Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #3

A Pure Formality (Une pure formalité) 1994

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, celebrated for his touching Cinema Paradiso, pulls out all the stops on this one. Pulls out all the stops and then presses down on the keyboard with his forearms.

If Franz Kafka had been a filmmaker, this would be his movie. Everything about it is tight, brutal, and bleak, and the small cast and limited locations add to the claustrophobia. In fact, while there are a handful of other actors on the periphery, almost every scene is between the Commissioner (a brilliant acting turn by Roman Polanski) and the novelist Onoff (Gerard Depardieu). At first it appears that Onoff is wrongly accused of some unnamed crime, but as the Commissioner continues to work at him, alternating between sympathy, brutality, and cold logic, it appears that Onoff may be guilty of something after all...yet he seems to have no knowledge of any crime, but— Nope. I shouldn’t say any more. Except that it has an Ennio Morricone score.

A great Italian writer-director, directing a great Polish director-actor and a great French actor in a French production so I can watch it subtitled in English: The EU has been worthwhile after all. (And, of course, you can’t get this on DVD in the US).

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Quick Note

Be aware, all, that shiny reddish Cover the Mirrors has arrived in Faye L. Booth's hands. Literally. Go gaze in admiration.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

You Know Rob

You know Rob. He's that guy with the funny glasses and the bald patch that makes him look like he's been tonsured and...

No, wait a minute. Actually, I was talking to Rob. I was saying: "You know, Rob, the way people are losing commas from around direct address is really beginning to bother me."

Do you (the reader, not Rob) know what I'm talking about? I'd learned that when someone was addressed directly, you offset the name or title with commas. Like so:

"I can't, Rob."

Without that comma

"I can't Rob."

it looks to me as though someone is asserting that they are incapable of engaging in a specific act of larceny, as in the fine distinction drawn by the lyric to She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: "She could steal, but she could not rob."

Even when it's perfectly clear it's a name--and the initial capital letter ought to be a big clue to me--it makes me crazy, and a perverse part of my mind (that would be that largest part) starts talking back to the character. Let me read:

"I can't Peggy!"

and I'm immediately involved in an argument:

"Of course you can Peggy. Anyone can learn to Peggy...Look here, you just balance on one foot, you lift your opposite arm, spin your hand in the air--Yes! You're Peggying!"

And there are plenty of cases where the sense can be changed:

"I can't bear, children, when you scream like that."


"I can't bear children when you scream like that."

Well, who could? Childbirth is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. (With a nod and wink to Dickens.)

More often, the sense is left unchanged, but the sentence just looks all wrong to my eye:

"I believe you sir ought to go sit over there."

(A much-dreaded 'that' after 'believe' would help the above sentence immensely as well.)

I'm encountering more and more of these missing commas, often in published works, as if the ghost of Gertrude Stein has been sneaking in at night and hosing them away.

But, then I wonder if it isn't our own fault. Although I used to begin a certain class of informal e-mails with the salutation:

Hi, Rob--

more recently I have conformed to current practice and written

Hi Rob--

which I believe is leading many people to believe that the comma in direct address is somehow superfluous. (nb. In either case, many of my e-mail correspondents have been puzzled that I call them 'Rob', so I've taken to addressing them by their actual names.)

Is the comma offsetting the name in direct address really considered optional, or are copyeditors everywhere simply slacking off on the job? I hope it isn't optional, and I hope folks start putting them back in, as I find it distracting at best, and downright confusing at worst. Those commas can make a difference. In fact, I'm going to start stuffing them back into my e-mail salutations.

Call me, Ishmael.

We'll do lunch.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #2

Celine and Julie Go Boating (CĂ©line et Julie vont en bateau) 1974

Jacques Rivette was one of the intellectual leaders of the New Wave in French cinema, but most of his works are seldom seen. The fact that one—Out 1—clocked in at 13 hours, might give you some idea why his commerical success wasn’t greater. Celine and Julie isn’t short either, running three hours and thirteen minutes.

The movie is allusive, intriguing, and ultimately puzzling. The first time I saw it, by the time the final credits began rolling members of the audience were already arguing with one another. The construction is circular; identity-swapping and repetition are key to the film. The spine of the story covers a specifc day some time in the past where a murder was committed in a mansion. Maybe.

