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Category: reviews

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017): first thoughts.

Spoilers abound, obviously. If you haven’t seen the film: well, you’re going to or you aren’t, it doesn’t matter what I say.

First thoughts, not last:

Episode VIII is the most ‘mythology’-heavy episode of the series, dealing more explicitly with the Skywalker legacy as legacy than any of the previous seven. The prequels were about Anakin Skywalker and the end of the Jedi, in a mix of mythic register and present-time biographical/psychological mode — the sort of ironic story a middle-aged artist tells about the idols of his early life (even those he himself created). But the sequels are (pre)occupied with ‘Star Wars’ as legendarium. They’re not ‘mythic’ at all, they’re about myth. A neat, characteristic moment: Rose the starship technician genuinely squees when she meets Finn — ‘a hero of the Resistance’ up close! — but once she realizes he’s trying to escape from the Resistance/Rebel ship, she doesn’t hesitate to tase him and turn him in.

The Last Jedi, like the considerably tighter but less resonant The Force Awakens, treats ‘Star Wars’ as something received, to be acknowledged and honoured and then tweaked. Both films are explicitly political in this regard: if the multiracial and multigenerational ensemble doesn’t feel at all casually constructed, that’s a function of the advancing age of its writers and directors, but their agenda is entirely progressive. Rian Johnson, much moreso than JJ Abrams, seems able to imagine a universe after the Skywalkers and the Solos — the difference between the liberal and, well, the rebel — and in Episode VII he reveals again a gift for building on the old stories, looking past them, without anathematizing them.

The shocking death of Snoke is the smartest turn in a smart (but at times confused and overly busy) film: tasked with becoming ‘the next Darth Vader,’ Ben Solo does precisely what Vader tried to do in this film’s elemental template-story, The Empire Strikes Back — he kills his abusive surrogate father and reaches out to the powerful enemy he he envies and perhaps even loves…who rejects him, beginning the process of his dissolution.

Boyega is great. Go watch Attack the Block, the kid’s a star.

Laura Dern is great. Go watch literally everything she’s done, she’s a natural treasure.

Poe and Leia are well characterized, though it’s frustrating to have an actor with Oscar Isaacs’s extraordinary charisma cooped up for the entire film; on the other hand, that frustration puts the audience in the character’s position, which nearly justifies the decision to ground Poe early. Leia, meanwhile, is utterly Leia, which is to say my heart leapt every time she appeared onscreen. If Carrie Fisher in her final days was no longer able to be as expressive as in the original films, she manages a weary grace that nicely suits the story.

(The young Fisher had genuine comic gifts to go with her princess-next-door beauty: timing, flexibility, and enough trust in her innate dignity to play the goof. She played comedy like a writer-actor, which of course she was. Johnson makes excellent use of footage from the original film, in unexpectedly moving tribute to Fisher. As Edelstein put it in his perceptive review: Fisher and Leia merged, in the end. This is a lovely swan song for both.)

Unfortunately, what goes on around Isaacs and Fisher is silly. The chase bits are nonsense, and of course the overall plot premise — apolitical lunatics in Empire cosplay manage to destroy the entire galactic republic with a single gun, then reduce the Rebellion to a single shipful of goodies — is almost offensively stupid. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the worst of the film’s plotstuff is the sequences that get us from one iconic tableau to the next. The unusual power of these sequels is generated by the tension between the passing old world and the emerging new, but the actual mechanics of the First Order/Resistance material are deadly boring. Characteristically Abrams-y, you might say, though indebted to Galactica in the final act.

I need to think more about Mark Hamill’s place in the film, and Luke’s place in the story. I’ll say this: Hamill does strong work, handles the comic material with a sparkle that made me wish he’d worked on camera more often over the years, and invests the dramatic pieces with real dignity. It’s so good to see him again. Hamill has a very different presence from Harrison Ford, less plastic in his physical bearing but nicely flexible in his voice work — not for nothing is Hamill a sought-after voice actor, best known for his decades-long recurring role as The Joker. (Hamill and Ford were a compelling odd-couple comic pairing in the original films; their prickly friendship is one of the series’s best features, its transformation in the third film one of its more complex emotional lines, while their ecstatic greeting in the Yavin hangar — ‘That was one in a million!’ — is peak Star Wars.)

