wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reading

theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor

Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’

She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part.’

–Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker


THE WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE (GRR Martin et al., 2014)

N.B. Didn’t actually read this recently, but I figured I’d write it up — I think I’ve drained the whole book sip by sip, anyhow. –wgh.

I expected nothing out of this tie-in gazetteer/history when I got it as a Christmas gift shortly after it came out in 2014. But it’s excellent: a pure hit of Martin’s expert ‘worldbuilding,’ digging into questions suggested but unaddressed by the novels (who paid for the great tourney at Harrenhall? what’s with all those black stone structures? what was Valyria like at the end?) and suggesting entirely new ones (why are there no children in Asshai?). The history of the Targaryens and gazetteer fly by — this is one of the best D&D setting books yet written — but it’s obvious that extraordinary pains have been taken to ‘make sense’ of the world. Martin clearly relished his chance to place the deep history of Westeros and Essos front and center, and he’s done much more than dump his campaign notes here; by his own account, he contributed about a quarter-million words to the manuscript, and obviously put enormous energy into the work.

The story of Aerys and Tywin is perhaps the most affecting part of TWOIAF — there are hints in the novels that Tywin was once a happier, less cruel man, and the tragedy of his failed partnership with Aerys (later ‘The Mad King’) is one of the axes on which the entire series turns. Martin’s recounting of that tale, like several portions of this ‘tie-in’ book, feels like a necessary part of the Westerosi saga; the novels are in retrospect incomplete without the ‘backstory’ related here.

I’ve long felt that ASOIAF’s historical consciousness is its most impressive attribute: it seems simply correct to me in its depiction of political transition, cultural reaction, and generational turnover, and unusually broad in its cultural perspective. Martin has joked that the origins of the saga lie in the question How Did Aragorn Set Tax Rates? Indeed, ASOIAF has often been called ‘realpolitik Tolkien.’ But I’m less concerned here with the ‘realism’ of the books than with their scale and scope, the way they take in every aspect of Westerosi life: the politics of mercantile exchange, sex roles and knighthood, and — yes — taxes/levies and the ‘smallfolk.’ The center of the novels isn’t the present-time action, exactly, it’s Robert’s rapidly mythologizing Rebellion, the event which ends the Targaryen dynasty and, as it metastasizes into the rule of the almost accidental king Robert Baratheon, sets the stage for the destructive War of Five Kings a generation later. At every turn, Martin depicts major fantasy-world-shaking events as messily connected to everyday Westerosi lives, explicitly rejecting (say) the Tolkienesque frame in which victory in a war of wizards and gods magically and instantly transforms the land. Westerosi magic doesn’t work at the setting-level, so to speak, minus of course the hyperextended magical winters — peasants and kings are bound up in the Big Magical Plot Events, but they react to them continuously, day by day.

(I’ll note here that Tolkien was smarter than his critics gave him credit for, in this regard among others: his hobbits represent the mundane-historical, connected to, but also insulated from, the mythic-magical world beyond the borders of the Shire. The ‘anticlimactic’ Scouring of the Shire reconnects the transhistorical events of the War of the Ring to the mere physicality and historicity of northwest Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s conception was far more sophisticated than checklist-‘critics’ are permitted to admit in public.)

The World of Ice and Fire foregrounds the ‘backstory,’ the historical texture, which elevates the novels’ present-time shenanigans. When I say the novels aren’t complete without this additional text, I don’t mean you can’t pleasurably read them without knowing all this extra material — of course you can, decades of readers have. (The first three volumes of the series are unimpeachable.) But TWOIAF makes it clear that the slow-rolling historical transformation of Westeros, the complex interplay of historical forces over decades and centuries rather than the few years of the novels’ plot, is where the real action is, in Martin’s conception. You’re supposed to maintain that historical awareness as you read, not because GRR Martin has all this backstory to share, but because the argument of the novels is about history rather than destiny or species-character or the buried mythic character of a nation. Characters move through the story like figures in an historical narrative rather than Protagonists, for the most part, and their own historical awareness reflects the way real people relate to history.

Martin aims, in other words, to be ‘true to life’ with these stories in a crucial sense, and TWOIAF furthers that aim. It’s not as purely entertaining as the novels, but it makes the Song considerably richer.

(And of course, TWOIAF’s formal conceit — a maester’s history and gazetteer — allows Martin to play a Borgesian game of imaginary scholarship, with various dead masters’ competing theories building to a mutually contradictory polyphony. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m programmed to love, and Martin’s good at it. Indeed, he’s good at nearly every aspect of his job, except making his weekly pagecount…)

Some lately-reads.

‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ (Fritz Leiber)

Pure pleasure — and surprise at the (scattered) moments of heightened emotional intelligence that this boys’-own-adventure unexpectedly displays. The easy fellowship between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser is the point: they deal with the creeping sickness of Newhon by striking a devil-may-care attitude, which (along with their swords) is their primary problem-solving tool. Satisfying, and clarifying for the D&D-curious. Not exactly ‘progressive,’ if that’s a useful metric for you.

Fever Dream (Samanta Schweblin)

An hour’s intense, unsettling read. I spent the last 30 (very sparse) pages leaning forward over the book as if doing so would bring me more quickly to the end — desperate for both revelation and escape; it’s no spoiler to say this little fairy tale offers just one of those things.

The ‘point,’ if good books need or indeed have a point, seems to be tonal rather than didactic: parallel strands of parental, ecological, psychological, and paranormal (not to mention literary-formal, which is to say epistemological) unease, expertly woven together. The word ‘hallucinated,’ casually dropped into the story toward its end, hits like a fist.

I must say, I’d’ve overlooked or misunderstood its darkest hues before my son was born. But that’s my limitation, not the story’s.

Yes, there are plenty of ‘genre’ novels that engage in similar exercises — I was reminded of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach right at the beginning and throughout — but this book has a dark beauty all its own. Expertly done and highly recommended…especially to the parents of young children, who’ll enjoy an extra helping of anxiety. (xposted to Amazon)

Four Quartets (T.S. Eliot)

I hope I’ll be rereading these poems for the rest of my life.

Faust, Part One (tr. Randall Jarrell)

Faust, like Dante’s Inferno, seems like one of those things I’ll just never connect with — though Walpurgisnacht, even in Jarrell’s weird translation, attained a vivid strangeness from time to time. (Recommend a better translation?)

Beneath the Underdog (Charles Mingus)

Furiously devotional and profane, like Mingus’s music, but also much less interesting, especially past page ~150, as it sinks in firstly that this really is a curious beat novel about a sex-addled pimp rather than a memoir in any but the loosest sense, and secondly that Mingus was a compellingly weird writer rather than a great one — whereas he was both and more on bass and as bandleader. Took me a long time to get through the middle because I was waiting for the real story to start, not realizing that furious devotion and profanity was an essential story for a black genius in the 1970s. I don’t want to reread it, but I want to want to. Maybe I might. Meantime there’s his imperishable musical art, which I’ve spent 20 years learning from and will never stop.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

Unsettling. Over the last 100 pages the mood of oppressive loneliness, distrust, and intimate estrangement became both unbearable and achingly familiar. Jerusalem’s Lot reminds me in so many ways of the village where I grew up; King makes up for his sentence-to-sentence shortcomings with an uncanny knack for depicting small-town life down to its tiniest details. This is an excellent novel in some senses. Execrable dialogue from the leads (better from the day players, who don’t need to bear Dracula parallels), but the ‘plot’ is fascinating: a bitterly cynical, almost satirical take on what it’d be like if Dracula camed to Shittown USA. (King’s answer: The town would die a little faster than it already was.)

I liked it. It creeped me the hell out. King has got something.

Briefly, on William Gibson’s cyberspace trilogy (plus Lovecraft, a bit).

Epistemic status: A hasty first draft.

Gibson insisted over and over in interviews, back when he was the hot new thing, that he wasn’t interested in details of technology as such, but rather the nature of human relationships to/within what we might call the technocapitalist machine: his ever-nearer-future world is one of routine surveillance, always-on reality TV, gated corporate computer networks, nation-states superseded by transnational corporations — all compelling in themselves — but Gibson never seems to’ve cared much about the way those technologies work in any terms but the social, the psychological. Which is why the retrospectively dippy cyber-voodoo magical metaphors(?) of Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive perfectly fit the rest of the series: ‘magic’ in its many forms is another enabling/distorting neurosociocultural technology, viral-memetic biosoft, and what matters is what new modes of being-in-the-world it enables.

There’s a constant sense, in the ‘cyberspace’ books — Neuromancer and its two direct sequels — of vast terrible copresence, whether it’s the matrix or the ruthlessly violent megacorps or the AIs attaining sentience and looking to the stars. The end of the trilogy is a journey undertaken by a handful of dead ‘people’ to a faraway planet. You can’t have Gibson, in other words, without Lovecraft, who wasn’t what you’d call a ‘social novelist’ like Gibson, but who first crystallized the language of thermodynamic horror, rational inquiry as maddening vastation, which forms the backbone of 20C science fiction. Gibson’s matrix is a site of ecstasy for the deck-jockey Case, but he and everyone else ends up encountering it as an ocean of potentially fatal information, where looking the wrong way at the wrong ice (correlating the contents of the matrix?) can fry even the most prepared mind.

Lovecraft’s bleak ‘cosmicism’ has something of the convert’s didacticism — he was as touchy about his pedantically miserable atheism as he was about squid — but the more socially attuned Gibson seems to have been aiming at present-time cultural commentary. Both, I think, would claim to have been speaking to the modern condition in some sense, but Lovecraft’s cosmisicm is opt-in, a kind of recreational moping for lapsed Christians, where Gibson spoke more pointedly to post-60s (hyper)urban dislocation. You can’t keep living a normal life once you gain knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos, after all, but you can go on to live a normal (shitty) life in the shadow of the matrix, Maas Biotek, the invisible war amongst the yakuza. The triumphant final act of Mona Lisa Overdrive‘s digital deceased is to leave earth altogether, after all, and something new awaits them out there. Entropy is the extent of Lovecraft’s everywhere, though: the original vast, cool, unsympathetic intelligence is F=ma (or the senseless system it falls out of). Gibson, not even really an enthusiast of new technology, closes all three volumes with a nod to twisted romance, which Lovecraft had neither time nor feel for.

In the Sprawl, unlike Arkham, sentiment is permitted. You might say it’s mandatory, since real movement is impossible. The cyberspace books are stories about transgressors, after all, criminals and (at times banally familiar) noir antiheroes; only at the margins is even the illusion of freedom possible.

Which is why it’s not too big a strike against Gibson’s early books that their characters are weak, particularly the women. Think of each volume as a handful of storylines from The Wire, glimpses of an autonomous order (Gibson’s world remade by the matrix, David Simon’s ‘postmodern institutions as Greek gods’), and Gibson’s characters as sentimental stock figures caught up in social transformation — the at times literally cosmic feeling which Gibson and his work can’t escape. His characters wear neoplastic carapaces or safety-pin piercings, but these serve the same characterological functions as the proverbial grey flannel suit, showing the constraints under which even his protean transhumans operate; the constraints are the interest, I think, so cliché is is a perfectly fine narrative strategy. Gibson’s well-meaning but clumsy deployment of Black Characters points up both the value and the limits of this approach, while his throwaway streetside visions suggest its power, the vividness of his dreamt-world…

In other words, don’t look to Gibson’s matrix for technological prognosis, rather for cultural diagnosis. (The idea of a fully rendered Internet, for instance, would never have occurred to a guy who didn’t write his novels on a manual typewriter.) Neuromancer and its sequels, like The X-Files, are a visionary encounter which How We Live Now, or rather how a man who identified himself as in some sense disappointed by the 60s lived in the early/mid-80s, and their central insight — ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed’ — is one of the smartest things anyone’s thought or said about our world right now, the post-financial-apocalypse landscape of Obama/Trump and whatever loose affiliation they define between them. Gibson’s books remain essential guides to the human condition in a world defined by transnational flows of production and consumption, fluid information and identity, media supersaturation and the toxic fallout which precipitates from it as the heat rises. Like Gibson’s beloved Dhalgren, the cyberspace books see clearly a shared (im)possibility, an unwanted inheritance, and choose to speak of it science-fictional terms; their subject is the cost and weight and ruined ecstasy of interpersonhood in what’s left of the world.

Whether they’re dystopian or utopian novels — whether any honest accounting of How We Live Now can help but be both — I leave as an exercise to the reader. To us.


The unevenly distributed future as seen (through mirrorshades, darkly) from ‘the street,’ which famously finds its own uses for things. The cyberpunk vision of walled corporate technogardens and infinitely plastic transhuman bodies is essentially already here; insofar as the stories were (hyper)really about inequality, gentrification, surveillance, centerless systems of control, nightmarish cosmopolitanism, cyberpunk is already our condition — has been since the bomb. The genre’s Japanophilia/-phobia now seems dated, maybe because Japan presently scans as faded or arrested power; otherwise, thanks to its abstract rendering of tech as social phenomenon, cyberpunk remains terrifying today, a necessary vision.

morning morning morning morning morning

Epistemological status: Nonsense.

freewrite to start the day. can’t be bothered with proper capitalization and punctuation. ok cheating: i’m allowed to delete a word or sentence.

science fiction is afflicted, not surprisingly, by the same disease as ‘the humanities’ in academia: pathologically lazy metaphors deployed by writers pig-ignorant of even basic math and science. sokal and bricmont had blades out for the french critique-of-power dweebs years ago. i think this is why ‘speculative fiction’ has become the label of choice: science is hard, scoring political points is easy. coming-of-age ‘genre’ stories are (comparatively) easy. partly this is a specific instance of the ‘ignorant people can’t write good literature’ complaint, but it goes deeper: SF claimed its role as the essential late-20C literature not least because great SF writers could imagine and translate and articulate complex concepts in terms other than the popular — they could talk about their time in a language that wasn’t simply of their time, if that makes sense. Tolkien the same: estrangement at the level of language yes but also conceptually, in terms of worldview. ‘heroism’ meaning something fundamentally different to Tolkien than to modern readers. i think of Ancillary Justice, which disappointed me last year, and its too-familiar handling of ‘identity’ and ‘gender.’ it needed more philosophy, more science, more alienness. ursula le guin could have worked wonders with that material.

SF’s aliens are most interesting as alien modes of thought — but writers bound to the present, to fashion, have a hard time generating that generative alienation. ‘the present’ is a metaphor-field. think too of Deadwood and its astonishing imagined language, the way David Milch’s multiply inverted verses could represent streams of self-modifying consciousness. think of Westworld‘s replicants, the depth with which that story’s writers explored specific theories of consciousness in technical language. compare those great achievements to the embarrassingly shitty ‘worldbuilding’ in Ready Player One, barely qualifying as an act of the imagination: naked contemporary wish-fulfillment without a moment’s thought for a world beyond our own. think of clarke’s Ramans, who ‘do everything in threes’ for reasons that remained inscrutable even to clarke himself (the haunting closing line was added as an afterthought), or of Roy Batty storming across the rooftops of LA after rick deckard, or of the thousand and one meanings which attach to pynchon’s Rocket. (this is one reason pynchon is our best writer: he sees his conceptual material through. allows it to flower.)

if Robert Anton Wilson’s schtick has value, it’s his combination of at times intense alienation and attraction: sex for its own sake, puns for their own sake, and then a grinding assault on pious certainty. of course RAW was a great dilettante, he was just smart and fun enough to get away with it.

china miéville deep in his political theory to write books full of SF/fantasy political theory. and then how thin his stuff gets when he’s talking on memes and squids in Kraken. i liked what i could be bothered to read of it, but Admirably Strange Images Embodying Concepts Familiar Even to Neil Gaiman’s Readers doesn’t get my dollar.

michael swanwick. john crowley. delany, man.

don’t bother writing science fiction (or criticism) unless you care about the systems that your metaphors are drawing on. please, please, please. the details are the form. it’s all details.

(Deadwood is in part a story about magic and John from Cincinnati is its direct sequel, but i’ll tell you about that some other time.)

this is why you shouldn’t post your freewrites, folks.

Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a bad that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.


It seems to me that recession is one of the key features of the Viriconium cycle: the city is vivid, immersive, without ever actually being clear, and over the course of the series — particularly this maddening final ‘volume’ of short stories — it recedes entirely from view (like an eyeball drying out, or a chrysalis desiccating and collapsing onto itself) along with its citizens, its stories, any hint of clear meaning. What’s left, in ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,’ is less than an echo; and yet the city is unbelievably rich and present even in its (or rather as an) absence. When Harrison describes a building sited in a valley ‘like a metaphor’ there’s a cruelty to it. Light seemed cruel as well, beyond the grey pitilessness which characterizes all four Viriconium books.

Empty gestures and fading memories characterize the city in this final chapter. ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ takes place in our England, more or less, and while it ends with the musical acclamation which has characterized the series throughout — ‘Viriconium!’ — the weird hollowness of it is blacker than irony. But Nights is a coda; the whole series is a coda. The other short stories, especially ‘Strange Great Sins’ and ‘The Luck in the Head,’ depict a world in its Evening, reduced to reminiscence and meaningless recapitulation. I realize now that to call the mad goings-on ‘surreal’ is to dismiss them, to consign them to the aesthetic: this is a careful rendering of ugly nonsense, which after all sounds a lot like our world in our moment (or Thatcher’s, yes?).

The language of Nights varies, though it never returns (I’m glad, or relieved) to the terrible1 dense static of A Storm of Wings. After the deliberate slow movement of the two middle volumes, night comes, rest, the fog seems to recede — but there’s nothing left to see, or rather much to see and not to understand. The clocks have run down and the creative urge is gone.

It’s hard to talk about Viriconium. No: it’s easy but futile, like talking about entropy. The concept defeats you. Digging into Viriconium is like laboriously decrypting a piece of bad news. By the end it doesn’t promise anything; in the Evening even teasing is heartless.

I realized only now that I hadn’t thought of the Afternoon cultures since at least A Storm of Wings, maybe before. Harrison deals from the same deck as before — insects, horse heads, deranged artists, lightsabers, dwarves — but face-down, now. You hardly remember that any of it ever meant anything. Maybe there never was a fucking Viriconium.

I loved these stories (this story). I’m not sure I liked it in the end, though I’m sure Harrison doesn’t care; it filled me with an intense and unidentifiable emotion.


and and and

I wrote that in early July, and I’m surprised at its negativity, or no, at its anger. I suppose I was angry that Viriconium had finally been taken away, though that taking was the work of the entire series, which seems to me altogether to be one of the great works of the imagination — or rather its imagination seems greater creeping up on me/mine than, oh fuck it. I adored the book and it angered me. I can’t decide whether Harrison loves or even likes Viriconium; he must, mustn’t he? but you wouldn’t know the way he lets it go. I resent his pitilessness as I’m not convinced it’s necessary, though maybe if I knew who/what/when was the butt of the joke and maybe if I also disliked him/it/then — well —

I catch myself wanting things from Viriconium that it was built (I imagine) precisely to refuse, and so catching, I get angry at the dwarf, the city, the insect, myself, and Mr Michael John Harrison, though not in that order. Me first. What a world, a world-city unlike any other, as they say in the ad-copy biz. Viriconium!

  1. ‘Terrible’ like ‘inspiring a kind of all-consuming existential dread,’ not ‘bad.’ Prosewise, Harrison is a living god. Also a darkdreaming fucker. 

Lion, wolf, whatever.

The differences between George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books (ASOIAF) and the Games of Thrones TV show have been endlessly hashed out. I went on about them last week. I’ll just point out one more thing here, which I realized after watching the Season Seven finale, ‘The Wolf and the Dragon.’

The novels themselves are quite good, as you may have heard. But Martin’s tie-in hardcover, The World of Ice and Fire, punches way above its weight class. When I talk about the books as a kind of fantasy-historical documentary that follows a couple dozen main characters because it must, I do so partly because the World book shows where Martin’s heart is: his main character is Westerosi society, the families and communities and ‘smallfolk’ who populate a continent. TWOIAF is largely about noble houses and royal families, but its purpose is to connect those houses, to ground the present-time shenanigans of the novels in a sense of deep cultural history.

So. In the novels, one of the key events leading up to Robert’s Rebellion was the great tournament at Harrenhal, where Rhaegar Targaryen spurned his wife Elia Martell and presented blue roses to Robert Baratheon’s fiancée, Lyanna Stark. A year later, Rhaegar abducted Lyanna, they say, and the Rebellion was on. Meanwhile the ‘Knight of the Laughing Tree’ (Howland Reed?) got into some mysterious business in the background as well, and Jaime Lannister was inducted into the Kingsguard — arguably a revenge play by Aerys Targaryen against his former beloved friend and Hand, Tywin Lannister.

What fascinates me, though, is the question of who funded the tournament.

This detail does not matter even a tiny little bit to the show, which actually mentions this detail in the early-season DVD infodumps (to which Martin’s subtle ‘worldbuilding’ has been relegated), but never does anything with it. Now, the novels don’t need to do anything with (‘foreground’) a detail like that: Martin can just mention in passing that perhaps Rhaegar was conspiring to remove his mad father from the throne, and that suggestion will resonate more or less strongly depending on the pace of your reading, the depth of your immersion. In the books, the world of Westeros/Essos is rich enough, the last several decades of history detailed enough, that those echoes remain audible at all times. The minor ‘historical’ question — what was Rhaegar’s purpose at the tourney? — makes the Rebellion something more than it was, regardless of the truth/resolution of the Rhaegar/Lyanna story (i.e. the plotwise mystery).

In the show, there’s no time or imaginative overhead for that kind of subtle shading. Every moment of the series needs to service a vast ensemble of well paid actors performing in expensive European locations, and at any rate TV audiences (even in the dwindling ‘golden age’) have no attention spans. Most importantly, moving images work fundamentally differently from the vivid continuous dream of written fiction in terms of how you distribute your attention. You determine a book’s playback rate and focus by your reading, but film presents an attentional agenda, deciding for you, in a sense, how much (or little) it has on its mind. Game of Thrones on TV is all foreground, so to speak, never moreso than now, as conspiracies collapse to action and historical flashbacks come to have served their point. (The idea of history having a ‘point’ is an essential dramatic distortion, a trick of the human mind.)

ASOIAF has always been interested in how its entire world fits together — carefully balanced cosmic/historical scope as such is part of its point — but the show for a variety of reasons never has, and now it simply feels small. Having nearly all the main characters in one place might excite some viewers, but it irritates me, not least because of the stupid spacetime-distortions it took to get them there.1 And without Martin’s originating vision guiding Benioff and Weiss through the changes, we’ve had to settle for simplistic ambiguity (multiple episodes of the Arya/Sansa ‘standoff’) in a story that once reveled in ambivalence. As far as I’m concerned, Season Seven was an incoherent waste of time.

But it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because the show’s limitations have always been both obvious (even at its peak in Seasons 3-4). Benioff and Weiss didn’t adapt ASOIAF because they share Martin’s fantastic-historical vision, they just thought it would make a great TV show. They were right; kudos to them, I guess? But if Jon Snow’s parentage matters, then who funded the tourney at Harrenhal matters — history matters not because it moves the plot but because human beings survive it. That’s one of the lessons of the book which the TV show has discarded outright, and if that observation implies a criticism then I can now retreat in good order.

  1. ‘But you have no problem accepting dragons and magic in the show! Now you’re complaining about how its ravens are unrealistically fast flyers?‘ Imaginary complainant, you’re stupid. Dragons and magic are part of the contract of the series, and so is a certain physical realism. The showrunners/writers have shown themselves willing to abandon parts of the contract because the other bits are what sells — the criticism is that the maximum airspeed velocity of a lightly laden raven has just increased immeasurably in TV-Westeros because that’s the only way the writers could see to get out of a corner, and this speaks poorly of them. See? 


Twice-yearly lectures delivered to student-poets at Ruefle’s institution, evolving over time from perfectly pitched discursive wanderings to loose affiliations of fragment and aphorism. Ruefle’s voice is neurotically welcoming, warm, brittle; her anxieties and maladaptations are key subjects here, and she’s found the perfect musical register for exploring them. But the chronological arrangement presents the traditional lecture-lectures up front — and they’re much the strongest material in the book — while a hell of a lot of Ruefle’s pagecount is spent on aphoristic mini-‘lectures’ which are (in the manner of off-hours poetspeak everywhere) witty rather than funny, and suggestive rather than beautiful. Which is to say: the book ends somewhat less compellingly than it begins, as far as (only) I’m concerned.

The sublime peak is a lecture about ‘My Emily Dickinson,’ which takes in Emily, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank. Piercingly beautiful and sad, it’s the perfect midpoint between the longer early pieces and the more I don’t wanna say ‘mature’ later entries. ‘Mature’ definitely isn’t the word; Ruefle is playful and exploratory and interested throughout, generous with her students, and never settles for handing down pronunciamenti in the old-lecturer standard manner.

In other words, Ruefle’s lectures are intellectually and emotionally alive and utterly compelling. I’m grateful for this book.