Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Arrogance Can Be Art, Too


On my flight back from the US I read – in one swoop Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

I loved it, I ate it up, it's page-turner, it's relevant to our post-9/11 times, it is a book that understands life – the despair, yet, at the end of it, the tendency of human life to somehow go in, not necessarily to conquer evil in a utopian sense of banishing it from our souls, but in the sense that the good, though it sometimes seems to be banished, is only hibernating, and always returns.

Then I thought twice about it. That's when a bad aftertaste manifested itself on my tongue.

McCarthy's book, as is most his writing, is most notable for its outright literariness. He doesn't put dialogue in quotation marks. He leaves out apostrophes. He creates new nouns by combining adjectives with nouns. At times he remains very abstract, not even giving his main characters names, then he turns around and explains mechanical processes, like lighting a kerosene light, savoring little-known technical words that sound good and that he probably got out of a thesaurus or manual. All that is literary. It's more than that: it's the signals of literariness. It like wearing a button on your lapel: Vote for Clinton, I Am Christian, I am A Vegan, or an AIDS ribbon. It tells people, in case they had doubts, that this is literature.

Whenever I see something like that, I play a little game with myself. I mentally strip away the literary signals and ask myself if it's still literature underneath. (I tend to do that with people who wear "I Am Christian" buttons, too: I wonder just how much I can rust that person to really act like a Christian and not just dress up like one.)

Stripped of its literary signals, does the "The Road" still hold up to its reputation, or does it turns out to be just another apocalypse story?

I come from science fiction. I have read and watched more than my share of apocalypse stories. Just recently I saw on TV ten minutes of the reputedly awful move "Reign of Fire," about dragons ruling the earth and destroying humankind. It's a parable of any kind of apocalypse and the story, even the little part I saw, included the traditional elements of despair and hope and the question of whether goodness can triumph in the end. In fact, those elements pretty much crop up in all apocalypse stories. Come to think of it, other apocalypse stories I have read were – taking just the story, not the buttons – more impressive than "The Road." Most impressive of all for me was Delany's most-modern masterpiece Dhalgren.

Sitting there watching ten minutes of "Reign of Fire," I realized that if you take the Road out of the literary setting and put it into the genre setting, it comes out lacking. It contributes nothing to the genre. In fact, in genre terms it's a step backward. In the literary world it won the Pulitzer Prize, but in the genre world it can best be described as stealing ideas that other genre writers invented long before and going nowhere new with them.

That bugs me. It's like Roy Lichtenstein. He doesn’t actually crate image, he repackages them for a high-culture audience and gets all the praise and money, while the comic book artists who created the images are forgotten. Sure, Lichtenstein added a sense of irony, as McCarthy added a sense of literariness, but it still stinks. Mainly it stinks of arrogance: "The Road" is about a literary author who basically disrespects genre writing so much and thinks himself so superior that he says to himself, "I'm going to write an apocalypse story the way it should be written." Then he writes something that has been written a thousand times before, but he gets the credit – the Pulitzer - , as if all the guys who went before and invented the genre – a gene that in popular film and books has contributed far more to the way the world thinks than a literary novel ever could – were just there to feed him ideas.

That's the bad taste I feel in my mouth now.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

THE TWO LAWS OF SCHELMUFFSKY



If you want to know just how conformist, submissive, rule-servile, uninventive and downright boring we have become, read the following two books at the same time: "Absurdistan" and "Schelmuffsky."

Absurdistan is a current bestselling comic novel about a fat (they're always fat) Jewish Russian and his misadventures in Russia and the US. It has "creative writing course" stamped all over it. It's in the sentences: author Gary Shteyngart positively strains to turn out well-formed sentences, like Michael Chabon and like most American writers writing today. They are grammatically correct, touched with a tinge of irreverence of the kind that might send an appealing tingle of shock through the fragile spines of upper middle class women at reading groups. Then he goes on and on about it. Scenes don't end. Over-ambitious similes take over.

"Rain fell like pin-pricks on his cheek." Do we need a sentence like that in a comic novel? Do we need a simile at all? Strained similes like this remind me of John Gardner, that stuck-up pseudo-elitist writing teacher who recommended "original, unusual" similes and metaphors in his classic book On Writing Fiction. Whenever I read a simile like that that the book can do without, I think of Gardner and I wonder if the author like Shteyngart isn't more interested in impressing his creative writing instructor than in writing a scene, much less a funny scene. Jesus Christ, just say it's raining and get it over with. Is the big thing the raindrops, or is the big thing the story… whatever that may be? "Pinprick raindrops" might in some cases establish a dramatic atmosphere, but here it is unnecessary and strained and that goes for about 75% of all his sentences. And In the above paragraphs you can replace the name Shteyngart with almost any name out there today.