Through some form of magic, Julie and Celine, by turns, find themselves in the middle of the family drama inside the mansion, reliving slices of that fateful day from the perspective of some member of the household...except that they forget everything when they come out of the house…but they invariably find a piece of hard candy in their mouth, which, when they share it with the other one—

I give up. There’s several layers of deep logic in the film, but they are all dream logic. It's like Lewis Carroll meets Jonathan Carroll. Some people (I’m one) find Celine and Julie to be gorgeous and hypnotic and mystifying. (And Juliet Berto, who plays Celine, was sex-eeeee. Whoa.) Others find it too puzzling and ultimately soporific to watch. It has been released on VHS, but there is no US (Region 1) DVD. (There is, I’m told, a Region 2 DVD, which is nice for those in Europe and Japan, but useless to Yours Truly.)

Those who like this sort of thing will love it. Those who don't like this sort of thing will probably stop watching after they realize that Juliet Berto only does the one shower scene.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Moonrise Over Our House, Oct 24, 8:16 pm

Hey, does the Moon look a little funny tonight...or is it just me?

Now We're in REAL Trouble

Considering that a half-million people have been displaced by the fire, things have gone amazingly well. Supplies, many of them donated, have been ample in most places, and down south in San Diego many of the residents--including Jeremy James, who often drops comments here--have taken in refugees for the duration. Public order hasn't broken down, and Californians are doing a great job of taking care of one another.

Yesterday, however, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the head of Fatherland--excuse me, Homeland--Security arrived on the scene. Tomorrow George W Bush will arive. That will fill out the all-star team that did such a great job of managing the Hurricane Katrina disaster. With the Federal government deeply involved, things are bound to go downhill very quickly. Is there some way to get these guys to go back to DC and just send a big check to Sacramento?

In a truly scary development, David Thayer informs me that it is sunny in Seattle. Sun in Seattle any time between September and June is against the laws of God and nature. Excuse me, I've got to go--I think I hear pigs flying over our house.

Update: As unlikely as it seemed over the last few days, we are told that our San Diego house survived intact. A big swath of our neighborhood is apparently gone, and the area is still off limits to entry, but our particular street was untouched. Streets north of ours, west of our, south of ours, and east of ours all burned out, but not ours. As I said yesterday--capricious.

Further Update: We have finally heard that our tenants are safely ensconced in a San Diego hotel. That was our final worry, and it was a relief to hear that they are okay.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Capricious Element

As Matt Curran commented, at least floods follow predictable behavior, ruled largely by gravity. On the other hand, take a gander at this photo of the aftermath of the 2003 San Diego Fire:

Houses, one after another, gone, gone, some untouched houses in the foreground. But nice green lawns all up and down the street, and some bushes thriving on those lawns, and, all around, a healthy forest of hardy Aussie eucalyptus.

To get this effect--burning a house without scorching the lawn--the house has to go up like a piece of tissue paper.

Makes me conscious of how many books I own...

UPDATE: The humidity is now so low that swarms of Argentinean Black Ants are coming into our house seeking moisture. You haven't seen surreal until you've seen a white porcelain toilet swarming with black ants. Eat your heart out, Salvador Dali.

Monday, October 22, 2007

It's Spooky Season

No, I'm not talking about Halloween. I'm talking about the weather. And the fires.

The fall has been freakish--cooling down to the high 60s (say 20 C for you metric types) and then jumping up again into the mid-80s (pushing 30 C).

Most of our weather here comes from the west; the winds blow in from the southwest, due west, or even northwest, but they tend to come from the Pacific. Every so often, though, in the fall or spring, we'll get a contrary wind, called the Santa Ana wind, that blows in hot from the high desert. If it gets going with any velocity, the whole sky roars, because the trees are unadapted to wind from that direction. If they were mammals, you'd say their fur was being rubbed the wrong direction.

We're having Santa Anas like I've never seen, hitting hurricane velocity in some areas. Trees are toppling. In a city north of here, windows have blown out. Temperatures are mid-80s right now, and are supposed to push 90 F (32 C) tomorrow, even here at the beach. Now, I know this is sunny Southern California and all, but this isn't normal for October.

The humidity has dropped to single digits. Step outside after washing your hair and it'll be dry in less than a minute. And, of course, after our second year of drought, that means Fire Season. Full force.

