wax banks

second-best since Cantor


Absent parents leave children vacant.

Pandemic work.

I get stiff writing about my writing projects, it’s hard to be slangy or relaxed about it. So much of me is wrapped up in this shit, can’t just let go. Definitely can’t joke about it, alas.

The greater fool

In 2020 I wrote the latter 2/3 of a sequence of essays structured by the major arcana of the tarot — one for each of the 21+0+0 cards, followed by a bunch of unnumbered responses and sequelae. I’d started the sequence a decade ago, but shelved it when other things came up; in 2020 I was able to see the work in a new way and fell back into it, first with passionate intensity and then with a little more inner resistance.

After the essays sat in a drawer (on my blog) for a few months, I gathered them up, lightly touched up a bit, and wrote a handful of ‘reversed’ essays responding to/correcting/chastising the early (resentful) ones. Haven’t shared those. It turns out I was writing, all along, about midlife crisis — that painful transition from acquisitive youthful living to integrative, sustainable adulthood.

It’s a book’s worth of stuff, I’m happy to say, with a book’s shape. With some refinement, it deserves to be read. Printed a couple of copies to mark up, read one with some satisfaction and begin to red-pen the thing. There is the problem of the centrality of copyrighted illustrations to the work; let’s deal with that later.

Maybe The Greater Fool will see print this year. That’d be right; it belongs to plaguetime.

The ‘high weirdness’ book

The second chapter of my 33-1/3 Phish book was consciously structured, though not entirely consciously written, as a kind of ‘backdoor pilot’ for what’s turned out after eight years(!) of on-and-off work/avoidance to be a long manuscript about antirational thought and practice. In 2020 I couldn’t bring myself to work on it with any commitment — and wrote the tarot stuff instead. Last summer, with the fog of Covid-19 seeming to lift, I started riding to Central Square in the mornings to write at an outdoor table at 1369, my favourite coffee shop in town. This project began to bubble up to the surface again, and I pushed through some material that’d been frustrating me.

Now I’m able to imagine finishing it.

Not to say it’ll happen soon. I suspect the soonest this manuscript will become a book is 2023, though I’ll have to scramble to make it. Also it needs a title. (I have an absolutely perfect title for the chapter on Nomic, and am afraid to share it before its time.)

A big portion of the planned work is a ‘syllabus’ of texts, weird and not, but weirdly read — shorter critical pieces in a shared key. I’ve written a lot of words here but have covered only a small fraction of the intended topics. The limiting factor here is actually reading time: I skim and pick and synthesize very quickly but now only get through about 50 books a year cover-to-cover — a humiliating loss, as reading constantly and quickly was a big part of my identity when I was younger. To increase that number I’ll have to eliminate ‘recreational Internet’ entirely; imagine having run marathons in college, then spending ten years smoking two packs a day, and you’ll get a sense of the nature and severity of the problem.

This work is the closest I’ve come to a Statement of Purpose, personal and vocational. A good sign: the other day it occurred to me to print up a handful of pocketbook editions of some completed portions of the work, to share with friends and see if it works. A threshold has been evidently been crossed.

I Ching

A small number of notebook pages I’ve given over to conversations with the I Ching oracle. (‘Oracle’: in the sense of ‘the oracular power of dice.’) This is an intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging activity and I heartily recommend it, though it’s fallen off for me these last few months. Part of my practice here was meditating on the call/response afterward, which led in just one instance to an astounding, heartbreaking private vision that’s continued to shape my ongoing encounter with self/world throughout the year. I’ve not regretted even a moment of working with the book, which is unusually high praise for someone with such a hard time maintaining focused unself-conscious attention.

These are precious pages to me though few.

Dungeons, delving

In winter/spring 2021 I ran a D&D campaign for my son and his friends, using Moldvay’s Basic rules from 1981ish. It was wonderful, and I filled many a notebook page with plans and schemes and notes and after-action reports. It’d be nice to kick it off again this spring or summer, in person. I count this as ‘work’ because (1) it involved shitloads of writing over a long stretch of time (2) running the game itself was terrifying, high-stress activity (because it was my son and his friends, and it felt like a lot was at stake). If you don’t know, now you know.

