wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: January, 2021

On cranks (excerpt from mss in progress).

Poets and cranks

James Merrill, one of the great 20th-century American poets, was probably a credulous fool who wrote at enormous length about the cosmic wisdom he and his partner gleaned from their homemade Ouija board — a crank, in other words; but hold on a second. Merrill’s modern epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, is a record of a twenty-year communion with spirits through the board, W.H. Auden and a Roman centurion among them; the climax of the poem is a visit to ‘God Biology,’ a kind of helpless, infinitely melancholy cosmic radio blasting out in the void of space:


In isolation that stream of text resembles automatic writing, the scribblings of an obsessive (a visionary/occultist alone, perhaps); and given the nature of the Ouija board as a tarot-like ‘divinatory’ tool, a scaffold for verbal improvisation, in a sense that’s what it is. (Merrill’s ‘friend’ (partner) David Jackson handled the homemade planchette most nights; much of the text of the poem transcribes his/their own improvisations verbatim, though Merrill’s framing verses and responses are the poem’s main ‘voice.’) Sandover is an intimate poem about an increasingly isolated gay couple who drove away friends like Truman Capote through the obsessive pursuit of occult knowledge; Merrill would die a few years later of complications from HIV, after pushing Jackson away. Taken in that context, the transmission of ‘God B’ is one of the purest, saddest bursts of poetic music I’ve ever encountered. Merrill’s self-consciousness, a strain of incredulity, grants his acceptance of the ‘reality’ of his paranormal experiences an unlikely emotional power; the poem’s ‘truth value’ is uncertain, and the reader’s provisional acceptance of Merrill’s account (as of any poetic-fictional account) as ‘true’ is more complicated than usual. The poem makes clear that Merrill believes both that something ‘supernatural’ or at least outside of the reach of his waking consciousness is occurring, and that there’s a perfectly satisfying ‘materialist’ explanation — he’s committed to what he’s seeing (imagining), the vision, but he knows how deceptive vision can be, not least when we ‘speak to the dead.’ That epistemological complexity, the uncertain imaginative footing beneath Sandover‘s reader/poet/poem contract, is characteristic of best eliptonic writing; I’d say it’s one of the main attractions of the stuff, what separates the actually-Weird from the conventionally reassuring.

So was Merrill a crank? Well: was Yeats? Dante? Blake? Philip K Dick? Decide for yourself whether it matters and act accordingly, knowing that the poem’s there for you regardless, merely itself. It has more to give than the ‘facts’ it delivers; you’ll take from it whatever you’re able. I mean ‘willing.’

Still, asking the question matters. A proper (improper) eliptonic reading of the poem holds that the question, the uncertain epistemology, the wondering, is the source of some of its power.

Reading Sandover against, say, The Montauk Project — a popular1 late-20C delirium variorum linking UFOs, MiB sex abuse, the Philadelphia Experiment, time travel, Aleister Crowley, parapsychological experiments, secret messages in radio waves, Jungian shadow-beasts, and more ‘synchronicity’ babble than average, written by two actual cranks, and believe me I’ll come back to it later in this book — you begin to make out a spectrum of credulity, from Merrill’s ironic-(ir)religious awe to Nichols & Moon’s voracious appetite for any and all paranormal wish-fulfillment. Real crank literature tends to grow in the telling, as conspiracy theories do, because as fiction it’s only responsible to itself; The Montauk Project was a surprise hit, and spawned an entire ‘Montauk mythos’ that fills a good portion of the RAW/Joseph Farrell shelf at my local esoteric bookstore. The formal constraints of Merrill’s poem, structured by the symbols of the Ouija board and bound like Dante’s Comedy by the desire-curves of literature written for other human beings, work against such endless extrapolation. Sandover does get less satisfying as it goes along, because Merrill leans more and more heavily on lightly-edited transcripts of the Ouija board’s output, which his partner David Jackson was primarily in charge of. (In a sane world Jackson would be credited as the poem’s coauthor and recognized as one of the great 20C monologists.) But it rises to an ecstatic narrative peak with its vision of God B, and ends on a complexly celebratory/melancholy note in a very modern register, as Merrill begins to recite Sandover itself for an audience of the dead — ending his epic with a reference to its first line: a semisincere apology for its poetic form.