There are about 20 different fires burning, and although the nearest one is a good 15 miles away, we are ringed about 270 degrees by various fires. The whole world smells like a campfire, and you can see great towers of smoke coming from the fires and uniting to form a ceiling high above the whole Los Angeles Basin. It looks like something Sauron would organize to allow his orcs to march by day. It's bad enough that my eyes are puffy and watering as I type this.

Meanwhile, we were able to have fresh, California-grown strawberries at breakfast this morning. We have a long growing season here, but fresh berries in October...?

Well, I have to go outside and watch Armageddon a bit more. And then carve our traditional Halloween strawberry.

Two Hours Later: We own a house down in the Rancho Bernardo district of San Diego. Or at least I think we do. We just saw video on the web of houses burning on the street one block behind our San Diego house.

Most disturbing of all, though, is that the San Diego Wild Animal Park is in the path of the blaze. The breeding center for the California Condor. The White Rhino breeding center...They do have some fire-proof structures, and the large animal enclosures all have large ponds. But still...

Six Hours Later: Things are getting weirder by the minute. Dined al fresco at Luigi's down on Main Street in our shirtsleeves, listening to the palms trees growl in the wind. Atmosphere like, say, Rome in July, but substitute charred-wood smell for Vespa fumes. Our intrepid Huntington Beach surfers were still in the waves as dusk fell, even though half of every curl was being hammered into Japanward spray by the force of the Santa Anas. Our sidewalk is ankle-deep in mattresses of pine needles, even though we don't have a single pine tree. Nobody has any idea what the hell is going on. Least of all me.

Oh, and I almost forgot: The fire thae tore through Rancho Bernardo (and most probably ate our house) began out beyond the town of Ramona (if there still is a town of Ramona--they cleared the whole city and abandoned it to the fire early this morning) began in Witch Creek, and the whole blaze, which is marching as surely as General Sherman to the sea, is now officilly named The Witch Fire. Halloween indeed.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ideas About Publicity

I was once represented by a venerable US literary agency (how venerable? They were the agents for Stephen Crane and William James, and ya can't get no more venerabler in these here parts). When you went to their website, the agents had blurbs about their activities, some mentions of whatever famous books they had represented, and pictures of themselves. A sort of showcase for the agents.

Ahem. Aliya Whiteley has signed with Gregory and Company, and they seem to have got it right. She's now Intellectual Property, and so she gets showcased. That's right--the agency is actually trying to promote their writers! What a concept...

Gregory and Company appear to have quite a stable of authors (there's a little drop-down menu on the left that shows them all). Among them I find Val McDermid, Robert Barnard, and someone I don't recognize named Tony Blair. The name's somehow familiar, but I can't quite place it...

As long as we're on the topic of publicity, I need to at least mention the Donald Trump book promotion. I'm Johnny-Come-Lately on this, as both David Thayer ("Need an Audience? Give Them Money") and Jamie Ford ("When vanity press just isn't vain enough") have already laid down very funny posts on the topic. But one surefire way to get people to a book signing is to pay them ($100 to the first 100 people, $50 to the next 200, and on down after that).

So, the next time your publisher claims they are doing a bang-up job of promoting your book, look at them with a skeptical eye and say, "Oh? And how much above cover price did you pay people to come buy them?"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #1

Off and on, for no good reason, I'll be dropping notes on offbeat films that I love. These aren’t necessarily my favorite films of all time. These are my favorite relatively obscure films of all time. Almost all of them are by renowned directors, and almost all of them have fallen between the cracks.

O Lucky Man! 1973 (Warning: If you don’t like this film, you will probably loathe it.)

Lindsey Anderson (If…, This Sporting Life) directs Malcolm McDowell in a long, picaresque fable about finding purpose. The film is Candide updated to 1973 (and at far greater length than Voltaire would have had it—Candide is a model of economy). War in the third world, medical experiments on humans, nuclear secrets, the lifestyles of the upper classes, and the fine art of selling coffee beans--yep, it's all here.

The movie is relentlessly self-conscious and self-referential. Actors are poached from McDowell’s previous films (If… and A Clockwork Orange), and often play multiple roles. Alan Price’s songs provide the score, and Alan Price and his band are in the movie, playing, well, Alan Price and his band. Director Lindsay Anderson is in the movie as well, conferring with the band at odd moments, and apparently putting together the movie we are watching, right up until the Zen ending (which, like the movie itself, is loathed by some). On top of the idiosyncratic ensemble of actors and musicians are standout performances from Ralph Richardson and a young Helen Mirren.

