Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Immortal

To return to an idea explored in my last blogpost, Byron had a major impact on the invention of the modern vampire. Here is his description of it in his Oriental romance, The Giaour:

And fire unquench'd, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race…

In a nutshell: immortality bites. Whenever Byron grants immortality to a figure, it is always a sad story. In his closet drama Manfred, the title character pulls a Byronic version of Faust in order to summon the demons of hell to—get this—help him commit suicide. Living forever means watching everyone you care about die—living forever means that you have more than enough time to get bored of a job or bored of a city or bored of Halloween trick-or-treating—living forever means this times infinity.

Some modern texts figure this out to a certain extent. In Buffy, vampires are demons without souls—and so they live immorally, in the moment, in the present, because they don’t have human minds. On the other hand (ugh) in Twilight, Edward Cullen and family live in Forks, Washington, sitting through an eternity of science labs and pep rallies and—I think I have failed to give major props to Stephenie Meyer. She just designed what seems to be my personal idea of hell.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Sexual Predator

The first modern vampire was born at the same time as another great horror cliché: Frankenstein. While in Geneva, Switzerland, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and Byron’s doctor Polidori decided to write some ghost stories—yeah, they were doing it on a whim, while on vacation—and Mary Shelley indubitably won by writing the first science fiction novel ever. Polidori wrote The Vampyre—and he based it on Lord Byron himself.

Lord Byron was probably one of the world’s first literary bestsellers. He was famous for plenty of things: popularizing the bad boy persona, shaping modern tourism, but especially his sexual proclivities. So when the original vampire story was being written, the vampire took on Byron’s boisterous aristocratic mien—but also a lot of the “my love is fatal to my lover” mythology of Byron’s sexuality.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Thing About Vampires: The Aristocrat

So I just finished reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and so I’ve been thinking about vampires. I thought I’d spend some time discussing the early vampires in fiction—and finish every post with how that strain translates (or does not translate) into contemporary trends like the Twilight series.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire is a Romanian count—one who has a varied history of fighting against Turks and terrorizing Transylvanian villagers—who now wishes to reside in the slightly more populated area of (say) London. He lives in a castle, he has piles of gold (won over centuries of conflict) in his library, and he is polite, well-mannered, and probably speaks the most impeccable English in the entire novel.

He’s an aristocrat, a caricature of an aristocrat, a caricature of a class that was always considered well on its way out by the time Stoker was writing. The idea of a bloodsucking monster being also a member of the aristocracy is fitting: individuals who don’t produce their own blood, but simply suck it out of others; individuals who live so long that they are rich simply by virtue of their riches being old…

So who ends up killing him? A ragtag team of rising middle-class heroes: a doctor who works at an asylum, a lawyer who is struggling with his first days on the job, a newlywed wife who can type and write in shorthand, and more. The Victorian period in England consolidated the rise of middle-class values, of the nuclear family, of Protestant work ethic—and so in one sense, it’s about middle-class people outsmarting this rich usurper who thinks he can live off the lifeforce of other people.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Types of Dystopos: Pangaea

Panem in The Hunger Games; Eurasia in 1984; the Magisterium of The Golden Compass

Tectonic theory posits that the earth is actually a series of plates floating on molten metal. The continents used to be smashed together in a giant supercontinent that geologists call “Pangaea.” It suggests a simpler world, where you could walk from one side of the extant world to the other; it’s a world that’s almost impossible to imagine as contiguous with our own, Brazil and Nigeria next door neighbors, Russia and Alaska and Canada all one big hunting ground.

In dystopian fiction, a similar move happens: in 1984, we have neither Great Britain nor Russia nor China but Oceania and Eurasia and Eastasia. In The Hunger Games, we have Panem (a word that is probably originally a play on “panem et circenses,” the Latin for “bread and circuses”, but also nicely captures the idea of a pan-encompassing nation-state).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Types of Dystopos: Astroturf

Examples: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451

I just finished Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the many “classic” dystopian novels that make up this genre’s history—and I was struck by Atwood’s decision to set her novel so close to the founding of her dystopia, Gilead.

