pseudopodium
It's Mourning in Dijon - photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

Movie Comment : Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

... in the Heart of the Heart of the Writers' Workshop.

. . .

"What can I do to help?"

"Surprise me."

"... I guess that's the problem."

. . .

Movie Comment : An Ideal Husband (1947)

The movie's triumph is to prove that Oscar Wilde's jolting, jammed, and stalling lines can in fact be delivered engagingly, amusingly, and even naturally. The movie's tragedy is that only Glynis Johns can deliver them. And although a little Glynis Johns goes a long way, 96 minutes is longer than a little Glynis Johns can go.

. . .

"Style is respect for real life" - Joanna Russ

Pilgrims from the high-mainstream should be put at ease by the conceptual purity of We Who Are About to..., fantasy & science fiction fans may appreciate the eclectic ingredients of The Adventures of Alyx and Picnic on Paradise, those who remember a world without female cops (or with Donald Trump) could beat a path to The Female Man, those who've watched novel repressions bloodily defended by appeals to "tradition" might brave the pinch of The Two of Them, and we who consider pretentious more prescriptive than insulting may repeatedly extend our rebuffed sympathy to And Chaos Died.

Or not; Joanna Russ's novels are not to all tastes. And her star hasn't risen since 1980, or even stayed put.

Most of its decline can be put down to historical contingencies, such as the long illness which froze her career midstream, the loss of in-print backstock among publishers in general, and her books' post-publication consignment to gender-branded presses.

Some might be due to history in a less flattering sense: references die; battle cries fade from infuriating to quaint. Seventeen-year-olds of today who attempt The Female Man might become as irritably alienated as the book's own Janet: "What the fuck is a Pogo!?"

Even given access and accessbility, Russ can be a tough sell. The sales resistance pushes against something essential. Across genres, across the controversies and dogmas of her alotted dozen years, Joanna Russ's writing is distinguished by its style. Stylishness in a crafts sense balanced composition, precision of fit, and tonal shapeliness but also style as "that characteristic stink we're unable to cover up or scrub away." The dedicated craftswoman removes the debris and rot which might obscure that signature scent, and thereby makes it unignorable.

All Russ's novels relate cruel truths with exuberant indulgence in an unshakeably arch tone, driven by anger on behalf of tenderness. In this she's an American daughter to Nabokov; an expressionist after the impressionist, what she lacked in sensual stupefaction, she gained in drive and focus. Nabokov himself, however, is not everybody's cup of frightful garbage. I've heard middling-sort readers call him "creepy," and it's a reasonable reaction to that imperturbable hybrid of sneer and icky-sticky.

Us hyar elite-folks are trained into different repulsions. Contemporary crossover Thomas M. Disch was protected by his mimicry; crossover Philip K. Dick was protected by his hackery. But the voice of Joanna Russ's texts is the voice of Joanna Russ. That's the one voice you'll hear, and it broadcasts unabashed uncool earnestness with almost every sentence. The sound of the home-grown red-blooded ever-lovin' American intellectual: cutesy, dimissive, show-offish, and disgracefully lacking in abjectivity.

For us whose native tongue is demotic geek, it's like submitting to the indignity of dialect writing. Nabokov's aristocratic ironies and charities may grow tiresome but they're not embarrassing. Can such contemptible familiarity be redeemed by mere euphony, insight, and structural novelty? I can't rightly say, but last I checked I was still able to creakily dismount my leased high-horse, at least for the extent of a long walk through the old neighborhood, surrounded by the neighborly sounds of a swaggering gray squirrel, a cozily quarrelsome scrub-jay family, or an American robin, that "gross fowl with its untidy dull-red livery and revolting gusto."

Responses

Fave Russ quote:

Then he said, leaning forward: "You're strange animals, you women intellectuals. Tell me: what's it like to be a woman?" I took my rifle from behind my chair and shot him dead. "It's like that," I said.

