wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: May, 2016

Donald Hall, WITHOUT.

Poems about the yearlong death and yearlong afterlife of his wife, fellow poet Jane Kenyon. I was unfamiliar with Hall’s style — turns out he’s of the ‘slightly mannered prose with seemingly arbitrary linebreaks’ school, which I resent and despise — so the first few poems irritated me. Two literary types alone in the woods with their dog and their separate rooms for writing poems in, and yes Hall uses the changing length of Kenyon’s hair to track the passage of years (shaven at the end of course), and if it weren’t for the linebreaks would these observations be worth anything, etc. The opening pages were tough going.

And then some line pierces you, and Hall’s gentle sense of humour and easygoing sexual candor show through, and the settings (hospital antisepsis; rural Eden) come vividly alive through a slow accumulation of detail, and the fucking linebreaks begin to seem a hair not arbitrary after all, not even a bit; and I’ve read the second half of the book (poetic letters to Kenyon written in the year of his life after her death) through tears of gratitude. The pain of the first half is horrific, gross: vomiting and chemicals and bodies failing. But they’re only bodies, awful as that sounds when I write it. The tale afterworld is something else, gentler and more awful. Hall wishes for his own death but his wish is refused, so he goes on as if he were fully alive and not now half of a human whole. He laughs with friends. He visits her grave. The midpoint of the book, ‘Without’ (first drafted just after her diagnosis, as it happens), is mannered hysteria, fury, helpless, all lowercase. It was familiar to me and difficult to bear. The rest are about being a man in a worse world. I have no opinion about ‘the verse,’ now. Hall’s book gutted me.



The funny thing about Douglas Adams is that he got less funny as he went along. The Guide was his first great solo work; it contains several of the great comic setpieces in (I am reliably informed) all of SF. Then came Restaurant, which is even funnier — his best, I think — but maybe lacks the delirium of the first radio series/novel. And then there was Life, the Universe, and Everything, which was his first Proper Novel, and which is nearly as funny as the first two but suffused with a deeper melancholy. It ends with people walking off, dejected.

The Dirk Gently books are kinda funny, but (if I remember rightly) the best joke is the protagonist’s name — hell, Adams recycled a line from the Guide for the title of the second, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I remember the first Dirk book as a Good Novel, and certain images from the story are still with me twenty-five years later, but I’ve never felt even the slightest inclination to revisit it. Last Chance to See is funny but mostly sad and angry and awestruck; those are the major elements of the Guide books but the proportions had gotten all switched around by then. So Long… is intermittently funny, but laden with Significance and Emotion and Adams’s shifting loyalties to his characters. (It’s worth noting that Zaphod Beeblebrox doesn’t turn up in the last two HHGG novels, but the catastrophically unfunny Fenchurch takes up page after page of So Long…)

Mostly Harmless is funny perhaps one percent of the time. The rest of the time it’s a horribly bleak shaggy dog joke disguised as two horribly bleak novellas glued together: the saga of Trillian on one of infinite alternate Earths, wondering what life would’ve been like had she left that party with Zaphod, and the story of Ford and Arthur having one last adventure in spacetime. Arthur’s daughter Random turns up; she’s barely a character. A surprisingly large, theoretically exciting number of callbacks to earlier novels in the series occur, but they add up to nothing. The ending is abrupt, which is no big deal, and dumb, which is a very big deal indeed — Stavro’s bar is no way to pay off the memorably creepy/funny/sad Agrajag scene from earlier in the series.

In the end, every possible Earth is destroyed for no reason, and the story falls apart and blows away in the endless void of space.

Adams apparently regretted ending the series this way, blaming its bleakness on a bout of depression. I sympathize.