Time to go for a walk.

On climax (excerpt).

Note: This is excerpted from a work in progress. –wa.

To loosely borrow terms from molecular biology: the climax is the egophilic end of the story, its region of attraction and attachment to the sensemaking, sense-craving world of selves. But the body of the story is egophobic, deranging and repelling the unitary ego-self, asserting an alternate order in which we the audience become disordered, dissolve. ‘Lost in the story.’ We bind to the story at its premise (‘on entry’) and come undone, and are put back together when we leave at the end. Maybe that’s what endings are for. They feel great — like letting go of something you’ve clung tightly to, and feeling blood rush back into your hands.

Anticlimax leaves you with an otherworldly feeling, which — in the terms, not solely allegorical or metaphorical, of the present work — marks the presence of an actual other world. Storyworld is real, we can live whole lives there. Anticlimax and ambivalence and insinuation leave open connections between day and night, dream and waking. Sometimes you want that. Sometimes you need it.

Taxonomizing, categorizing, hierarchizing, contrast-heightening judgment marks and enforces that grey blurry border between this world and others. It pushes story-stuff back into its cage. The poet is ‘unacknowledged legislator’; the critic is the hanging judge impressing the law upon once-free subjects. Making the lawmaker’s aspiration into his fiefdom.

To look into the closed system of meaning which is the poetic text, the living community, the human life, and pronounce judgment from without — to demand that it be made legible, communicable, meaningful, climactic — is to cut away that aspect of it which most resembles your own life, all life. This is fear. It is to choose order over disorder and so welcome destruction. It is to refuse to see beauty in the strange; it is to look at the nonsensical world, the impossible universe, to look into infinity, and demand that it do the only thing it can’t, to make sense. To you. You of all people, you of all nations. This is fear and fuck that.

Criticism is possible — e.g. this book exists — but you have to go inside to know. You have to know in vivo. What can you say about music you can’t hear?

One small regret.

Once, at the really groovy ‘launch party’ (is that what they call it?) for the 33-1/3 Phish book, I was in mid-ummm-rant about Phish’s media reputation and I referred to ‘well compensated asshole {criticname}.’ I was drunk and I was improvising, and wish I hadn’t said it; moreso I wish I hadn’t been quoted in the paper the next day.

{criticname} hasn’t gotten rich off his writing and should have.

I wouldn’t know whether he’s always an asshole, I doubt it, but he’s definitely sometimes one, and — here’s the bad part — not always on purpose.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Sleep apnea is pernicious and, I suspect, much more widespread than is popularly understood. The most common symptom seems to be sleeping longer while not feeling refreshed — you don’t generally know you’re dealing with it until someone else points out that, at times during the night, you stop breathing altogether for several seconds.

It’s less creepy than it sounds, a little, but much worse for you.

Apnea is associated with a huge range of problems including heart arrhythmia. I don’t know whether this is directly due to brief periods of oxygen deprivation or indirectly due to the lack of real sleep.

What happens is: apnea breaks up your sleep. No REM sleep, no deep sleep, no lasting dreams. In other words, no unconscious processing of the day’s small traumas, and no cleansing rest. This is the hell of it. There’s no refuge from it, no way to sleep it off.

There are two varieties of apnea: ‘obstructive’ (something in the way of your breathing) and ‘central nervous’ (your body forgets to breathe). Obstructive apnea is easily enough dealt with: mouthpieces, masks, weight loss. A healthy diet, good hygiene, etc. It sucks, it can kill you in the long run, but it’s a physical problem with physical solutions. Nervous apnea is this other thing. In my experience — including this last week — nervous apnea goes hand in hand with anxiety. I mean, it’s there in the word ‘nervous,’ isn’t it. My assumption is that they form a vicious cycle. This week I had a major source of anxiety lingering in my mind, and found myself sleeping much longer hours: nearly nine hours one night, two+ hours more than my normal. But I felt more tired each day. Which then adds further stress, which…

And my CPAP machine, which pushes air down my throat so apnea doesn’t kill me, tells me this week I experienced an average of three apnea incidents per hour. That’s three times my typical CPAP-treated rate — though it’s just 1/10 of the untreated rate, i.e. without the CPAP I just don’t sleep.