No one seems to know why O Lucky Man! was released on VHS years ago back in the 1980s, while the DVD release was endlessly stalled. There were chatrooms full of snarling fans demanding to know what perfidious conspiracy resulted in the delay. But as of October 23, 2007—gosh, that’s next Tuesday—O Lucky Man! will be out on DVD.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The MNW Blog Lives!

Thanks to the indefatigable Matt Curran, Macmillan New Writers is up and running, and already has three entries--an introduction from Matt, a hello from Tim Stretton (the most recently signed writer, and a prolific blogger), and a self-profile from Faye L. Booth (author of Cover the Mirrors, the next book to be launched. [A book I've been looking forward to ever since I read the the first chapter in the anthology, I might add.]).

We kicked around the idea of the group blog a few months back, but I'm pleased and impressed at how quickly Matt pulled it all together. If you recall, the group blog was intended to serve several purposes. In case you don't recall, I'll go back through them (largely as a way of reminding myself).

First, the group blog was envisioned as a bit of a clubhouse where MNW authors past and future could stay in touch as a community. Presently it's quite an effort to keep up with anyone except the most active bloggers.

Second, the group blog was proposed as a way of giving all MNW authors access to the blogosphere. Some of our crew aren't interested in running their own blogs (perhaps wisely--it does eat up time that might be better spent doing something else!), though they do have websites: Conor Corderoy, Edward Charles, Hugh Paxton, Jonathan Drapes, Frances Garood, Brian McGilloway, Rosemary Ingham, and LC Tyler. Some others seem to have no web presence at all, at least as far as I've been able to determine: Brian Martin, Suroopa Mukherjee, Jason Webb, Peter Bourne, and Annabel Dore. (Suroopa sometimes shows up in Comments on various blogs, so we know she's out there. I list the others here in hopes that they will come across this while Googling themselves and drop through.) To keep people visiting a blog, the blooger must have new content fairly frequently. A group blog offers a chance to post only when desired on a forum where no single writer is responsible for keeping the ball rolling.

Third, individual blogs seem to have a short lifespan, and after three years most bloggers are ready for the old-folks' home. Roger Morris and Matt Curran have both mentioned at various times that they might be winding up their blogs--though both of them always have enough news that, like the Bear Farmers of Birnam, they keep a-goin'. But two of our formerly active bloggers, Cate Sweeney and Lucy McCarraher, seem to have closed up shop. Maybe a blog where you need not post frequently will lure Cate and Lucy back (Psst! We have candy...), and will also offer the rest of us (that would be Michael Stephen Fuchs, Aliya Whiteley, Samantha Grosser, Eliza Graham, Faye L. Booth, Peter Anthony, and Tim Stretton--oh, and David Isaak) someplace to toddle off to when we come to our senses and stop running our individual blogs.

Fourth, a group blog has the potential to act as a showcase for our work, a source of information for people interested in the imprint, and a sort of switchboard for people hoping to track us down. (Digitally, that is. Being tracked down in real life sounds a bit ominous.) More publicity never hurt anyone. Well, except Britney Spears. And those Watergate guys. And Prince Charles and his girlfriend, and Di and her boyfriends. And anyone who ever lost a libel suit...Come to think of it, more publicity has hurt plenty of people. But it sells books, and who can complain about that?

Finally, a group blog would be a fine place for new Macmillan New Writers (or do I mean New Macmillan New Writing Writers, NMNWW?--sheesh!) to drop though and introduce themselves to the rest of the gang, and to the world at large.

So, hats off to Matt, and feel free to drop through and say hello. (Or even post whatever's on your mind.) And if you have suggestions for improvement or additional features, tell Matt. Not me.

Just kidding. Actually, Matt has me down as co-admin. So you can toss suggestions to either of us. Or, better yet, post them on the Macmillan New Writers blog!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More MNW Notes

For those who haven't dropped through his blog or website recently, Matt "MFW" Curran has announced that MNW will be publishing the follow-on to The Secret War. That's good news news for Matt, of course, but also good news for his readers (including the Germans, Ja?) as he leaves the future of the world rather up in the air in The Secret War. (I mean, I know civilization survived from Waterloo down to October, 2007, but I'm not quite sure how.)