If the book were moving, I wouldn’t resent its clumsiness and lack of anything resembling comedy (modulo some brief bits of Ford/Arthur banter); if it were funny, I wouldn’t mind that it’s as emotionally involving as a wet dishrag. Douglas Adams was and is one of my heroes; seeing him speak at MIT was one of the greatest nights of my life. I understand that Adams wanted to write Proper Novels instead of the pieced-together picaresques which made his name, and I think he possessed an extraordinary talent — his best work is philosophical comedy of the highest order — but Mostly Harmless is a grave disappointment. Pardon me for saying this, but: I wish he hadn’t written it.

Free ideas.

Take these and run with them!

  • Scientists and engineers use complex language in precise ways, and your sloppy repurposing of that language damages understanding, so don’t do that.
  • Your tastes aren’t interesting in themselves, so unless you have something beautiful to say about the world using your tastes (you probably don’t), stop making a big deal about them.
  • Stop giving advice on your blog.
  • Don’t describe yourself as talented. Even if it’s true, by the time you realize you’re talented, you’re too far along to still be talking about your talent.
  • Alcohol is poison, alcohol consumption is an unsustainable pleasure, and you don’t need it to have a good time. Build as much of your social life now around being drug-free as you’re able; later on you’ll have no choice.
  • Root for your local sports team, not whatever team is hot right now. Jumping on the winners’ bandwagon is like skipping to the last page of a story.
  • Judge people’s choices, not their circumstances.
  • Listen to strangers, especially older ones.
  • Go to the theater. Go to the library.
  • Don’t describe kids as ‘stupid’; unlike you, they haven’t yet had a chance to choose to be mean and ignorant.
  • Don’t marry your high-school sweetheart without seeing other people first. But don’t lose touch either.
  • Choose a rugged, ugly glasses case over a fashionable, flimsy one.
  • If you buy sweets, you’ll eat sweets. Fill your house with healthy snacks.
  • Keep a journal — even if it’s nothing more complicated than ‘Grocery shopping w/Bill; 2hrs Game of Thrones,’ you’ll learn something about how you live your life. Don’t resist revelation.
  • Bike riding is a skill. Get a decent bike, take good care of it, learn to ride it skillfully.
  • Find an enjoyable core strength workout and stick with it.
  • Watch Deadwood.
  • Read Aegypt.
  • Buy my books.

Here’s how amazingly groovy I am, Reader(s): I didn’t include a hyperlink in that last line, did you notice? On account of I wanted this to be classy like.

A ten-minute Obama lecture on cynicism and polarization? Sure, why not.

I’m going to miss this man when he leaves office. His successor will be…ugly.

Manic Mumday.

My wife got over her weird GI bug just in time for me to badly injure my back, plus I think I have warts on my thumbs and right foot. Happy Mother’s Day!

(p.s. Warts are (1) contagious and (2) painful, so that’s just awesome. But they’re also easily treatable and jes’ plain viral, i.e. not signs of underlying horror. So that’s OK.)

Captain America: Civil War.

I just saw it. I enjoyed it. Today’s Marvel movies owe a lot to TV; I can’t believe they exist.

Counting generously, there are twenty funny lines in the whole of Captain America: Civil War — a comic book movie of well over two hours. Most of them go to Spider-Man.

Against that embarrassing total we have one of the better scenes of comic-book mayhem ever put to film — ‘The Airport Sequence,’ as the fanboys have been referring to it for weeks — and the closing fistfight, which seems to bring the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to a climax.

The music is terrible. The purely visual aspects of the film, overseen by the Brothers Russo, are pedestrian; I’m reminded that Joss Whedon’s camera eye is stronger than he’s generally given credit for. There’s little wit in the dialogue and even less in the visuals.

At this point, though, the Marvel ensemble is these films’ main special effect, and the Russos handle it well. Too many critics talk about modern film as if the sole job of the director was to tell the cameraman when to swoop and when to sit, but the Russos know from TV how to handle a woolly ensemble cast, and they’ve kept the actors grounded despite being badly outnumbered. The performances are almost all strong, especially Mr Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man. Downey’s improvisatory intelligence is his most distinctive feature as an actor, I think, but it can grate at times; he’s helped immensely in that regard by the presence of what appears to be a very talented 12-year-old boy as Spider-Man. When the two of them are onscreen together, Downey seems to age twenty years (beautifully). His weariness as Stark is moving and totally convincing.

