Wednesday, July 30, 2003

One More Missing Piece

Number 7 on my list of the ten books left off the 100 best of the 20th century list:

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges

Itís hard to recommend one Borges book as the man never wrote anything but short stories and essays, all of which have been collected in various combinations. Likewise it is hard to recommend just one story as the shiniest diamond on the heap as theyíre all great jewels of literature and for wildly different reasons. I picked Labyrinths mainly because itís the one I have. And itís the one I have because it contains my favorite Borges story, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius.

The space needed to adequately summarize this story would be longer than the story itself. And thatís what is so great about Borges. His concision is razor sharp and he manages, somehow to do more in one five page story than most novelists can do with a whole trilogy. In one paragraph heíll reference some obscure Brazilian custom, a fifteenth century alchemist, Don Quixote, a Sufi parable and a popular movie from the nineteen twenties without it seeming the least bit claustrophobic or pretentious. He can casually discuss the merits of Gnostic Eschatology as if it were common practice to run excerpts from Second Century Coptic texts in the lifestyle section of the Sunday paper.

Labyrinths also contains a selection of great essays and parables. Reading them is like reading some super dense library from the future, written by someone who was never told that everything worth saying has already been said.

Also, Borges is the reason I want to be a librarian, as he was, in the hope that I can maybe just get a glimpse inside the headspace of someone who wrote such profound stories.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Have you Seen This Book?

Number six on my list of the 10 books left off of everyone elseís best 100 books of the 20th century list:

Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins

Itís simply criminal to leave Tom Robbins off of any top 10 list (unless itís a list of the ten most dastardly things to come from Satanís sock drawer). To omit him entirely from the top 100 best books of the 20th century is practically a crime against humanity.

As with any Tom Robbins book the plot is nearly impossible to summarize and still have it make any sense. Suffice it to say, it involves the mummified corpse of Jesus, a magicianís underpants, the nature of human belief systems and the animistic properties of hot dogs.

This is Tom Robbins first book, going way back to 1971, if you can believe it. Like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Another Roadside Attraction deals with the aftermath of the collapse of the sixties. But this book is the other side of the coin. Where fear and Loathing is a drag race through the burning ruins of a revolution fueled by adrenachrome and cocaine, Another Roadside is a stroll through a crumbled graveyard while munching mushrooms and smoking pot.

Other then the same general themes, the two books have nothing in common and I probably shouldnít have even compared them-- like apples and star fruit, thatís how alike they are. But itís too late now. Too Late I tell you!

Another Roadside Attraction has some of Mr. Robbins most glorious prose and should be read if only to fully enjoy the poetic possibilities of the English language. Along the way though you might just fall in love with the lisping gypsy that is Amanda, and learn from a trained baboon named Mon Cul the only word in the English language that rhymes with orange. The mere possibility of such a thing is reason enough to read this book and treasure it as one of the most overlooked and under recognized works of literature.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Freedom Does Not Come In A Happy Meal

ìÖWhen stood next to the choice of American political parties (ìSo, would you like Right Wing, or Supersized Right Wing with Extra Fries?î) my English fuzzy middle-of-the-roadness probably translates easily as bomb-throwing Trotskyist...î

Other than the fact that I am not English, nor very middle of the road (though I do read the Guardian from time to time) this statement by Neil Gaiman pretty much sums up my feelings of American politics at the moment.

It seems to me that sometime during the last three years American politicians as a whole took one giant step to the right so now Liberals are, at best, Centrists while the Centrist are what we called in my youth, Conservatives while what passes for Conservative these days is an appalling confab of Religious Fundies, Racists and genuine, old school Fascists. The problem of course is that itís this last group who have hijacked the White House and replaced sound Fiscal practices with Voodoo Economics and fifty years of foreign diplomacy with the sort of crass Imperialism not seen since the days of the Caesars. You know, the really bad Caesars like Nero and Elagabalus, not the relatively cuddly Caesars like Julius or Augustus.

In other words, weíre only a pair of jackboots away from overt Dictatorship.