New regimes are sometimes forged by revolution, born of sweat and popular dissent—created by grassroots movements that call and clamor for change. Few dystopias arise from this, if only because where they end up is ultimately a population of people too miserable, or lethargic, or both. Instead, as in Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian system just springs into life, a fake grassroots movement—astroturf. Extremists in Handmaid’s Tale gun down the American Senate; we have intimations that the caste system of BNW was developed by scientists and World Controllers.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Goodwhere, Badwhere, Nowhere, Thiswhere

Dystopian novels are hot right now: my dad has been reading them like crazy—the Uglies series, the Hunger Games series (check out my review of The Hunger Games series: 1, 2, and 3), the novel Matched, and more and more. I liked them before they were cool—right?—I remember being in high school, senior year, reading 1984 and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 and the rest.  Now we've seen an explosion of dystopian fiction.

The easiest answer for this sudden trend in popularity is this: most teenagers and young adults like them, and now that YA literature is hot, dystopian novels are hot, too. I can imagine why I as a young adult, just learning the shadier undersides of everything from economics to politics to religion to authority in general, would enjoy reading books where the entire world is slightly askew: to wit, it was the way I saw the world I was living in already anyway.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Harry Potter: What Measure is a House Elf?

For all the fantastic creatures contained in Hagrid’s textbooks, there are actually very few non-human characters in Harry Potter. Humans (wizard or muggle) remain the main heroes and villains of the story, and many monsters that might inhabit other series remain at the periphery. The Inferi seem to stand in for zombies and vampires and other undead—but then we never see much of them. Lupin remains our lovable werewolf—but outside of book three, there isn’t much to be made of this. Mermaids remain at the bottom of the lake; dragons and hippogriffs seem to be constantly getting shipped to other parts of the world in order to avoid liquidation. 

So the most interesting additions to the Potterverse are the House-Elves—distant seconds are the Centaurs and the Goblins. The House-Elves create an ever-progressing revision in the series. In book two, we’re first introduced to Dobby, clever and good-natured, if bumbling; in book five, we’re introduced to Kreacher, a servant as befouled and bigoted as Dobby is sweet-hearted and loyal. They both serve important plot points in book seven where—despite having astounding magic—the Dark Lord seems to ignore them almost entirely.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Harry Potter: Bullies, Bureaucrats, and Lesser Evils

Between Death-Eaters and Dumbledore’s Army, Harry Potter can seem something of a melodrama—the good guys are very good, the bad guys are very evil. The good wizard looks like an idealized combination of our favorite grandfather and Gandalf and SANTA; the evil wizard is an archlich with a noseless face and a sibilant hiss. In this respect, HP runs afoul of a constant temptation of the fantasy genre: in a world where the rules of physics can be bent, and in a world where even reality seems difficult to parse, the lines drawn between good and evil are as obvious as the Berlin Wall. And there’s never a doubt about which side you are on, either.

So it’s important to recognize when Rowling muddies these lines by creating characters who are somewhere in between: neither black nor white but a shade of gray. I’m talking mostly about the Bureaucrats: Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and Percy Weasley. In a world of stark morality, these characters tend to insist on stark legality—or stark prudence—or stark status quo.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Harry Potter: What Kind of Terrorists are the Death-Eaters?

 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince begins with Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, visiting the “other” minister—the Prime Minister of Great Britain. In the first chapter of the book, Fudge discusses several acts of terrorism: the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament, a mass breakout from Azkaban, and then includes the collapse of a Muggle bridge and a hurricane, all ascribed to the Death Eaters.

Terrorism was, of course, on everyone’s minds in 2005, when Rowling wrote the novel. It seems like a simple, straightforward comparison. But what kind of terrorists are the Death-Eaters?