Over the last few years I’ve learned a great deal about the relationship between my breathing, my sleep, and my mental and physical health. Above perhaps 1.5 apneas per hour, I don’t dream — at least I don’t remember dreaming. Above 2.0, I experience bouts of nearly dizzying fatigue in a couple of days.

Below a single apnea per hour during sleep, I have vivid dreams which I remember in the morning.

And my concentration, imagination, mental dexterity, and energy are restored to me.

Yesterday my main proximate source of anxiety was dealt with; last night I was below 1.0 for the first time in a week; this morning I awoke eager to write for the first time in a week.

The correlation between low apnea and good living is, for me, 1:1 and immediate. I breathe right at night, I’m a human being the very next day. (Several straight nights of bad sleep take a couple of days to get right.)

Simple physical things that contribute to bad apnea outcomes for me:

  • Not brushing my teeth before bed
  • Not shaving
  • Not showering at night
  • Sunburn(!)
  • Some other illness going on
  • Forgetting to wash the mask
  • Staying up looking at screens

I was surprised to figure out last one, but it’s true and should be obvious — I see an uptick in apnea when I get late-night screen time. Again: nervous, it’s in the name.

My dad frequently points out that he’s been diagnosed with a ‘small gullet,’ which I always found silly when I was younger. Then my doctor said one reason for my own obstructive apnea is that I — well, you take a goddamn guess. And dad reminded me that my grandfather was built the same way. Bad and broken dreams are heritable in a literal, physical sense I guess.

But I have a machine that helps me breathe when I forget or just can’t, and when I use it properly I’m restored to the world and feel something I identify as ‘normal.’ Funny old world.

Irreal Life Top Ten, into 2022.

Most new things are terrible because they’re things, cf. all of ‘social’ media; I tend to stick to the older stuff.

Here are ten things I read or saw or heard or played this year.