Merrill’s self-consciousness grounds his/Jackson’s visionary flights in the psychological metaphors then current with his high-literary audience, while the increasingly unmediated angel-voices of his otherworldly correspondents (which are, remember, essentially inspired ‘automatic speech’) invest the poem with what Harold Bloom, who was really in his wheelhouse with poetry in the Blake/Yeats visionary lineage, called a ‘daemonic force.’ The main difference between Merrill’s inspiration-via-Ouija and any other religious/spiritual poet’s own inspiration is that Merril’s candid about where the all-caps passages in his work come from. Merril remained agnostic about the ‘truth value’ of the Ouija board’s emanations, and (by a sort of transitive property) of the poem’s account itself:

As for the doctrine — or the belief — behind the poem, well, I’ve always tried to be of two minds, skeptical about what comes over the Ouija board; accepting of its metaphoric beauty and validity…

Nichols and Moon, meanwhile, embody a parallel strain. Without Merrill’s literary resources or refined artist’s temperament, they’re confronted, and in turn confront their readers, with something pure and simple: Nichols’s ‘memory’ of being sexually abused as part of a bizarre series of dimensional-travel experiments at a secret military facility on Montauk, and having his identity (not just documents and information but his memory of his authentic self) stolen from him by the government. While Merrill’s ‘dialogues’ veer for dozens of pages into didactic instruction — at times tediously so, though Merrill’s always ready with a leavening pun or startling inversion when the going gets tough — his goal is to entertain, and perhaps enlighten; Nichols and Moon are up to something else, and their specific aim is rarely entirely clear. The compulsive quality of so much eliptonic nonsense creeps into Merrill’s writing at times but it’s everywhere in Montauk; the writers’ need to convince their readers of their veracity, their realness, becomes a primary aesthetic feature of the series. It’s intensely sad.

Crank books tend to start out funny, because at first there’s always the possibility that it’s all a put-on. And when that possibility dries up and blows away, crank books can be the saddest things in the world. Laughing at a crank isn’t, I think, fun for kind people. Nor for me.

I feel a bit guilty linking Merrill’s splendid poem — aristocratic in bearing, though jazzily informal at times in speech — with the lurid illogic of the Montauk series. But it seems to me they share more than a general concern with ‘the occult’: they’re both attempts to work out the ramifications of a set of experiences (carefully shaped in Merrill/Jackson’s case, perhaps traumatically induced in Nichols’s), which seem to be understandable only in ‘magical’ terms. Nichols and Moon seem to ‘believe’ that something otherworldly happened in Montauk, the same way John Keel seems to’ve ‘believed’ in Indrid Cold; the scare quotes are there to draw attention to the difference between this belief and, say, your belief that the world is round. The tension generated by belief in a ‘crazy’ idea can produce high art, as it did for Merrill. But for eliptonists — ‘kooks,’ cranks — like Nichols and Moon, it can lead to a kind of compensatory terminal fixation on small thoughts, which build up like a katamari to a sort of mythic complex, driven by (subconscious) hope that a large enough accumulation of detail will make sense of the nonsense, though it always has the opposite effect. (See also: M. John Harrison’s heroically nasty characterization of SF/F ‘worldbuilding’ as ‘the clomping foot of nerdism.’)

Eliptonic nonsense gets bigger but not grander as it chases its own tale; the details are accumulated rather than uncovered. The experience is unshaped. But that’s enough for true believers.

  1. Popular, that is, among readers of self-published occult/paranormal nonsense, i.e. crank books. Unlike, say, Baigent/Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail Templar/Rosicrucian horseshit, the Montauk series isn’t written with enough brio to deserve a spot on the average reader’s bookshelf on its ‘literary’ merits, not that anybody actually applies those standards. But the Montauk books so neatly encapsulate all that’s unsettling about late-20C eliptonic Americana that I don’t hesitate to recommend at least the first one to anyone who, say, watched the X-Files episodes featuring depressive abductee Max Fenig and wondered if there were real people like him… 

D&D with the kids: First notes (sessions 0-4).

At the turn of the year I finally worked up the courage/energy to run a D&D game for my son and four (soon to be five) of his friends, all 10-11 years old, and we’ve been playing every Sunday since 3 January. I’ve wanted to run a game of old-school 80s D&D since the actual 80s, when it was the new school; normally the phrase ‘a dream come true’ is mere figure of speech, but here it’s literally true.

We’re using the Basic/Expert rules from 1981, in the form of the ‘retroclone’ Old-School Essentials.

I gave them randomly rolled-up 1st-level characters, they concocted a ‘We meet at a tavern’ scenario (the bard was performing, the elves were passing through, the thief was drinking her sorrows away with her small but vicious dog, the cleric was outside talking to his pet rock Josh), and we were off to the Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

Prior to our game, two in the group had no D&D experience but had played Skyrim or World of Warcraft, one (soon two) played a lot of 5e at Pandemonium in Central Square, and two had a couple sessions of table time under their belts.

