|. . . 2016-02-28|
Gypsy by Carter Scholz, PM Press (2015)
The enormous weight of the waft which was quite light was the thing that kept me contained in my perfect state which was as good as the state of any other thing before it is broken.- Madeline Gins
Hold on to what you got but don't let go. Don't let it go.- Bo Diddley
This is a soft time to write future history. Our post-1980 vector's so well defined and so evenly accelerating; we've so clearly passed "If this goes on" and entered "As it will be."
Too soft to support hard science fiction, or at least too soft to support the supersized undertested battleships which have served as its principal transport since, oh, say 1980. What's your rusty debris worth without a hero's journey? Where's your rotting corpse's character arc? And the three-act structure? Where are the next eight hundred pages?
There were once other ways to make the trip, still choosable if not necessarily profitable. For his first hard science fiction publication Carter Scholz went old-school.
By his own account, he was old-schooled. Like me, Scholz "grew up and was educated during the Cold War, when math and science education were priorities." There was a certain fogginess about utility then, before our rulers successfully separated education-for-maximal-exploitation from the chaff of pure-science truth and high-culture beauty — I think they call it "rationalization"? Those were the irrationally unexuberant years when, as mentioned on the fourth page of Gypsy, someone like Louis Zukofsky could find a stable day-job at Brooklyn Polytechnic.
Passing references to poets are themselves a bit old-school in fiction: Shakespeare or Eliot for titles; Dickinson or Blake for epigraphs; Villon or Rimbaud for stock characters. Louis Zukofsky is an unusual choice, though.
Zukofsky's poetry wasn't widely available until the late 1960s. Back in 1978, the year of his death and the year his long "poem of a life," "A", was published, niche readers like myself and (I suppose) Scholz still thought it likely Zukofksy's brand of difficulty would follow the Modernist course of things and become, if not widely known, then about as widely known as twentieth-century poetry gets. It never happened. His niche readership now is probably no larger than his niche readership in 1978. Rather than poetic heroism triumphant, Zukofsky exemplifies th'expense of spirit in a waste of craft, sloughed off by posterity as insufficiently instantaneously rewarding.
At any rate, Louis Zukofsky's name does not appear after the fourth page of Gypsy.
* * *
Before turning even to the first page, readers will know Gypsy as a throwback by sheer lack of heft. Classic science fiction's markets were magazines and cheap paperbacks. A novella sells either/both, and novellas like Scholz's therefore became the classically approved dosage of mindblowing science fiction. (Longer volumes such as Asimov's Foundation trilogy would be constructed from semi-autonomous novellas and short stories, an assemblage known as a fix-up and carrying its own stylistic markers.)
As for three-act structures, an equally viable narrative strategy is available in hard science fiction's native version of the picaresque: one-damn-thing-after-another whack-a-bug-make-a-bug problem solving, drawing straight from the genre's turpentine-soaked roots in hobbyist magazines. Hollywood itself recalled that formula into service for two of its best recent spectacles, and that's how Carter Scholz builds Gypsy.
Although Scholz gives "Earth's first starship" every reasonable break, it finds (as it reasonably must) problems sufficient to his purpose. By way of comparison, consider our national attempts at an oceanic habitat, summarized by Ellen Prager in Chasing Science at Sea:
The U.S. Navy's first undersea laboratory, Sealab I, sank twice and filled with water before a successful launch in 1964 in the Bahamas. A tropical storm then halted the Sealab mission after only eleven days, although it was supposed to have lasted for three weeks. [...] Hydrolab also had its share of problems in the beginning, including one 25-mile (40-km) trip out into the Gulf Stream after breaking loose in a storm. [...] During decompression, when the air pressure inside the habitat was decreased, the internal air inside the toilet's holding tank not only expanded, it literally exploded, splattering its contents all over the entry trunk of the habitat.
A breathable atmosphere was within reach of Sealab; Gravity had Earth (and video-game physics); The Martian had NASA (and public funding and international good will). Scholz takes hard-science-fiction's nominal rules at their word, and so Gypsy has, at best, in its hoped-for sequence of events, seventy years of nothing. Pulp self-sufficiency could hardly desire a more congenial home. It is therefore, of course, populated by a secret band of brilliant, dedicated, rebellious, rationalist-if-not-necessarily-rational brethren and sistren with hands-on can-do attitudes; there's even Heinleinisch intervention by a left-behind robber baron.