Historically, Fudge’s meeting with the PM of England is notable: it would have been John Major in 1996—and the terrorists on everyone’s minds in the 90s were the IRA in Northern England. On the other hand, if Rowling was thinking more about the time she was writing in—rather than about—then she’d be thinking about Tony Blair, who was less worried about the IRA (the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998) and more entangled in the American “War on Terror.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

This Writer: Resolution

In 2010, I decided that I wanted to write (the first draft of) a novel. I’d been in grad school for four years, focusing on classes and teaching freshman composition, and I hadn’t written much fiction since undergrad. Writing a novel seemed daunting.

But writing a novel in a year seemed less daunting: having the full year helped me relax—but also pushed me into complacency. So I subdivided the novel into pieces—too many pieces, it turns out—but a chapter of a novel per month seemed a little less daunting, and a subchapter of a novel per week even less so.

It was kind of like when I was younger and would wander into a cold swimming pool an inch at a time—it’d take me forever to get in, but I'd eventually get in. (Nanowrimo, by contrast, is jumping from the high-dive.)

Different people and projects take different strokes. One friend shoots to write a certain amount of time per day—and I find that this method works better for me when writing academic writing. Many of my friends find that they work better writing for a deadline with an audience—writing workshop, accountability partners, etc. At least one friend says that from now on he’ll write at a dead sprint until the thing is done, which helps maintain the continuity of his voice.

I’m glad to report that I finished the first draft of my novel just two weeks after the end of 2010, sometime in mid-January 2011. But there were snags along the way, which I’ll talk about in future posts. But at least I got my feet wet.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

One Last Thing J.K. Rowling Wrote that She Totally Wish She Hadn’t

This week, I've been talking about aspects of the Harry Potter series that I believe J. K. Rowling grew tired of, found problematic after a book or two, or radically changed in tone as the series developed.

3) Sorting Hat — and the Houses in General

The Sorting Hat is a big deal in book one — and then is promptly overlooked for a few books because (hey) the sorting hat is boring if it isn’t sorting your main characters… and we know they all end up in Gryffindor anyway.

I like that Rowling brings the Sorting Hat back later, only to give the hat a new song. It’s a clever aside and something of a lampshade hanging — remember, the author is admitting that even the hat is bored of itself!

But on a larger note, I do wonder if J.K. Rowling regrets making the Hogwarts Houses so impermeable and unbalanced. All the sympathetic characters fall into Gryffindor — and all the evil wizards (who are ugly!) fall into Slytherin.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Another Thing J.K. Rowling Wrote that She Totally Wish She Hadn’t

Harry Potter is most beloved for its richness and depth — it feels like a real world; it's staggering and intimidating and unmasterable in its largeness. That’s part of what makes the series so good.

2) Marauder’s Map, Time-Turner, House-Elf Magic and Other Rule-Breakers

The most difficult part of these depth, however, is what to do with all the loot.

The Marauder’s Map shows people’s names — but no one notices Wormtail or Crouch or VOLDEMORT (the twins have the map in book 1, remember) wandering the steps of Hogwarts. House-Elves seem to be able to apparate in and out and through barriers like it’s nobody’s business.  Paintings and photographs are inhabited, turning every furnished home into a fantastic 1984 Big Brother dystopia.

And there’s a Time-Turner that — oh, god — there’s a time-travel device in this universe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

One Thing J.K. Rowling Wrote that She Totally Wish She Hadn’t

Having written about artistic momentum in a previous post, I'd like to turn this theory towards a book series that I love, a book series I get into arguments about all the time. You see, I get into fights with other Harry Potter fans because some enthusiasts subscribe to a belief that J.K. Rowling knew down to the sentence what she wanted to do with the whole seven-book series.

Over the next few days, I’d like to discuss three aspects of the early books that overrun their boundaries. Three aspects that J.K. Rowling more or less dismisses, overwrites, undercuts, or avoids talking about in the books to come. They’re kernels of ideas that slowly accumulate momentum — and have to be squashed in later novels.