  1. Robert Aickman, COMPULSORY GAMES. Aickman was the writer that Kelly Link is slightly too melodramatic to be, hard as she tries (a debt she’s been admirably candid about) — master of a slowly insinuating, deftly handled eerie domestic horror. These stories, ably selected and introduced by the independent scholar Victoria Nelson for NYRB, are even stranger now than when they were written; Aickman’s world is gone, heightening the sense of ghostly presence which his unsettling and subtly comic prose creates. His characters walk amidst invisible ruins and find themselves drawn into old invisible story, bound up in worlds at right angles to their own. Aickman’s singular stories might reasonably be called ‘urban fantasy’ but they parallel his other life as conservationist — a formless ambivalence creeps in its own time at the edges of his characters’ regimented modern lives, something stranger than civilization. The ‘supernatural’ seems to live in the earth itself, on old roads and new, in buildings and on trains. I was blessed this year to discover Aickman’s disturbing tales and must come back. Otherwise I suspect they’ll come for me.
  2. The Matrix: Resurrections. The first third of this deeply personal mess of a movie is a proud and mournful reflection on the legacy of The Matrix by one of its cocreators, which is necessarily a regretful look at points missed and possibilities foreclosed. Its final movement is an attempt by the resurrected Neo to rescue the resurrected Trinity from a perfectly mundane life in San Francisco — a successful bid to resist (momentarily) the reduction of the Wachowskis’ vision of imaginative freedom to mere nostalgic style or ‘cool’ — and this is the part that feels both most precisely autobiographical and, frankly, most sentimental and jokey. The middle is a lot of Matrix-y infodumping and rehashing (with Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris killing it) and I found it hammy and irritating. Distilling The Matrix to a romantic quest-story about twinned male/female avatars reunited through magical (self-)love is…well, it’s myopic, which is to say Lana Wachowski is welcome to bring forward that facet of the extraordinarily multifaceted original, but The Matrix and its two preposterously ambitious sequels are poorly served by this revisit. I was glad to watch it, and desperately wish cocreator Lily had gotten involved too — together the Wachowskis were one of the all-time great cinematic pairings, which is maybe the hidden inner-story beneath Neo and Trinity, come to think of it. (And by the way: seeing Carrie-Ann Moss and Keanu Reeves reunited for this film makes every low-hanging joke and moment of kitsch absolutely worth it. They are simply beautiful together.)
  3. Hex, DIGITAL LOVE. The most 1993 album imaginable, just lovely minimalist ambient textures played on synths that could not possibly sound more dated. The intense ‘X-Files love scene’ vibe of the album goes right to my pleasure centers, its proto-cyberculture cheese the ideal expression of a certain zonked-out placeless nighttime soundscape. Reading Viriconium in a Disney hotel while listening to the first Software album at dawn was one of the peak aesthetic experiences of my dumb life, and this album somehow evokes that combination: it sounds like a computer consoling itself after a breakup. There’s even a track of just chanting, and it’s fine. It’s all perfectly, digitally, lovely just fine.
  4. The Dirk Gently books. Douglas Adams wrote three of the best comic novels of the 20th century, but he was a clumsy and lead-footed novelist and his other novels are all tedious and bad — these two, for instance. No matter.
  5. D.W. Pasulka, AMERICAN COSMIC. This bad book contains one chapter of real substance and the rest is credulous, innumerate, monomaniacal horseshit. What made it interesting, for pages at a time, was my sense of the book as a field recording of Pasulka either getting ‘redpilled’ by ufologist wankers or losing her mind in the most ordinary way — which explanation you choose depends on your levels of charity and credulity. I suspect she went looking for religious conversion, fell into a cult of personality, had a breakdown (check her Twitter feed), and will end up writing overwrought crank books that trade on her scholarly credentials, like her mentor Jeffrey Kripal.
  6. Subnautica, or as I refer to it around the house, ‘Underwater Anxiety Videogame.’ This Minecraft-in-the-ocean game combines mundane fetch-quests with vertiginous terror; if you have even a sliver of thalassophobia you’ll find this deep-sea diving game (which I play on Switch) truly, lastingly unnerving. It sends my blood pressure through the roof. It is lovely to behold, maddening to play, and — when you find just the right bit of salvage or weird fauna on the sea floor and are able to craft just the right item to advance — as purely, simply satisfying as any game I’ve played in years.
  7. Zelda: Breath of the Wild. An excellent candidate for ‘best videogame ever made,’ and better than ever during this idiot pandemic. It’s said that when the design team presented an early version to the creator of Zelda, he spent two hours doing nothing but walking around and climbing trees, enjoying the view and the childlike feeling of freedom. That’s how I play it: walking the vast and varied (psycho)geography of Hyrule, climbing rocks, picking apples, paragliding off mountains, occasionally hearing brief snatches of music like recovered memories. This was my escape in early 2020, and coming back to it this autumn was like slipping back into a familiar dream. On its own terms, as good as Nethack or Go — sublime.
  8. Tom Moldvay’s D&D BASIC SET. This isn’t the version of Dungeons & Dragons that absolutely everyone had; that was Frank Mentzer’s ‘BECMI’ series (Basic/Expert/Companion/etc.), along with Gygax’s ridiculous Advanced hardcovers. And it isn’t the final form of the classic game; that’s Aaron Allston’s 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which collects the entire BECMI line (with variant ‘Immortals’ rules) in a notoriously unreadable hardcover and was for many years the most sought-after single D&D item. It’s neither the newest nor the oldest D&D version, neither its most idiosyncratic nor its plainest presentation. No, this is just the best one-book introduction to D&D and its most elegant little ruleset: quick, easy, improv-friendly, with just enough rules-weight to handle archetypal ‘fantasy’ adventure play but no more. The trend in ‘old school’ gaming is toward ultralite rules systems, but Moldvay’s 64-page distillation of the original D&D set feels good in the hand; there’s a reason millions of people fell in love with it. The current batch of ‘RPGs for kids’ fail to improve meaningfully on D&D run by a cool, sane, caring Dungeon Master — for such a group, this is absolutely the system I’d recommend. An experienced DM should get the canonical Old-School Essentials ‘retro-clone,’ which perfects the organization of the system at the cost of some of its innocent flavour.
  9. Miles Davis live, 1973. Courtesy of the essential The Heat Warps blog, Miles Davis fans are getting to revisit, in order, every known live recording from his early electric period — 1969-1975, spanning the era between the Bitches Brew live airings and the pulverizing, polarizing Agharta/Pangaea band. 1973 was a period of deep exploration for Miles driven by his mad guitar genius Pete Cosey, who was taking Hendrix’s electric experimentation to the next plane; by the end of the year the band had gone well beyond Miles’s arrogant ‘best rock band ever’ boasting into a realm of nightly ritual insanity, hard-rock companions to the free-roaming psychedelic fusion of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Mwandishi’ band. I’m listening right now to the Tokyo show from 19 June 1973, and the screaming undanceable tempos and formless solo wailing mark this as antagonistic experimentation rather than what was already getting called ‘fusion’-genre stuff; the initial emphasis is on aggressive attack rather than funk interlock, somatic but — until the spacious ‘Ife’ gets nasty on the back half — not quite erotic. To what extent Miles’s alienatingly single-minded ‘jazz-rock’ quest should be understood as political is a question for someone who knows the period, and Miles’s biography, better than I do; all I know is, the man who played some of the most nakedly, uncynically romantic music of the 50s and 60s played some of the most angrily in-your-face ‘jazz’ of the 70s, for audiences that sometimes had no idea how to process what they were hearing. Listening to the live shows reveals Miles as committed to a degree beyond curiosity or perversity; something complex and uncomfortable happens on these tapes. It’s some of the best shit I’ve ever heard.
  10. EU Machine Directive. The other day I told my brother I was reading EU regulatory documents for electronic devices the other day, and complaining about their bureaucratic insanity. His response: ‘Of course, why do you think Brexit happened?’ He’s wrong, but he’s not wrong. Such is the world in 2021, I mean 2022.