There's not much Hawksian teambuilding chatter, though. Sustainability requires redundancy for backup; constraints of mass and energy require as quiescent an organic load as possible. Therefore at most one crewmember at a time can be conscious. The book's chain of puzzles must be linked in, as writer Juliet Clark put it, a game of exquisite corpse played against actual corpses.
These P.O.V. transitions provide Scholz ample opportunity to mimic fix-up novels' stock three-asterisk-separated gestures towards excyclopediac range and cosmic sweep, weaving flashbacks, expository passages, back-stories (almost aways of refugees, almost tautologically: anyone who reaches adulthood must have survived something to get there) — and monologues, of course, monologues: little self-pep-talks, little cries-on-one's-own-shoulder, simulated second-guessing, checking off the list, working shit out....
As decades pass, and glitches and kludges accumulate like a hoarder's maze of newspaper stacks, first delimiting paths and then blocking them, and the spacecraft-and-story Gypsy nears its destination, characters are given more time for reflection, and their monologues shift register. They abstract; their rhetoric is shaped. They become arias of anger, arias of despair, arias of nostalgia. They fit 2016, yes, but to some extent they'd fit 1917, or 404 BC, or 586 BC.
* * *
Gypsy's' closing lamentation may not be instantly recognizable even in 2016. I don't know if the initial Locus reviewer saw the same printed letters pass her eyes; we certainly didn't read the same page.
Myself I found it most effective; it led me to write this to you. But how can I explain the effect without snuffing its already-slim chances of replication?
Tossing another kludge on the pyre, then:
That last chorus is a reference but not a quote. A collaboration of sorts between dead author and not-yet-dead writer, but also between immersion in books and immersion in the melting shards of a human-free but human-welcoming world. Its import will be missed entirely by most readers and missed deeply by a very few. "The Happy Few," I want to say; happy in the Stendhalian sense, as in "Happy to have met you" — no one would claim we're distinguished by our cheeriness, or by our good fortune, or by much other than our reluctance to trade up.
Even when we're offered sweet fuck-all to trade up to, to return to future history. In his deauthorized transtemporally award-winning story "The Nine Billion Names of God," Scholz editorially queried "That is the real last question: Do we need fiction? Do we need science?" and introducing those two interrogative sentences as a single question was no mistake. The triumphalism of art is as beside the point as the triumphalism of science: Two Cultures, one boat, no Coast Guard.
Going old-school one older, Gypsy brings grounded technophilia's sense-of-wonder back to its source in the Sublime of terror and pain. While a surplus of Big Dumb Objects may have calloused over our shock at the infinite scale of the universe, shock at the infinite scale of our loss snuffs out only with us. Science fiction still has one vacuum-packed export for the stars.
|. . . 2015-11-25|
The life of the mind is a sad, desperate affair compared to the life of the never-minding. But hey, you're there, it's there, what can you do? You can try drowning it or burying it but neighbors might complain and it's likely to just come back meaner.
So, you know, you try to keep it clean and fed and entertained, take it out for a walk if you have the time and it's not raining. It'll continue to vomit on your hardwood floor and scratch your guests and carry appalling diseases. Still, after a while you'll admit it's kind of cute in kind of an ugly worthless way. Sometimes it helps you pick up dates. People seem to miss it when it's gone.
Next: The Life of the Bowel!
Y'know the old cliché that the MLA convention is best encapsulated by a shot of John Goodman advancing down a flaming hotel corridor shouting, "I'LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND"? Now you got me visualizing a version revised to be about the life of the bowel. Colon shots and all, man.
My work here is done.
Unfortunately, my mortgage payments here continue.
|. . . 2015-11-02|
I have seen a cluster of such attitudes far too often in the last few years: ..., increased attention to the valorization of women's behavior along with decreased attention to what we used to call the oppression of women, an "encouragement" of men to broaden their "roles" — fancy anyone talking about racial roles or class roles!- Joanna Russ, letter to The Women's Review of Books, Sep. 1986
(from The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews)
Possible parallels between "male feminists" and "anti-elitist" American oligarchs?
(Left at "possible" because no way am I going to tease that out myself, you think I'm crazy?)
I attended a WisCon panel on masculinities wherein people were getting all excited about the celebration of male sensitivity that was Iron Man III. So yeah, very very possible.
|. . . 2015-10-19|
Other motorvatin' anthems by the Embos:
Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are : Ahead of her bleeding edge
I walk: with the darting absorption of a true-blue myopic, I quick-march, amble, or browse. The MBAs' distinction between being "driven" (good!) and "being driven" (bad!) eludes me. I bought my first car at twenty-nine solely so as to endure a daily three-plus-hours commute on New England highways, and through my commuting years those hours remained a stinking stew of adrenaline-spiked terror (fiery mangles on a shoulder; semi spinning like a reaper cross the lanes; furniture launching from the back of a pickup) and adrenaline-spiked rage (as said, New England), melded by a roux of boredom, loneliness, self-loathing, and lust.
I taste a similar New England commute in Rosmarie Waldrop's The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body, her roux given more body by premonitions which, as a sterilized male, I lacked. Aside from a one-sentence earworm, I also lacked the gumption needed to treat this distended emergency as food for meditation, as anything other than an aberrance to be quarantined from the remaining slivers of life as rigorously as possible.
Although I understood the political value of the comparison, Gore's "superhighway" metaphor struck me as inapt. Whereas Waldrop's far-sightedness was able to anticipate a well-attested similarity which I, even now, have trouble seeing.
|. . . 2015-09-06|
Disruptive scholarship entrepreneurs Ferguson & Kerschen pass along, quickly and eyes averted, Anselm Dovetonsils's latest, including a double-exposed author photo:
+ + +
Suppose we take it that the truth of moral judgments is relative, but that the truth of judgments about the objects and properties that populate the physical world is not. Then what are we to make of the following argument?
Grass is green or murder is not wrong. Murder is wrong.
Therefore, grass is green.
The argument is clearly valid. But it is not clear how it could be, since the second premise is only relatively true and the conclusion is absolutely true.
- Michael P. Lynch, "Truth Relativism and Truth Pluralism",
A Companion to Relativism, ed. Steven D. Hales (2011)
Josh Lukin objects:
Wait, do logical disjuncts even work that way? I remember trying a clever move like that in my high school geometry class and being told that they did not.
I thought it was intended as an example of fallacious reasoning until I reached "clearly valid."
standard format for examples for critiquing classical logic (disjunctive syllogism) re problems with 'relevance' (e.g. connection of some kind between the disjuncts)
|. . . 2015-07-18|
The most ephemeral of unremunerative essays outlasts the most highly-priced products of my or anyone else's dayjob. Stream-dipping consistently outdraws source-immersion. Whatever melts into air fastest wins.
no dry ice in the house
My first lover and I tried to work our way through The Joy of Sex (a gift) and I can testify that even wet ice has its delights. (Unbeknownst to us, we were also working our way through Goodbye, Columbus, first editioned the year we were fucking born, which just goes to show why people hate nonephemeral writing.)
yes work is sublimation (but is it of the freudian or endothermic variety?)
|. . . 2015-06-16|
SUPERSTITION. 1. ... religion without morality. ... 4. Over-nicety; exactness too scrupulous.- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
A view held in late antiquity is that the use of the words superstitiō ‘superstition’ and superstitiōsus ‘superstitious’ with reference to religion derives from the idea that such practices were superfluous or redundant.- Oxford English Dictionary
January 31, 1930: At last J.J. has recommenced work on Work in Progress. The de luxe edition by ? soon to come out — about the old lady A.L.P. I think. Another about the city (H.C.E. building Dublin). Five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on his sofa. He has made a list of 30 towns, New York, Vienna, Budapest, and Mrs. Fleischman has read out the articles on some of these. I ‘finish’ Vienna and read Christiania and Bucharest. Whenever I come to a name (of a street, suburb, park, etc.) I pause. Joyce thinks. If he can Anglicize the word, i.e. make a pun on it, Mrs. F. records the name or its deformation in the notebook. Thus ‘Slotspark’ (I think) at Christiana becomes Sluts’ park. He collects all queer names in this way and will soon have a notebook full of them. The system seems bad for (1) there is little hope of the reader knowing all these names — most seem new even to Joyce himself, and certainly are to me. And supposing the reader, knowing the fragment dealt with towns, took the trouble to look up the Encyclopedia, would he hit on the Joyce has selected? (2) The insertion of these puns is bound to lead the reader away from the basic text, to create divagations and the work is hard enough anyhow! The good method would be to write out a page of plain English and then rejuvenate dull words by injection of new (and appropriate) meanings. What he is doing is too easy to do and too hard to understand.
