quinta-feira, março 28, 2002

Experimental SF: "Gardens of the Moon" by Steven Erikson

(Original Review, 2002)

Steven Erikson's characters are great; the reader is thrown into his world from the off, expected to follow along with who's who and what's what, and while this is initially disconcerting, I realised it was part of the experience Erikson was trying to create - confusion and chaos in the heat of battle. Relationships are already established, his characters already know who they like or dislike, there's no need for clumsy explanations in dialogue of what this magical term means or what that fantastical creature can do - the reader is expected to get on and learn the hard way, it's a bit like being in room full of people speaking French having never experienced the language before (I don't do French; never learned it). In amongst this, the names were really useful as markers and helped me remember who was who; I think sometimes the authors imply something with their character names, a certain personality or habit and sometimes there may be a connection entirely by accident. The mages had some excellent ones, 'Tattersail', 'Tayschrenn', 'Hairlock'. To me, they imply mystery and power, exactly like their respective characters. The protagonist's name, Ganoes Paran, reminded me of the word 'gallows', as he is quite a dark and cynical character, often seeing things from a humorously negative perspective - this is probably an entirely personal interpretation, but it shows you the importance of a good name. The further the reader gets into the Erikson series, the more we stumble across one of the series' greatest charms; in many of the books the plot centres around the marines of the Malazan Empire, who, without going into too much detail, were all given nicknames by the recruiting sergeant Braven Tooth. The real names of the soldiers are never mentioned, and as the plot progresses the reasons for the enigmatic nicknames become apparent, each marine living up to his new title. How Braven Tooth knows the nature of each one of his recruits remains a mystery, whether this is some form of magic is not revealed, but it is just one of the series-long threads that ties this magnificent fantasy together.

I have to say I think Erikson has the edge over Martin for me. It took longer for me to get into the Malazan world, but once I did, it was a total conversion and a revelation. The first book - Gardens of the Moon - is inferior to the rest of the series in terms of writing; and Erikson just throws you into the action, with nothing explained at all. It's a little frustrating at first, but stick with it. Whatever you do, don't give up before the end of the second book, which I know is a big commitment - but totally worth it. Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist and (like Ursula Le Guin) uses his scholarly knowledge to good effect in his books. The level of magic used is *much* higher than in Martin; there's no use pretending you're reading anything other than fantasy. 

segunda-feira, março 25, 2002

The Chicken's Head Rose: "Soul of the Fire" by Terry Goodkind

(Original Review, 2002) 

"Hissing, hackles lifting, the chicken's head rose. Kahlan pulled back. Its claws digging into stiff dead flesh, the chicken slowly turned to face her. It cocked its head, making its comb flop, its wattles sway. "Shoo," Kahlan heard herself whisper. There wasn't enough light, and besides, the side of its beak was covered with gore, so she couldn't tell if it had the dark spot, But she didn't need to see it. "Dear spirits, help me," she prayed under her breath. The bird let out a slow chicken cackle. It sounded like a chicken, but in her heart she knew it wasn't. In that instant, she completely understood the concept of a chicken that was not a chicken. This looked like a chicken, like most of the Mud People's chickens. But this was no chicken. This was evil manifest."

In  "Soul of the Fire" by Terry Goodkind.

Goodkind is responsible for the worst thing ever written by a human being; the now legendary evil chicken scene (above).

I read along the fantasy cliches and admittedly fascinated by the creepily detailed sex and torture scenes - wow, there are adults who write this sort of smut in fantasy? A woman who can’t have sex because she’ll have an orgasm which will destroy her partner (and why can’t she just masturbate beforehand?)? A hero who gets deflowered by a sexy S&M torture nymph? Torture, torture, torture, big hulking Teutonic soldier men, graphic sexual violence, wow how does this sort of thing get published next to Tolkien? But one book is a bad taste curiosity, a whole series of increasingly unhinged writing is just appalling. His books are ranty ultra-conservative bullshit with bizarrely detailed descriptions of near rape, child dissection, sexual torture, child killing, sexual assault, kicking children in the face, rape, cheesy romantic sex, evil chickens, intelligent goats, and attractive women in either skintight dresses (somehow their curves always got described, of course) or skintight leather (how do they sneak up on enemies in the dark? How much talc do they have to wear?). It is near explicitly described that these things are what happens to society when it doesn’t follow Objectivism, and I’m not kidding. I just hope the covers put people off..

Goodkind is not only a hack, he's an Ayn Rand hack. "Wizard's First Rule" is the only book that I have purposefully abandoned at a train station, hoping that it would go to some "Lost Items" limbo. Maybe it’s still there...

[2018 edit: Urgh, did not need this reminder of the crap I read back in the day.]

quarta-feira, março 20, 2002

It Does Things: "Persona & Shame" by Ingmar Bergman

(Original Review, 2002)

Bergman: "Would care for some ... tea?"

(Violent, frightening music. Camera closes in on Andersson's face. Her eyes grow wide and her lips tremble.)

Andersson: "T-t-t-tea? Oh, no, I mustn't."

Bergman: "It's oolong. Don't be frightened."

Andersson: "It does things. I've heard stories."

Bergman: "It's quite refreshing, and not habit-forming at all. Regardless of what ... you may have been told."

(Bergman leans in, his eyes narrowing, glistening with demonic intent.)

Bergman: "Here. Try a little. I insist."

(Andersson lifts the cup. It rattles in the saucer. Hesitantly, she raises the cup to her mouth and takes a tiny sip. Her eyes close. Her lips part. She takes in a deep shuddering breath and then downs the rest of the cup in a single swallow.)

Bergman: "Well?"

Andersson: "Oh, God, oh God."