Airborne toxic nonevent.

Wrote this December 11, never figured out where to put it. So I’m putting it here, two weeks later.

One of the governing paradoxes of the Covid-19 era is that the arrival of the virus is one of the biggest, most consequential events of the last half-century — temporarily hobbling the world economy, completely altering the culture of ‘knowledge work’ throughout the western world, crippling entire municipalities, driving previously sane leaders to paranoid imbecility — yet most Americans are forced to experience plaguetime as an absence of action, a numbing estrangement from the essential ordinary: a seeming nonevent. Covid-19 has brought one anticlimax after another.

Nearly a million Americans have died, with millions more dead worldwide (many uncounted). Yes, the dead have mostly been old or infirm — one hates to say ‘expendable,’ though you should understand that the Masters absolutely do talk that way. Yet where’s the event? Where’s the History we’re living through? The pandemic has manifested first as a rush of scary news stories, hysterical overreaction, and thereafter for nearly all people an endlessly protracted waiting for the other shoe to drop. Covid-19 is everywhere, most humans will end up contracting some variant of it, but as the second winter of plaguetime arrives in Cambridge what do we see? Masks, empty storefronts bought up by speculators. Shortened hours, canceled events. Immensely long lines for testing and vaccines, then behaviour largely unchanged except for its perceptible slump, its hopelessness. Children somehow adapting to a fatally broken school system’s pointless lessons taught in emotionally crippling circumstances. Reports of a Scary Omicron Variant and evidence that a slightly worse, lonelier life goes on.

Same shit jobs, new opportunistic restrictions. Same feckless local leaders, same interest groups, new justifications for old corruption.


Late capitalism has long been understood by people with expensive humanities degrees as the era of ‘permanent crisis’ — the neverending ‘Police Action,’ the manufactured consensus that a Strong Response Is Called For, the ever-looming Threat of Economic Something-or-Other which the state must take deadly unilateral action to Avert — but under the insectile sign of Covid-19 it’s felt like the Powers That Be aren’t even really trying anymore. This actually deadly pandemic immediately became flimsy pretense for every preplanned1 initiative to strip human beings of autonomy and dignity; the world has gotten much worse in familiar stupid ways.

I don’t even mean vaccines; as everyone numerate knows, the vaccines have worked shockingly well with almost no cost, and you’re a myopic fucking fool for complaining about them while taking your lifesaving MMR and Tdap and influenza and HPV and chickenpox shots entirely for granted.