OK, maybe Iím exaggerating. Maybe Iím just giving in to the olí hyperbole. But when was the last time you saw a politician in this country that was honestly Liberal? Maybe it hasnít been just in the last three years that weíve shifted rightward; I suppose we could look back to Reagan and see a gradual shift to the right from there on, so that now weíve got to the point where members of the Project for a New American Century are running our country. Or ruining it, depending on how you like illegal invasions for dubious reasons.

The thing is, Iím not entirely sure that just voting Democrat and hoping for the best is going to cut it anymore since Democrats arenít really that much better; sure they are slightly better but how much, really? I kind of like Howard Dean and think he has a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination and even the White House. But he ainít liberal, by any stretch of the imagination.

Now, I know we canít swing back to the left in one fell swoop as itíd probably break our necks. Taking it one step at a time is a good way to start but still, Iím rather fed up with the Lesser-of-Two-Evils style of voting that has become the American standard practice for determining who will be elected Leader of the Free World (or appointed Caesar of the chained Empire, in Bushís case).

Of course, this is all assuming we will have a fair election in 2004, which is not a guarantee. It should be, considering itís in the constitution but thatís really the heart of my point; our own freedoms are no longer inalienable and none of our leaders seem to care very much, since they all seem to be getting corporate contributions to ensure that just the opposite becomes the norm. Which is why Iím wondering if voting and sending e-mails and letters to my representatives is even worth it. Iíve been doing just those things and according to what I was taught in Government class back in High school, this should be working. But itís not. So what do you do when the system doesnít work? And how do you do it in a way that functions within the parameters of the system and wonít earn you a visit from the friendly folks at the FBI or an open ended vacation in Cuba?

I donít know but I need to find out soon because, frankly, if I donít get my country back soon, I might start to consider the bomb throwing Trotskyists as a viable political alternative. Either that or just move to Canada.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Still Missing

Number five on my list of the 10 books left off the best of the 20th century lists was going to be City of Glass by Paul Auster. But Iíve changed my mind. Itís still a fabulous book (Iím rereading it now, actually) but itís not one of the ten most overlooked books from the 20th. In itís place Iíve decided to put

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Now I admit that I saw the movie first. Elvira and I saw a trailer for it, were in the mood for a movie and decided to check it out a sit looked weird, kind of cool and had one of the all time best Pixies songs ever in it. We figured itíd be some action flick. We were wrong but I have never been so delightedly wrong in my life. The movie brought up so many ideas that, at the time, I was just starting to deal with. And when I saw that it was based on a book, I decided to check it out. This was surprise number two.

I have mixed feelings about movies based on books because 99 times out of 100 the book is better and the movie pales because it either leaves out great important themes or plot points or they changed things so much that itís only loosely based on the original material. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good example and so is the Movie the Ninth Gate (a good film by Roman Polanski but nothing even remotely as interesting as the Club Dumas).

Fight Club was different though. I still havenít decided which I like better. And frankly it doesnít matter as they are so similar and the film so true to the book that they are that rare example of how a good story can exist in any medium successfully.

Now itís not for the squeamish. Itís violent and nihilistic but Chuck Palahniuk uses these qualities that could otherwise anesthetize a reader to instead open their mind and make them think about things that our culture often refuses to think about. Like what it means to be a man in a decaying western society that has deemed your million-year -old biological drives obsolete; how do you hunt and gather and procreate when everything you need is at the grocery store and science has made you little more then just a resource for sperm? Or what one must go through these days in order to experience a genuine moment that isnít mediated through an add agency trying to sell you something.

Plus, itís really fucking funny. In a morbid, twisted sort of way. Read the chapter about Marlaís mother and tell me you didnít even chuckle. I dare you.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Something Missing, Still

Number four on my list of the 10 books left off the best of the 20th century lists:

Siddhartha, Herman Hesse

About ten years ago, Siddhartha was one of those books that was required reading for anyone with even a pretense of being well read. When I tell people these days that itís one of my favorite books they just sort of smile and nod and humor me, like I just told them I think the backs of cereal boxes are underrated as literature. I suppose reading a moving, thoughtful story of Prince Siddharthaís journey to enlightenment is considered a sign of oneís Unamerican views now that the mass culture has deemed Multiculturalism a dirty word.