(Extreme close-up of Andersson's face. Her expression is dull and drained of all human feeling and emotion. A tear forms in one eye. There is a long, unbearable silence.)

Andersson: "All right. I can't resist, I'll do the film for minimum scale."

Bottom-lineThe key point being that men do not emerge superior from Bergman's treatment. If anything, there is a balance of doubt, even despair at the prospect of a perfect relationship, just as Bergman, the son of a priest could not find a perfect relationship with God. Indeed, the mostly bleak outcomes of Bergman's films have alienated many film enthusiasts, but what remains is among the best of cinema because he had a keen eye so that lean scripts can be embellished with an image. His use of sound and lighting are lessons in film-making, but the acting, that is where the films breed admiration and love. As for the director closest to Bergman, it is not Woody Allen, but the Clint Eastwood westerns, with their problematic relations with women, and even after the apparently heroic rescue mission of the lone man on a horse, a sense of doubt or futility at the end.

sexta-feira, março 15, 2002

Rebarbativeness: "The Bell" by Iris Murdoch

(Original Review, 2002)

“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”

In "The Bell" by Iris Murdoch

I first encountered the word 'rebarbative' in The Bell.

I don't think that something requires strict definition in order to have, or generate, meaning. I don't need an "a priori" definition of life in order to try to live; I just get on with doing the best I can. I suppose we operate within a general understanding of love as a looking-beyond-oneself or an acting-towards-the-Other, but whether one could, or would wish to, narrowly define love in a way that somehow includes the very different senses of love that one might have for one's partner, and children, and parents, and siblings is another matter. In terms of the language analogy, I suppose that one would not be trying to invent a language of one's own, but constantly rearranging the pre-existing vocabulary to communicate better with others (love thereby being less about an impossible identification with the Other, and more about a communion?). Which begins to sound less like Levinas and more like New Age bunkum, but that's the best I've got at this juncture in time.

Iris Murdoch and hope - now there's a conundrum to waste an afternoon! Still hopelessness is in the head of the beholder eh? Oh, it's definitely hope in the sense of 'this dark tunnel is very long, I do hope there's a light at the end of it. I suspect there isn't but it's better to keep walking than just sit down'. Which may well be to say: hope as a necessary illusion.

quinta-feira, março 07, 2002

Judgement: "Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters" by Erica Wagner

(Original Review, 2002)

It's interesting that noted feminist Germaine Greer said of both Plath and Hughes that, 'she saw him coming' and that 'most people wouldn't have been taken in by her'. It is very easy to censure especially when you know very little of the background. Sylvia Plath was mentally ill and had already almost succeeded in killing herself before she left had the States for Cambridge. A police search for her failed to find her because she had taken an overdose and laid down underneath the floor of her mother's home. She came round and banged her head and was heard by her brother. Otherwise she would most certainly have died undiscovered. Plath and Hughes had a mutually supportive marriage for several years but she was bipolar, possessive, extremely suspicious, and destructive. Hughes clearly didn't know what to do for the best and apparently there was talk of reconciliation almost to the end. Whether her suicide was intended is also questionable because had the person living in the flat below not been knocked out by the town gas Plath killed herself with, he would have let in the visitor who was due to call early in the morning and Plath would perhaps have been saved. As for Assia Wevill she set out to seduce him and went about bragging at work how easy it had been. Although extremely beautiful, she was said to be a lost soul, a lady who seduced her way out of Israel, marrying an army sergeant and leaving him at the first opportunity soon after they had left Israel and settled in Canada. Greer said of the two women, 'some women are destructive and when they find that they cannot damage the men in their lives, end up destroying themselves'. Whilst nobody would deny that Hughes was an adulterer, he certainly wouldn't be the first to have sought the arms of another as an escape from a mentally ill, highly possessive and intense wife. Having seen his wife kill himself, it is hardly surprising that he spent the rest of his life wracked with guilt and unable to devote himself to the woman who led him astray.

Judge not lest ye be judged.

sexta-feira, março 01, 2002

Plath: “The Savage God - A Study of Suicide” by Al Alvarez

(Original Review, 2002)

“Suicide is, after all, the result of a choice. However impulsive the action and confused the motives, at the moment when a man finally decides to take his own life he achieves a certain temporary clarity. Suicide may be a declaration of bankruptcy which passes judgment on a life as one long history of failure. But it is a decision which, by its very finality, is not wholly a failure. There is, I believe, a whole class of suicides who take their own lives not in order to die but to escape confusion, to clear their heads. They deliberately use suicide to create an unencumbered reality for themselves or to break through the patterns of obsession and necessity which they have unwittingly imposed on their lives.”

In “The Savage God - A Study of Suicide” by Al Alvarez

Hughes and Plath were two big poetic figures maybe too alike in their creative powers that sooner or later one had to give way. Hughes wrote some good poetry like “Hawk in the Rain” and “Lupercal”, drawing on a mytho-poetic creation of nature. Hughes was a broody Yorkshireman who grew up in Mythlmroyd, near Hardcastle Crags, he avoided the type of poetry turned out by the Movement poets and Alvarez wrote a piece on this called "Against the Gentility Principle" as an intro to a book of poetry. Alvarez also wrote "The Savage God":  A Study of Suicide", has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out." Although the aims of this compelling, compassionate work are broadly cultural and literary, the narrative is rooted in personal experience: it begins with a long memoir of Sylvia Plath, and ends with an account of the author's own suicide attempt. Within this dramatic framework, Alvarez launches his inquiry into the final taboo of human behaviour, and traces changing attitudes towards suicide from the perspective of literature. He follows the black thread leading from Dante through Donne and the romantic agony, to the “Savage God” at the heart of modern literature.