Rather: work has lost its dignity, politics its veneer of comity; civic life has been wrested from the hands of citizens and given wholesale to international capital (effectively coterminous with government). Even the parking meters have been privatized. Trust in government has completely disappeared, as has even the aspiration to objective journalism, making it that much easier for billionaires and Capital consortia to buy up governments and journalists. HR departments2 have somehow replaced labour unions as Protectors in the eyes of infantile young employees who hate their jobs anyway. Cities have been sold wholesale to the same foreign kleptocrats whom the pious news media make a show of wanting out of ‘our’ elections. If you’ve read any halfway-sane criticism at all in the past 50 years, the only surprising thing is the speed with which the destruction of the modern world has been accomplished, not by Covid-19 but by the same vampires who’ve been sucking society’s blood all along.

Yet there’s been no event, no marker, no deadline. Throughout 2020 there was a sense, profitably encouraged by the ‘news’ media, that the coming election heralded some kind of Big Change, that things would start to improve thereafter. And of course they have, in ways directly pertaining to the pandemic itself: federal agencies are getting restocked with competent workers, international relations are being renormalized (to the extent possible during this extraordinary historical Asterisk) after the departure of the unprecedentedly incompetent Trump administration. But at a fundamental level, the 2020 election didn’t change much of anything, because the underlying dynamics that led to Trump’s catastrophic election haven’t changed — have in fact deepened and intensified. Workers are more alienated and downtrodden than they were five years ago, civic life is more tightly shut against ordinary people’s participation, real wages keep declining, labour power keeps shrinking, ‘social’ media networks are even more powerful and even more dangerous and demented. Journalists are worse at their jobs, houses are flimsier, movies and books are dumber, Epstein didn’t kill himself, nothing has been rethought or rebuilt at a structural level. American politics is somehow even more poisonous and dimwitted than it was when Trump ran, and as the Capitol insurrection has been revealed as an inside job, the Republican Party and its army of judicial saboteurs (starting with a stolen, corrupt, nakedly partisan Supreme Court) have taken every opportunity to accelerate the collapse of the national body — while the Democrats have happily folded in on themselves like a used napkin, entirely beholden to the whims of vicious imbeciles like Joe Manchin and pitifully grateful not to have to actually accomplish anything at all.

Which is to say: Capital has gone on doing what it’s always done, our complementary political parties have continued to be themselves, demographic shifts decades in the making have kept destabilizing existing societies in predictable ways. And the end of modern human life due to anthropogenic climate transformation has carried the fuck on killing us.

Out the window, the same evidence of thinning, hollowing out, slow exsanguination, casual betrayal, abandonment, surrender to entropy. The same atomization and rending of the social fabric, now with more explicit identitarianism but otherwise unchanged over decades. Here in the coffeeshop, only the masks and the sand in the hourglass meaningfully differentiate this world from that of five or ten years ago. The working class is still being ground to a paste; the middle class is still being medicated out of consciousness and guilted into compliance; the idiot rich still feast on everyone else. The planet is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by apes driving cars. Cambridge is still a better place to live than most other cities in the USA, but we’d rather be good guys than heroes — which is why the bad guys won ages ago.

  1. This is important, please tattoo this on the insides of your eyelids. Western capital-governments’ sickening opportunism in the face of Covid-19 DOES NOT MEAN that Covid-19 itself is some kind of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘hoax’ or even just ‘overblown.’ Millions of humans — of every age, in every nation it’s touched — are dead before their time because of this virus and the catastrophically bungled response to it, but the vaccines have worked; they’ve been shockingly safe and will save millions more down the line as the science behind them proves useful in other domains. Cranks claiming that vaccines are part of a ‘depopulation’ scheme can be disregarded because their silly claims have already been debunked; cranks claiming that Covid-19 ‘is just a flu’ should similarly be disregarded for the same reason. The fatal disruption of the USA medical system in 2020 really did happen, the Omicron variant really will similarly tax world hospital systems during the coming ‘third wave,’ and anti-vaccine hysteria should be treated with appropriate contempt. But none of this exculpates the cynics, sadists, and ordinary thieves who’ve used the pandemic as cover for their neverending predation. This essay is about our subjective experience of the pandemic, not epidemiology. 
  2. Every adult who is not thuddingly stupid understands that ‘Human Resources’ departments exist to protect the Money from the Workers; it’s interesting, by which we mean fucking nauseating, that so many 20/30somethings see ‘having my identity category be looked upon sympathetically by HR’ as the highest honour that can be accorded an employee rather than, I dunno, 401k matching or a sane workweek or just not having their real lives in the outside world held in obvious unrestrained contempt by the bosses. 