Has anyone else noticed this? Elvira and I were talking about this just the other day, that now it seems to be socially acceptable to show off your Christian Piety, wave a flag and casually drop Bible quotes in conversation, especially if they trample on any spiritual ideas that arenít Christian, support the killing of children in far off countries or generally reinforce the small town bigotry of Protestantism. Itís a disturbing trend and one that seems to becoming more pervasive. OK people, just because a bunch of wacky Muslims donít like us doesnít mean you can bring the white hoods out of the closet and start setting crosses on fire. Did you ever stop to think that we as a culture just might have done something to deserve a little bit of flaming Karma? And Iím apologizing for terrorists or making excuses for their own forms of bigotry. Itís just that I feel it needs to be said: 9/11 didnít give us all carte blanche to hate again. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs desperately to read this book.

Enlightenment is what Siddhartha is all about and something this country and this planet could use a little more of; something slight and luminous-- a slice of Nirvana on Earth. Read Herman Hesseís classic, proudly, out loud while sitting in the park sipping lemonade. Give copies to your friends on their birthdays. Next time some little old lady hands you a Bible tract, hand her your copy of Siddhartha as a trade off.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Magic Words

A lot of people overlook books these days as just another commodity. Some Thing that is bought, sold, collected and ultimately, forgotten about. Nothing more important than a souvenir of some sporting event; far less important than a good TV set. This is a false assumption. For proof, just look at the number of people who are so eager to burn books that contain ideas that they do not approve of.

And that is the key to the mystery. It is because books contain ideas that they are so revered, feared, loved and hated, or at least used to be. They are a focal point for ideas. If we want to get philosophical, you could look at a book as a tangible manifestation of an intangible idea. This attitude is what gave us the concept of a Holy Book in the first place. Our ancestors regarded Books as vessels containing ideas so important to a society that to treat the pages and binding as anything less than Holy was a crime.

We consider ourselves more enlightened these days and more egalitarian. A Book is just a book after all, just wood fibers pressed into paper, printed with inks made from common minerals. The ideas contained in them, well, thatís an intangible thing, best left unmentioned.

Well, letís mention it.

A Book contains ideas, Memes, in the current jargon. Memes get lodged into the brain of the reader, entering through their eyeballs. They stay there and they collide with other Memes, with childhood memories, parental and societal conditioning. Memes are promiscuous, they rub up against each other in cramped spaces and no space is as cramped as the mind of a well-read individual. Itís an orgy of ideas, begetting all manner if unquiet, improper little notions. Ideas that want to spread out, stretch and dance. So they find their way back into books, if the individual can quiet the chatter outside long enough to listen to the chatter inside and write it all down.

So then the books get passed around like the bottles of beer on the wall, never really ending, spreading memes, ideas and the intangible things associated with them all around. Hereís where books get weird.

Thereís a phenomenon, it has no name but everyone Iím sure has experienced it in some form or another. It happens like this: Someone gives you a book for your birthday. Letís say itís a copy of Hamlet. A nice copy, not some cheep Mass Market thatís all dog eared and highlighted form years of being read in school but a nice cloth bound copy of Shakespeareís most highly regarded play. One of your personal favorites that you havenít read in a while. The next day your walking downtown and you pass by the local art house theater and what are they showing that night but Hamlet. Only itís not the Ethan Hawk version. Or even the Mel Gibson version or the Kenneth Branagh version but the 1948, Laurence Olivier version of Hamelt. The one you saw as a kid on scratchy, often watched VHS.

Oh but thatís just a coincidence. Thereís nothing spooky about a small town theater showing a fifty five year old film. Maybe, maybe not.

Try this one on then. My friend Jason sent me an e-mail today, informing me of some family legal problems that neither he nor I can get into right now. But this is the part that got me thinking:

Do you believe that books sometimes appear in your life for a reason? Well, not long ago I was given, by a co-worker, Mikal Gilmore's Shot In The Heart , about his brother Gary Gilmore, the last man to be executed by firing squad in the US, and the subject of N. Mailer's The Executioner's Song . The book is about family secrets, the shock of dealing with them, and the long hard look into the past that such coping requires. A more apropos tome could not have insinuated itself with more Jungian synchronicity than this little bastard did. It's a great book, told in a beautifully spare, rugged tone, by a man who is trying to get at the root of his own problems, which are meager compared to the other members of his family, but nonetheless share the same twisted genesis. Show me a man who believes that something like this is a coincidence and I'll show you an ostrich with its head in the sand.

So all you ostrichs, call me superstitious. Call me drug addled. But what if books really are focal points for intangible forces? Obviously some will be more than others and I think this has to do with our cultureís propensity to mass-produce, that it dilutes the power of a book. Obviously 100,000 copies of Stephen Kingís The Stand is going to attract far less synchronicity than say, Shot in the Heart. In this case, burning a book only makes the remaining copies all that more potent. Something the anti-Harry Potter/ Jesus freak crowd should chew on next time they advertise a bonfire.

Of course thereís a whole causality issue here; which came first, the book or the synchronous events but thatís an old riddle pertaining to chickens and eggs that I donít have an answer for. I just wanted to ask the question.

Someday soon Iíll write something about my own very weird experience that started the day my copy of Robert Anton Wilsonís Cosmic Trigger I arrived in the mail. For anyone familiar with RAWís writing and especially the Cosmic Trigger trilogy Iíll just say it was damn spooky and has never fully been explained in any way satisfactory to my mind.

But as Mr. Wilson would say, it does give cause for one to wonder fiercely.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Something Missing, part 2

Number 3 on my list of the 10 books overlooked as the best of the 20th century is

Radio Free Albemuth, by Philip K. Dick

A paranoid incompetant has schemed his way into the White House and convulsed America in a vicious war against imaginary internal enemies. A struggling science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick is trying to keep from becoming one pf the war's casualties. And Dick's best friend, a record executive named Nicholas Brady, is recieving transmissions from an extraterrestrial entity that may also happen to be God-- an entity that apparently wants him to overthrow the President.

Normally, I distrust the back cover summary on a book. They're reductionist by nature and often innacurate altogether. But Radio Free Albemuth is different. The above description accurately sums up the plot but it also gives you a handle on what is, by its very nature, dodgy subject matter. Anyone at all familiar with Phil Dick's Valis material will know what I mean. Anyone who isn't should go read Valis, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and the Divine Invasion. Then read Albemuth, which takes the real life events of Philip Dick's own mind mangling experiences, pink phosphor lasers and all, and remixes them into a single, last moving story about two men trying to live in an insane world.

A lot of people have written how El Presidente Bush resembles Big Brother or Dr. Strangelove more and more every day. But they aren't even close; he's Ferris F. Fremont, down to the cowboy hat, vacant gaze and mindless snear. Read Radio Free albemuth and shiver at how truely frightening the similarities between this parallel Earth of the eighties resembles real life today.

Aramcheck, help us.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Blah, Blah, Blah...

I havenít felt like writing much these past few days. I donít know why, other than that Iím still getting over a persistent cold. Youíd think I would be all fired up, seeing as how Iím about half way through a great little story about a young girl and her demonic doll but for some reason Iím just not very focused. And itís not the coldó I wrote 4000 words last week when I was worse off than I am now.

Maybe Iím anxious over starting Grad School soon. A month from today in fact Iíll be heading up to Maryland. Iíve never been to the University of Maryland; itís been four years since I was last in college at all, and that was SCAD, which is sort of a joke of a college, to be honest. I mean come on they gave me a degree in comic books, how serious could they be? So Iím a good eight years out of any rigorous sort of academic lifestyle, Iím going to be away from my wife for weeks if not months at a time... So I guess it could be that Iím just a little distracted.