And, speaking of follow-ons, Aliya Whiteley has posted a book trailer for her second novel, Light Reading. I'm not crazy about book trailers in general, but this one is slick and works quite well.

(And, as long as we're talking about book trailers, there is one I think is quite a work of art--one done as a school project by a team of Italian film students for Neil Gaiman's Coraline. Of course, the idiot fans at YouTube have all concluded that it is a preview for a movie and are all posting Omigod, like when's it coming out? Yep, that's right--they decided to make a movie of Coraline...and decided to do it in Italian.)

Talking about follow-on books (and idiots) reminds me I need to go do some work...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Say Hi to Peter Anthony

Some of you may recall, from the Macmillan New Writing anthology of openings of forthcoming works, the promising opening of a novel entitled Immaculate. It is still forthcoming in December--cleverly positioned for Christmas shoppers--though slightly retitled as A Town Called Immaculate.

The author is Peter Anthony, and you can check out more info about him and the book on his website. The important thing to note is that he's another effing Yank (like myself and Michael Stephen Fuchs, though MSF has been embedded in London long enough that he only rates as kinda). Suroopa Mukherjee, Brian McGilloway, MSF, Peter, and, of course, Yours Truly--that's quite a little cabal of foreigners. I really think a Question should be raised in Parliament.

But meanwhile, welcome Peter to the ranks (and wonder whom he paid off to get that Christmas slot. I've been having a rough time convinving people that a terrorist-themed Christmas might be a nice change, and then this guy shows up. Hell, his jacket cover even has snow and pine trees on it--everything short of eight tiny reindeer.)

nb. He also bumps Faye Booth out of her coveted spot at the top of the alphabetic list. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. (Or do I mean Sic Transit Gloria Johnson? I went to grade school with her, before she sic-transited.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Faking It For Real

Having been complimented on my apparent knowledge of firearms and explosive devices (all gleefully faked with the aid of a little research) has made me think about the topic of how we acquire apparent authenticity. In my case, all of my facts were picked up through judicious reading plus a half-hour discussion with my brother-in-law, who is a genuine gun-nut. (The only thing I wanted to know was how far a 30.06 could be shot with accuracy given a good sniper scope, but he was so enthused it was hard to keep him on-topic.)

A next-door neighbor in my youth was a member of the Minutemen and the John Birch Society, and I've met other gun-toting right-wingers over the years. I've known a gun-toting left-wing lawyer. I've known more than a few criminal types. And I've known a whole slew of military and ex-military people.

The odd thing is, I think it's often easier for an outsider to write convincingly about technical matters. We are more likely to have an eye for the telling detail. We are less likely to take a reader's knowledge for granted. We are less likely to bury the reader under a dumpload of facts.

I think that what makes technical details work is how the POV character thinks about them, their emotional relationship with the technology. For example, I've never yet written a scene where a doctor uses a scalpel, but it's pretty easy for me to imagine that my fictitious doctor might have strong feelings about (probably against) disposable-blade scalpels, believing that they are less stable and reliable than solid scalpels. I imagine I'll toss in something about "drop-forged steel" (it says that on one of my wrenches) to make it sound as though I know what I'm talking about.

Often I swipe the attitudes and concerns of characters from listening to artists talk about brushes, or to guitarists talk about their instruments and strings...or even from our interminable writer-talk about pen versus pencil versus typewriter versus computer. Though the emotional relationship of human to object is often considered to be "a guy thing," just get a good cook of either gender going on the topic of kitchen hardware. It's not a guy thing, it's a craft thing, and craftspeople of all types share deep commonalities.

Nor is personal experience necessarily a prerequisite for authenticity--at least not in any direct way. As Flannery O'Connor said, anyone who survived childhood has enough experience for a lifetime of writing. It's true. What child hasn't experienced love, grief, fear, anger, delight, frustration? The only thing missing is lust, and that comes along soon enough.

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage was widely acknowledged by US Civil War veterans as the most authentic description of what it felt like to be in combat. Although Crane was praised by men who had actually fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville, that battle took place eight years before Crane was born, and more than thirty years before he wrote the novel. What is more, Crane had never been in combat, and never served in the military.