Watch out for the neighbours’ dog as you round the corner.

I like to remember, sometimes, that the UI idiom for ‘Send’ in Apple programs — like Mail.app — is Cmd+Shift+D, for ‘Deliver.’ A lovely-to-me notion. Like asking a child on the street, Could you run and put this in the mailbox for me, there’s a good lad. A penny for your trouble.

GNU Terry Pratchett.

I started reading The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents last night — Terry Pratchett’s ‘first YA novel,’ though I wouldn’t hesitate to hand any other Discworld book to a bright tween. (Accounting for serial characterization, of course — I wouldn’t give Carpe Jugulum to someone who didn’t know Granny.)

Thinking this morning about Sir Terry, his work, how Discworld has existed right next door to my own world for so long. I remember buying Reaper Man at Media Play in Buffalo, when it was a new paperback — that must have been 1992. I’d read The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic after reading Pratchett’s contribution to After the King, an anthology to honour JRR Tolkien. I’d heard Pratchett was the ‘Douglas Adams of fantasy,’ a claim I now have complicated feelings about. And there we were, and Reaper Man was on the shelf, starring my favourite thing about the Disc, Death himself.

It’s still my favourite Pratchett novel. Maurice is the 28th Discworld volume, and there are better novels in that series (Feet of Clay flickers in my mind often), but when a book makes its way into your heart like Reaper Man did for me, it can’t simply be replaced on ‘literary merit.’ Nothing’s ever about that. Pratchett helped me understand how to be a person — how and when to be funny, how and when to be angry and at whom (‘I never wore a crown‘), how to make the most of things, to stand fast for little things, to age, to belong. Death comes to Miss Flitworth’s village a stranger but is accepted, albeit slowly, as one of their own. Bill Door. It’s as easy as choosing a name and growing into it.

Might be my very favourite book, if I’m being honest — though I continue, after all these years, to find its wizard/shopping-mall bits annoying. Funny, sure, and I liked them more on my last reread than I had in years, but I spend every page of those portions wishing I were with Death and the three-eighths Gripley and Renata and her life-timer. Every page.

(Passing thought. Most attempts at comedy are successful, I suspect; most jokes are told to one or two people. In larger groups the record is more mixed.)

I don’t normally assume that Pratchett is alive, but all the same I remember every once in a while that he’s dead, and am reminded how stupid that is. All the same his name is here alive, a trace of him flickering between the towers.

I haven’t written much on this site in 2021; I’m out of the habit and what writing I’ve been doing is for this infernal manuscript, which seems finally to be struggling to be born. Anyway certain memories kicked loose yesterday and I find myself missing certain old times — Arguing in the Comments Section with Friends and Acquaintances, for one. How else I learned to be myself.

On rereading Harry Potter, volume 4 (the one with the tournament).

Think of the Harry Potter series as having two axes of growth: social/psychological and plotwise/’worldbuilding’ dimensions. The third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, is the inflection point for the series’s psychological and emotional growth. Its climactic scene in the Shrieking Shack, which draws Ron’s hapless comic-relief rat Scabbers into a tale of remembered trauma spanning decades and grounds Snape in the social world of the story’s erstwhile unblemished Good Guys, is the precise point at which the story stops being good times with the boy wizard and his friends and darkens into a generational story — a triumphant achievement for Rowling and her storyworld.

This fourth volume is the inflection point for Rowling’s overall ‘mytharc,’ the ‘metaplot,’ the multivolume series-story — here she transitions from tightly conceived books for kids to doorstopper volumes which have a harder time hitting their ostensible age targets, and her victory is more equivocal.

For one thing, it’s too fucking long.