1) Quidditch

This one is practically a gimme. Rowling designed quidditch in the first book — and designed it poorly. Imagine a game of soccer where everyone on the team plays for 1 point at a time, except for one team member who runs around looking for a four-leaf clover. Oh, and the four-leaf clover is worth a million points. That's the Seeker!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Devil's Party or Not

My friends and I get in fights about Milton occasionally. (/nerdalert) There are basically two readings of Milton. William Blake felt that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it” — that in writing Paradise LostMilton lost control of one unruly character named Satan. Stanley Fish instead argues that Milton was fully in control of his work and that the seductiveness of Satan is part of the story’s message.

It's really a question of how much power do you attribute to an author and how much to the reader. When I argue with my Milton fan-friends, I find myself pulling away from attributing too much genius even to a genius like Milton; when I argue with my science-oriented friends, I find myself pushing them to think that "yes maybe Moby Dick is a symbol for something other than a whale." Everyone falls somewhere along the spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere different depending on how much they like -- or understand -- the work and the author in question.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Song of Fire and Ice: Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things

Sara was laughing about the opening to Game of Thrones.  Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, calls Jon Snow a bastard no fewer than four or five times in a single conversation.  It’s pretty heavy-handed — it’s like Martin thinks we’ll forget — but it’s also the author tipping his hand a little.  Several of the heroes in the book are “cripples, bastards, and broken things.”  In fact, the majority of my favorite characters (and yours, right?) are “broken” in some way.

Bran Stark loses the use of his legs.  Tyrion is a dwarf, an imp, a half-man.  Jon Snow is a bastard.  Hodor is mentally handicapped.  Sandor “The Hound” Clegane is scarred with burns.  Samwell Tarly is fat, disinherited, and a coward.  And in Storm of Swords, even a villain or two gets taken down a peg along the way to becoming POV characters who are more readily sympathetic. (Spoiler: Jaime Lannister )

When travelling to the Wall, Tyrion says (more or less) to Jon Snow that because of his physical limitations, he’s been forced to consider other modes of strength.  This ultimately becomes the take-away point of Game of Thrones — learning your limits makes you flexible and resourceful, which makes you stronger. As the world changes, those who are used to change will bend and adapt.

Friday, August 5, 2011

This Writer: Backstory

By the time I was 21, I’d written out the first drafts of three novels.

In high school, I wrote two novels that could best be described as “melodramatic theological soft sci-fi.” The first included paranormal beings testing humanity in vaguely small sample sizes with magical powers. The second centered on a large, improbable dystopian society based on psychological principles that you might read about on Wikipedia. The books were humorless, incredibly dark, and interminable.

I wrote a bildungsroman in college that was a thinly-disguised idealization of my high school friends—and of me! (but thank god I wasn’t the main character) It included badly-written poetry and an awkward sex scene (that was meant to be awkward?) and a sarcastic but also rather serious narratorial voice.

But after I’d finished each and every one of these novels, I didn’t have the patience to revise, the insight to evaluate, the open-mindedness to accept critique, or the courage to submit. They all became apprenticeship novels.

You never write a book thinking that it’s practice. Whatever work you’re currently writing is desperately serious. I expect that the transition from practice to performance takes most of us by surprise.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Song of Fire and Ice: Beyond the Wall, Across the Sea

George R.R. Martin’s series is set (mostly) on the fictional continent of Westeros—a continent stuck in the medieval period for centuries, modeled most closely on England (The Wall = Hadrian’s Wall, the wildlings = the Scots, Lannisters and Starks = Lancaster and York, etc.).  Nevertheless, the show has a “modern” feel to it — and not just because of all the sex.

In particular, I think it’s laced with a rather modern paranoia — something fueled by the World Wars and especially the Cold War — where enemies become somewhat indeterminate.  Who is your ally?  And who is a mere enemy posing as an ally? 

If a war breaks out, who pays for it and who gets paid?  It’s an idea that’s been around at least as long as Heller’s Catch-22, where a certain commander gets rich selling and reselling supplies to his own forces.  In GoT, it’s characters like Littlefinger and the Boltons who serve as our own  no-bid war contracts and selected presidential cronies.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Song of Fire and Ice: Dark Wings, Dark News

 George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series (now an HBO series called Game of Thrones) has been read by some as a deconstruction of the high fantasy genre.  Some of these deconstructions are long overdue — knights, kings, politics, etc. — but some of them are all-the-more surprising to happen today rather than a half-century ago.

