Friday, October 28, 2005

Jonathan Carroll is an evil bastard

There's a lot of things I hate, and right now one of them is reviewers who compare authors to other authors. The cover blurb on Jonathan Carroll's White Apples says, "Reading Jonathan Carroll is like watching The X-Files or The Twilight Zone if the episodes were written by Dostoyevsky or Italo Calvino." The quote is from Pat Conroy, author of The Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini,(fine books I'll never get around to reading, I'm sure) so he should know better. The amount of useful information in the blurb is close to zero. For reading it to be worthwhile, you have to have seen the Twilight Zone and/or The X-Files and read Dostoyevsky and/or Italo Calvino. Further, you must like all those things, and be intelligent and imaginitive enough to do a mashup in your head of the various styles of those shows and writers. What's more, it forces you to do a qualitative comparison. Dostoyevsky becomes a standard, and Carroll is either "better" or "worse" than him, and that's not particularly useful. Dostoyevsky is historically significant and worth reading in high school & college lit classes, but by contemporary standards he's overly wordy and boring to all but a niche segment of intellectuals (and they're probably just pretending to like him just to make themselves seem more intellectual). 98% of the time when a reviewer compares one author to another, you're learning more about the reviewer than the reviewed. It is a way of saying, "Look at how well read and culturally diverse I am! Plus, I aced those comparison/contrast short answer essay exam questions back in college!"

Comparing Jonathan Carroll to any other writer is useless, and it is taking the easy way out. I can see the impulse to compare him to other's, but that is more an instinctive reaction than anything else. When confronted with something completely unfamiliar, we put try to reframe it in familiar terms. If you can say, "this thing is like that thing I'm familiar with" then it is understandable and controllable and comfortable. But Jonathan Carroll is unique. One might say he's like a fantasy writer gone bad. Not bad in the sense of lacking quality, but bad as in misbehaving. There's rules, written and unwritten, for fantasy writing. For instance Carroll might go a hundred pages into a novel without anything happening that is outside the paramaters of what we recognize as within the realms of everyday possibility. In a fantasy novel, there are characters who are supposed to be alive and others who should die by the end of the novel. If it doesn't happen that way, it should be obvious, so we feel either cathartic release over the tragedy, or a sense of outrage at the unpunished villian, but still be able to leave with our sense of "rightness" unchallenged. With Carroll you really have no idea who'll live and who'll die. There's no predictability. There's not even predicatable unpredictability. You can be half a page from the end of a novel, and still have no idea how it is going to end.

But then, saying Carroll breaks the rules is still wrong, because that implies that he's some sort of reactionary or radical. He's more like, well the new darlings of the artsy elite are the "naive" or "outsider" artists. These are artists who either have some sort of mental disorder, or are so far outside of standard culture that their artwork isn't influenced by any other artist, and their work is truly original, or something. Their work "breaks the rules" but then it doesn't because they never knew, or are incapable of knowing the rules in the first place. Carroll writes fantasy like a "naive" or "outsider," like he's never been exposed to fantasy before and never knew there were rules. But that's still wrong, because fantasy written by someone who isn't well-read in fantasy tends to be awful because they don't know what is cliché and what is worth emulating, and Carroll knows very well what makes good fantasy.

Maybe Carroll's indescribability is what keeps him labeled as a "cult writer," a condescending term he's been stuck with for more than twenty years now. I'm not sure what that means, exactly. Perhaps it means a writer with a small but rabid fan base who never makes it "big." His books are guaranteed to sell enough to be worth publishing, but don't sell enough to be considered "best-sellers." Meanwhile, it is too intellectual and unconventional to be popular with the mainstream, but has that fantasy label keeping his work from recieving the critical attention it deserves.

Screw it. Don't read any reviews. Forget everything I've said here. Just read his books with an open mind, and know that you're cooler than anyone who hasn't read him before. You can find a number his books at Book Closeouts. I picked up 5 of his novels there for about $20, total. Go read him now.

Monday, October 24, 2005

story artefact: stones in the water

Here's an idea I like, but will probably never get around to using, so this is Creative Commons Share Alike. Use it freely if you want.

A lot of shops around coastal tourist spots sell these little souveniers that you may have seen. They're a clam, oyster or muscle shells that have been cleaned out of their original occupants. They're taped back together with a thin strip of paper. You drop it in a glass of water and the strip dissolves and the shell opens and a little flower made of paper and string floats up out of the shell.

In this story, an ancient Chinese (well, it doesn't need to be Chinese, any country that has been along to have ancient forgotten arts will do) craftsman made the most exquisite of these flowers, the most beautiful the world has ever seen. Only instead of making them out of shells, he disguised them as rocks. The rocks were completely convincing. There was no way to tell by looking at them that they were anything but rocks until they were dissolved in water, wherupon they would split

Today these rock sell for incredible prices, but the one thing that makes them valuable, the artwork inside them, can never be seen because actually dissolving them in water would destroy their value.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Anansi Boys

Good Morning, Spider!

Just finished Neil Gaiman's latest, Anansi Boys. I'm slipping because it was out for a whole week before I actually got my hands on a copy. Shows you how busy I've been! Fortunately it was pouring rain and cold out all weekend, and I didn't have anywhere to be so I just stayed curled up on the bed with the cats and read the whole book in one sitting.

That's about all I'm going to say about it. Part of the joy of reading Neil Gaiman's work is the fun of the suprise of it, and I don't want to take that away from you. Although even if I told you, it isn't that cheesy, "Oh crap, the dude's a chick!" or "You mean he's been dead this whole time?" or "What? You mean to tell me it was just a SLED?" kind of gimmick suprise that the plot hinges on. Gaiman's suprises are much more artfully crafted than that.

There's a saying to the effect of, "If you show the gun in act one, it has to go off by act three." For the average writer, the suprise twist would be that the gun didn't go off after all. For Gaiman, the gun would wind up in a yard sale, to be bought by someone who is suicidal, who then exchanges it in a guns-for-toys program, and then gives the toy to an unhappy child in hopes that the child will remember this act of kindness and not have to feel the same way he does when he gets older.

But even that isn't right. Even if his books were without suprises, gripping plots and compelling characters, they'd still be worth reading because his writing is so well crafted, his phrases so beautifully turned, that just the sound of the words put together would make the reading worthwhile.

Which is all just to say read Anansi Boys and everything else Gaiman has ever written. You won't be dissappointed.

Hard Case Crime

Hard Case Crime is a new publishing house devoted to publishing oldschool paperback crime novels. As a fan of the originals, this is great news! The covers are to die for. I hope that Hard Case Crime realize how good they are and makes them available as prints. They're reprinting old classics, and also attracting some great contemporary writers. The idea was fun enough for Stephen King to write his own, The Colorado Kid. Major cool points to Mr. King for writing a direct-to-paperback pulp, just for fun! I just finished The Colorado Kid, and it was a suprise. I was expecting something more, I don't know, hard boiled pulp fictiony. It was a whole lot more quiet and sensitive. I don't want to say too much about it because I don't want to spoil it. It is definitely a recommended read. It reminded me a lot of what I was saying about Hannah and about the burning baby in Milo, Maine. I guess that shouldn't be suprising. Stephen King, for all his money, still chooses to live in the "real" Maine, away from the tourist towns, where things like the events in The Colorado Kid actually happen. More cool points for The King.