea. For me, universal and enduring strangeness and contingent ordinariness are intimately associated, and in this speech we have a surprising moment where these qualities blur.

December 3, 2015

Death Made in the Laboratory

I ended my literature survey course today with postmodernism and Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise (1985). My favorite sequence in this novel is the "Airborne Toxic Event." A shipment of toxic waste has spilled near a suburb, and a family living in that suburb is forced to evacuate their house. They have only heard about the "toxic event" over the radio. The following passage narrates when they finally see the effluent of the chemical disaster:
"The enormous mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We're weren't sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event [...]. Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious. It is surely possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and willful rhythms. This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado."
This is so compelling. Here a man-made disaster appears like a natural disaster, "some seasonal perversity of the earth." The artificial and the natural have blurred. The artificiality that appears natural is a horrible threat, a sinister harbinger of death. And it becomes curiously shaded when we remember that the evil is something we have created. The "toxic event" is a kind of Frankenstein, a monster of human creation.

December 2, 2015

The Life of a Ghost

I am teaching a literature survey this semester, and have come upon the postwar period, and so I asked my students to read an excerpt from Kerouac's, On the Road (1957). I was struck by a moment when the protagonist, having been aimlessly traveling for a while, wakes up and experiences an epiphany:
"I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was--I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I was wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost."
So compelling. Can you really forget who you are? I haven't experienced this before. I have, however, thought of my life as the "life of a ghost." I remember sitting in a bar with a group of friends in the summer of 2005. Someone snapped a picture of us all. I immediately imagined the picture, printed and placed in some album, being looked at my some person in the future, long after every one of us, the subjects of that camera's gaze, had passed. It was a strange, creepy feeling.