What troubles me a bit is that, by his own account, Hamill disagreed with ‘every choice’ that Johnson made for Luke in his script. I think I see why; Kylo/Ben is supposed to present Luke with a once-in-a-lifetime problem, but because we haven’t seen Luke since Return of the Jedi, the character is effectively reduced, in the film audience’s eyes, to having fucked off to mope for several decades. This strikes me as unfair to Luke: after all, the final turn of Return of the Jedi sees Luke proudly declaring he’s one of the Jedi, ‘like my father before me’ — it’s in the film’s title for heaven’s sake! But for the sake of plot movement, Luke has to be a problem for Rey to solve, and —

Oh, Rey.

Rey remains a problem. The character’s much more defined here than in The Force Awakens, where she was a cipher, but Daisy Ridley’s natural charm can’t protect Rey from having to carry the idiot ball at times. The character’s core identity is odd: she’s a ‘nobody’ who’s stumbled into an ongoing Oedipal saga, and Just So Happens to be the most powerful creature in the galaxy. (We, the geeks, told you she was a Mary Sue, and even if Jedi Master Rilstone says she’s not, she damn well feels like one — regardless of whether many of the people banging on about this subject are sexist morons.) This is, I think, part of the political program of the film: Rey isn’t ‘old money’ in Force-user terms, no member of the old-boy Jedi network, so she has to hustle twice as hard to get where she’s going…except she doesn’t, not at all. Never having been taught word one about lightsaber fighting, she takes on three highly trained Knights of Ren (former Jedi trainees, I assume?) and comes away with a scratch on her shoulder. Never having actually tried the lifting-rocks thing that took the son of Vader weeks to learn, she lifts an avalanche by herself. Leaving aside the ‘worldbuilding’ implications, Rey’s fast-forward developmental stuff means Rey’s more like Harry Potter than Luke Skywalker, not so much ‘refusing the (Campbellian) call’ as waiting to press the Win button.

Rey’s relationship with Luke is boring. Luke should smile more. That’s a bigger deal than you might think.

I’ll come back to this movie. Why not? It’s less depressing than talking about Trump.

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Some game reviews and recommendations for Christmas.

Christmas shopping? Some games to think about:

Dominion

Progenitor of the ‘deckbuilder’ genre and, like designer Donald Vaccarino’s even more abstract followup Kingdom Builder, essentially a kind of dynamic multiplayer puzzle. Players begin each with a barebones deck of cards, mostly providing money, and use that money to buy from an always-available common pool of more interesting ‘kingdom cards’ — which in turn grant additional money, actions (card plays), and buys per turn. Purchased cards go into the discard pile; when your draw pile is empty, your discard pile gets shuffled and replaces it. At some point you start buying victory points, which clot the deck but are the only way to win.

Yes, it can be ‘simultaneous solitaire’ at times, but that mostly manifests in groups of uneven skill.

Dominion‘s basic rules are quite simple, but each spread of ten kingdom cards presents a variety of strategic possibilities, and if you include even a couple of the many expansions, the range of kingdom spreads is for all practical purposes inexhaustible. (The expansions range from pitch-perfect to game- and mind-breaking, but every single one is worth getting.) Vaccarino’s core design takes the epochal innovation of Magic: The Gathering — streamlined tactical card play using custom decks built away from the table — and essentially ‘gamifies’ deckbuilding, making a 30-minute competitive game out of that away-from-table activity.

Dominion is a work of genius; everyone who’s ever had to sit through a game of Monopoly must try it.

Settlers of Catan

The game that kicked off the ‘eurogame’ craze and today’s boardgame renaissance is secretly a brilliant do-over of Monopoly with considerably greater strategic depth, more meaningful p2p trading, and (as a result of the trading and resource-generation mechanics) no downtime. Dead simple to learn — as with Carcassonne, the core game is streamlined enough that the kids’ version is unnecessary — it’s still one of the friendliest introductions to modern boardgames, but the random/asymmetrical setup and steadily ratcheting tension give it plenty of replay value for any but the most pedantically analytical gamers. Its ‘kingmaker’ problem, and the high likelihood of untutored players shooting themselves in the foot with a bad opening play, now mark Settlers as an imperfect game, and among boardgame nerds it gets less play than it used to. But ignore jaded gamers who say it’s no good. It deserves its reputation.

Greedy Greedy Goblins

Generally fast-paced simultaneous tile-placement for humans 6 and up, recommended for families who enjoy cartoonishly stressful play situations.