The one I’m thinking of today is simply the pace of communication.  We’ve reached an era where communication is almost instantaneous.  I have friends who are never without their smart phones, who are never lost in a city of millions of people, who are never unaware of who is eating what for dinner.  Our society is glutted with information — which is its own problem, sure — and so the idea of living in a world where the fastest news flies by raven is. just. unimaginable.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Hunger Games and Celebrity Stunts

In The Hunger Games, the love story is practically a sidenote.  We’re really more interested in Katniss outmaneuvering the Careers—and making friends with Rue—and what the hell are those superbees, anyway?  But the love story is there.  And it’s all a lie.

The second and third novels devolve more quickly into the simple love triangle formula.  (Katniss-Peeta-Gale… gah we’ve seen this before Bella-Edward-Jacob)  But the first novel is notable for making its hero and heroine kiss—and all for the camera.  It actually draws a lot of its emotional strength from the fact that Katniss doesn’t know if Peeta is telling the truth, and Peeta doesn’t know if she is telling the truth—and all the people at home don’t know and don’t care.

(Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer)
It’s an interesting re-imagining of our reality TV culture where we often catch ourselves asking if celebrities are really dating—or if it’s only a publicity stunt. In Mockingjay, the documentary crew is an even more intense example of celebrity being used — I’m glad that Collins goes there in the third novel.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Hunger Games is almost an anti-violence novel

I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy a year ago — the novels are set in a futuristic America that has been at once neatly simplified and reordered beyond recognition. Collins does this in order to discuss politics without hurting anyone’s feelings. Something on the level of “in this world, there are HUGE disparities between the rich and the poor! this world glorifies violence! what a scary future,” etc.

In the end, it touts itself as a trilogy exploring the horrors of war, the callousness of totalitarian governments, and—yes! COOL BATTLE SCENES! A SLOW ELIMINATION OF OPPONENTS THROUGH KARMIC DEATH AND OCCASIONAL PLOT TWIST! In a nutshell, the energy behind the message of The Hunger Games runs counter to the energy of its plot.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anatomy of The Hunger Games

Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games is a popular trilogy, soon to be a popular movie series. Like most great books, it’s nothing new. In fact, The Hunger Games can be broken down into exactly five threads.

1) Reality TV
notable predecessors: The Running Man, Death Race 2000
A book or a movie based on reality TV is basically a book or a movie based on all the contrived things that TV shows like to do to us in order to make us watch. We read cliffhangers in books, sure—but a reality TV show builds their entire show layout on them. When Katniss sits in her tree, thinking that it’s getting too quiet and the games designers are going to get antsy—well, it justifies almost any plot twist in the book.

2) Deadly Sport
notable predecessors: The Most Dangerous Game, Gladiator
I don’t know why we humans like this trope. Most of us would lose these kind of games—and real quick, too. I think it’s the karmic victory—the reluctant soldier who turns on the eager killers and gives them a run for their money. Yeah. I think it’s that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Reviews: Two Kinds

A scholar named Gordon Hutner gave a talk at my university a few months ago. During the talk, he lamented that literature professors rarely talk about popular contemporary books—we’ve phased ourselves out of the conversation, leaving it mostly to journalists and novelists. There are plenty of reasons this might have happened (including but not limited to professorial snobbery), but more important is how this affects the general tone of book reviews today.

Journalists tend towards writing like this: “Book X is a tale of betrayal and deception. It begins with a car chase through downtown New York, and it ends with a fistfight atop the Pyramids of Giza. It’s a great read! Read it read it” i.e. book reviews are market tools! and the only important thing about a book is how preeminently saleable it is. Which leads to thumbs up/thumbs down appraisals as if the book is a glitzy gladiator.