The bestselling military writer of our own times is Tom Clancy. Like Crane, Clancy has never been in combat and has never served in the military. From his writerly addiction to military hardware, many assume that he had some inside track, perhaps as a Pentagon consultant. Nope. He was an English major (because he couldn't pass physics courses), and before selling The Hunt for Red October he made his living as an insurance agent. (Since Red October became a bestseller, Clancy has had special access to all manner of technical information through the good offices of many military admirers; but although there is a greater wealth of tech-geek material loaded into his later books, none of those books live up to the shorter, more human, and less-authenticated Hunt for Red October.)

To draw on examples from MNW: Roger Morris is young enough that I'm pretty darn certain he never visited St. Petersburg in the 19th century. Matt Curran may have had demons assault him for all I know, but I'm reasonably sure they didn't do so shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. I know for a fact that Aliya Whitely has never been to Allcombe, because Allcombe doesn't exist. (I asked.) And Michael Stephen Fuchs hasn't had running gunfights with cyber-oriented existentialist gangs--hmm. I could be wrong about Michael. From what I hear, he does have a real-life thing for guns, and computers, and philosophy.

But for most of us, I think, the joy of fiction is pouring ourselves into someone who isn't shaped like us. I'm not a serial killer, but if I were, here's the kind of serial killer I'd be. I'm not an unemployed single mother, but if I were, here's the kind of unemployed single mother I'd be. I'm not a werewolf, but...

Well, okay. I'll 'fess up: I am a werewolf. But I don't write about it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

An Unanswered (and Apparently Unasked) Question

Okay, class. I'm sure we all recall, from previous lessons, that the purpose of the Macmillan New Writing imprint was to find new talent. You can't submit to Pan Macmillan, the parent, without benefit of an agent; but MNW would find new, most likely unagented talent, and in the longer term funnel these talents into the Pan Macmillan fold. Perhaps they would remain unagented; perhaps they would acquire an agent; but the presumption was that they would pass on to Pan Macmillan at some point.

Initially the theory was that the first book would be with MNW, and then the second would move to Pan Mac, but this was amended early on to read that the first two would be with MNW.

The bit that's a little unclear is: What happens after that second book?

Okay, there's Brian McGilloway. who signed for three more books in his series with Pan Macmillan (and a canny move on Pan Mac's part, I would say); but that's a series. What about those who've completed their two MNW books (or even one MNW book and a refusal under right of first refusal)? Do they get a "Legal to Submit to Pan Macmillan Without an Agent" card? And, if so, do they get a chart of who the editors inside Pan Mac are?

Or is it expected that at this point they probably get agents? (Ssome--Roger and Aliya, offhand--already have them, and some of us have already had and divorced one or two.)

In the days of legend (that is, all of a few decades ago), writers tended to stay with their publisher (one reason agents had less clout). And, if I understand the scheme as envisioned by Mike Barnard, one of the goals of the MNW scheme was to take a step back into the past, where writers were discovered by the publisher, and effectively formed a long-term alliance with the publisher. But how does this work? Can writers, once published by MNW, submit their own manuscripts to Pan Macmillan? And if so, to whom? If instead we all have agents hawking our next manuscript, how does Pan Mac get any kind of preference? There seems to be a missing piece here.

Can someone--perhaps someone with two books at MNW (other than Brian, who signed a five book deal after one book, and thereby leapfrogged the process) enlighten me? Do you get an unlisted mailing address, or a secret decoder ring, or what?

(Lessee, two books...that would be Edward Charles, Michael Stephen Fuchs, and Aliya Whitely, I believe.)

Friday, October 5, 2007

More Pics of Books on Shelves (and other stuff)

The redoubtable Roger Morris just e-mailed me this picture from the Borders at Charing Cross. (Well, I don't think he probably e-mailed it from there. Probably he took the picture at Borders but e-mailed it from somewhere else. You writers are so picky.)

Roger said that it was face-out and a fair pile, both of which seem like a good thing. At least, if the pile shrinks over time...

Another friend--not a writer (and not much of a reader, either, when you get down to it) claims to have seen it at Gatwick when connecting from Geneva to the US. I guess this is feasible--I seem to remember a Waterstones there.

Over on another site, someone referred to these sorts of pictures as "writer's porn". Okay, I'm willing to admit it--it's gratuitous, it appeals to prurient interests, and has no obvious redeeming social value. To those of us who write, it still looks nice.

It occurs to me that it's LC Tyler's pub date for The Herring-Seller's Apprentice, a book I'm looking forward to reading. Best of luck to Len and MNW on the launch.