(from On Strike Against God)

. . .
Happy New Year

Torrido
by Nelo Risi

Ecco l’estate
viene su a dismisura
tutto arde
fin le pietre nella notte
e le mura.
Io sono senza
volontà, non sono mai pronto
ma ho molto tempo davanti a me,
non mi chiedo dove va il mondo
né come andrà dopo di me.
Bastano gli altri
che muoiono ogni giorno
per capire com’è.

Heat

Here the summer comes
out of control
burning everything
even at night
walls and rocks.
I can’t get moving, I’m never
ready for anything, but there’s plenty of time.
I don’t worry about where the world is going
or what will happen after I’m gone.
Plenty of others
are dying every day
to figure it out.
- tr. Miller Williams

. . .

Prescribed Burns

Parietal Games: Critical Writings by & on M. John Harrison,
ed. Mark Bould & Michelle Reid

Two-thirds of this volume is disposable. After 1975, what lives of "M. John Harrison" is his fiction (and to some extent his interviews, although not the one included here). The "critical writings" of 1979 and 1980 are disengaged, distracted, throwing handfuls of ill-sorted proper names like pebbles against a window. From 1990 on, the byline occasionally appears on reliably professional man-of-letters book reviews in professional man-of-letters venues; not bad, not where the action is.

But no admirer of artisanal butchery should be without the young-loud-and-snotty pieces published beween 1969 and 1975. I was most impressed by his doomed berserker whirls against the incoming tide of Tolkien's fantasy ("By Tennyson Out of Disney")

... in any rural pub you can met Samwise Gamgee’s “Gaffer” swearing and spitting unpleasantly into the fire; and I once worked in a Warwickshire hunting stable with an amiable rustic character who beat up his dog so often it wet itself every time he went near it.

and against science-fiction's marching-morons-of-MENSA ("Filling Us Up"), which left a few nicks in my own carcass as well:

This is how thinking is done in sf: conversationally. Inevitable, then, that it should fall down all the holes that conversation is heir to side-tracking, argument from the wrong side of the analogy, rhetoric as a substitute for logic, the accidental modification of premises (or even subject matter). It is not rigorous. Its vocabulary consists almost wholly of terms like “granted” and “posit”, “given” and “for the sake of argument”; its grammar is punctuative, the oratorical “right?” and “agreed?” used as fish-glue to cement unrelated items; its impromptu syntax reflects its impromptu reasoning; it is a muck of colloquialisms and jargon words used outside their proper fields. [...]

In lieu of actual thought, Rackham and Coney offer brash, colloquial pontification, achieved through disembodied mouthpieces; Del Rey senses that “science” has something to do with careful reasoning, but embraces opinion instead; Maine bases his entire extrapolative argument on nothing more than a value-judgement, effectively bypassing the mouthpiece and presenting his cant direct.

Thought and prose cannot be considered as discrete states: the one modifies the other, to infinity. None of the above writers can make a precise, sensible prose, only a vague uncommunicative babble. Meanwhile, the IDEA! bulbs flash stroboscopically, and with each little explosion science fiction reels back, bemused by its own ability to think of things. With each brief illumination of the irresistible notion, the sense of its own importance grows.

Back at John Rackham’s table they’ve got the drinks in against closing time. The amateur sociologists and historians and technocrats are wiping foam off their lips. The pause that refreshes is over, and fragments of the eternal unformed rodomontade are drifting across the bar on a warm front of cigar smoke:

“We say - and we can prove... like the key principle in cybernation...”
“The energy of a finger movement on a switch can control millions of horsepower.”
“That is simply the logical extension of your postulate.”
“To a certain degree, everyone lives in a fantasy world...”
“You ivory tower boys can always make a good case.”

Who can complain? this is the style of the Seventies. The editorial toad has escaped from the centre pages; comment has eaten the news; punditry swallows both. The majority reveals itself as a broil of minorities, each convinced of its own indispensability and itself comprised of as many minorities as it has adherents. We speak, eventually, in private languages. Fiction isn’t art, is it?