Designer Richard Garfield’s basic idea is clever: each goblin (player) draws one facedown tile at a time from a common pool, looks at it, then adds it (still facedown) to one of several mines. Repeat, as impulsively or carefully as she likes. At some point in this process, she uses coloured discs to claim up to three mines, which then no longer receive tiles. With all mines claimed, they’re scored: points for every gem tile in the mine, double points for gems matching your goblin’s colour; some tiles give special power cards to use while scoring; one stick-of-dynamite tile doubles point value of mine, two sticks triples it…and the third blows up the mine, yielding a total of -5 points. First goblin to 100 points wins.

So we’ve got bluffing, a mildly harrowing push-your-luck mechanic with incomplete information for all, some quick mental calculations to do in a rapidly changing environment… Some rounds GGG is a slow-moving game of careful moves and countermoves, sometimes it’s a frenzied free-for-all. You’ll have much more fun if you enjoy seeing plans (fail to) survive contact with the interfering dunderheads around you (cf. Space Alert, below), and you’ll do better if you keep your head a little, but there’s something to be said for bringing a little anarchy into the other goblins’ lives by spreading your tiles willy-nilly throughout everyone’s mines.

Garfield’s recent career turn has been interesting — King of Tokyo and King of New York are consistently fun little lightweight/flyweight games, respectively, aimed at kids but rewarding for adults. GGG is in the same class as King of Tokyo, but the realtime simultaneous-action approach opens it up to players with less taste for strategy while specifically testing everyone’s sang-froid during an ongoing crisis — and their visual information-processing speed.

Summoner Wars

A fun sort of customizable chess++ game with short playing time and a gorgeous core mechanic.

You’re trying to capture your opponent’s Summoner, a powerful back-row piece (card, actually), by summoning fighters to the gridded board; the fighters hit or shoot, and have special effects and hit points. Ho hum, but summoning cards takes magic, which you generate in one of two ways: killing the other guy’s cards, or discarding from your hand…which means every single turn of the game presents you with interesting, tense choices, and the more you strategize, the better you’ll get. The summoning mechanic is the game’s heart (it’s right there in the title) and the source of its reputation.

Combat is simple — roll Nd6 where N’s the unit’s attack value, each die ≥3 is a hit, run out of hit points and you’re dead — but because you can only move and attack with three units a turn (you might have six or eight on the board at once), the nearly abstract gameplay does generate some pleasant tension. And because each player’s deck is small, there’s always the looming threat of simply running out of reinforcements and needing to, say, kill your own soldiers to generate that final burst of magic.

Fans of Summoner Wars insist that the deckbuilding aspect is part of the game’s appeal, but I gotta say, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to customize my army.

My 7-year-old son and I get a kick out of this one — we were both surprised last time by how quickly it played — but Summoner Wars isn’t a top-shelf game in our household despite its streamlined elegance. On one hand, the entire ruleset fits on an index card(!); on the other, there’s a lot of pointless theme slathered on top of what’s basically an elegant abstract strategy game, setting up quite the wrong expectations. It’s not a wargame! The existence of Mage Wars, a thematically similar but totally mechanically distinct customizable card/board game, further confuses the issue, as searching online for this game will turn up unhelpful comparisons.

Best enjoyed as a featherweight abstract game with oddly representational art rather than any kind of tactical combat thing — and if you come to it with the right expectations, Summoner Wars holds some lovely surprises. This might just be a great game.

N.B. You have several ways in to Summoner Wars: starter sets, the Master Set, the Alliances edition. If you’re dipping your toe in, grab a starter set. If you like it, pick up one of the two big boxes, and some ‘second summoner’ expansions on clearance. You should be able to find secondhand copies of most of the cards online.

Magic: The Gathering

Certainly the most important and quite likely the best tabletop game idea anyone’s had since Dungeons & Dragons — dead-simple card play using homebuilt custom decks, where each card breaks the rules in ever-more-complex ways — and after a quarter-century its worldwide playerbase is still growing(!!) as the design continues to evolve healthily. At its best, Richard Garfield’s first collectible card game offers the definitive CCG experience: an all-time classic game that’s also a license to print money.

About that money, though…

…at high levels, paper/rock/scissors deck matchups and the publisher’s exploitative random-blind-boosters economic model wash away the simple pleasures of beginner play. In this age of gaming plenty, it seems to me that marketing M:TG to teenagers (kids) is unethical. And incredibly, M:TG isn’t even Garfield’s best card game — his sophomore effort Netrunner, in its ‘limited’ incarnation Android: Netrunner, is the deeper, more interesting game, even with its comparatively limited cardpool. Everyone should play Magic: The Gathering at some point, the same way everyone should hear the Rolling Stones. But I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone invest real money in it. There’s a reason they call it a ‘lifestyle game,’ after all. If you like human beings, you’re better off getting good at chess. Or Netrunner, come to that.

Carcassonne

Another classic eurogame that serves as a fine introduction to the field. Very very simple: add square tiles orthogonally to a map; add meeples (‘guys’) from your limited pool if possible to claim features like roads and castles; retrieve meeples and score when features are completed. The larger the map feature, the more you score, but the longer it takes — and unfinished features (castles left open, cloisters never surrounded by fields) are penalized at scoring time.

It’s not the deepest game, indeed it’s suitable for bright 5-year-olds, but there’s a strategic angle: knowing which features to commit to, which to steal (by joining separate castle regions, say), whether/when to pursue short-run plans or make risky longterm investments in the ‘farm stakes.’ Strong players will outclass beginners nearly every time, but there’s enough luck to keep everyone interested; our family’s games tend to be close-fought affairs. The many expansions aren’t all equally essential, and some (e.g. Princess/Dragon) destructively or chaotically alter the elegant core game.

If you’re looking for a first ‘German-style’ board game for your family, this is an evergreen choice.

Space Alert

Difficult to describe, absolutely maddening to play, Space Alert has provided some of my best gaming experiences of the last several years. It’s an extremely hectic multiplayer cooperative simultaneous role-selection puzzle which delivers randomized realtime challenges by way of sound recordings, and…

Your best bet might be to watch a video, frankly, though your actual best bet is just to buy the game (it’s wonderful) and play it without knowing what you’re doing.

Space Alert is secretly quite a short game. You place your worker in one of six rooms laid out in a rectangle, representing the compartments of a spaceship. In each room is a task to be done — a valve to periodically turn, a key to regularly punch, lasers to shoot if aliens come near. You’re dealt a set of cards with actions on them, and using those cards, you choose in advance what you’ll do during each of 12 turns: walk east or west, take the elevator up or down, perform a task in your room. A certain number of routine tasks need to be accomplished in those 12 turns.

The entire game is just this — planning 12 actions. It takes about seven minutes.

Meanwhile, your teammates are doing the same, just calmly laying out their day.

Well, not calmly. During those seven minutes, an mp3 is playing. Sometimes it plays static, during which no talking is aloud. Sometimes a voice announces that at turn X, aliens will arrive, and someone will need to shoot them, and each turn they’ll press in and damage the ship if they’re not immediately dealt with. Sometimes the voice announces a malfunction to be fixed, an infection onboard ship, a new batch of cards to be dealt to each player… And even as you plan you see your carefully laid plans unravel, slowly at first, then with a kind of nightmarish inevitability, as the web of things-to-do grows and tangles and ends up a glorious mess.

But that’s only half the game — the playing bit.

Then, when the mp3 stops playing, you execute the 12 steps you’ve laid out, and you and your friends get to see how you’ve failed — slowly, clearly, the specific moments at which your plans were undone are revealed to you. And at this point there’s nothing you can do about it.

In other words, it’s realtime Pandemic, the perfect gamification of crisis-management, and if your group has a healthy social dynamic and one natural leader you’ll be just fine

I can’t recommend Space Alert highly enough.

Star Realms

A superb little $15 deckdbuilder from the local boys at White Wizard Games, emphasizing constant player interaction (combat!) and clever card synergies. Instead of Dominion‘s ten piles of cards, there’s a row of six singletons, replenished after each purchase from a deck of 120. (This was Vaccarino’s original idea for Dominion, actually, and is the core mechanic of designer Rob Dougherty’s earlier, uglier Ascension deckbuilder.)

We have two kinds of card: ships and bases. Cards generate money or combat, thin out your deck, alter the pool of available buys, or give you additional hit points; ships produce an effect and then get discarded, while bases stick around to block attacks until destroyed. Many cards can be scrapped (removed from game) for additional effects, and crucially, each ship and base has a faction (suit), which generates ‘ally effects’ when two or more cards of a faction are played. Each faction has a distinct personality and implied playstyle; knowing whether and how to mix and match is an important skill element.

You can learn Star Realms in five minutes or less, but it’ll take months to tease out its subtleties. I’ve now played close to a thousand games, mostly online, and consider it one of the most reliably fun games I’ve ever played.

The expansions — sold on the ‘limited card game’ model at $4/pack — are almost uniformly excellent. Better yet, the Colony Wars game offers a replacement core set at $15 MSRP, adding a single mechanic and generally dialing the intensity of the game up a notch. You can easily mix the two sets, along with any combination of expansions, and no two games will be exactly alike. The original is the place to start, though: perfectly balanced, an instant-buy for anyone looking for a quick filler game.