At the same time I read "Schelmuffsky", a thin comic/picaresque novel from the 17th century that best translates from the German as "Rascalsky", which is the name of the main character. It's not a classic and it's not really a good book. The main attribute was that the author Christian Reuter seemed to start off in comic directions but stopped before going all the way. The absurdist elements were punchlines, not springboards to further absurdity.

But even then, Schelmuffsky was ten times better and far more absurder than Absurdistan. The way Reuter did it, without doing anything special, really, shows up our modern literature for just how unadventurous it really is:

1. Reuter doesn’t give a damn about grammar. This is typical for his pre-dictionary time (and for other classics, including Grimmelshausen and English writers of the day) and it gives his sentences a crazy, veering, careening life of their own. It starts with the (sub)title: "The curious and dangerous Travelogue." How can a travelogue be dangerous? It can't. It doesn't matter. It just sounds better, and funnier, than "The dangerous travels" or "Description of a dangerous journey." And come to think of it, who cares that it's "wrong"? Nowadays we over-schooled writers are so afraid of making a grammatical mistake that our prose becomes stiff and lifeless, every sentence cowering before the assumed scrutiny of our high school English teachers. All this right-and-wrong grammar stuff is nothing but modern-day literary Prussianism.

2. Reuter is not afraid of extreme absurdity. I know of no novel today that dares to be so ridiculous. While Tristram Shandy opened and closed from the womb, Schelmuffksy also starts in the womb than describes how a giant rat ran under the dress of his sister and into a "hole", causing his mother to faint and remain unconscious for a few days, causing him, after a few days of no food, to crawl out of his mother's womb with mature faculties, meaning he can speak and think as an infant – and immediately he gets into a confrontation with and triumphs over the village priest before waking his mother. It goes on and on like that. The only absurd thing about the hero of Absurdistan is that he is obese. Okay, fine, who cares? Why are there no adventuresome authors out there today? Reuter cold have gone another step or to beyond what he did, but he went a huge step beyond what we do today.

These, then, are the Two Comic Laws of Schelmuffsky: 1) Forget the pretty sentences already, and 2) go one step beyond.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Historia of Faustus Chapter 5


THE HISTORIA OF FAUSTUS

V.
Doktor Faust's Third Disputation and Pact made with the Spirit, Who was called Mephostophiles

As for the devilish pact, it came about in this way:

Doktor Faustus required the spirit to appear before him on the next morning, commanding him to come, whenever he was called, in the guise of a Franciscan Monk and always with a little bell so that by the sound of the bell it might be known when he was approaching. Then Faust asked the spirit his name, and the spirit answered:
"Mephostophiles."

In that hour, the godless man, seduced by pride, arrogance and transgression, cut himself off wholly from God and the Creator to become a liegeman of the abominable Devil.

Then, in order that these two wicked parties might contract one with another, Doktor Faust took a penknife, pricked open a vein in his left hand in order to make a contract with the evil spirit in his own blood. Even then in the last moments of hope for his Christian soul did God send him a warning, for there on the skin of his arm even as he pricked the vein did appear graven and bloody words, dancing there as if they were alive: o homo fuge--id est: o mortal fly from him and do what is right! But this warning, too, Faust ignored, and instead drained his blood into a crucible and set it on some hot coals. Then he sat at his desk and wrote on a piece of parchment with his own blood the words that here follow:

To be continued…
(For Chapters 1-4, see The Faust Rewrite Project)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Not to Be Successful in America


If there's one thing that is and will always remain a constant in America's international relationships, it's the much-loved habit of other countries to underestimate the USA.

The Korean film industry has been booming for some time and now it has made its first major sally into the American market with "Dragon Wars", a big special effects movie based on a Korean legend. It has just opened to horrible reviews.

I wish the film and the Koreans in general success – not only would success inject the Korean entertainment industry with a dose of fresh adrenalin, Hollywood and America in general have always profited from outside influences.

But I was skeptical in advance, when I read a statement from the producer on the formula for movie success in America. He said: “The secret is to move beyond the melodrama that characterizes so many Korean films. They don’t understand that to be commercial in the U.S., you need great action and effects.”

Ah, but that's not the secret. In fact it's just the opposite: It is a gross underestimation of the American public. In fact, most outsiders underestimate the American public when it comes to Hollywood. Just like most European think westerns are just patriotic action movies and nothing more (the opposite is true, of course), they also believe that Americans are a bit stupid and only want violence and effects in their movies. That's partly because they want to believe that, it's also partly because they don't watch closely enough.

You can see that in Germany. Every once in a while, Germany produces an international English-language movie, most recently "The Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer", and usually it goes completely wrong. And they don’t know why. It's because they think American audiences are unsophisticated. Bernd Eichinger's big budget "The House of Spirits" in the nineties was chock full of Hollywood stars including Meryl Streep. I knew it would fail when in one scene, portraying a national election in South America, there was a banner strung across the street calling for the people to vote – in English. I cringed, as did most Americans. Why would a Spanish-speaking town put up a sign in English? Eichinger's thinking was most likely: "These Americans don’t speak any foreign languages, so they won’t like it if the sign is in Spanish."