Chris Evans, no one’s idea of a master actor, has turned out to be ideal for the part of Captain America, aging noticeably into his younger-elder-statesman role and standing immovable against the irrepressible Downey. Their big punchup at the end brings both characters’ stories perfectly into focus, and they play that sequence to the nines, especially Downey, who in a transformative moment of grief and rage looks like a little boy in the Iron Man suit. In a movie full of (at times surprisingly clumsy) CGI, that’s the most impressive visual on offer.

It seems impossible that a movie like this could exist. This is the thirteenth Marvel movie (counting the Ed Norton Hulk) since Downey/Favreau’s first Iron Man, and it draws on the equivalent of several TV seasons’ worth of continuity — which an up-to-date theatergoer would have paid more than $100 to see in theaters. (I’ve seen the two Avengers movies, Winter Soldier (surprising), the middling Ant-Man, and the fun but overrated Guardians of the Galaxy — plus Deadpool, much duller than the boy nerds had led me to believe.) The demands which a film like Civil War makes on the casual viewer are astounding; there’s simply no way of parsing the events of this film without having invested an unprecedented amount of energy in the minutiae of comixxx plot shenanigans. The first half of Civil War is hopelessly overstuffed, partly because the Marvel guys can’t help themselves and partly because there’s so damned much material to bring together.

Which is why Civil War feels more like the climactic episode of a TV season — a season of, ahem, Buffy? — than a movie costing a quarter of a billion dollars. It doesn’t even try to function as a standalone story, not that it could, and while we’ve all seen movies that rely on other films for context and meaning, it feels strange to walk out of a movie house after three hours feeling like you’ve just seen a middle chapter.

It’s interesting that the Russos are the guys in charge here. Their pedigree is primarily TV, not film — like Joss Whedon’s, I’d note. They work fast, don’t get fancy with the camera, and crucially they can handle the unique constraints of serial storytelling. (Their most interesting résumé line: more than a dozen episodes of Arrested Development between them.) Between Civil War and the strong but overrated-for-reasons-of-nostalgia Winter Soldier, I can see why Marvel has tapped the Russos for the upcoming Avengers diptych.

But I’m not excited about them at all. Civil War approaches Whedonesque grandeur in The Airport Sequence — the big action setpiece which pits maybe a dozen Marvel heroes against each other, thereby neatly sidestepping the interchangeable-villains problem which tends to plague these movies — but while I found that sequence thrilling, the presence of Giant-Man (Gi-Ant-Man?) mostly reminded me that no one working on the Marvel movies has matched the visual poetry of Edgar Wright. Whedon was the best writer Marvel will ever get for these flicks, but Wright’s ‘Cornetto trilogy’ effortlessly surpasses all the Marvel films for funnybook-flavoured wit.

It’s good that Marvel’s branching out to make goofier, weirder movies like Guardians, Ant-Man, and the forthcoming Doctor Strange (the Marvel announcement I’m most excited about) — their mainline films are slowly being drained of their wit, and self-serious comics (or comix movies) are a souldeadening bore, as DC’s Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder can tell you.

Anyhow, this is a surprisingly effective movie, better than it has any right to be. It made me miss the interesting storytellers who’ve left the Marvel fold. I don’t care that it has Spider-Man in it, and I don’t see why you’d care either, though I imagine you’ll dig Black Panther as I did. The dialogue is pretty good, not great, and once the Plot Business of the first half fully unfurls, the deep Story Stuff is compelling. The ending is a bit of a cop-out.

It is, in short, appointment TV.


Desperate to write something, trying, trying, but it’s all just shit.

How’s your Sunday?