April 28, 1930: His method is more mechanical than ever. For the ‘town references,’ he scoured all the capital towns in the Encyclopedia and recorded in his black notebook all the ‘punnable’ names of streets, buildings, city-founders. Copenhagen, Budapest, Oslo, Rio I read to him. Unfortunately he made the entries in his black notebook himself and when he wanted to use them, the reader found them illegible.- Reflections on James Joyce: Stuart Gilbert’s Paris Journal,
ed. Thomas F. Staley & Randolph Lewis
Joyce lost his faith but kept his superstition. And proselytized. By constructing reality effects which transform from red herring to vital clew on research and re-reading, Joyce fed the generic allures of puzzle-mystery and conspiracy theory into formalist realism, and thereby trained a generation of Joyceans into an everything-connects superstition of their own.
But while in the midst of serializing those carefully cross-wired diagrams of sub-sub-trivia across Ulysses, he began to immerse them in pointedly redundant anti-reality effects. "Cyclops" may be scrupulous about something, but whatever it is ain't "meanness." And after his increasingly bouncing babes were carted to the printshop and carted back again, he would improvise riffs across the proofsheets, snatching any chance to strengthen the scribbly cross-hatched fabric of the book or merely to, like the god of creation, wake up bleary-eyed and say Fuck me what was I doing last night?
On reading a letter from his daughter Milly, who had just turned 15 on 15 June, Bloom says ‘Fifteen yesterday. Curious, fifteenth of the month too.’ More to the point, Joyce’s revision in proof gives the letter 15 sentences. But every editorial attempt to ‘correct’ Milly’s adolescent syntax and punctuation, by reverting to earlier versions, has of course changed the count and obscured the point. So too, the passage in which Bloom reflects on the rate at which an object falls to earth (‘thirty-two feet per second’) is heavily revised in print to make it the 32nd sentence in the paragraph, where reversion to earlier readings, as in the 1984 edition, obscures that convergence of sign and sense. On page 88, Joyce added in proof a sentence of eight words to expand a newspaper death notice. It reads: ‘Aged 88, after a long and tedious illness.’ To page 77 he added in proof the phrase ‘seventh heaven’; and on page 360, Bloom meditates on cycles.- Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts by D. F. McKenzie
What this showed McKenzie and John Kidd was that James Joyce thought his books too brittle to survive a page break. What it shows me is an unquenchable thirst for suspicious coincidence. Such details might have struck some unknown peculiar reader of the first edition, as they happened to strike the first edition's known peculiar writer; peculiar readers of later editions will presumably be struck by plenty of details of their own. Throw enough and someone will be struck. And who knows but that many of the belated recognitions of 1950s and 1960s Joyceans were just as casually opportunistic? If Joyce considered each precious intersection vital, wouldn't he have included them in his first drafts and poured them into the ears of his authorized explicators?
The contingent and ephemeral hold all we can reach of the necessary and eternal; we mold meaning from the pleasantly stinking loam of chance — such Good News can't be carried in rice-paperish porcelain; its vehicle should be built to survive chipping; should, ideally, become self-healing....
Or so I gather from the cheerfully incorporated bloopers and wide-world-of-kitchen-sinks ("Frightful stench, isn't it? Just too awful for words") method of Finnegans Wake, and from Joyce's remarks when questioned by a friendlier sort than Gilbert: his hope that a random reader in some far-off location would trip across a regional reference (my own muddy MO! my own K.C. jowls, they sure are wise!) and feel peculiarly addressed. In this work, at least, the readerly goal writerly assumed doesn't seem to have been full mastery — mulching libraries and and acquaintances so rapidly, odds are slim that Joyce himself would recall much source material after a month — but frequent recognition.
(Why a lad or lassie from Baton Rouge or Bucharest should bother to position themselves so as to encounter these happy accidents would be an unfriendly question to ask any author, I think, and at any rate went unanswered.)