In a made-for-German-audience TV-movie about the American "air bridge" that saved Berlin from a Soviet embargo in the 40's, an American officer played by Heino Ferch took out his gun in a hanger and shot into the roof to call for attention. For the Germans (the film was made for Germans, so it didn’t matter), this was a perennial American act: big, boisterous, violent, larger than life. As an American, I cringed. Sure, in a saloon in the Wild West that might have been possible, but in the US army, that has more rules that a Prussian officer has gold bangles? The officer would have been put under arrest in a second. We know that, as we know the rules for the very different Western and WWII genres, but the Germans think it's all the same.

Another German cliché about intellectually inferior American audiences is that they don’t like subtitles. Of course, "Star Wars" wouldn’t have been the hit it was, if it was all in subtitles, but once you produce a really good film, like "Run Lola Run" or "The Lives of Others," that hit a nerve, they work with subtitles. As did the recent subtitled hits of Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee. "Americans don’t go to movies with subtitles" is just one of many ways to underestimate the American audience.

As far as special effects go – Korean and Germans are so impressed by special effects that they can't see beyond them. In fact, it's never really about special effects, it's about the American fascination with the New. They want to see something they haven't seen before. Once they've seen it, it grows old, just as CGI effects are growing old now, and they want to see something even newer. The fascination with the new is what makes the American economy so dynamic and the American audience so hard to please.

What neither Koreans nor Germans understand (with some remarkable exceptions) is the Anglo-American narrative tradition. It's a tradition of plot-based story-telling that goes back to Chaucer and has remained unique all that time. Campbell in his "Hero of a Thousand Faces" claimed that all myth had the same narrative backbone, but it's the English who launched a way of telling stories that installed meaning and statement in a plot that appeal to the masses. This is the narrative tradition that Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle and Hollywood have in common. But it's about more than just action or suspense.

Of course, even American producers underestimate their own audience. For every hundred films they produce, only ten or so are any good, I would estimate. So the odds were against a single Korean movie entering the marketplace anyway. But still, the "dumb-Americans-will-go-see-anything-with-explosions-in-it" attitude betrays an overblown sense of self-importance that is in the end self-defeating. Anyone who really knows the market could have told the producer that films like "Reign of Fire" and "Dungeons and Dragons" proved that special effects are not enough. Still producers keep making movies that assume their audiences are idiots.

I wish the Koreans good luck. But I wish both them and the Germans and others that they will someday take their audiences seriously.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Farewell, Mirek Nahacz


I've been trying for a while now to find out for sure how Mirek Nahacz died, why, and whether his fourth book is being published. But the Polish media seem to have dropped the story after the initial reports in July that is was suicide and besides, I can't read Polish, so the end of his story will remain closed to me as if it had happened on another planet, just as I will never know his books, which were never translated into English.

In the last days of July, they found his body in his apartment in Warsaw. Though I waited a while to find out more details and asked a Polish-speaking friend to comb the papers for additional news, all I could out was that the police believe it was suicide. I will probably never know more. The language barrier is complete. I will never know what happened; I will never know what happened to his girlfriend or speak to her; I will never know if his fourth book was published or will be published or if it worked out to be the masterpiece he wanted it to be.

I liked Mirek and I was jealous of him, too. I liked him because, from talking to him in his broken English, it seemed that he had a similar taste in literature as I did. He liked the American post-modernists; we were both fans of John Barth; he liked the beat generation more than I did, especially William Burroughs. I asked him about his new novel, the one he was working on – his fourth – and I liked what he said.

It was to be a science fiction novel with a real page-turning plot and written in a prose style with high literary standards. I too had always dreamed of that: combining the genre adventures I loved like Tolkien and Conan the Barbarian and all those things with a literary quality that lifted them up to the level of Shakespeare (after all – in a way, isn't that what Shakespeare did?). Though I could not read his books and never will be able to, I felt I was speaking with a kindred spirit. And I felt that perhaps he would succeed. That gave me hope, for I knew that I would never succeed in that one goal.

And I was jealous of him. I was jealous of his gung-ho, all-or-nothing personality. He would drink early in the morning. At night I would hear techno music blaring in his room. He would write all day and all night and then he would go out and party hard. He was a full-our worker and a full-out partier. He was extreme and radical and never let up, made no excuses, made no compromises, took no prisoners. I always wanted to be like that and never could.

You can say: "Yeah, but look, now he's dead and you're alive," but that makes no difference. He was still the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Now he is gone, disappeared behind a language barrier that will forever hide him from me. Goodbye, Mirek. I wish I could have known more of you.