I won’t run through the campaign in detail — perhaps another time — but I do want to share a couple of observations, by no means original.

  • The old-school saving throws are unintuitive at first, but they work. I’ve read enough about them — including the underrated AD&D 2e corebooks, which explain how the saving throw sieve works — that I figured I’d have no problem. But if you’re just starting, how do you adjudicate a trap that fires a magic beam down a dungeon hallway? What if it’s a paralyzing beam? What if it’s a spray of magic? ‘Use the first saving throw that applies’ still means a judgment call of sorts. (The answer in the first instance is ‘Save vs Wands’ by the way.) How do you save against a falling boulder? Finicky questions, but knowable — and they drive you toward a certain fiction-first intution about the gameworld. After a while the saving throws make perfect sense, and the wisdom/utility of class-based (vs 5th edition’s ability-based) saving throws becomes clear.
  • OLD-SCHOOL ESSENTIALS is the final form of Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert D&D. Aaron Allston’s beloved Rules Cyclopedia stretches the D&D rules across 36 levels and provides domain-rulership and mass-combat systems, as well as additional classes, monsters, treasures…but you don’t need that stuff for 90% of campaigns, and there are better tools available for free online if you do. Plus its layout is catastrophically bad in keeping with the house style. Gavin Norman’s OSE retroclone collects the original Moldvay/Cook rules, organizes them intuitively with a delightfully accessible layout, and judiciously includes the most common houserule (ascending Armour Class) as a built-in option. It is the perfect re-presentation of the original ruleset, nothing added. (Which, to be clear, means pure vanilla flavour; look elsewhere for magical evocation.)
  • You need (magic) items. I’ve learned this in the breach. In searching the dungeon, the kids have mostly found trinkets, coin, small-bore treasures — but they need useful items, not necessarily magical. The trick is to fire up their lateral problem-solving skills without simply erasing the dungeon’s challenges. Flash powder, spoons that refill magically with food, a wig, a blanket that smells of refuse, a coin that always matches the call, a leash that lets you hear a cat’s thoughts — these low-level items encourage low-stakes usage. The kids have found a ring that causes the wearer’s eyeball to pop out and roll around while retaining the power of sight, a perfect example of the kind. Disgusting, handy, and potentially extremely risky to the user. (I need to remind the kids that they have it.)
  • You need spells. Low-level PCs in B/X have only minimal access to magic — a spell a day, plus the houseruled cantrips I’m allowing. But a low-level party really benefits from the survivability boost that a single sleep spell grants. Alas, the kids blew theirs to give the dog a nap after a nasty fight.
  • Arguing is the best/worst part. In the first session the kids spent more than a half-hour joking, arguing, debating, improvising in character, and generally just being smart creative little fools while standing at a trapped door they weren’t sure how to get through. The consensus is that it was the best part of the adventure so far; I certainly thought so. This is why 1-on-1 D&D (which my son and I have played, at Thunderdelve) can’t come close to competing with a decent-sized party and a DM willing to let them faff about. That said, our one experienced player has been losing his mind over the mix of hesitation and impulsivity which is the group’s overall vibe. That’s the main downside of a big, relatively inexperienced party: an unstable power-balance between puzzlers, instigators, et al. We’re working it out quite sensitively, because it’s a bunch of kids from Cambridge+environs and that’s what the children of the bourgeoisie do. But it’s important to stay aware of the group dynamics and vary the approach at times. Sometimes you play tight changes, sometimes you play free, sometimes just keep a groove going. Kids like structure and they like freedom.

I’m loving this game, and while the prep makes me mildly anxious — what if I fail, and ruin my beloved son’s life? — and the play is totally exhausting, it’s been a highlight of my week, every week.

There will be more to say when there’s time to say it.

Scattered: On the last season of GAME OF THRONES.

I’m ‘home sick’ from work for a couple of days — respiratory virus, unfun — and after looking at some ASOIAF/GoT subreddits for a bit I decided to rewatch some Season 8 Game of Thrones. The final season of the show was a massive blockbuster hit, as they say; it was also intensely disliked by many viewers.

