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second-best since Cantor

Category: reading

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

One-line reviews/summaries.

Literary Theory (Terry Eagleton)

The whole history of literary theory has led inexorably to the literary theory of Terry Eagleton. –Terry Eagleton, convincingly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson)

Mustn’t slow down or the Seventies will catch you.

Seinfeld (Larry David et al.)

Apparently in the 80s and 90s everyone was inexplicably wealthy and Jewish and everyone was terrible, and the reason your idiot friends hate the final episode isn’t so much that it isn’t funny as that it was the first moment when David et al. refused to cut away from the severed heads and gouts of blood.

Logan (James Mangold et al.)

A perfectly fine latter-day Western is accidentally marketed as a superhero film; hijinks ensue.

Deadpool

Only in our era of absolute myopic cowardice could this intermittently funny movie for scared 20something boys be called ‘risky’ or ‘adult.’

Sidenote re: Deadpool

The joke about International Women’s Day (pegging) was, in my mind, the moment it went from ‘forgettable’ to ‘contemptible’; YMMV.

Pilgrim’s halting progress.

One manifestation of my catastrophic indisicipline is the fact that I’ve always got like ten or twenty half-finished books in progress. Some samples from the fiction shelf:

Blood Meridian. A fantasy apocalypse starring a doomed boy and the Devil. The description of the judge as ‘clever’ raised the hairs on the back of my neck — strong Riddley Walker flashback, ‘Mr Clevver’ yes yes — and the embedded narrative of the massacre in the volcanic crater is horrifying despite containing almost no actual violence. I say ‘fantasy’ in the familiar sense: this is a Dying Earth story about black magic, and a sharper critic than me could make hay by reading McCarthy’s vision against Stephen King’s (anti)parallel apocalypse The Stand, with Flagg standing for Holden. I’m reading a couple of chapters a night, because a boring logistical matter keeps me from falling asleep with…

The Honourable Schoolboy. Le Carré’s sequel to Tinker Tailor represents a big leap in ambition for him over his early work; he plays games with narrative time and voice which give the book an unexpected intimacy, as if he were letting me in on the story’s own private thoughts. Le Carré’s rendering of George Smiley refers repeatedly to Smiley’s ‘myth,’ which (paradoxically) further humanizes him: in Tinker Tailor he achieved wonders beyond any expectation of him, while in Schoolboy he’s measured against his own idea, and at times found wanting. And the occasional narratorial leaps forward heighten this effect by pointing out Smiley’s misjudgments and weaknesses, so that an otherwise inexorable march toward heroic confrontation (I bet the ‘good guys’ win) is coloured with thoroughly modern ambivalence. A little more than halfway through, I can feel the noose beginning to tighten — I now fear for Westerby’s safety, and should have done from the beginning — and I’d be falling asleep reading it if it weren’t an ebook on our old iPad Mini, which interferes with my sleep even with nighttime colours. Hellfire!

Robert Graves’s Greek Myths. Graves was mad, let’s say that right out; my teacher Professor Thorburn warned me not to take his monomaniacal speculations too much to heart, and I’ve read enough of The White Goddess to see his weirdnesses coming. But this long collection (I’m halfway through after months of nighttime sampling) is ace, the resolutely deflationary footnotes no less than the at times misshapen renderings of the myths themselves. Graves’s laconic synoptic insertions (‘others say it was not Athene who slaughtered the oxen but an eagle sent by Zeus; or it was Poseidon who raped the entire family to win a wager with’ some other mad god, etc.) underscore the alienness of the myths, their oddly unstorylike quality of reflecting a foreign (group-)consciousness without any effort at communicability, translation. They were never meant to be read, certainly not at spatial or temporal distance, and Graves barely treats them as stories in his footnotes — for him they’re historical evidence to be interpreted by a kind of literary forensics, and you’d never know from the text whether he thought them exciting or bewildering or beautiful. That lack of apology, of any framing that might ease the imaginative abrasion, is wonderfully alienating. Graves is the High Weirdness uncut and unfiltered, baby — and reading him before and after Tolkien is, of course, perfect.