M. John Harrison, VIRICONIUM NIGHTS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viriconium!

and and and

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

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


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

Lion, wolf, whatever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Mary Ruefle, MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY.

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

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

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

Multiclassing into idiot: Game of Thrones simply gives up.

I quite enjoy Game of Thrones, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I write about the show. I much prefer the books, which are vastly more ambitious in terms of narrative economy and more serious (adult) in their conception of personality and society, but the show is beautifully made and has the occasional moment of greatness. Its cast has few weak spots, though unfortunately Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be one of them; like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she’s shown less and less interesting emotion as time has gone on and the writers have moved out beyond Martin’s own work. This is partly a function of seriality — the cost of serial dramatic protagonism is that one or a few characters must bear the weight of a very world’s changing, which naturally deforms them a bit, stripping away accident and frivolity and often personality, cf. my beloved Buffy Summers — and partly a function of the Thrones writers having conceived shallowly of the characters and story. Every time I think they’ve captured the magic of the books, they deliver a monthslong embarrassment like Bronn/Jaime’s trip to Dorne, or have a once-multifaceted character like Arya suddenly fall into endless comicbook declamations, or…

…or send a party of high-level Fighting-Man PCs, including a couple of Paladins and a Fighter/Cleric multiclass, on a deeply stupid quest into an apocalyptic hellscape to, I dunno, steal a single zombie from what until now had seemed to be a single mass of zombies and, I guess, carry it back through miles of inhospitable wasteland, apparently without even the most basic wilderness gear or preparation.

Y’know, that sort of thing.

The show has been silly for years, at times ugly and dumb, but this week’s Beyond the Wall’ was the first merely contemptible hour so far. Every single plot point depended on heretofore-savvy characters (or script supervisors) behaving stupidly. Arya and Sansa didn’t share obviously helpful vital information because…’drama.’ Jon and his band of hardened soldiers embarked on their ludicrous fetch-quest through the Plane of Snow because…’excitement.’ Daenerys and Jon are tumbling into a boring romance because…’destiny.’ A raven can fly from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and Daenerys can fly back, all in a day or so, because…’suspense.’ In each case, the need to move plot-chesspieces forward has again washed out the integrity of character- and worldbuilding. The story (generational, historical, social) has been choked by the plot, and is now nowhere to be seen. The world has gotten smaller, collapsing to the cast of named characters and a handful of stage sets; indeed, entire continents are crossed in moments because the writers have given up caring about what lies between Dramatic Locations.

This collapse has been going on for a while — I called Season Five a hamfisted near-miss and Season Six a failure, and refused to watch the show for the first several years precisely because Martin’s grand history had been consigned to the DVD Extras as monologic infodumps — but with ‘Beyond the Wall,’ Benioff and Weiss seem to’ve put aside Martin’s story altogether in favour of their Plot. Their Westeros has no deep history, no sense of place, no mystery.

If I were George RR Martin I’d be lying in a house-sized pile of money right now, screaming at the sky.

Richard Rorty, ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY.

Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.

Game of Thrones and ‘narrative economy.’

Game of Thrones in its seventh season has become a different show, set in an entirely different world: instead of the densely populated, richly imagined world of the first few years, or even the rapidly collapsing stage set of seasons 5 and 6, the show now takes place in a purely abstract space unmoored from anything like actual geography. This makes for more efficient ‘narrative economy,’ but the transition from dramatic to almost comedic abstraction comes at enormous cost — to believability, obviously, and (worse) to the books’ delicately balanced historical consciousness.

What I’ve always loved best about Martin’s books is the sense that the history of Robert’s Rebellion is playing out across a second generation twenty years later; history is present for the book’s characters at just the right scale, if that makes sense, with just the right weight. The Starks and Lannisters relate to the past as people do, rather than as Player Characters, and the generational struggle which drives the various court intrigues is simply correct. (‘Realpolitik Tolkien,’ as they say.) The TV show has never given me that feeling, mainly because its world is so much smaller than the books’. The Citadel is three rooms onscreen, but Martin can situate it in a complex ecology. The same for, say, the Starks’ relationship to the ‘smallfolk,’ who don’t appear in the show because that kind of ‘worldbuilding’ (the kind that matters) means hiring even more extras. The fifth book in the series ends with Kevan Lannister grandly murdered by Varys — a complexly motivated chess move which the TV series is too coarsely plotted to accommodate. (Kevan Lannister barely appears in the show, as does his entire stratum of ‘second-string’ players in the titular Game.)

Season 7 has so totally collapsed the physical and temporal scale of the story that the connection to Robert’s Rebellion, say, has been lost altogether. This doesn’t seem to bother the audience, whose numbers swell further as the show abandons Martin’s sense of seriousness or purpose. But it bothers me.

All of which is maybe just to say: I told you years ago that the show would lose its brain when Benioff and Weiss passed Martin’s books and had to go it alone.

Tonight’s episode was funny and ‘heartwarming,’ and oh yes, patently absurd. It was, at several points, a literal parody of itself. Most disappointing.

Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN.

An apocalyptic novel in a literal sense: for 350 pages strange lightning flashes and murderous horseman stalk a land bleached of meaning and bands of painted savages manifest suddenly on distant rises and the language is self-consciously ‘biblical,’ but none of that is as important as the fact that McCarthy’s remythologization of the West places the (no: an) apocalypse in the middle of the 19th century and says in nearly as many words that we are the ones living in the post-apocalypse. Blood Meridian reminded me strongly of the ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Viriconium, not least in the way McCarthy’s characters seem left behind by fate to play out terrible rituals against a backdrop of absolute loneliness. When the kid dies he’s surrounded by civilization, by merriment and physical pleasure — he even buys the services of a prostitute on his last night though we turn away from the act itself — but this being a western of course he can’t be fully restored to the fellowship of mankind. He and the judge converse at the bar, the judge seems to take a bottle of whiskey as if it belonged to him, and no one notices: they’re outside time. (Apocalyptic time, mirror time…) A bear is shot for nothing, suffers for nothing, dies for nothing; a couple of people in the audience notice, none reacts. If the judge had an insect’s head this would be the Bistro Californium.

McCarthy’s prose is literally breathtaking: I kept pulling up suddenly, trying to figure out how a phrase or sentence or extended metaphor could possibly have made it into our world. I’m in awe of his talents and the depth of his devotion.

There are no women in the book.

Let that sentence stand alone.1

And while the kid and the expriest do come to life somewhat by the end, they’re only players in a kind of nightmarish dumbshow — the narration comes to be indistinguishable from the judge’s weird oration, the kid’s sickbed hallucinations are exactly as real as the judge’s visit to the jail or his disappearance into the desert (the heath?) with his fool. This is myth, a world-tragedy rather than a human one. The kid’s death is sad but the horror is not that the judge outlives him but that he’ll never die. He is something unnameable and eternal. He sees himself clearly: he is a great favourite, the judge. He will never die.

Blood Meridian is one of the most American stories I’ve ever read.2 Which is to say it could only be told here, about this country’s (these people’s) twisted relationships to time, to place. Like Gravity’s Rainbow it tells the story of an American boy in a Zone stripped of comfort or sense, a zone of free play; Glanton’s gang is childish, though not at all childlike, and the judge is of course a figure of monstrous fun — dancer, fiddler, reader, scholar, autodidact, hedonist. (People forget that the life of the autodidact is both hard work — no teachers — and extraordinarily joyful, as every forward step is given meaning by the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. The autodidact has constant, deep purpose.) The horrors of Blood Meridian are not lifted or mitigated but enriched by its dreadful humour; the book gets funnier as it goes along, and the final act is preceded by a chapter-length comic interregnum. Its humour is as American as its landscape: you might even say they’re one and the same, as Americanness has always depended on an earnest-ironic response to the impossible mismatch between the vast ancient American topology and the foolishly intimate American idea.

The scene of the kid in the jail cell receiving a visit from the devil himself reminded me funnily of The Stand, which (no surprise) treats American expansion and expansiveness more literally: McCarthy’s novel compresses an universe of terror and judgment into just over 300 pages, while King’s big book treats ‘epic’ as a function of scale rather than vastness (depth of field, colour, time). Both books are ‘inappropriately’ jaunty in places, ‘too serious’ in others; both take violence as a given because it is given to men as a way into the heart of the world. To some men as the only open way. (McCarthy’s elevated tone is infectious…)

Not many novels better than this one that I know of. Christ. Plenty to say but I’ll leave it there.


  1. To be clear, there are a handful of female background figures, none named (few of the book’s characters get named; the protagonist is only ‘the kid,’ then ‘the man’). None of the women in the book are more than props for the main story — though of course, that all-extremely-male arrangement is itself an aspect of the story. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 
  2. I use phrases like this all the time, don’t I. And but they’re always stupid, and but here we are. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)