(Yes, prurient--in the sense of arousing an immoderate desire. I wouldn't go so far as to label it an unwholesome desire, but immoderate? Sure.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Neil Ayres Essay on Magic Realism

At the request of the Man Booker Prize folks, Neil Ayres has published an essay on the topic of Magic Realism. It's a nice read; I heartily recommend it.

Among other matters, Neil mentions a British "class system" for novels. The same exists in the US, with one puzzling exception: it's okay for anyone on this side of the Atlantic, even the pretentiously literary, to admit to a fondness for mysteries. (This wasn't always so; folks like Raymond Chandler weren't taken at all seriously in the US in their prime, though the British critics were quick to recognize his talent.)

Part of what Neil grapples with in the essay is why writers like Jonathan Carroll and Neil Gaiman aren't considered Magic Realists. I'd never really thought about this before. Gaiman I can explain away as writing too much straight-ahead fantasy. But in the case of the vastly underrated Carroll, I have to confess that Magic Realism is probably the best description of what he is doing. God knows that his distinctive books don't fit comfortably in any other category I can name.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Zelazny, Diction, and Style

In my recent interview, I mentioned Roger Zelazny as an influence on my writing because he taught me that a diction drop could be a tool rather than a mistake. In the Comment trail, novelist (and famous Rat) Neil Ayres asked if I could elaborate, which is like asking a retriever if he can fetch. I can not only fetch, but I can slobber all over the ball before you pry it from my fangs.

Strictly speaking, a diction drop is a sudden shift in style--usually from the so-called High Style to the colloquial. It's typically seen in amateur writing when the author is going for a Melvillean tone and stumbles into something far less elevated, as in this made-up example:

The vault of the sky shattered under the torrent of the monsoon, and he sought shelter beneath the canopy of trees, huddling in the embracing concavity of a banyan's mighty trunk; yet even that ancient giant could not hold back the deluge, and so he gave up on keeping dry.

Now, starting out the sentence with the vault of the sky might be inadvisable in the first place, but unless you're goofing around, you probably don't want to end by slumping down into he gave up. It undercuts the tone of the sentence.

And you never want to undercut your prose, do you? Isn't consistent style, voice, and diction every writer's goal? I thought so--until I read Zelazny. He deliberately plays with such things to add another dimension to his writing, to manage transitions in tone and pacing, and to keep certain passages from sounding too faux-poetic or pompous. I can't give an example of his more clever drops without quoting long scenes, but here's a transitional drop from his novel Jack of Shadows that carries us from a rather emotional scene to something more mundane:

Beside the flat, black ocean, he now walked. The stars within it danced whenever the ground and the waters trembled. The air was chill and he felt a great fatigue…He longed to wrap his cloak about him and lie down for a moment. He wanted a cigarette.

From Beside the flat black ocean, he now walked to He wanted a cigarette? (Even odder in the broader context of the book, which is an alternative-world fantasy; the cigarette is as deliberately out of place and jarring here as it would be in a novel about ancient Rome.)

Zelazny played with style and diction throughout his work, frequently dancing along an edge within the same paragraph. The first chapter of his Hugo-Award-winning novel Lord of Light opens with an epigraph from an entirely invented religious text followed by another from the sacred Buddhist Dhammapada, and then arrives at the first line of the novel:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.

An intriguing first line--not exactly heroic or High Style, but in the tone of a tale or myth. All this becomes more complicated, though, when we continue through the entire first paragraph:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the –atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But, then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

Lord of Light concerns a future world where the technocratic rulers--The First, who arrived on a spaceship--have set themselves up as a pantheon of immortals mimicking the Hindu gods. Sam, the Enlightened One, and one of The First himself, leads a worldwide, peaceful rebellion against Heaven that parallels Buddha's pacifist revolt against the exclusionary, caste-ridden Hindu reincarnation cycle. Lord of Light is therefore at once a science fiction story, with glib technological nods as to how the alternate world works, and simultaneously a fantasy novel or myth that uses evocative language and images to further the story. Zelazny's style alternates between the grand--which is by its nature somewhat innocent--and a knowing, sometimes silly tone. The two levels of diction alternate throughout, but sometimes they are packed close together. Watch how this passage slithers from tale to modern self-consciousness and back to mythic again:

.......Hellwell lies at the top of the world and leads down to its roots.
.......It is probably as old as the world itself, and if it is not, it should be, because it looks as if it were.
.......It begins with a doorway. There is a huge, burnished metal door, erected by the First, that is heavy as sin, three times the height of a man and half that distance in width. It is a full cubit thick and bears a head-sized ring of brass, a complicated pressure-plate lock, and an inscription that reads, roughly, “Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do try to enter here, you will fail and also be cursed. If somehow you succeed, then do not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers.” Signed, “The Gods.”
.......It is set near the peak of a very high mountain named Channa, in the midst of a region of very high mountains called the Ratnagaris. In that place there is always snow upon the ground, and rainbows ride like fur on the backs of icicles, which sprout about the frozen caps of cliffs. The air is sharp as a sword. The sky is bright as the eye of a cat.

(I'm particularly fond of the Gollum-like, "Go away. This is not a place to be." It appeals to the AA Milne in all of us.)

To my 13-year-old eyes, the twisting, swerving tone of Lord of Light was a revelation: Look! Would you just look at what this guy's doing! I that legal?

Of course, writers had already been playing with diction and style for decades, beginning with the strident stylistic parodies/tributes/gamesmanship of James Joyce in Ulysses, down to the inimitable originality of Zelazny's contemporary Donald Bartheleme, who never wrote anything twice in the same style (and seldom wrote an entire story in only one style). What was astonishing to me wasn't that someone would play with tone and diction in this fashion; experimental fiction by its nature had no rules. But here was a genre writer--no, worse, a science-fiction writer--jazzing around with language to serve his own ends, and managing to write page-turners at the same time.

In later works, Zelazny continued to have a slippery style, but he tended to spread it out. The diction changed radically within a book, but there were less of the sudden drops and elbows in the side, and more of the slow segues that matched language to content. By the time he began the Amber series--which, like most series of any flavor, ran too long for my taste--he had achieved a chameleon style that morphed to match what was needed for a scene, and he could write passages which, at their peak, were far over the top; but he vaulted that top so casually that, in context, the passages are read without a hitch.

In Nine Princes in Amber, the first-person protagonist is a Prince of Amber. Amber is a Platonic Ideal of a city; all the other cities of the multidimensional universe, indeed, all of our universe, consists of only the shadows and reflections of Amber. Our narrrator is an amnesiac who has lived for centuries on the shadow called Earth, and has been employed mostly as a mercenary. In one passage, memory of his recent (several hundred years) past returns:

I saw the paper skins and the knobby, stick-like bones of the dead of Auschwitz. I had been present at Nuremburg, I knew. I heard the voice of Stephen Spender reciting “Vienna,” and I saw Mother Courage cross the stage on the night of a Brecht premiere. I saw the rockets leap up from the stained hard places, Peenemunde, Vandenberg, Kennedy, Kyzyl Kum in Kazakhstan, and I touched with my hands the Wall of China…

I saw the rockets leap up from the stained hard places? I like it, but I wouldn't expect it in a novel with this hardboiled Hammett passage:

......It became boring with the third repetition, so I threw the bedclothes over his head and clobbered him with the metal strut.
.....Within two minutes, I’d say, I was garbed all in white, the color of Moby Dick and vanilla ice cream. Ugly.
.......…Laughing Boy’s wristwatch told me it was five forty-four. The metal strut was inside my belt, under the white orderly jacket, and it rubbed against my hipbone as I walked…When I reached the first floor I turned right, looking for the door with light leaking out from beneath it.
.......I found it, way up at the end of the corridor, and I didn’t bother to knock.

Clobbered? Laughing Boy? But wait--there's more, when Roger goes all Song of Solomon on us:

…for often at night my dreams were troubled by images of thy green and golden spires and thy sweeping terraces. I remember thy wide promenades and the decks of flowers, golden and red. I recall the sweetness of thy airs…Amber, immortal city from which every other city has taken its shape, I cannot forget thee, even now…

Looked at in isolation, each of those quotes is perhaps a bit too much, but trust me: they don't call attention to themselves in the context of the book. The guy always had his eye on the volume control, and fiddled with it constantly.

Was Roger Zelazny high literary art? Maybe not, though I'd argue some of his books were more thought-provoking, entertaining, and stylistically challenging than, say, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Was he the first to play such games? Assuredly not. But he was the first to gain my attention, and he deeply affected my sense of what is stylistically permissible in a novel.

You can do that? Too cool. Now I wanna be a writer!