Wizard and Glass. I got through the insufferable train-riddles portion of this Stephen King novel, the fourth volume in his Dark Tower series, only by a herculean effort of will; now we head deep into story-within-a-story mode, to hear about Roland’s first love and such, but my problem with the Dark Tower books — rapidly diminishing returns — kicked in roughly 1.5 books ago, and has not gone away. The Gunslinger is superb, Drawing of the Three is very good on very different terms, and in a world where Viriconium exists, I’m just not convinced I need this series as much as I once did. Still, I’m intrigued by post-accident King’s turn toward metafiction (a term he detests) and self-conscious continuity, and am curious about the last three volumes. At any rate, King’s books fly by; I’ll finish this one in a few months.

Illuminatus! I started over last year, got most of the way through the first volume, and stalled out. Yes to libertinism, yes to groovy occult psychedelia, but Wilson and Shea just weren’t great writers, no way around it. And at this point I’ve been exposed to so much of this kind of nonsense that the ‘guerrilla epistemology’ schtick doesn’t have the impact it had when I fell for this series in high school — for one thing I’ve finally read a couple volumes of the ‘Montauk mythos,’ a less artful or funny or cynical (and much less benign) specimen of breathless dot-connecting eliptonic horseshit. Oh! and Thomas Pynchon himself, who’s better at everything involving the written word than RAW or Shea. Better, come to think of it, than almost everyone who writes in English, and if there’s a reason not to read Illuminatus! it’s the fact that Gravity’s Rainbow is there on the shelf, waiting for a reread of its own…

Two Le Carré novels.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Perhaps the bleakest book I’ve ever read — suave, cool, fiercely moral, furiously angry. Extraordinary. The present-time narration includes surprisingly few events; most of the plot unfolds as backstory, in shadow, or just offscreen. I’ve never had a reading experience quite like this: for the entire middle stretch of the book, every few pages, I had to reorient my reading, as Leamas’s goal (and Control’s scheme) seemed to shift completely. Le Carré’s command of his material is, to put it simply, complete. I feel as if I’ve hardly drawn a breath for the three or four hours I spent reading the book. Now it’s done and I need to read Tinker Tailor. Why did I wait so long to explore these books?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Relates to The Spy Who Came In… the way, say, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit relates to Code of the Woosters: warm and celebratory where the earlier, younger books are coolly calculated; driven by less obvious or less obviously aggressive purpose; at times sentimental; the voice thoroughly lived in, at times seemingly ‘accidental’ where the earlier novel had been a kind of showpiece. Less likely to be called a ‘masterpiece,’ but much more likely to give joy to actual human beings.

Like Feudal Spirit, this book glows where the reputation-making early work glitters.

George Smiley, who appears briefly in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is the hero and the heart of Tinker, Tailor — an older man, unjustly forced out of his job at the Circus, cuckolded, rumpled, humiliated, put upon…and piercingly intelligent and serious. A very good spy and, despite talk of his ‘vanities,’ a good man. Smiley is one of several portraits which Le Carré draws with an affection and warmth totally absent from The Spy Who Came In… And where the breakthrough early work is a perfectly formed standalone piece of something like political theater (its settings somewhat abstract, especially in its final act), Tinker, Tailor is very much a serial novel: one chapter of an ongoing story set in a living world. Moreover, Smiley is a sympathetic serial protagonist where Alec Leamas is a bit of an unlucky bastard.

Smiley is a great character. So are the members of the inner ring of the Circus. And Control — fully alive as a force within the novel though he’s dead from page one! — and of course Jim Prideaux, the wounded spy-turned-schoolteacher whose full story is one of the book’s deep secrets. All of them are invested with what we might call excess imaginative energy. They’re all living beings. Even the traitor.

But the greatest thing about the book, I think, is the story of little Jim Roach, richest boy at Thursgood’s school. The first and last chapters belong to Roach and Prideaux, and the opening in particular is a perfectly observed short story about a kid catching glimpses of a dark grownup world. Le Carré’s telling of Roach’s story is heartbreaking; I knew from the earlier book that he was a gifted novelist, but I had no idea he was this good in this way. If he hadn’t written spy stories, would his talents have been recognized earlier? Or not at all?