Another great First for science fiction.

Which answers David Auerbach's unvoiced question. What draws big-capital big-bluster libertarian types to science fiction? The fatuous sound of men convincing themselves they're the smartest guys in the room.

Responses

Josh Lukin checks his watch:

Wait, Tiptree's sharp-faced man isn't the voice of the Seventies? Maybe he's the voice of the Eighties, then.

. . .

Art for avoidance's sake

"Walker Evans"
SFMOMA, September 30, 2017–February 4, 2018

From walltext quotes and wall-mounted video screens, we saw Walker Evans repeatedly pledge disallegiance to political action, although you'd think he could've avoided the issue easily enough by, like, just doing studio portraits of orchids or penises or such. But we can dig it; "Activist" or "Feminist" are neon signage, "24 HOUR DISPUTES - ALL ARGUMENTS WELCOME." If you don't want to get the business, you hang a different sign. (Well, OK, most of us just board up our shop window. But other interests sometime make that impractical.)

Whereas "Artist" or "Hack" or "Not-a-feminist" are free for anyone to block potential distractions or distracting potentialities: that's not my department; other identities will take care of those; you'd have to ask The Girl. I remember unfondly how well a jejune self-identification as "poet" preempted questions about the harm I might be doing to those around me or what an ass I might be making of myself. And I can understand why Evans might want to avoid questions of comparative utility or criticism of real-world results; he was kinda busy with other stuff.

. . .

Elation

"The world is Dorian Gray and I am Dorian Gray's portrait."

A few hours later, my fever dropped and I resolved as just another blot on the landscape. It was a nice delusion while it lasted.

. . .

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Every page manifests the contemplative labor she expended on fabricating her categories and bracing them against domino collapse. But at my eye-level, at least, the walls occlude more than the walkways reveal.

. . .

Scurfy gray homes with blocked windows, sagging roofs, and satellite dishes; Obama-the-Communist-Muslim jokes on diner signs and bumper stickers; "TEA PARTY NOW" spray-painted on a garage across the road (its owner shot himself a year or two after his paint job) repeated exposure fades them.

Instead, my most vivid memory from the 2016 election cycle is a conversation with the guy renting my grandma's house next door: a dog and a couple of kids, dishonorably discharged (it wasn't his fault!), unemployed a long while now, living off his wife's income, deep in debt but eager to raise more money so he could install concrete reinforcement under the floor-buckling weight of his ever-increasing gun collection, reassuring me that my mother had nothing to worry about because he could make it over there in a flash and a lot of noise and he wouldn't wait to ask questions.

Behind him, on what used to be my grandma's family-sized farm, other tenants rented a mobile home. I never saw them to talk to.

. . .

Life lessons

Cache your light in a bushel for safekeeping and cast that bushel on the waters to get it out of the way. When hygienically necessary, you may lean your light out to inscribe lines on a water or two, albeit at some risk to stability.

. . .

The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard

Although its title refers to the bog-standard goal of mainstream short fiction, the book itself is constructed on the bog-standard formula of alternate-history sf: one blatantly visible change has been injected into a movie-set familiar period and place, where it intercepts the lives of various celebrities and, as the Washington Post reviewer says, "inspires history-changing events."

Except without changing a lick of history. Sure, on slow news days, the Big MacGuffin dutifully appears in human interest stories and what's -the-world-coming-to op-eds; in memoirs and interviews, it's called on-stage to receive credit or blame for momentous decisions. Nevertheless, every action of historical note or current cultural memory is taken exactly as in our own sweet time, and the magical machine merely slips one more unprovable possibility into our own time's sweet pile of hypothesized motivations. As straightforwardly as I can imagine, Gerrard has novelized the Nietzschean comparison of conscious will to froth on the surface of the ocean's waves. And in that respect, it's truly novel if not, as he's shown, necessarily life-changing.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .