wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reading

Irreal Life Top 10, Labor Day 2022.

Working so hard for those clicks that I’m spelling it ‘Labor’ instead of ‘Labour,’ whaddaya think of me now. Nothing irreal about this but there’s no changing the series title now.

  1. Cherry Brown, Kailh Silver. Having made everyone’s second choice of keyswitches (Cherry MX Browns) when I bought my keyboard, and now having bad RSI for the first time in many years, I ended up switching this weekend to Kailh Speed Silvers while casting about for possible fixes. The keyswitches are the spring-loaded mechanism below the cap; you don’t see them and they’re what matters most in terms of keyboard feel. Cherry Browns are ‘tactile,’ i.e. there’s a bump in the key travel which you can feel; Kailh Silvers are linear switches, with no bump, just continuous resistance. I’m making an effort not to ‘bottom out’ or move the keys through their full travel as I type, sacrificing that incredibly gratifying THOCK sound on the altar of hand fatigue. I thiiiiink it’s working? Kailh Silvers are made for gaming so they actuate when you breathe on them, feather-light; the upshot is that I’ve moved fatigue from wrists to biceps, which is fine, and the experience gives much less sensual pleasure. It’s like I’m aging in reverse. I’ve got some Kailh Coppers coming, I think — short travel, light high actuation, tactile feel. Might not be worth it, but they’re not expensive. (I think I got 110 of them for $30, anybody need some keyswitches?)
  2. Harry Potter music. John William’s scores for the first three movies establish a soundworld on the Star Wars model (grounding fantasy doings in symphonic somaticism and familiar leitmotif) which seems inevitable in retrospect, even obvious: brass fanfares and low-string ‘mystery’ themes and the perfect ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ for initial Hogwarts impressions in the tween coming-of-age films, shading into richer darker colours as the generational story deepens and complicates. The third and best-by-a-mile film gets a very fine score from Williams, full of stark contrasts, eerie textures and shapes (the scansion on the witch-song is fucking strange), and several clever transformations and elaborations — check out the wide variations on Hedwig’s theme throughout the finale, ‘Mischief Managed!’ It’s all characteristically Williams in Spielbergian-wonder mode, though he stretched impressively for the Azkaban score. The rest of the series got a different composer every film or two, though: Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, Alexandre Desplat. Results were mixed. Doyle’s Goblet of Fire score sounds like him and like Hogwarts, though not quite like Williams (without thinking about it, my sense is that the audibly Scots-Irish Doyle seeks/gets a very different brass sound in particular; damn I used to love his Frankenstein score), Hooper’s scores go for whimsical mimesis (the best moment in Phoenix has no music, but his ‘Weasley Stomp’ is a useful reminder that Williams was very much an American tourist in Rowling’s imaginary Britain), and by Deathly Hallows Desplat conjures a diffuse melancholy hardly recognizable as Potter-related, which unfortunately fits those movies well. Unlike, say, the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings scores — which flow together into impossibly rich macrocompositions — the Potter soundtracks stand apart from one another, sonically and thematically, and I’m not tempted to throw them all on for a long day’s listen. But amidst the stupidities of the Rowling-related cultural conversation, it’s nice to be reminded of how skillfully executed these ordinary movies are.
  3. Nuns on the run. On Adam Roberts’s enthusiastic recommendation I’m reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them, the generations-spanning novel of a 14th-century English convent; after 250 pages I’m comfortable calling it the equal of any novel I’ve read in years. I keep wanting to compare it to Le CarrĂ©, his subtly barbed humour and skillful interweaving of the individual psychology of desperately focused people and their historical moments too vast to get ahold of, or even know about — only Warner writes men and women with equal mastery, which places her beyond Le CarrĂ© in at least that regard. The nunnery feels perfectly real, though the inside of that physical location is barely described (while the local countryside is vivid and clear); the women and men in the community are human beings, fully realized and empathetically, humanely rendered. Just an inspiring, perfectly executed novel. I’m sick with envy.
  4. Firefly. As preparation to run my Traveller-plus-Jedi RPG campaign with the lads, I threw the two-part Firefly pilot on the ol’ TV, and was reminded that Joss Whedon did the best, most perfectly realized work of his life while balancing three TV shows. Firefly is a masterwork in the classical sense, a carefully controlled showcase for every skill its chief maker had learned (though let’s not discount the contributions of his expert cocoreator Tim Minear). Whedon’s never been funnier or wiser, never worked successfully on so many levels at once. But even with inspired scripts and searching direction/production, the show might’ve fallen down without a star on the order of Sarah Michelle Gellar (or Gandolfini/Falco, Bryan Cranston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), someone Whedon could count on to make sense of his characteristic tonal whip-pans and wild register jumps. Here Whedon lucked into a partnership with his most gifted male performer, the fucking Canadian Nathan Fillion, who gave the performance of his life in a role as rich as Buffy Summers — and then, with a sly character actor and ensemble comic (and born Western hero) at the top of the call sheet, the Firefly team surrounded Fillion with an oddball cast of equally multifaceted performers, literally any one of whom could easily have carried a spinoff. Special mention to Alan Tudyk, a comic virtuoso, and the astral projection known as Morena Baccarin, who slowly unfurled maybe the broadest range of talents in a talented cast. (Bonus points to a young Christina Hendricks as Saffron; watching her flirt with Baccarin in ‘Our Mrs Reynolds’ is one of the greatest experiences of my human existence.) The fact that this show existed at all is one of its fallen medium’s rare blessings; the fact of its cancellation is just another fucking crime. The sequel-feature Serenity is an overstuffed and hurried valedictory that boasts several classic Whedon sequences and a magnificent climactic showdown between Captain Tightpants and the impossibly charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor; it’s a nice consolation but can’t touch the original series. Few shows can.
  5. ‘Effective altruism.’ Mostly the same sort of fraud as ‘AI alignment’ and indeed ‘rationalism’ writ large, starring mostly the same sorts of people. @chaosprime definitively sums up on Twitter: ‘Weird that EA converted on a focus that is addressed by nerds getting tons of money to 1) sit in rooms thinking big math thoughts all day then 2) telling other nerds what to do’.
  6. Harvard undergrads. They neatly illustrate, by contrast, how dowdy Cantabridgians are during the sparsely populated summer months; on the other hand, they manifestly couldn’t find their dicks with two hands and a dick map.1 Harvard Square in late August is trying for those of us who find privileged teenagers not just the worst but the most boring thing on earth.
  7. Frisell. How many artists are so powerfully and equally committed to both the gentlest moments of beauty and vulnerability and the weirdest psych-sonics? Listening to his debut In Line (recorded 40 years ago this month!) is one of those improbably deep experiences, where there seems to be too much detail to permit entry, much less immersion — too much pick and prickle — yet the sound slips across and around and then opens into something deep and enveloping, a whole soundworld in less than 45 minutes. Frisell is like Fillion: confident, unassuming, deep feeling, so’s you might not notice his virtuosity. I’ve enjoyed every note I’ve heard him play, but this album (maybe not surprisingly, as it’s half solo/overdubbed tracks) feels close to the bone. And Eicher’s production is just what the young seeker needed, of course.
  8. House of the Dragon. Unnecessary — and after the catastrophe of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, faintly embarrassing — but Fire and Blood, the mock-scholarly Game of Thrones ‘prequel’ it’s based on, startled me years ago by being a joy to read and (fannishly) contemplate. It’s central to GRR Martin’s grand project and obviously dear to his heart, and you might read it instead of watching the show. Then again, I said that about Game of Thrones itself. Then again, I was right.
  9. Provisionality. Louis CK describes his creative technique in an interview: ‘When I develop material that’s in tough places, I have a method: I say the worst version, and then usually, they don’t like it. But I listen to that. I listen to the “Ugh,” and there’s a sound in it… Either I’m gonna take that “ugh” and I’m gonna play with it, or I’m gonna find a way around it… I need to hear the dissent… Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t want to upset these people tonight.” But I know there’s a bit in this that they’re going to like. And I work on it and work on it, to the point where everybody likes it… Every bit that I have that’s a great bit, started as: nobody wants to hear it.’
  10. Oscar and Basie. Peterson was a skillful host of his variety/interview TV show, and the Count was a wonderful guest, but their wordless opening duet is something more than entertainment: it’s a privilege to see an old master simply enjoy himself in the loving company of a younger master. Peterson’s adoration of Basie is evident, as is Basie’s love and admiration for Peterson. Their relationship to one another is their relationship to the music. It’s beautiful. There’s a moment in the video when a closeup of Peterson’s astonishing hands dissolves to a similar shot of Basie’s, gently stroking the piano keys like they’re his wife’s tired fingers and hands. Not much room in noisy transient modernity for quiet moments like this with a cherished elder, listening close to his life’s music. This is one of things jazz is for. This is what it is.

  1. Metaphorically speaking. 

It’s nice to be pleased with a paragraph of your own writing.

If Sandover is ultimately an artistic failure — debatable but let’s humour the boring consensus for a moment — in what sense, by what standard, does it fail? What is Merrill supposed to be doing? Litcrit rules are dumb and dangerous but the time for circumspection is past: in Sandover, Merrill fails in an attempt to become transparent, to socialize his (and Jackson’s) vision. A long literary work ‘teaches you how to read it’ when its early movements provide the tools for accessing the more difficult later material: an API or access-language. Sandover‘s later movements, though beautiful, are a taxing read because they sacrifice clarity for purity.


Excerpt from mss. in progress –wa.

Yeats’s ‘lonely impulse of delight’ — the mundane-mystic vision at the heart of his Irish airman’s honest testament — comes back to me unbidden several times a year. It’s one of the few ‘adult’ poems I’ve memorized, and it’s hard for me to recite it without breaking down. OK, now how’s this for mundane: the aerial chase that brings the third Matrix movie to its climax, with Trinity’s flying-craft breaking through eternal oilsmoke night, vouchsafed her (our) first glimpse of the unscarred sky only to plunge to cruel death which in turn frees her blind lover-brother to save both the human and the machine worlds, is forever intertwined in my stupid head with Yeats’s ‘tumult in the clouds.’ ‘I balanced all, brought all to mind’: peace and equipoise, slow and life and quiet amidst machine-death. Trinity looks out at the old world (light from 93 million miles away, memory of faraway minutes ago) and whispers, ‘Beautiful.’ She flies toward grace.

Adam Gorightly, SAUCERS, SPOOKS AND KOOKS (2021).

This is what I wrote last year in my ever-expanding textfile of quick reviews of every book I read, which’ll doubtless be a critical treasure beyond price someday:

A disarming history — partly extrapolated, partly hallucinated, fond, fanciful, and highly strange — of the various ufologists and presumed intelligence agents/assets connected to the Dulce Base mythos and the ‘Bennewitz affair,’ in which contactee Paul Bennewitz came forth in the 80s with claims that eventually drove him mad…supposedly with help from various ‘alphabet soup’ (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) gov’t orgs.

Gorightly’s account is, at times, a litany of indistinguishable kooks making claims and counterclaims about who’s a narc and who’s a spook and who’s been compromised, which makes for wearying reading. But it’s also a warmly empathetic — and critical — memoir of the 80s/90s fringe/conspiracist/ufologist community, which Gorightly was a part of. His evocation of his fellow believers and seekers reminds me of Slacker and Waking Life, and is tinged with the survivor’s melancholy that colours A Scanner Darkly (PKD and Linklater again) and the Montauk books. Gorightly’s a breezy writer, thank God, and the book is written for and about fellow believers but with a humane, light touch. He takes less for granted than most of his fellow travelers, to his credit.

Better (from a ‘critical’ i.e. bloodless perspective), Gorightly was part of the eruption of fringe culture into the mainstream in the 1990s (with The X-Files as the best-known example/vector), and takes time to lay out a bit of the media history of the ufology/conspiracist fringe, tracking the circulation of specific memes, first through correspondence and social networks, then into a network of underground publications, finally out to a wider audience via charmingly guileless low-rent broadcasts.

Wellllll, maybe not entirely guileless: Gorightly plays throughout with ‘psyop’ ufo conspiracism, entertaining (if not explicitly endorsing) rumours of government disinfo plots and shadowy characters. Men in Black turn up throughout the story, as do a series of MJ-12 forgeries and the suspected Real Thing. Unlike, say, Redfern and Keel and Pauwels/Bergier, Gorightly isn’t a self-promoter or tease: SS&K isn’t a pulp narrative about brave researchers against the Man, it’s a look at a strain of American folklore by first- and secondhand witnesses. There are no cliffhangers, maybe out of a certain kind of respect, but also because this is a story of deliquescence and dissolution. Bennewitz isn’t the story’s only mental-health casualty, and many characters seem to come to the banally sad ends that await most True Believers — leaving the ufology community, drifting in(to) obscurity, denied narrative closure and even the consolations of material success.

The disinfo ‘plot’ gives Gorightly’s book an ambivalent charge, but again, it’s no thriller. The possibility that the USA gov’t is fucking with the ufologists at every turn is part of the attraction for gawkers, but for more credulous sorts, it seems to settle — over years — into a dull fact of life. ‘You know about the suppressed transmission, of course’: it’s more statement than question, reflecting both the believer’s myopia and his faintly depressing settlement. The cynical ‘skeptic’ guessing game (‘Does the author really believe this stuff?’) doesn’t interest me; for whatever reason I’m sensitive to a kind of weary resignation in such utterances rather than the repetitive (passive-)aggression that less sympathetic listeners/readers perceive (infer, impute) even in what I take to be extra-cheerful kooks.1 As a result, Gorightly’s tale reads to me as an account of a community living so long with Weirdness that it sinks in and replaces ‘normality.’

Perhaps that’s where the weird flatness of the (much less well written) Nichols/Moon Montauk books comes from: as far as Nichols is concerned, he’s just relating the way the world works. There’s no mystery, it’s not pulp fiction, just an account of living day-to-day with what’s now stupidly known as ‘your truth’ — which in his case happens to involve absurd occult conspiracy, but to focus on content misses the point. (Gawking is also obviously the opposite of what the seemingly sad and lonely Nichols wanted out of those books — though Moon seems to’ve been more than OK with gawkers as long as they bought the books.)

Gorightly isn’t cynical, and his genuineness is key to the books appeal, both imbuing his story with a gently sardonic affection and robbing it of some narrative thrust. As such, I find myself grateful for having read the book, and slightly hesitant to recommend it on ‘literary’ grounds — even as I recognize that they don’t, needn’t, shouldn’t apply. Perhaps you ought to read it for yourself.

  1. Yes, that’s three sets of parentheses in one sentence. 

Irreal Life Top Ten, into 2022.

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

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

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

GNU Terry Pratchett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For one thing, it’s too fucking long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Tolkien as mythos (or not).

Note: The following is a sketchy first-draft excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –w.

It makes little sense to speak of a ‘Tolkien mythos’ — his ‘legendarium’ lacks the quality of mystery, of uncertain and seemingly unknowable depth, which characterizes the Lovecraft mythos (‘Yog-Sothothery’), the Silver John stories of Many Wade Wellman, or the Discworld books (q.v. all three). There’s rather a domestic quality to Tolkien; he doesn’t give the feeling of having received or discovered the Middle-Earth stories, and as we read there’s a pervasive deflating sense that every detail of his world-story is Fully Worked Out somewhere. (His son/literary executor Christopher Tolkien’s periodic exhumation of ‘new’ JRRT works deepens this sense, unfortunately but perhaps not unintentionally.)

Tolkien obsessives love this, of course; the idea of a fantastic encyclopedia of all things is certainly a locus of ‘adventurous expectancy’ for many readers, and the idea that Tolkien himself became such an encyclopedia does have a strange charm and charge. But while Tolkien’s characters occupy a world shot through with myth-history, in which the relics of the ancient past regularly irrupt through the earth itself (think of the Balrog, the colossi at Rauros, the White Tree), Tolkien didn’t write in such a way as to extend that sense to the reader. Tolkien’s mythic past is a known unknown.

Put another way: if you’re a fan of Middle-Earth, what could you possibly write fanfic about? Frodo’s day off? Mary Sue Pandolfin, who romances Isildur and charms Legolas? There’s a whole bookshelf of knockoff Cthulhu stories and games, a vast Star Wars Extended Universe (look up the ‘Corporate Sector’)…but if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser came to Gondor, what could they possibly fill their time with? Tolkien created a world-story, a world built for one story; there’s nothing left to happen once The line of tales has been drawn, and anyone else who turns up is just there to watch the Chosen do their heroic thing.

Put another other way: there’s a reason Lord of the Rings-themed board games have done reasonably well, while Middle-Earth roleplaying games have never worked. Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Role Playing, which I owned and loved as a kid, is remembered — if at all — as a valiant but doomed attempt to carve out a space for ‘noncanonical’ stories in a bespoke paracosm where everything is built to feel canonical. Like the beloved (and successful!) West End Games take on Star Wars roleplaying, MERP worked as a source of fan-supplements for nerds, but unlike George Lucas, Tolkien gives no sense of a busy world in which something else is about to happen.

Partly that’s down to story-form: Lucas created serial/episodic tales, Tolkien set out to make a unified ‘legendarium.’ The edges of the Star Wars universe remain ragged in order to accommodate Upcoming Episodes, and that has imaginative consequences — for one thing, what’s Lucas’s storyworld called? Who knows? The Star Wars tales are named after a kind of thing that happens in them, ‘star wars,’ while Middle-Earth is actually explicitly called ‘Middle-Earth’ by its inhabitants; of course this is presented as a translation of Hobbit-speak, or Wizard-speak, or the ‘common tongue’ or whatever, but the sense remains that the world, the tale, is bounded by the manner of its telling — the words themselves constrain it. And they constrain anyone who’d follow. ‘Pulp Tolkien’ and ‘frontier Tolkien’ and ‘Gimli goes into politics’ are ludicrous contradictions on face, but ‘Star Wars romance’ and ‘Star Wars detective story’ and ‘Jedi schoolkids’ aren’t, and that’s as much down to the exclusivity of Tolkien’s storytelling approach as to Lucas(film)’s inclusivity.

(I feel comfortable predicting that the forthcoming ‘Second Age of Middle-Earth’ TV series will be terrible and feel nothing at all like Tolkien — like Petter Jackson’s horribly ill-advised Hobbit movies, for what it’s worth.)

To be clear, none of this criticism indicts Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has provided me with two of the peak aesthetic experiences of my life, more than 20 years apart, and I look forward to revisiting that tale some other autumn. It’s one of the great achievements in all of English literature, not a perfect novel but perfect of its kind, and Middle-Earth has continued to enrapture readers because of the nature of its imagining. You don’t go to Middle-Earth to brainstorm fanfic topics or project yourself into some corner of the tale, you go to feel what the hobbits feel on their journey through mythic geography, to get Tolkien’s vivid sense of walking through a sort of fictionalized Lancashire studded with broken ruins of millennia-old empires. To feel small in a particular way, connected to an immensity of Time, over the extent of a thousand-page novel: of course control is required.

Whatever Tolkien’s obsessive ‘legendarium’ meant to him, it’s Lord of the Rings that matters to the human species, and its value depends on its completeness, its cohesiveness. The closest it comes to admitting something wholly alien to its own cosmos is the fairytale episode at Tom Bombadil’s house, easily the most widely derided (and indeed disregarded) piece of the story, which Jackson simply cut from his (disastrously superseding) movie translation altogether. Bombadil is the story’s most Lovecraftian element, you might say: he steps in and out of the tale without quite feeling of it — something (a literary device, a demigod) vast, warm, and sympathetic, but palpably Other. The story closes around him as he goes.

You know what I’d love to read, though? A story about a team of modern archaeologists recovering cursed artifacts in the remains of Middle-Earth, trying to figure out who built the cyclopean ruins, colossal tiered cities, creepy subterranean delvings, and odd fairy-rings that dot the landscape of what they’d always suspected was just England. What ritual was performed at this burial mound in the field amongst standing stones? How did a gold ring come to rest in this river?

There’s room for a weird tale, for dark strange myth — ‘in the deep places’ — but I fear Middle-Earth must pass away entirely for us to find it.

On rereading Harry Potter, volumes 1-3.

The first one

Haven’t read this since, what, 2001? Scattered notes:

  • Almost no spellcasting (no wands) but plenty of magical-world sensawunda: if memory serves we don’t even see Harry cast a single spell (on purpose) yet there’s an important foreshadowing-interlude with the centaurs. Already building the entire series. Weird that she doesn’t make a bigger deal out of it. This time around, this felt like a miscue.
  • Harry’s dislike of Snape is instant and mutual. After it’s revealed that Snape was protecting him, they don’t get a chance to talk. An oversight.
  • Dumbledore presents himself as a kindly old codger…but at the end his role is revealed and it’s like he has a separate personality. Interesting.
  • She knew from the start what she was doing.
  • Hermione is intolerable — interesting that Rowling paints her as Harry/Ron would have. Then she hugs Harry in the dungeon at the end, and lets him know there’s something else to her.
  • I think perhaps she hadn’t yet conceived of the teleportation stuff that would later prove so convenient for the narrative.
  • A lot of Dahl-esque cruelty — the depiction of the Dursleys is cartoonishly sadistic, seemingly out of measure with the rest of the book. To me, at least, it’s the least believable part of what otherwise strives to be (if not ‘realistic’) a believable coming-of-age story. Yet perhaps that’s just the characteristic tonal mix of of the English-boys’-adventure tale?
  • The Sorting Hat remains a frankly ludicrous contrivance and stains the rest of the series with its cruel, frankly immoral, and (worse) illogical treatment of the children. As ‘worldbuilding’ it makes no sense at all. If the idiotic accusations of bigotry against Rowling have any merit, perhaps the only support is that feature of her work, where children are magically sorted according to some mysterious essential quality. (Unsurprisingly, Rowling has written that she added the Sorting Hat solely to solve the problem of getting kids into opposing houses, i.e. it’s workaday plotstuff disconnected from any world-mystery.)
  • ‘You-Know-Who’ feels, similarly, like a kid-book idea that Rowling was stuck with after the success of the first book. Of course, Voldemort barely registers here. That might be the biggest disconnect between the first book and later — like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, Voldemort is just a bit of background colour in this first episode.
  • This first volume is thin in terms of both pagecount and story material — half the book is gone before Harry even gets to Hogwarts, the school year is barely sketched in, and insofar as there’s an on-campus mystery to solve (what’s Snape up to?) it’s almost perfunctory. Rowling does successfully balance episodic schoolkid shenanigans (Quidditch etc.) and the unfolding mystery plot, but the latter is never terribly compelling, partly because the intra-Hogwarts mystery material can’t even kick off fully until more than half the book’s gone! Yet that ‘thinness’ doesn’t feel like a failing but rather a choice.
  • Rowling’s restraint in handling Snape is remarkable: he’s obviously dear to her, his story is the deepest mystery in the whole series, yet she sensibly keeps him offstage most of the time…
  • …which brings me to what might be the essential feature that fans (I suppose I’ve always been one) fall in love with: while the Earth (the broad magical/historical logic) of the HP novels isn’t so well developed, the inner world — the family histories, the social and historical networks at Hogwarts itself — hugely overflows the early books. Like GRR Martin’s slowly unfolding history of ‘Robert’s Rebellion,’ the story of Voldemort and his own magical revolution is doled out over the series with eerily assured pacing and attention to emotional detail. Conventional wisdom holds that Rowling suffered Stephen King disease in the middle and was allowed to write far too long in later books (I remember Order of the Phoenix being interminable and repetitive the first time around), but even in this first volume it’s clear that there’s far more story to tell than Rowling has pages for, and the density of the work is set not by some lack of skill or depth on her part but the chosen form/genre/style of the tale. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the early books feel too short to me. Imagine what it must have been like for her to plan the long Voldemort story more than a decade in advance. There’s iron discipline at work here, admirable enviable and remarkable, and (with the exception of Deathly Hallows, which I always had complicatedly mixed feelings about) I’m looking forward to the long books most of all.

The second one

Noticeably stronger than the first volume: deeper, darker, funnier, with the ‘mythology’ closer to the forefront. Tom Riddle is a compelling baddie and I wish he’d turned up earlier in the story — the diary’s a brilliant little artifact that appears out of nowhere when needed, feeling like a contrivance. Rowling’s inventions continue to charm me after all these years, I can’t believe it. The weak spot: soft-pedaling the horror elements. She would overcome that later, with her series of torturers (including the astonishingly cruel Umbridge).

Small ‘worldbuilding’ touches, like giving Voldemort a definite age, ground the work; the fairytale vibe dissipates and something deeper and sadder sets in.

Overall, a fine setup for Prisoner of Azkaban, her best book and vanishingly close to perfect — after which the series turns into a sometimes-frustrating stop/start affair.

The third one, with Sirius Black

Because the film is so far superior to the others in the series — it’s the only entry in the entire series with a unique visual style or directorial vision — I’m tempted to assume the book is correspondingly better than volume 4, Goblet of Fire. It may not be so, but I’ll find out when I reread that book later this month or next.

But this is beyond doubt: Azkaban is a giant leap beyond the first two volumes, and if it weren’t marred by Rowling’s customary ‘But why have you gathered us in the drawing room, Inspector?’ mystery-resolution sequence, it would be the first (perhaps only) perfect book in the series. Here Rowling exposes the still-bloody generational wound at the center of the story, the failure of the previous generation to deal with Voldemort and the very personal stories which underlie that schematic good/evil myth-history plot. In the end, the Marauder’s Map — one of Rowling’s very best bits of invention — becomes an artifact of extraordinary symbolic richness, neatly uniting the attractive magical-schoolboy fantasy of Hogwarts, the mystery plot, and Rowling’s potent theme of unrecoverable (but never fully lost) ancestral past.

The deep structure of the book mirrors that of the series. Harry never knew his parents, and he’s slowly brought into a world where everyone knew them — which is of course both crushing and comforting; his maturation depends on making peace with what he can never fully understand: the complicated young people his parents were and the compromised older people they never had the misfortune to become.

It’s particularly interesting that Rowling, a single mother who famously wrote the first volume with a literal baby literally bouncing on her knee, focuses early on Harry’s obsession with the absent father he closely resembles, only to reveal James Potter as a kind of prolonged-adolescent, dead before he could become the villain. Only in the final volumes does Rowling broach the subject of Harry’s mother’s (sexual) agency, her rejection of the monstrous hero Snape for the handsome cad Potter. No surprise that Rowling’s generational revelations are linked symbolically to sexual awakening: in Chamber of Secrets Ginny Weasley falls for the attractive bad boy Tom Riddle — the sensitive ‘half-blood’ orphan — and thereby nearly brings Voldemort back to life; crucially, Ginny realizes what Riddle really was, the power that their fannish epistolary affair has over her, and disposes of the diary itself, unknowingly providing Harry with the tool to defeat Riddle. In other words, she narrowly avoids the fate that landed Jo Rowling on the dole with a baby of her own. Harry’s own role in the story, as an attractive mischief-maker prone to impulsive anger and even vindictiveness but kept grounded by everlasting friendship, is more complicated than Rowling’s critics allow, and in Azkaban that depiction noticeably deepens, as Harry’s privileged relationship to the wizarding world (‘first-name basis with the Minister of Magic’ indeed!) and his barely repressed violent urges come fully into play.

(My 11yr-old son keeps pointing out, as we watch the movies, that ‘Harry has anger issues.’)

I’ll note, though, that the film is even better than the book — incredibly, it might be the only volume for which that’s true — in particular its slight recasting of the climactic time-travel material, which Rowling portrays well but the film handles perfectly, heightening the tension and cutting most of the Cymbeline-length infodump in the Shrieking Shack. The problem with the film is that it achieves its terminal velocity by cutting out all the interesting psychodynamics of the Marauders and Snape; Rowling’s so-called ‘worldbuilding’ (really social portraiture) is one of her great strengths as a storyteller, and even during this patience-testing stretch of the book she dextrously renders the Marauders’ laddish relationships (including their petty treatment Pettigrew). The filmmakers did include one perfect piece of staging, through: when Lupin transforms, Snape is awake, and he instantly leaps to protect the children. This moment of instinctive humanity, entirely uncommented upon in the text, does more for Snape’s character than a whole movie’s worth of arched eyebrows and pregnant pauses, and Alan Rickman does wonders with an often schematic/melodramatic role.

I adored Prisoner of Azkaban — again. It’s fleet, funny, empathetic, emotionally realistic (even in its sometimes quite nasty caricatures, e.g. the Dursleys), and ultimately totally satisfying despite the serial-narrative heavy lifting it has to do. Here the Potter books go from discrete episodes linked by background serial elements to a through-composed multipart story, and Rowling nails the transition.

(Plus there’s something sweet about the way Lupin delivers his revelations in the Shrieking Shack scene, isn’t there? We’ve found the baddie, we’re laying bare everyone’s motivations…let’s tell a story, shall we, children? Of course a children’s book would go that way.)


Douglas Adams is my hero, and I loved this book (without quite getting it) when I first read it nearly 30 years ago.

I’ve just reread it for a workplace bookclub.

There are things to say.

Adams’s reputation rests on the first three Hitchhiker’s Guide books and particularly the first two, which are works of comedic genius on par with Wodehouse and Wilde. They’re dark books, but only in Life, the Universe, and Everything is darkness the primary colour. Not the least bit coincidentally, that was the first true novel Adams had written: the first two H2G2 books adapt (‘novelize’) his own landmark radio serials, and move between comic setpieces at sometimes frightening speed. Nothing in the first two books outstays its welcome — you want more of everything. They’re magical novels, both intellectually serious satire and perfectly pitched farce. But Life (not Liff), his best Proper Novel, needs not only to be hysterically funny but to work at a structural level the earlier books don’t even try for. And this wasn’t Adams’s strong suit. He only pulled it off the once.

Life is a sublime book. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is a good book that I’ve never, ever wanted to reread. Mostly Harmless is a lugubrious book, and reads like a suicide note; Adams all but disavowed it, and you can’t blame him.

Dirk Gently combines elements of Adams’s late-70s Doctor Who serial ‘Shada’ with a modern-London setting, and lands somewhere between the sometimes-laboured So Long and the leaden Mostly Harmless. Dirk himself isn’t yet fully formed — no wonder, as he only turns up halfway through the book — Richard is a crashing bore, the sf and ‘literary’ elements seem respectively halfhearted and half-finished (Adams himself acknowledged that the Coleridge ending makes little sense), and the whole thing feels like a short story’s worth of plot stretched to novel length.

Worst of all: it’s not particularly funny.

Dirk, like portions of Life and all of the suggestively titled So Long, feels like an attempt to off the mantle of ‘funny sf writer.’ The trouble is that the heady intellectualism and philosophical savagery of his early/best work would’ve been unbearable without his ensemble-comic release valve — I’ve written about the series’s carnival of horrors before. Adams’s early books are welcoming, they’re high spirited, but they’re not gentle or light; there’s just no time to weep because there’s a great joke every other sentence. Dirk Gently, on the other hand, spends pages at a time on dreary evocations of dreary landscapes populated by dreary characters; partly that feels like perversity, partly like Adams growing enamored of a story set in his own daily life-world rather than Wacky Sci-Fi, even of a satirical sort. Richard’s life isn’t remotely interesting, Gordon Way is barely a character at all, Susan feels like a portrait of someone in Adams’s life whom he can’t/won’t exaggerate into a figure with any comic juice…Adams binds himself to our world, and as So Long already demonstrated, he never quite thrived there. Unlike his parallel-writer Terry Pratchett, he couldn’t write warmly without getting bogged down — he was most at home in the vast cold emptiness of The Galaxy. And he obviously didn’t have Pratchett’s affection or knack for carefully plotted novels; his heart wasn’t in them.

So Dirk Gently isn’t a successful novel; it’s a middling novel written by a genius who’s stepping out of his comfort zone and isn’t quite sure what to do next. Halfway through the six-year span between So Long and his angry sad beautiful travelogue Last Chance to See — which he’d follow with Mostly Harmless, his last real book — Adams wrote about a milquetoast Englishman yoinked around by a charismatic asshole whose head contains stuff he’d rather not deal with, the old spaceship-flying eccentric who shows them what the universe is really like,1 the sensible woman who’s mostly in the background, and a robot with a serious emotional disorder. Perhaps the problem is that the book lacks its Ford Prefect: the character with a dramatic arc to follow…

I enjoyed reading Dirk — like I said, Adams is my hero, one of my favourite writers, and I intuitively understand his books’ emotional and intellectual spectra — but I fear I’d only recommend it to DNA completists.

Sidenote: Now I want to read one of Aleister Crowley’s ‘Simon Iff’ stories — or one of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’ stories. I do wonder whether they were direct influences on/inspirations for Dirk himself…

  1. Yes, I’ve just noticed Slartibartfast’s own resemblance to the Doctor. In my defense, I’m no Whovian.