The story of Alec Leamas is ‘greater,’ by what we call ‘literary’ standards. It’s pure and cruel and ends in darkness, characteristics literary critics appreciate because they make critics’ lives easy. But I think Tinker, Tailor is the better novel, the richer world. I think it’s sad and absolutely beautiful.

Summary note

I share both of these responses — written just after finishing each book — to make two points:

  1. I still think of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold as a perfect novel. But I find, as I get a bit older, that ‘perfect’ art affects me intensely in its moment but doesn’t tend to stay with me in the same way as art whose imperfections come from imaginative excess. Philip K Dick’s books, for instance — as ‘science fiction’ many of them are incoherent messes, yet when granted autonomy from SF’s dead boring genre norms they’re among the most potent imaginative works of the 20th century. The Crying of Lot 49 is a perfect little book, but Gravity’s Rainbow is a city, a universe. Litcrit types fetishize writerly ‘control’ (an MFA-program euphemism for tribal conformity to the prevailing style at MFA programs), but no one else cares about it; human beings want transport and transformation. We want rapture. Which is why stoners and musicologists get breathless about In C but everyone else who wants minimalism cranks up Remain in Light.
  2. My initial impressions quickly become unrecognizable to me, but they remain valuable, and it’s good to preserve them. It’s a small measure of accountability.

Heilemann & Halperin, GAME CHANGE.

A behind-the-screens account of the 2008 presidential campaign, focusing on Obama/Clinton and the general, giving short thrift to McCain’s primary campaign. The excuse for the latter oversight seems to be that McCain was the presumptive front-runner from the jump; the truth is probably that they weren’t granted access. Palin gets plenty of coverage, of course.

Self-serving campaign bigwigs gave the authors extraordinary access, after the fact, to everything from internal campaign memos to email archives to extended interviews with most of the campaign’s major figures. (You can tell from the quoted dialogue who collaborated with Heilemann and Halperin — it seems the entire Clinton campaign was especially leaky.)

I wanted to know about the internal machinations of the Clinton campaign, to get a sense of what the next few months before the 2016 general election will be like. Turns out they were a disorganized shitshow, riven by factionalism and long-simmering vendettas and uncontainable egos. The Clintons don’t seem to have any idea how to organize such a group of people; presumably as a defense mechanism, Bill and Hillary’s self-pity is (depicted as) boundless, as when Hillary says that that nation faces ‘a terrible choice’ in Obama/McCain.

Hillary comes off the way critics who’ve looked closely at her record have led us to expect: unusually smart for Washington, analytical, cold, brittle (a nerd who’s tasted power), paranoid, an ineffective manager, shorter on principle than her supporters like to think, and — maddeningly — forever devoted to the husband whose serial sexual predations Hillary has clearly (evidently) made a devil’s bargain over. Bill comes off as a talanted sociopath, duh, though Heilemann and Halperin’s gushing over his once-in-a-lifetime political intuition isn’t justified by their own reporting.

The 2008 Clinton campaign, meanwhile, appears to’ve been full of feckless morons and reptiles whose main qualification was/is undying loyalty to the Clintons. The Clinton White House (where HRC was by her own account ‘co-president’) had the same quality. The foibles of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC, which over the last few years has made itself a well-paid arm of the 2016 Clinton campaign, suggest that the same dynamic obtains there even today.

This should worry you, if you’re not a Trump supporter.

Obama comes off as an extraordinarily intelligent, naturally gifted candidate with rare policy chops, unusually high-minded principles, and a freakish ability to learn as he goes — his performance during the 2008 financial meltdown is his crowning achievement. The book also paints him as arrogant and slightly brittle, but those qualities don’t appear to be at all unusual. Perhaps because they (1) helped the authors and (2) ran the White House, Obama’s political/policy people come off extremely well in the book. (I’ve come to believe that several characters on Veep are based on figures in Game Change.)

Biden the goof, appears to be Biden, the goof. He’s one of the few human beings in the book.