There’s an enormous amount of faffing-about between events of the Triwizard Tournament, to the point where the quest for the Cup recedes uncomfortably into the background — but there isn’t really any other material to take its place. Harry hates his classes as usual, but it doesn’t matter because he’s inexplicably excused from final exams…and Ron and Hermione are somehow reduced in status by being mere students while Harry does hero-in-training stuff. Worse, the plot of the book is pure misdirection: Harry’s courage and moral uprightness are real, but he’s being helped through the tournament by the Bad Guys in order to bring Voldemort back, which is the book’s actual purpose. Here Rowling’s juggling act falters a bit — Voldemort is a threat but not a focus, the Tournament is central to the plot but irrelevant to the story, the petty jealousies (not solely romantic) and social tangles feel like distractions. And it’s too fucking long. I tore through the first three books and had the devil’s own time finishing this one, because it’s neither the high-spirited romp of the early books nor a 100% ‘mytharc’ serial like the latter books. Order of the Phoenix (volume 5) will be all about the looming threat of Voldemort, Half-Blood Prince will set up the climactic magical war, but the Triwizard Tourney isn’t as significant as all that; in the end it doesn’t matter at all, in fact.

Presumably there’s some symbol-play going on — after all, Goblet kicks off with the Quidditch World Cup, another bit of wiz-worldbuilding that was obviously a kick to write but raises more fridge-logic questions than it answers (where and how do all these goddamn wizards live, anyway?). The ultimate irrelevance of the Tournament is a neat countermelody to the ruin of the Quidditch tourney by Voldemort’s minions, another irruption of the Grownup World into the lives of the kids. Rowling can write! But it does (again) raise the question of how, exactly, wizard-children are supposed to exist — and reinforces the argument that while Rowling’s zest for worldbuilding and social portraiture is equaled by her love of single-volume mystery plotting, they’re somewhat let down by the seat-of-the-trousers looseness of her serial plotting. The Sorting Hat, the Ministry of Magic, the Death Eaters… It’s all lovely but it doesn’t really work, never quite coheres into a believable magical England. You can buy Hogwarts but not its relation to the Wizarding World; I’m there for the Quidditch World Cup but can’t imagine tens of thousands of superpowered spectators feeling threatened by the presence of a couple dozen rioters. And why is Voldemort’s return a merely local matter, for British magekind? Do the Beauxbatons gals even know who the hell he is? Why not?

Rowling faces the same problems of scale-mismatch that coloured the earlier books…but where the first three books were about a school, its students, and their alumni parents, so you could easily put plotstuff aside and just float blissfully through Hogwarts and the little lives of these adorable little kids, Goblet of Fire is suddenly about an existential threat to a magical community that somehow exists all over Our Actual Existing Planet. And in those terms, it just doesn’t work.

I can only assume that the Harry books rely, in a sense, on British cultural memory of The War for some of their meaning and borrowed/assumed coherence. The felt sense of keeping calm and carrying on as apocalypse draws near…that’s not a familiar American dynamic; our home front has never been threatened. I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that Rowling is evoking something dear to the British imagination but distant from mine. The specific kind of social pathogen that Voldemort and the Death Eaters represent remains, for me, perilously abstract. And as a consequence, Goblet of Fire is left standing on its own, psychologically, without certain points of reference that perhaps it tacitly relies on.

That isn’t to say I dislike the book — for long stretches I loved it, as I love the story overall. Rowling’s story is so dear to me. Perhaps half of Goblet‘s pagecount is top-shelf Hogwarts stuff. But that pagecount approaches 800 pages, for God’s sake. Too fucking long. It feels repetitive, stitched-together, drawn out. And Rowling’s growing ambition outstrips, I must sadly admit, her planning and (‘meta’)plotting. The emotional arc of the stories, for the three beloved protagonists, is perfectly clear and beautiful. The plot-machinery is rickety and in places ridiculous. I was 20ish when I first read this novel and adored every single word of it; I’m 42 now, I’ve written books of my own, and Goblet of Fire is a 400-page novel that hangs around for 300+ pages extra.

Weirdly, I’m quite looking forward to Order of the Phoenix — inspired by the film, which was surprisingly engaging, I want to see Rowling fully integrate the sometimes disjoint worlds of the wiz-kids and the grownups whose unfinished business they’ll risk (and give) their lives to wrap up.