I thought GoT lost its way once it passed Martin’s source novels; Benioff and Weiss are skilled at certain aspects of the job but they appear to have had no idea what to do with Westeros, what their story was really about, without Martin’s guiding hand. Their technique of constructing plots out of Big Shocking Screen Moments — connected by insane leaps of character-illogic and utter betrayal of the storyworld — fell apart without the books’ astonishingly dense plots to draw on. As far as I’m concerned, their version of the GoT endgame is effectively Cliffs Notes to Martin’s own story.

Now, having said that, not all criticisms of the show are equally valid. Here’s a comment I left on the (tiresome, juvenile) r/freefolk board laying out my broad-strokes criticisms of the final seasons, while pushing back against the most common uncritical objections:

I’ll mix the minority report in with the r/freefolk consensus:

  1. The entire story plays subversive games with ‘heroic fantasy’ tropes and embraces a bleak, gritty, coldly realistic view of history (combined with magic/dragons fantasy-story stuff). Viewers love twists and turns…until they don’t. There are surprises aplenty in ASOIAF and GoT — but the books’ twists always have cold logic behind them, while the show tended to lurch from one Big Screen Moment to another without the same level of rigorous track-laying. The contrast makes the show look worse. Compare the Red Wedding — tragic/horrific payoff to a series of planned and impulsive maneuvers by thoughtful characters — to the desolation of King’s Landing or the deaths of the first two dragons. Benioff and Weiss never showed an interest in a world beyond the stage-set inhabited by the main characters, and while that narrow focus made for more Emmy-Worthy Surprises, it weakened the causal chains that keep the books taut (even as they balloon to embarrassing length).
  2. In the final season of the TV show, characters revert to their worst tendencies during crisis, fulfill prophesied roles in ironic ways, win Pyrrhic victories, fail at tasks-of-destiny, and generally turn into things other than what viewers — even ‘hate-viewers’ — hoped. It really is a bit like Tony Soprano neither dead nor imprisoned at the end of The Sopranos: viewers hated that story’s ‘anticlimactic’ ‘irresolution,’ as if there were any other goddamn way to end a story about being all middle (middle age, middlebrow, midsection). Tony trapped in earthly/narrative purgatory, destined perhaps to end up like Uncle Junior (‘cold and alone, unmourned and unloved’) is the perfect ending to that black-comic show. Same with Jon becoming a kind of blackened echo of Azor Ahai, murdering his Nissa Nissa to save the world from a great evil (who turns out, ironically, to be Nissa Nissa herself). If B&W had a sometimes-juvenile approach to ‘subverting expectations,’ they are to be praised for sticking their necks out and forcing every single viewer into an uncomfortable position w/r/t their (beloved) story. In other words: Daeny’s heel turn might’ve strained credulity, but plenty of viewers use that fact to justify the ugly truth that they wanted her to be a conventional hero, and ASOIAF/GoT never played that way.
  3. One reason the show’s later seasons’ reversions and ‘anticlimaxes’ were frustrating is that so many of Benioff/Weiss’s character-versions really did have ‘conventional TV’ written all over them, even when making ‘interesting’ choices. e.g. TV-Jaime was on a conventional Redemption Arc, then suddenly he wasn’t, and that felt like a parlour trick instead of a sad but parseable turn because the show’s depiction of him was so coarsely grained. The logic that drove him to abandon Brienne and his new allies to the North — to relinquish the adult responsibility he had finally grown into — seemed wholly removed from that which had driven him away from Cersei in the first place; you could see the writers’ thumbs on the scales. [ETA: Recidivism happens all the time in real life, it’s how we’re made, but real life isn’t monocausal bullshit like this.] Same with Sandor and the dimwitted crowdpleasing ‘Cleganebowl,’ which ‘paid off an arc’ that many viewers felt the character had long since outgrown [ETA: leading to Clegane’s offensive mischaracterization in the final season, as he repeatedly tells Arya that there’s nothing to him but revenge, thereby chucking out years of rich character development]. (And the Dorne arc on TV felt like a pointless up-and-back, ugh.) The books don’t seem to think in these Hollywood-handbook terms, but as soon as the show passed Martin’s novels, that kind of thinking seemed to prevail in terms of plotting. Note, however, that this was partly GRRM’s responsibility (see below).
  4. Smart characters grew stupid in the later seasons — think of Jon’s sentimental incompetence at the embarrassingly named ‘Battle of the Bastards,’ the idiotic fetch-quest beyond the Wall, Littlefinger being ‘outplayed’ by two teenagers, a squad of supernaturally gifted White Walkers not noticing Arya sprinting past them while yelling, Tormund and Bronn decaying to Nielsen-family comic relief, etc. Jon in particular got noticeably dumber after his resurrection, i.e. after Benioff and Weiss took primary responsibility for his characterization.
  5. George RR Martin is one of my professional heroes, I like the guy, but he failed catastrophically to prepare the show for what lies beyond the 5th printed volume of the book-series. Benioff and Weiss are not incompetent writers, but they’re not on his level, and were not up to the task of creating a Game of Thrones-level story without Martin’s detail-work to steer by. The books are better than the show, but a billion-dollar business was counting on him to finish the goddamn things, and he didn’t. You can’t blame Benioff and Weiss for not being able to do Martin’s job — they expected him to do it himself. There’s some anger and blame to go around.
  6. The ‘Bran the Broken’/elected-king ending may well make sense in the books, if they get there, but the consensus seems to be that it was a head-scratcher at best on the TV show, unintentionally comical despite the dark hints beneath it. Tyrion’s big ‘better story’ speech to put Bran on the throne was Really Not Very Good At All, nor was the Grand Council ending — it felt like a TV-show reunion rather than the darkly ironic Princess Bride ending that I bet the writers were going for, and which the books give us reason to believe Martin himself is heading for.
  7. The ‘Night King’ ended up a disappointing and confusing device. [ETA: Benioff and Weiss decided to give the ‘Others’/White Walkers a face, a hivemind-king; that decision cascaded to set up the idiotic ‘Arya rolls a succession of natural 20s to one-shot the Night King’ climax at Winterfell.] But more broadly, the story was set up, in a sense, as a great question — can the squabbling, backstabbing Westerosi nobles unite against an obviously more important common apocalyptic enemy? The answer in such stories is pretty much always ‘Yes.’ Game of Thrones says: ‘Sadly, no.’ And the story ends, not with Cosmic Ice/Fire Wiz-War, but with everything that has gone before demeaned and degraded by murder (individual and then mass) in the South. It’s thematically cute, in a way: a northern delegation comes south to confront a mad monarch, and the whole thing ends with people burned alive, leading to the end of a royal line (echoes going back a generation). But it’s designed to pack a punch without satisfying certain built-in expectations about ‘epic’ hero-stories. Believe me, I wanted the Others/White Walkers to matter more than they did — but Martin and his TV-adapters were up to something less fantastic and less escapist.
  8. Too much Plot Armour, too much Bronn, too many viewer-contract-violating superpowers, Arya/Rey/Mary Sue ceases to be believable or ‘relatable’ in later seasons, Sansa and Littlefinger are unforgivably mischaracterized (and what happened to Gillen’s accent?!), physical distance has no meaning during the later seasons, the Greyjoy/Dorne stories were good bits that B&W mishandled, the comedy in the later seasons was utterly cack handed, etc., etc., etc.