Not that Iím really all that worried about the academic part, from what Iíve heard form other people who have gotten their MLS, the classes are pretty simple; basically, if you know your alphabet and can write the occasional paragraph explaining something simple, itís a breeze. Having just completed a 58,500 word novel and being half way through a 30,000 word novella, I think I can handle the writing and the research (something I actually enjoy doing; most people think that writing fiction, you just sit down and write whatever comes into your head but thereís a lot of actual fact checking and research involved and something satisfying about doing it, especially when its of your own volition rather than for some silly research paper on the Roman Aqueduct or the causes of the Civil War).

I donít for a minute believe in writers block (for evidence, reread the above three paragraphs). Thatís just an excuse for being lazy and if Iím going to be lazy, I donít need an excuse; Iíll simply be lazy. This is different, I have the desire to write but when I sit down at the computer I decide to instead play on the Internet or watch a movie instead. And itís mot like I lack self discipline (did I mention my novel? The 260 page one I spent a year writing?)

Perhaps I am just being lazy, distracted and sick. I think Iíll go watch Farscape and cough up a lung, while trying not to think about the fact that I just took out a huge loan for an education in a field Iím not entirely sure I want to be in.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

For some reason I seem to be in procrastination mode today. I've been very good this week, having written over 4000 words of my current story ("The Black Doll", which is a sweet coming of age story about a young girl and her heartwarming relastionship wirh an ancient doll poseessed by demon). But I just can't get motivated today. Perhaps a pot of coffee and a moment of silence to clear my head...

Nope. Still procrastinating. Ooh! I have Farscape DVDs to watch!

Pray for me...

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Something Missing

During my vacation I perused the Internet, scanning various lists of the 100 greatest works of fiction of the 20th century. There are quite a few and not all of them agree. Sure, the basic titles and authorís youíd expect show up on almost all of them: Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, blah, blah, blah. I couldnít help but notice some (in my view) glaring omissions though, mostly a few of the more obscure authors and titles that have greatly influenced my own writing. So I decided to put together a list of my top 100. Then I realized what a lot of work that is so I decided to cut it short at 50. Still, thereís a lot of overlap with other lists, so here is my list of the 10 greatest books of the twentieth Century that were left off of most everyone elseís list (in no particular order):

1. The Hearing Trumpet, Leonora Carrington

2. In watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan

3. Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick

4 Siddhartha, Herman Hesse

5. City of Glass, Paul Auster

6. Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins

7. Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges

8. The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll Pataphysician, Alfred Jarry

9. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

10. Illuminatus!, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea

Iíll be posting sporadically little capsule reviews of each book. Here are the first two:

1. The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington

A coven of little old ladies, with the help of a pack of wolves, a nest of bees and a freelance mailman named Taliesin, steel the Holy Grail from the descendants of the Crusaders and return it to the Goddess from whence the Christians stole it in the first place. While illuminating the pagan roots of the Christian Mythology, Leonora Carrington also admonishes the church for its historically cruel treatment of women, especially the elderly variety, as second class citizens. But more then that, Carrington, a surrealist painter and writer, manages to evoke a brilliant sense of dreaminess and real emotion, something conspicuously absent from most surrealist writings. Personally, this is one of my all time favorite books. Iíve read it three times, and will probably read it for a fourth very soon.

2. In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan has been all but forgotten by the world of literature, it seems. Which is sad because his books are so joyful, melencholy and funny that to let them slip into obscurity is, I think, a loss to humanity. I think the reason he has been junked is because of his late fifties, early sixties Late Beat, proto-Hippy voice. You can picture him sitting in a tent in the woods, smoking a joint and dancing in the moonlight with some hairy girlfriend. Now, I hate Hippies as much as the next guy. But he manages to evoke the appreciation of innocence, the silly optimism in the face of existential horror of modern life; all that is good in Hippiedom, without the dirty feet and self-righteous hypocrisy. Aftr all, when the eities rolled around and all the other Hippies went home to mommy and daddy and became yuppies Brautigan at least had the guts and the honesty to kill himself instead of voting Republican.

Oh, and the book is about this strange group of people living in a post apocalyptic utopia where all the days are lit by different colored suns and tigers eat the parents of the narrator, then help him with his arithmetic. They eat some carots, make statues out of wastermelon sugar and despite all reason are happy.

This book is curently only available in an omnibus with Trout Fishing in America, probably the best novel ever written about absolutely nothing and a collection of mediocre poetry. I recomend all three, even the poetry. Some of it isn't too bad.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Kidís Stuff

Iíve noticed more than a few grumblings from critics over the new Harry Potter book. There seems to be a consensus that there probably are more adults then children reading the book. Given the deplorable state of the book industry these days this is no small thing to worry about. But I think this is a symptom of a larger issue; the fact that a good 90% of adult literature well, frankly, sucks.

There are only so many rewrites of Catcher in the Rye you can read before you toss their hands up and run back to the childrenís section of the local book store. Maybe youíll pause to peruse the Sci-Fi/ fantasy shelves but then, seeing mostly clones of Tolkien and Asimov, proceed strait to Harry Potter and the Series of Unfortunate Events. If you think Iím being unfair or snobbish, my wife and I are both guilty of this flight from Serious Adult Literature as well and so I speak from personal experience; Elvira is an avid fan of Lemony Snickettís and Iíve always had a soft spot for Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I think that the fact that we are not two lone nuts who appreciate childrenís fiction (for the sake of all that is good and right with the world, you must read Coroline!) says something about the deficiency of the publishing industry. So concerned are they with force feeding us the bastard offspring of John Grisham and Stephen King (horrible mutant children of Agatha Christie and H.P. Lovecraft, respectively) or the latest masturbatory efforts by some chic and utterly diseased neurotic (Iím looking at you, Franzen!) that publishers have missed the boat. Literally. There it goes, chugging away from the pier of maturity, heading for the baby pool.

Simply put, there is an element of whimsy and magic lacking from the world of Serious Adult Literature. Sure, now that it has been adapted into a series of blockbuster movies, the Lord of the Rings has a stamp of approval from the mainstream and all those nerds like me who read them back in junior high can pull our dog-eared copies out from under the bed and sneer, ìI was there ages ago you semiliterate bastard offspring of an Orc!î But I guarantee you, the only reason some Fantasy and Sci-fi authors are having their work appreciated is because the Nerds have finally come of age, found, against all reason, someone to breed with and now have quietly snuck into acceptability by sheer numbers and the fact that we control all the computers.

But still, thereís a ghetto effect when it comes to Science Fiction and Fantasy. Worse even then that are the real literary untouchables, Adult Fabulous Fiction (and I mean Fabulous as in resembling a fable or fairy tale, not Fabulous! Slurred with a mincing lisp. I suppose I could call it Magical Realism or Slipstream but one term is an oxymoron and the other sheer nonsense). This is a loose term referring to such disparate authors as Barry Yourgrau, Tom Robbins, Isabel Alende, Thomas Pynchon and Italo Calvino; any author, basically, that shuns the sham of Realism and isnít afraid to get freaky deaky and even (gasp!) laugh at themselves and the world around them. You know, no one youíve ever heard of because theyíve never been a best seller and therefore, are publishing industry pariahs because they donít generate flashy sales figures, step on Oprahís toes (because sheíd swoon and call Dr. Phil for a prayer huddle half way through The Crying of Lot 49) or go on TV to brag.

OK, so I exaggerated a bití there are books full of magic and whimsy and laughter for adults. But how many of you can name ten? What needs to happen is these Fabulous authors need to be offered by critics as alternatives to the latest Catcher in the Rye retread. So You like Harry Potter huh? Then read the Hearing Trumpet. Itís like Harry Potter, only written well and for adults. Until that happens, adults like my wife and I will continue to swing through the childrenís section, since publishers think that books that are magical, weird, thoughtful and incisive are just kidís stuff.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Last Night Elvira and I watched one of the greatest movies of all time, The Day The Earth Stood Still. We were both struck by how well it stands up, even after fifty odd years. Then we wondered what would happen...