McCain’s campaign was also a shitshow, of course. Like Clinton’s, it had no real message other than ‘stay the (neoliberal militaristic) course, pretending to change.’ McCain himself comes off as a reasonably principled but querulous old codger who fell apart as the campaign progressed. His choice of Palin was driven by desperation: McCain’s first choice was Joe Lieberman (Lindsey Graham, who otherwise comes off as a smart serious figure, blew up that pick by flapping his gums), but in a ‘normal year’ he’d’ve settled for Tim Pawlenty; Sarah Barracuda was chosen as a counter to the campaign’s Obama-embodies-change problem. Palin is the book’s most interesting figure: pig ignorant but extraordinarily eager to do good work, a serial liar obsessed with her favorability ratings in Alaska only, a very talented ‘red-light-on performer’ (i.e. able to instantly enter performance mode when the moment hit) who to my eye was suffering from a dangerous mix of postpartum depression and shell shock at the height of the campaign.

I’ve long thought Palin was a common grifter, and Game Change backs up my supposition, though it also suggests that that wasn’t always true — unless she’s a bigger sociopath than Bill Clinton, she was by all accounts an oddly serene (if cagey) true believer who tasted the good life and decided she wanted more, on her terms. I actually like her more after reading. And I like this too: McCain, seeing how hard her job in the campaign was and how desperately she tried (and failed) to do it, refused to say an unkind word about her, even to his own campaign staff (who were, by the way, repulsive). The McCain campaign’s failure to vet Palin — they took less than a week and ended up having to google her name while fielding questions from the press after she was announced as the pick — is one of the most intriguing and disquieting process stories in the book.

So that’s the gossip. (There’s a lot about John Edwards, who by all accounts is a delusional shitheel, and his wife, whom the authors depict as a minor Satan. None of that interests me.)

And gossip is just about all there is, unfortunately, because Game Change, while endlessly fascinating on its own insider-baseball terms, is completely devoid of any detail about anything except the internal machinations of three groups of largely unprincipled, high-functioning rich assholes. The financial crisis gets something like a one-paragraph thumbnail summary, only enough to set the stage for more candidate heroics/follies. Race relations exist only insofar as they pertain to ‘the race card.’ Iraq exists only as a political albatross. Bush is only the political background to the story (the only evaluation of his presidency: whether it was a political liability for McCain).

The characters are smart ruthless predators — or titans bestriding the world like colossi — or tragically flawed stage heroes. Campaigns are staffed by schemers and mad political geniuses and backstabbing Iagos. Journalists are servants of democratic ideals, or victims to be pitied. ‘The Web’ exists only as Obama’s ‘money spigot.’ (‘Special interests’ are not, as I recall, even mentioned.) The universe of the book extends no further than the campaign itself, and the book’s subjects are masters of that universe. The idea that any of them have any moral responsibility or outlook almost never intrudes on Game Change‘s cozy little bubble. Sports metaphors abound. There is not even a hint of irony anywhere to be found.

This is, in other words, the usual sort of Washington hagiography masquerading as incisive journalism. It is evidence of The Problem — Washington’s absolute disconnection from American life.

I recommend the book, which reads like a potboiler and throws some light on the most powerful people in America. But I recommend, also, that its Rolodex-stuffing authors be thrown into the sea with the rest of the steno pool. What they’ve given us, in terms of information about the workings of our democracy, isn’t worth the cost to our republic of letters, which is that every day it becomes impossible to think about political campaigns as anything but expensive TV dramedy miniseries. (Indeed, this book was turned into one. It won some Emmys, too.)

The game didn’t change. The book’s title is a lie. The book — for all the Hard-Hitting Truths it reveals about the people who decide the fate of billions — is perpetuating and selling a lie. You’ll get a real kick out of it.

james Merrill (and David Jackson), THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER.

Brief remarks in lieu of a proper review:

It took me more than three years to read Sandover — I’d take in 20 or 50 pages over a few nights, then set it aside for weeks or months. That’s a long time to live with a single reading of a single poem, but then Sandover is a lot to read, not in terms of pagecount (though it is awfully long) but rather in scope. It is a vast poem, an old-fashioned epic of sorts, whose subject after all is the nature of man’s relationship to the cosmos.

It’s also, paradoxically, a claustrophobic one. By the end, Merrill and his love David Jackson have all but withdrawn from the world into their strange visionary game, their folie à deux. The Coda, ‘The Higher Keys,’ has Merrill setting up the Ouija board at Sandover in order to stage a reading of the poem itself for an audience of the dead — Proust, Jane Austen, Dante, Ephraim (revealed to be possessed by the archangel Michael). When a friend named Vasíli intrudes, Jackson and Merrill are embarrassed rather than eager to share (‘…lest anguish take its lover’s leap / Into the vortex of credulity,’ an astonishing verse considering what’s come before), but Vasíli has bad news (more death) and needs his mind taken off the real world. JM and DJ welcome him to the table (‘silver urn, / Cucumber sandwiches, rum punch, fudge laced / With hashish cater to whatever taste’) and Merrill begins to read. The final stanza is lovely and sad:

DJ brighteyed (but look how wrinkled) lends
His copy of the score to our poor friend’s
Somber regard—captive like Gulliver
Or like the mortal in an elfin court
Pining for wife and cottage on this shore
Beyond whose depthless dazzle he can’t see
For their ears I begin: “Admittedly…”

Merrill returns to the beginning of the poem, how (or where) he now lives, performing his sacred/profane work for a room full of imaginary corpses, or ‘familiar spirits.’ Having broken the mirror which they set up for the benefit of their dear departed friends Wystan, George, and Maria (who turns out also to be Plato, among other people), the poet now reads for his literary forefathers and -mothers — for posterity, you might say. If it weren’t so self-consciously melancholy (‘but look how wrinkled’) it’d be almost…arrogant, which Merrill surely was, though he seems to’ve been many other things besides.

Ultimately the poem is less about cosmic wisdom and angelic bureaucracy (though some of Sandover‘s comedy comes from what a goofy workplace heaven seems to be) than about the experience of loss and longing — and of lifelong love, though longing and loss seem to be essential elements of that strange compound as well. JM and DJ spend their time in the company of the dead, channeling remembered and imagined voices to create a world that’s fuller, larger, and stranger than their own: by poem’s end, bat creatures and unicorns and gods and angels and a chorus of witty historical literary types share the stage with two troubled middle-aged men and their shrinking circle of earthly friends. But all this heavenly lunacy crowds out real life a bit. It’s telling that Jackson’s health concerns and Merrill’s family (and the trips to Athens which introduced both men to the complex Greek practice of taking adolescent male lovers) seem to fall away as Sandover reaches its revelatory/expository climax — DJ and JM are very much alone, in physical terms, during these cosmic experiences, no matter how many voices they conjure.

If I’m emphasizing the sadness of the story, it’s partly because of my recent reading of Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits, which coloured my experience of ‘The Higher Keys.’ (I wish I’d held off.) But more than that, the poem itself has a twilight shade in the end. The mirror-breaking scene is harrowing and deeply sad; the cast of characters whom I’d come to love depart, then, for other lives, and DJ and JM have begun to let go of whatever it is they’d become through these Ouija experiences. Let go of each other, too: their relationship didn’t long outlast Sandover. Loneliness threads through the poem — its ecstatic-melancholic peak, God Biology’s deep space transmission, is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever read. Knowing that Merrill’s circle of friends shrank over the years, partly as a result of the tightening hold this work had on DJ and JM, deepens the sorrow of the last two volumes, but the poem is (in part) about losing friends and family twice over, first from the material world, then from the paracosm which exists through the board.

But it’s not only sad. It’s also funny, wise, sharp eyed, and (this is the least interesting aspect of the poem for normal readers, but an important part of the sales pitch) absolutely expert as verse. Merrill seems to’ve had an effortless mastery of verse forms as, say, Pynchon does of prose. The poem’s revelations aren’t Cosmically Significant to me, but I smiled and laughed at Merrill’s loving evocations of friends and his sly comedy a lot more often than I wept at the sheer beauty of the heavenly paracosm. I think of my Sandover reading experience as this waterfall of tears, which for a time it was, but along with stretches of boredom at the cosmological infodumping, I mostly felt happy to be in the company of the ‘spirits,’ whose beautiful humanity testifies to the imaginative energy and empathy with which Merrill and Jackson imbued them at the board.

I recently admitted to a friend that, while Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and Little, Big and Douglas Adams’s books are essential parts of (the idea of) me, while the Big Books I read in my teens and 20s are pillars of this identity I’ve made, my ‘favourite novel’ is probably Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett; I come home to it and feel totally at peace. Sandover isn’t my favourite poem; I’m not sure what is. (Cummings? Neruda? Robert Penn Warren? Shel Silverstein?) But I’ve now lived inside it longer, at a stretch, than I’ve lived in any other book. It consumed me. It changed the way I think about literature. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and one of the strangest. It’s all questions. It’s a love poem (about a long marriage) and a metaphysical comedy and a record of two men’s experiences imagining their way into the world of the dead. I’m so grateful to have had this experience.

There’s more to say about Sandover but not here.

Briefly praising the ENCYCLOPEDIA MAGICA.

The Encyclopedia Magica, in four volumes, is the quintessential D&D book. The idea of a complete and definitive listing of D&D magic items is, of course, stupid. The items are totally inconsistent in tone, backstory, and magic-system implications — not to mention stats. The only place you could possibly use the whole collection is in a deeply relaxed/ridiculous D&D game; ‘it’s just D&D’ is the only way to explain both the existence of the book and the magical nonsense inside it. It’s tacky. It’s beautiful, in its way.

And it’s the perfect guide to the whole glorious patchwork ‘expanded universe’ mythos of D&D. Two decades of unfashionable creativity, most of it written dirt cheap or on spec by daydreaming obsessives and dweebs building a shared private universe. It’s like every time someone asked ‘Hey what if…?’ over a set of funny dice, they then wrote down the answer, and bound it up like a multivolume grimoire because why not. It gives you a taste of every D&D setting ever squeezed between two covers. You can open to any page (that’s a hell of a lot of pages, too) and find a night’s worth of adventure, or a year’s.

It’s the record of an awkwardly passionate 20-year conversation between gamers.

More than the 1e DMG, more than any ruleset, it’s the meaning of D&D: the theme song, The Whole Point. At least for me. Every D&D player should be given a copy at birth.

James Luceno, STAR WARS: DARTH PLAGUEIS.

Prequel to the prequels, its title character briefly mentioned in Revenge of the Sith as the villain who taught the Emperor and created (or caused to be created) Anakin Skywalker — it’s hard to imagine Dark Plagueis making sense or holding interest to anyone who isn’t already something of a Star Wars obsessive. For them, for me, it’s a (minor) revelation, assembling the scattered ‘prequel trilogy’ into a coherent narrative and imparting a real sense of mythic heft to Palpatine’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

This is a better book than Labyrinth of Evil, better in many ways than the Thrawn books (especially the later volumes), and has me thinking Luceno is a genuinely strong writer overall. On the merits, I find myself happily recommending it to anyone who cares at all about the films. But that ‘on the merits’ is doing a lot of work there — after all, the merits of a movie tie-in novel providing century-deep background to the prequels to one of American mythology’s recent holy texts are…difficult to determine ‘objectively.’

I enjoyed it. It crosshatches the Star Wars ‘Expanded Universe’ superbly. It will, I secretly geekily hope, become relevant to the Rey/Ren trilogy.

Enough about the book.


The prequel trilogy, the Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker and the Rise of Emperor Palpatine, takes more abuse than it deserves. Yes, the dialogue’s terrible; yes the acting and direction are flat and wooden despite the massive reservoir of available talent; yes, the pacing is all wrong; yes, the edits cut a coherent story to pieces and turned Episode III into a hyperfocused all-Anakin-hour instead of the proper finish which the political plots demanded. And yes, yes, yes, the love story is an embarrassment which even Natalie Portman couldn’t save.

But as 2012’s Darth Plagueis makes clearer than ever, as I’ve contended for years, the story of the prequels is substantially richer than Lucas has ever been given credit for. The prequels’ political story is opaque the way The Wire‘s fifth season is opaque — asking the viewer/reader to pay attention to what’s not happening is a weird way to go about the business of drama. The point of the prequels is: How does Anakin become Vader, and how did the Republic fall? But scene to scene, for viewers who care to get invested in Silly Plot Stuff, the mystery of the prequel series is: Cui bono? Why is Palpatine supporting a Trade Federation blockade that undermines the Republic Senate? Why did a Jedi Master (Sifo-Dyas, briefly mentioned in the film) commission the breeding of a clone army more than a decade before the events of the trilogy? Why is Dooku pushing the Separatist agenda while working with the guy who’s trying to take over the Republic? Why does Palpatine tell Anakin a snippet of Plagueis’s story? Nerd-viewers tend to throw up their hands and say that the prequels simply make no sense. But Luceno’s novel paints a different picture: Palpatine’s plot isn’t incoherent, just complicated and something like a century old, stretching much further into the storyworld and deeper into that world’s mythology than the films are able adequately to depict.

You might say Lucas failed twice over, then: failed to make films that hold together as films, and — sadder, I think — failed too to bring the full scope of his conspiracy plot to the screen. But that conspiracy plot is actually pretty groovy.

Clarificatory nerdery: Dooku was tempted to leave the Jedi by Plagueis, acting ‘on his own’ but with a little help from bad friends, and his character suddenly makes all kinds of sense set against the political situation of the final years of the Republic. Sifo-Dyas’s commission of the clone army was suggested by Plagueis, but it was necessary because the Republic had demilitarized years before, and the Senate was wary of authorizing local planetary/systemwide militias. Dooku’s involvement with Palpatine was a complex mix of self-interest (Dark Side curiosity) and a kind of burn-it-to-save-it noble interest in remaking the Republic. The Trade Federation was an actual galactic mover&shaker, illegally armed, whose attempted entry into the Senate as a non-planetary voting member is actually a compelling political story/allegory on its own.

Luceno, writing Darth Plagueis in the middle of the Obama presidency, had the luxury of going beyond the histrionics of Bush-era political discourse — and while it’s weird to say this about a Star Wars novel, I can tell you that the political parallels between the prequels and the current state of USA politics are compelling and long planned. (This shouldn’t be news: Star Wars itself was, remember, partly a cry against Nixon and Vietnam.)

My point here is that the movie prequels just scratch the surface of a political narrative that’s of interest in itself, and which transforms Star Wars from a simple hero/villain pulp story into a century-spanning tale of backroom intrigue in which laser sword fighting (though Cool) is actually something of a distraction. The Sith are in the middle of it all, not just as cackling sorcerers but as political schemers whose Grand Design succeeds precisely because it’s carried out on both the metaphysical and ‘mundane’ levels — in other words, the ridiculous notion of an Evil Vizier manipulating the galactic legislature for a century actually makes a lot of sense if the vizier is actually a political frontman and a banking clan bigwig funding a sort of Trilateral Commission over the better part of a century. In other other words, the prequels turn out to be the story of, if you’re willing to play fast’n’loose with history a bit, Henry Kissinger and Nixon taking over the galaxy.

Which is exactly what Lucas wrote on the first handwritten page of his first draft of Star Wars: ‘a band of Nixonian thugs’ engineering race riots and capitalizing on political chaos to sweep into power.

Again: this isn’t Great Literature. It isn’t even great filmmaking, except in terms of visual imagination. But when people talk about George Lucas’s vision, this is part of what they mean: his ability to conjure a universe that feels real, lived in, despite containing centuries-long wizard conspiracies and laser space monks and such. I’ve written before about Lucas as the Chris Carter of film, or vice versa — gifted with a remarkable creative vision, but lacking some of the technical skills (in both Lucas’s and Carter’s case, dialogue writing especially) to bring it fully into being.

Luceno’s novel, as a culminating text in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which is ‘no longer canon,’ though it’s hard to tell why anyone should care), helps realize that vision. It makes Star Wars better. That’s not such a big deal, despite my word count here, but it’s not nothing.

And y’know, maybe it’s not such a small thing either.

Two words about three black guys in CIVIL WAR.

Started this weeks ago, before the IRON MAN news. Incoherent, sorry.

