Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Thinking with a sonnet

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Bernadette Mayer

Sonnets always seemed interesting, just because of the way they let you think within the poem. Sonnets permit you to think in a way that other poems might not. You couldn’t think the same way given another really strict form. You don’t think in a sestina the way you think in a sonnet.

I like the idea of fooling around with the question of beginnings and middles and endings, those concepts one always hates in writing, especially in fiction, and the sonnet has them. The traditional form of the sonnet is to set up the scene, and then develop it in the middle, and come to a conclusion in the end couplet. And that’s really stupid.

That’s not the way we think; but it is structurally fascinating to do it. To not do it while also doing it. I’m not sure of how that’s done.

Bernadette Mayer, “The Colors”

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

The balloon frame

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Robert Hass

Now, I think, free verse has lost its edge, become neutral, the given instrument. An analogy occurs to me. Maybe it is a little farfetched. I’m thinking of balloon frame construction in housing. According to Gideon, it was invented by a man named George Washington Snow in the 1850s and 1860s, about the same time as Leaves of Grass. “In America materials were plentiful and skilled labor scarce; in Europe skilled labor was plentiful and materials scarce. It is this difference which accounts for the differences in the structure of American and European industry from the fifties on.” The principle of the balloon frame was simply to replace the ancient method of mortise and tenon—heavy framing timbers carved at the joints so that they locked heavily together—with construction of a frame by using thin studs and nails. It made possible a light, quick, elegant construction with great formal variability and suppleness. For better or worse. “If it had not been for the balloon frame, Chicago and San Francisco could never have arisen, as they did, from little villages to great cities in a single year.” The balloon frame, the clapboard house and the Windsor chair. American forms, and Leaves of Grass which abandoned the mortise and tenon of meter and rhyme. Suburban tracts and the proliferation of poetry magazines. The difference between a democratic society and a consumer society.

Robert Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

Guilty pleasures and other travesties

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Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea

I’ve occasionally written on this blog about the music that I like, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever admitted that the song from the last decade that I’ve probably played the most is Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It’s as close to indefensible as I can imagine without being actively offensive: it’s a sonic trifle that gains its appeal entirely from a hefty sample from Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” a legitimately good song to which “Whatcha Say” attaches itself like a remora. Take away that load-bearing sample, and the rest of it would fall apart. Yet that’s part of the reason I like it. Derulo—who wasn’t even twenty years old at the time—and his collaborators saw something in the original track, with a big assist from a famous scene from The OC and its even more famous parody by the Lonely Island, and rode it to the top of the Billboard charts. I’m not even mad; I’m impressed. “Whatcha Say” wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for a moment of opportunistic ingenuity that took Heap’s moody vocoder vocal and remixed it into the core of a mercenary radio hit. And as much as it pains me to say it, I like it better than “Hide and Seek.” It isn’t as lugubrious or self-important; it’s about nothing except for itself, and I could listen to it forever. I could conceivably use it as a case study in the power of sampling, and I’ve occasionally thought about writing a post on the subject, if only to have an excuse to talk about it. But I can’t really defend it to anyone.

In other words, it’s the definition of a guilty pleasure. I think it’s best to start with a purely legalistic reading of the word “guilty,” which hinges on the idea that you’re a free agent who can choose between right and wrong, and you deliberately chose wrong. A guilty pleasure should be a violation of your own high standards, not those of society at large. You might not like, say, Stephen King’s It, which is my favorite American novel published in my lifetime, but that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure for me: I think it’s legitimately great in a way that “Whatcha Say” isn’t. A guilty pleasure is also something different from a flawed masterpiece. When I put together my alternative canon of movies last month, I deliberately avoided guilty pleasures: I wanted to write about films that I think everyone should see. A true guilty pleasure is inherently autobiographical and personal: it resonates with you in particular in a way that it might not for anybody else. A list of my guilty pleasures may not tell you more about me than a ranking of my favorite movies or books, but it’s a crucial part of the picture. And it provides an indispensable sort of balance to my inner life, as the critic Christopher Morley once observed:

There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

Jason Derulo

So what are my guilty pleasures? Aside from “Whatcha Say,” they include the first season of the MTV reality series The Hills, which I can watch for hours on end with the same detached contentment that I once felt with the screensaver on my old desktop Mac; Kevin Spacey’s directorial debut Beyond the Sea, in which he channels the late singer Bobby Darin in a performance that goes beyond impersonation into something like demonic possession; the movie of Angels & Demons, but not the book; the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon; true crime books like Fatal Vision or Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, as long as they’re at least five hundred pages long; the airplane novels of Arthur Hailey; the video for Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” None falls into the category of “It’s so bad, it’s good,” except maybe for Lost Horizon. Most are professional pieces of work, at least within the limits that they’ve set for themselves, and even the ones that fall short of their own standards, like Beyond the Sea, make me feel oddly protective, almost paternal: I can’t condescend to them, because I understand them. I know what Spacey was trying to do, and I respect him for it, even if the result is less a good movie than an ode to the genial fakery that he brings to even his best roles. Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen. I love Beyond the Sea because it’s literally about nothing else. But that doesn’t mean you will.

Another factor that many of these works have in common is that they’re travesties—imitations, remakes, or derivations of earlier, obviously superior efforts. Kevin Spacey is a travesty of Bobby Darin, no matter if he sings as well or better; Lost Horizon is a travesty of the novel and classic movie; “Whatcha Say” is nothing if not a travesty of “Hide and Seek.” This means that they dramatize, in particularly stark terms, something fundamental about the guilty pleasure: the idea that we’re choosing to indulge in something bad, instead of a world of better options. That’s where the guilt comes in. It operates under the assumption that our lives as readers, viewers, and listeners amount to a zero-sum game, and that every minute we spend on junk is a minute that we can’t devote to something more worthwhile. This might be technically correct, but it misses the larger point. There may not be world enough or time for us to take in every great work of art, but we can experience pretty much all of it, if we’re so inclined, and it leaves us ample room for the mediocre, or worse. You could even argue that works that leave us unchanged, and that do nothing more than fill a pleasant five minutes or an hour, are part of a balanced diet, as Morley noted. The nice thing about “Whatcha Say” or The Hills is that it doesn’t get in the way of anything else, and it satisfies me in uncomplicated ways that leave me available later for more complex pleasures. And at the end of my life, if you ask me if I’m happy with how I spent my time, I’ll gladly quote Imogen Heap: I only meant well. Well, of course I did. And it’s all for the best.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2016 at 8:37 am

Quote of the Day

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John Cage

[John Cage] replies to the composer and editor R.I.P. Hayman, who had asked him, “Is politics to society what music is to sound?” The question, Cage remarks, is “a little too mathematical,” but he goes on to answer, “yes if music is thought of as a body of laws to protect musical sounds from noises, as government protects rich from poor.”

Alastair Macaulay, in a review of The Selected Letters of John Cage

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

“To spare another man’s life…”

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"Asthana halted..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 59. You can read the previous installments here.

Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)

All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

"To spare another man's life..."

And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.

Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…

Quote of the Day

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Poetic meters

If there is one meaning which the metrical pattern enforces on all language submitted to its influence, it is this: Whatever else I may be talking about, I am talking also about language itself.

John Thompson, The Founding of English Metre

Written by nevalalee

July 21, 2016 at 7:30 am

Anthologies of interest

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The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

If you really want to influence readers, don’t be an author—be an anthologist. Anthologies are among the earliest books that most of us read: the collections of fairy tales and poems we’re given as children, followed by the textbooks of stories we’re assigned in grade school, mark our first general exposure to literature of any kind, and all of those selections have been chosen for us by another human being, at least in theory. (These days, textbooks are more likely to be cobbled together by committee, drawing primarily on the work of their predecessors.) Later in life, when we pick up paperback anthologies for our own reading pleasure, it’s out of an unconscious desire to replicate or extend that education. The world of literature is so vast that it seems too large for any one reader to navigate alone. We depend on curators to cull it for us, singling out the essential nuggets from the disposable fluff that every healthy culture produces in such great quantities. The result, we hope, will be a sampling accurate enough to allow us to understand the whole, and for most of us, it comes to define it. But it’s really something else altogether. Even if we assume a perfect anthologist gifted enough to truly present us with “the best,” judging a culture or a genre from its masterpieces alone delivers a skewed picture. How much better was the best from the rest? Does it really reflect the experience of a reader at the time, who had to figure out what was good, bad, or mediocre without any assistance from the outside? As Nicholson Baker writes in his novel The Anthologist: “Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.”