Absolute control remaining unreachable, the artist might endeavor to maximize happy accidents. During my first reading of Finnegans Wake in 1980, I found a history of the Beatles, and, if we choose to take auctorial intention into account, this would be as the author intended. Most attempts to adapt Joyce's works to other media have been miserable things. The relative success of John Cage's slick and cheesy Roaratorio depends on chance, but isn't happenstance.
Flaubert's invention of detached formalist realism had the (possibly unanticipated) effect of rallying readerly sentiments against the all-powerful know-it-all artificer and toward his deluded, destructive protagonists. Eventually, in Trois Contes, he worked out of this particular bind by letting his protagonist retain her delusions (with Joyce following suit in "Clay"). But his less detached-realistic works avoided the question altogether. We can easily picture the endearingly idiotic tenacity of Bouvard and Pécuchet as a one-joke comic strip like "Little Sammy Sneeze" or "The Family Upstairs" or "That's My Pop!" Lines on paper don't sense pain as we know it.
Joyce found a way to join forces with himself. Even on my first, unaided reading, I felt rightness in the increasingly grotesque gigantism of Ulysses, and when I return to the book, that (possibly unanticipated) affective response is what I want to relive: an alliance with breathing ugly-as-life almost-humans repeatedly smacked down under floods of mocking inflation and bouncing up again ignorant as corks and damaged as new. Yes, the two male leads are having one of the worst days of their lives, presumably at the behest of some author. But because The Author in Our Face has directed our attention to his louder, noisier, and impotent assaults, the result is less like a vivisection than like a mixed-animation heroic epic of "Duck Amuck" starring Laurel and Hardy.
I've never managed a similarly direct response to Finnegans Wake, although I keep hoping. It looks like giants all the way down. Faced with a foundational secular religious document, I want Krazy Kat and I get Jack Kirby's New Gods.
James Joyce and Louis Zukofsky share an odd career pattern: a hermetic retreat into and outrageous expansion of the nuclear family, attempting to fit all space-time into an already crowded apartment.
The "cocooning" idiom bugged me from the start. A cocoon isn't a cozy retreat or celebration of stasis. By definition, cocooning occurs with intent to split. Maybe it's appropriate for them, though?
|. . . 2015-05-03|
I find little profit in the jealous conflict waged as to the values of the so-called realistic and romantic schools; save that it has brought out some good criticism, and that every such warfare is stimulating to both sides. Otherwise, it is chiefly an expression of one's taste or distaste for certain writers, or his opinion that too persistent fashions should in their turns give way. Often it is a dispute or confusion as to the meaning of a word. For who can doubt that art, to be of worth, must never be an abject copyist yet should have its basis in life as it is and things as they are,— or that impassioned speech and action must be natural even in their intensity?
- "A Critical Estimate of Mrs. Stoddard's Novels"
by Edmund Clarence Stedman, 1901
“Let us treat the men and women well : treat them as if they were real : perhaps they are.”— EMERSON.
- epigraph to Two Men by Elizabeth Stoddard
“You do not like novels?”
“No; nor fairy stories, nor poetry.”
“Not a literal novel, like ‘Jane Eyre’?”
“Literal! Charlotte Bronte cheated her readers in a new way. She threw a glamour over the burnt porridge even, at the Lowood school, and the seedcake which Jane shared with Helen Burns. Did red and white furniture ever look anywhere else as it did at ‘Thomfield’? Haven't we all red and white articles which have never stirred us beyond the commonplace?”
“The glamour of genius.”
“Genius casts its glamour over ordinary things: we who have none say there is a discrepancy between the real and the ideal.”
“But life must be illustrated.”
“It can not be; the text ruins the attempt.”
“Does not passion illustrate it?”
“I do not know.”
“Somebody says; ‘Nothing is so practical as the ideal, which is ever at hand to uphold and better the real,’ and I believe it.”
“Shoal water,” cried Parke from the bow.
“We are among the rocks, Jason,” said Philippa, bending over the side.
- Two Men by Elizabeth Stoddard, 1865
As everyone before me has said, Elizabeth Stoddard is a unique writer. Something about her approach kept me reaching towards Carol Emshwiller as a comparison point. She writes her characters too deep from the inside to permit introspection, from the outside like specimens in a jar, and as far above them as a reteller of myths, all as facets of a single unshakeable attitude rather than a toolbox of techniques.
|. . . before . . .||. . . after . . .|
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.