When the Avengers and company first sit down to debate whether to accept government oversight in Captain America: Civil War, the first (somewhat pedantic) back-and-forth goes to Don Cheadle (Rhodes/War Machine) and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon). They play decorated combat veterans who spend most of their onscreen time as second fiddles to the film’s main characters, Iron Man and Captain America — they’re sidekicks, honestly, and are called on to act as the protagonists’ outboard conscience. But their status as (relatively) ordinary public servants thrust into a superpowered godswar gives them a certain morally elevated status in the storyworld, and the first thing we see when the Plot Engine starts turning is two African-American actors politely but energetically disagreeing — leading the superhero discussion — about a legal/moral matter.

Meanwhile, the ‘Who is this masked man and to whom does he pledge allegiance?!’ character is King T’challa of Wakanda a/k/a Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. He spends the movie as an avenging angel chasing the Good Guys after his dad’s killed, but in the end he sees them ‘consumed by vengeance’ &c &c and finally joins up with Captain America. He is, by a large margin, the ‘coolest’ new character in the film, and the mid-credits scene sets up his solo film (due in, what, 2018?).

I mention this only to make the point that while Civil War — an ‘excellent superhero film,’ though we must avoid making ‘superhero film’ a standard of quality as well as a genre — does require a bit of Africanesque Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo to power its plot, it also casually places three black guys in major roles without feeling the need to be either delicate or ostentatious about it. And this is easier in a superhero film than elsewhere, precisely because of the capes and cowls and rocket packs.

Remember the scene in (the actually diverse-in-conception) Global Frequency, when the parkour runner Sita Patel is climbing up the side of the ferris wheel, and a little south-Asian girl calls out, wide-eyed: ‘Daddy, look. Spider-Man’s a girl! And she’s just like us‘…?

That’s the secret of superhero comix: the costume, the role, is an idea. It’s a dream. The person inside is someone and something else entirely; it could be you, no matter who you are. When these things work, I think that’s why. The story is set up to encourage identification across identitarian lines.

The prominence of three black actors (plus one actress, in a much less interesting stock role) in Civil War is a small step for casting agents everywhere, whatever, but it’s also a reminder of the way these stupid capes and cowls can level the playing field for the people wearing them. The way sports can, or theatre. (You might say superhero stories are a mix of the two — the team’s ‘costumes’ are ‘uniforms’ and so on.) The imagination works in four colours, not two.

But then again: these changes have already taken place, in Perfectly Safe Hollywood Tentpole Films. And yet the world is as it is. Indeed, you might say these changes are one reason why

Addendum

Representation is not justice. And though we kid ourselves otherwise, it is not economic opportunity. (The first 15-year-old black female MIT-undergrad miracle child Iron-Man will, I think, be written by Brian Michael Bendis.) I wonder, would you have cared about that character’s story if she were taking over a generic superhero role in an indie comic, and not a Marvel Property?

Come to think of it, would you have cared about Tony Stark’s?

Anyhow, if you settle for comics about black girls written by Brian Bendis then that’s what you’ll get. But you don’t need to.

Joe Schreiber, STAR WARS: DEATH TROOPERS.

A zombie novel set aboard a Star Destroyer. Its cover image: an Imperial stormtrooper helmet dangling from a meathook, a severed head still inside.

Sold. Give that commissioning editor a big raise.

Unfortunately, the book’s only passable — the characters are competently sketched in, the setting is irrelevant, Han and Chewie are effectively but not interestingly rendered, and the Climactic Revelations (the Empire created the zombies!) don’t have any heft or resonance. Labyrinth of Evil is a more effective page-turner, though admittedly that’s a low bar, and the Thrawn Trilogy has far more to say about the Star Wars universe. That’s a low bar too, come to think of it.

I’m 0-for-2 with zombie novels. World War Z fell apart less than 2/3 of the way through, when its Interesting Metaphor stopped being interesting and Max Brooks’s tin ear became an unavoidable and unforgivable liability. And this one…well, it kept me entertained for a couple hours. What more can you ask? Hordes of zombies are, I think, a ready-made cinematic subject but a harder sell on the page. I wonder if Patient Zero is any better…? Bah. Time for some grownup books.

Kudos to all involved for even attempting a Star Wars survival-horror novel, though. It was, and remains, a great idea.