I’ve been thinking about anthologies a lot recently, mostly because of the daunting amount of reading I need to do for Astounding. Obviously, I need to read as much as I can of the science fiction and fantasy that John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard wrote, and I expect to get pretty close to that goal by the time the book is finished. But what about the rest? I can’t make critical judgments about their work without a sense of what else was happening at the same time, and my reading up to this point in my life has been fannish but unsystematic, leaving me with considerable gaps in my understanding of the genre. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a complete collection of Astounding Science Fiction, but I can’t possibly read all of it, and it doesn’t even include what was going on in the other magazines. Predictably, then, I’ve turned to anthologies to fill in the blanks. Earlier this year, I put together a reading list for myself, drawing mostly on a shelf’s worth of classic short story collections. These include the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame; The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, which was edited by Campbell himself; The Astounding-Analog Reader; Analog’s Golden Anniversary Anthology; Analog Readers’ Choice; Adventures in Time and Space; The Road to Science Fiction; The Golden Age of Science Fiction; and various other “best of” lists and reader polls. The result is a list of nearly five hundred novels and stories, ranging in length from a few pages to massive tomes like Battlefield Earth, and at the moment, I’m about two thirds of the way through.

Nicholson Baker

Of course, this approach has obvious limitations. It ends up focusing mostly on Astounding, at least through the early fifties, so it doesn’t tell me much about what was going on in Amazing or Thrilling Wonder or the countless other pulp magazines that once flooded the newsstands. There’s very little from before the golden age. It’s almost exclusively in the English language, and particularly from American authors—although I’m willing to accept this shortcoming, since it reflects the milieu in which my four major figures emerged. Stories of limited aesthetic interest but considerable historical significance, like Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” tend to fall through the cracks. And the result probably doesn’t have much in common with the experience of a reader who was buying these magazines from one month to the next. But it’s a beginning, and in some ways, it’s better than it sounds. In trying to read these stories more or less in the order in which they appeared, I’m creating an alternate version of myself who was born in, say, 1920, and was exposed to science fiction at the age when I was most likely to be influenced by it. In practice, what I end up with isn’t so much the inner life of that bright twelve year old, but the memories of that same reader thirty years down the line. Memory naturally filters what we read, leaving the stories that made the greatest impression on us at first glance, the ones that only gradually revealed their power, and a few that have stuck around for no discernible reason, aside from where we were in our lives when we first encountered them. And I’m hopeful that the subset of science fiction stories I’ve been reading will provide the same sort of background noise for the book I’m writing that my half-remembered reservoir of fiction does in my everyday life.

Needless to say, very little of what I’m reading now will end up explicitly in the book: given the nature of a work like this, I doubt I’ll have a chance to discuss more than a handful of stories that weren’t written by my central four authors. But I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t feel that the experience would change me, and how I think, in ways that will be reflected in every line. This is true even, or especially, if I forget much of what I read. In his story “Incest,” John Updike uses the phrase “vast, dying sea”—a description that Nicholson Baker quotes with approval in U & I—to evoke all the poetry that his main character has forgotten over the years. We all have a similar sea inside of us, collected and neglected by our internal anthologist, who operates when we aren’t aware of it. The anthologies we all carry in our brains differ markedly from one another, even more so than the tables of contents of the anthologies in print. (One of the nice things about the anthologies I’m reading is how little they overlap: only a few stories, like Asimov’s “Nightfall,” appear in more than two, which indicates how flexible, varied, and mutable the canon of science fiction really is.) An anthologist is the custodian of a genre’s past for the sake of the future: as time goes by, aside from a handful of books and authors that everyone is expected to read, anthologies are our only conduit for transmitting the memory of what a literature used to be, at least for the majority of readers. The same can be said of the reader’s own imperfect memory, which preserves, through a sort of memetic natural selection, the bits and pieces of the tradition that he or she needs. We can’t all be writers, or even perfect readers. But we’re all anthologists at heart.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2016 at 8:37 am

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