There’s always more but I have to go to work.

The upshot here is that the last four seasons of the show fail in some truly embarrassing, obvious, almost all avoidable ways — but they also deliberately do things that viewers, especially dead-ender grudge-holding bitches like the r/freefolk, will misread as failures no matter what. Personally, I think the show worsened noticeably as soon as it passed the books plotwise, and ended up offering lushly photographed Cliffs Notes to a deeper, tighter, more resonant story that Martin may yet publish. (Knock on wood.) Benioff and Weiss probably couldn’t have sustained a longer show — but they didn’t manage to rein in their actually existing, inarguably truncated one either. They get partial credit; their best work was astonishing, but it wasn’t solely theirs, and the worst of the show is down to their choices, partly because the Man Hisself wasn’t behind them anymore.

It was still better than Lost.

Having said that…

The content of the TV-GoT ending is, in broad terms, what we’re going to get from the books if Martin finishes. Different in some details, oh of course. But the ‘battle for the dawn’ will result in the hideously costly defeat of the Others, Daenerys will end up burning King’s Landing (this is the ‘Mad Queen’ story), Jon will kill her in a parodic echo of the ‘Azor Ahai kills Nissa Nissa to forge Lightbringer and save the world’ myth/prophecy, and in all likelihood Bran really will end up on the Iron Throne — the ‘ideal ruler,’ quite possibly some kind of Trojan-horse avatar of the elves, their final revenge against Men. (It’s interesting that the elves/Children made the Others, and will end up sacrificing their own dead pawns to take the King(dom).)

Thematically, politically, plotwise, this is fantastic stuff!

Think about it: our twinned heroes are the impossibly moral One True King attending the school of hard knocks defending the Wall (his compass always points ‘true north,’ duh) and the Atlantean liberator-mother-queen returning from the East to break the cycle of madness that brought down her royal family. The reader is set up from the beginning to yearn for them to claim the precious birthrights which are the series’s nominal central concern — to win the titular Game. Yet in the end, it’s precisely the system of birthright-privilege itself that destroys the entire continent, but Martin isn’t content to highlight the irony while soft-pedaling its consequences. This is Sopranos-season-six stuff, adhering to rigorous historical and poetic logic in order to drive home that the audience’s fondest desire is poisonous received foolishness. To root for Martin’s heroes is the point of the story, but if the story is the history it pretends to be, then to root for the heroes is also to miss that point.

The GoT finale, ‘The Iron Throne,’ was rightly dinged for being lugubrious and inane. (The writers insisted on directing, what do you expect.) Benioff and Weiss’s biggest sin is substituting symbol-heavy spectacle and dumb comic satisfaction — and oh ‘ironic’ expectation-subversion — for the ruthless, rigorous ‘historical consciousness’ that drives the books. The dragon melts the Iron Throne? Ooh lovely, but Tyrion’s big ‘let’s have a half-assed representative democracy and our Washington shall be an inhuman psychic wizard-boy’ speech is the same thing: symbol, spectacle, but no logic. Instead of showing us Tyrion’s Galaxy Brain, the writers actually resorted to having other characters tell us how smart he is. Several times. Amateur hour! And the post-climax return to politicking, which should be the point of the whole exercise — the moment to reconnect the War Stuff with the rich texture of Westeros itself — is on that same debased level. No more complex associations, no more mixed motives, no more Westeros, really…just Our Gang speechifying and yukking it up on a stage set.

The showrunners evidently believe that the most interesting thing to do with an expectation is to ‘subvert’ it (their self-congratulatory word) through ironic reversal, rather than to problematize it. The end of the story suggests the shape of one of Martin’s characteristic retrospectively inevitable tragedies, but because Season Eight had nothing left to draw on but a shrunken storyworld populated by Superheroes and Archvillains, it ended up soliciting viewer shock/horror/sentiment and offering nothing in return but a series of ‘iconic’ tableaux. (The finale’s infamously ‘cool’/pointless shot of Daenerys with dragon-wings unfurling behind her is the whole show in miniature.)

Thing is, the rest of Season Eight has that same feeling: totally reliant on the first four seasons for significance and verisimilitude, willing to let smart characters carry the idiot ball, congratulating itself for suddenly cutting off whole plotlines rather than leaving an ongoing story-world behind or implying anything untidy. Daenerys ends up the Bad Guy, period, rather than the ambivalent figure she was in previous seasons, because Benioff and Weiss knew to deliver a ‘Mad Queen’ ending but weren’t prepared to work at the level of story-granularity of their source material. The climax of the story comes down to One Big Thing. And honestly, who can complain? That’s how most stories work, after all…

…but it’s not how Martin works. Think of the gut-punch ending of the fifth book, Kevan Lannister’s assassination by a roomful of mute children — or the way Jon Arryn’s cryptic message ‘The seed is strong’ ramifies throughout the series, each echo undercutting reader certainty about the roles of our ostensible heroes. Think of the fact that the ‘Three-Eyed Crow,’ last greenseer and servant/ally of the Children, is himself the legitimized Targaryen bastard Brynden Rivers, who lost an eye in a staged combat meant to distract his enemy until reinforcements came — think too of the role the Three-Eyed Crow plays in the (TV version of the) battle against the Others, and then ask why this ‘good’ wizard has positioned himself to take the throne. There are no unmixed motives in Martin’s Westeros, as in David Milch’s and David Simon’s storyworlds, but TV-GoT lets ironic-reversal stand in for multiplicity and complexity at the expense of depth. Martin writes a killer cliffhanger, God knows! Yet those cliffhangers are never just Yes/No questions — that’s one crucial difference between genuinely adult stories and simplistic palliative entertainment.

Anyway, I actually enjoyed several stretches of the show’s final season. It’s stirring stuff, in its plodding post-Peter-Jackson slow-mo-obsessed way. Skillfully executed in every aspect of its physical production. And as I say, the Platonic ideal of the story has a killer ending. It’s just that the show as it actually exists, in our shitty world, turned into hollow low-IQ spectacle — first slowly, over several years, then suddenly in the span of a month.

But it really was better than Lost.

Hey look it’s THE ART OF MAGIC: THE GATHERING — WAR OF THE SPARK (Wyatt et al. 2020)!

Let this stand in, too, for the six or seven other books in the Art of M:TG series. The game has an interesting look, I think — no, I take that back. It’s neat or nice generic fantasy art, expertly ‘curated,’ but not actually interesting. Vast underimagined panoramas in which dumb fights take place. The large hardcover art books reproduce card and incidental art, sometimes in splashy two-page spreads, and underscore the game’s inclusive representation and pleasantly wide variety of D&D-ish Fantasy Races. This is their sole value.

The writing is banal — I knew the bench wasn’t deep, but was James Wyatt always this bad? — and the story is repetitive and imaginatively impoverished: one Heroic Last Stand Against a Planar Threat after another, fight after vaguely described fight. All the complexity and vivid worldbuilding of He-Man.

This is what separates children’s entertainment, marketed to adults, from actual adult stories: grownups can relate to stakes other than Ultimate Mortal Combat Showdown!!!, and to means other than throwing hands. Game tie-ins are generally bad for this precise reason, their connection to the limited game mechanics themselves. (You can imagine an Android-universe novel being good, or one set in Rokugan, but I wouldn’t bet even a dollar that such a thing exists.) M:TG is entirely about summoning monsters and casting spells to destroy other wizards and their monsters, and that’s literally the only thing that happens in the gameworld/storyworld. I don’t know why I expected otherwise.

Anyway, this is last and worst in the series. The others are better — they’re stealth RPG sourcebooks, showcasing the individual planes rather than Action-Packed Fight-Plots and dwelling on environments and creature designs. As inspiration for my son (for whose sake I read this one cover to cover), a Good Deal for the Dollar.

Don’t read them cover to cover.

Melanial dispensationalism.

Idiots do you not understand that she does not care about any of this

The national ‘news’ media love to talk about Trump — he’s good for ratings, if nothing else.

Melania is Trump’s longest appendage: surgically attached to his genitals at enormous cost, with all the charisma of a hair plug. Melania ‘news’ stories excite gullible readers/viewers, hence this CNN headline: ‘Melania Trump departing White House with lowest favorability of her tenure.’ What a cute word, there: ‘tenure.’

Melania Trump’s ‘approval ratings’ don’t matter. She’s not doing ‘the job’ of First Lady — there isn’t one, really, especially when there’s no one coming to the White House due to plague, but she wouldn’t have done it if there were. The position is ceremonial and the Trump administration has starved all White House ceremony of dignity and meaning. Not by accident, either, though Trump can’t help himself — no, that was always part of the sales pitch. ‘They thought they were too good for us,’ says the man with a golden toilet. ‘Fuck them.’ The barbaric Capitol riot matched his sensibilities exactly, which is one reason he didn’t do anything to stop it: he liked seeing his betters, his moral superiors, afraid of him — and loves seeing poor (i.e. not-rich) people do what he tells them.

Melania Trump is a ‘glorified’ prostitute who married evil money and now has to raise an autistic son by herself in a setting she openly loathes and has helped poison. She deserves some bad things in this life but not this bad, and what difference does it make whether Panelist #281 ‘approves’ of her ‘performance’ as First Lady? Has she commissioned insufficiently cheery shoulder pads or fucked a poolboy or bodyguard who wasn’t woke enough? Did she pucker and scowl at an unflattering angle to the camera-eye? Does she call up Marla Maples on the people’s dime and ask what to buy her imbecilic husband for Father’s Day, only to hear cold laughter from the other end of the line? Does the FBI listen in? Do they laugh too?

Melania Trump doesn’t matter and her ‘approval rating’ matters even less. CNN is an entertainment company that sometimes accidentally spills some journalism on its bib. In two days, some fresh hell.

Really dont care do u

RUSSIAN DOLL (Natasha Lyonne et al., 2019).

No spoilers until I say so, in a few paragraphs. You should watch the Netflix series Russian Doll if you haven’t; it’s excellent.

Its ‘interesting’ premise is by now paradoxically boring; it would appear this is a variant Groundhog Day whose ‘novel’ features include…

  • misanthropic Natasha Lyonne instead of misanthropic Bill Murray
  • the word ‘cunt’ a lot
  • many hip lesbians
  • arbitrary time-of-death
  • Harry Nilsson instead of Sonny & Cher
  • groovy NYC vibe
  • little hints toward an underlying metaphysical mystery

That’s not a lot to go on, is it. Is it? For the first episode or two it doesn’t seem like it — the show trades on Lyonne’s performance, which is wonderful, though her character Nadia is so realistically poisonous and self-destructive as to push tolerability. (There’s some Woody Allen here as well.)

But Russian Doll ends up packing a real wallop, which is largely down to Lyonne and her secret costar Charlie Barnett as Alan, cosmically linked to Nadia in his own time-loop. The two leads elevate the conventional story-resolutions with courageous slow-play performances that pay off beautifully in the final episodes, opening up the deeper story of continuation beneath or beyond the standard tale of revelation that structures the show. Indeed, the biggest difference between Russian Doll and Groundhog Day might actually be found in their endings: in both stories the heroes break out of behavioral patterns to see themselves clearly, authentically, but Groundhog Day puts that forth as a happy, comedic-conventional restoration — a 90s-movie-comedy ending — while the very effectively serial Russian Doll reaches its redemptive A Christmas Carol (or rather Scrooged) climax and then moves into uncharted territory.

Spoilers follow.

In the final sequence, after the two heroes’ world bifurcates and each is left with the unredeemed version of the other, ur-Alan goes to the roof where he originally committed suicide, where Nadia waits for him — having chosen to become Alan’s caretaker she weeps, believing she’s failed and lost him. But he appears; they have a chance at something neither can possibly name.

ALAN: You promise if I don’t jump, I’ll be happy?
NADIA: I don’t know, man… Absolutely not. But I can promise you
that you will not be alone.

The sentiment may be familiar — ‘Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something’ — but it has such power here. The star-crossed friends are now separated from one another in what I’ve just realized is something of an Edge of Tomorrow story, each ‘redeemed’ hero blessed/cursed with secret knowledge of a long unlived life, which the ur-characters can’t possibly share. What a wonderfully democratic notion: Nadia and Alan are equally blessed, equally cursed — equally heroic. Here we have compromise, deprotagonization, as restoration. ‘The Great Work begins.’

Which is partly to say that three women created and wrote the show (based in no small measure on Lyonne’s own rough biography) as a study in making uneasy peace rather than finding happiness by attaining a sort of perfection of self. The ending of Russian Doll has the characters in a bit of a mess. It’s not a cliffhanger — if they don’t make the planned second season I won’t feel anything is lost — but there’s a story to tell beyond that point if they like, of acceptance and settling-in without the cosmic checkmark of having solved the time-loop problem. The final shots of the film see Nadia and Alan swept up in a sort of subaltern pageant, a weird midnight parade through the East Village that is really the movie’s third lead character. Life goes on, for better and worse; ‘resolving trauma’ means something harder and more painful than a single good cry; the next part of each character’s story will be about unification with another person separated from them by an unbridgeable gap, whom they know but who can’t quite know them. The Great Work and the blessing are one: ‘More life.’ It’s not a prize.

There are things to say about the setting and the parade of self-involved jerks who surround Alan and Nadia, but that’s for other readers.

Russian Doll is a beautiful familiar story in an unfamiliar shade, a lovely tribute to things worth loving. Its central performance is superb, the writing’s consistently snappy and smart, and the ending is just right. I’m very glad we watched it, and I’m happy to recommend it to you.

Dad rock.

Trey Anastasio of Phish writes and plays dad rock, I’m reliably informed, which is (They say) bad. The phrase means ‘midtempo rock with wishy-washy lyrics,’ broadly — music with no ‘edge.’

If the term were reasonable, I suppose it would apply. I’ll be honest, I don’t love Trey’s new singer-songwriter stuff; he’s at his best with the band, has never been a standout lyricist, and tends toward soupy New Age stuff (lots of ‘ocean of love’ metaphors).

But ‘dad rock’ is a contemptible term. It’s not fundamentally about the music, but is rather an indictment of the musician, charging him with being demographically unacceptable — an unforgivably middle-aged man. Anastasio doesn’t pretend to be young, but he maintains a playful open spirit that his musical colleagues pick up on immediately. (People love playing with Trey.) That spirit isn’t interesting but it’s real, which critics hate.

He’s through showing off, is through making art for any reason other than to testify to his actual place in the actual universe in language that resonates with him.

Which is, of course, disgusting — like an old lady still feeling sexual desire, or a fat person undressing, or a child sharing an opinion. Know your place, Trey, and get out of the way (out of sight) of the angry ignorant anxious tastemakers who want The Next ‘Interesting’ Thing rather than whatever ‘love’ shit you’re peddling.

Anastasio’s music is lovely and welcoming, and for nearly 40 years has glued together a uniquely American vagabond community that hears something rare and authentic in Trey’s voice. He’s a dad, and rocks, and plays with a grateful smile on his face. ‘Dad rock’ is a term of dismissal and is beneath us.