If George W. Bush Were President
The Day The Earth Stood Still

(The Oval Office. Bush sits at his desk while Dick Cheney stands beside him. Two MPs escort Klaatu, dressed in his space suit in from stage left.)

Klaatu: I bring you greetings from Outer Space. As a token of good will I offer you this. (presents a small cylindrical object) With it, you can explore other worlds.

Bush: Really? You alien fellas, you got any oil on that planet of yers?

Klaatu: Mr. President, my people abandoned fossil fuels ages ago, we have no need for oil or any otheró

Bush: Just answer the question there, Klaatudu!

Klaatu: Well, yes, I would suspect there are untapped oil fields but...

(Cheney leans in to whisper in Bushís ear)

Cheney: Sir, he arrived in a vehicle powered by an advanced form of Atomic energy. It is conceivable that they could, at some point in the future, decide to use that advanced Atomic power against us! I suggest we send a military force, now, to preempt this eventuality!

Bush: Well, he says they gots lotsa oil, so I agree!

Cheney (to Mps): Escort this creature out of here!

(The MPs grab Klaatu and drag him by his arms towards the door.)

Klaatu: Wait! I bring a message of Cosmic Importance! The life of every creature on this planet weighs in the balance! Gort!!!

Bush: Hear that? I thought so! This alien fellerís a Terrorist!

Cheney: I want him on the first boat to Guantanamo Bay!

(Gort the giant robot knocks through the wall. MPs surround him, firing their guns wildly, to no effect. Gortís visor raises and a blinding white light fills the stage as he obliterates Planet Earth. Curtain.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Harry Potter and the Fabulously Fabulous Fabulator

My wife and I decided to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix aloud to one another. We started during an eight hour car ride to visit my parents. Had we only known what we were getting ourselves into...

Reading a book aloud is a true test of the authorís writing ability, as what sounds good rattling around in your head or crawling across the page may not sound so great when spoken aloud. I wish someone had told J.K. Rowling this (even though it is a long-standing fact, apparent to anyone who has attempted to write anything longer than a grocery list). So youíd have thought that by her fifth book, sheíd have figured this out, along with some other basic rules of grammar. But fame and fortune have turned more than one good writer into a hack.

Now, the book isnít that bad. But it isnít that good either. The story is intriguing, if a little slow. And let me just say, 890 pages is too long by about six hundred pages for any book, whether oriented towards children or adults. But ever since Goblet of Fire, Mrs. Rowling has been stuck in real time, showing us everything but the Hogwartís students bathroom habits (Oh, wait, Harry took a bath in Number Four and there was the bit with Moaning Myrtle in number Two. Never mind then).

So Mrs. Rowling needs to learn how to cut a scene to enhance dramatic effect, rather then squash it like a Cornish Pixie. In my estimate, this could take a good hundred pages or more off the overall length (about 750).

The second problem that jumped out at me right away was the adverbs. I donít recall them being this conspicuous in the previous four books and need to go check and see if they have always been there or if theyíre proliferation in book five constitutes a rash or infection of some sort; the literary equivalent of chicken pox.

This might sound a bit nitpicky but come on! I counted 20 adverbs in one chapter alone! Sometimes they are bunched together, five or more to a page and on at least one occasion I saw two adverbs strung together to create the most unholy sentence ever devised. Now, I realize the adverb ban in literature is rather old fashioned. I use them from time to time myself but make every effort to edit them out wherever possible. If Mrs. Rowling would have done the same, she could have shortened the book by another hundred to a hundred and fifty pages (600 --yes, thereís that many adverbs).

Then there were the adjectives. Now, I love adjectives. They give me a fuzzy, warm, delirious buzz, like a good bottle of wine. But Rowling is drunk with them. Drunk I tell you! Theyíre everywhere, in no fewer then bakerís dozen bunches. I suppose she got a good deal from a wholeseller (ìI can let you have the adjectives for a nickel a dozen but only if you take some adverbs off my hands, say a couple thousand.î) I canít recall a single page where Mrs. Rawling lets her verbs and nouns stand unmodified. Like an overprotective mother, she wraps them in wooly layers before sending them outside. Too bad that, where literature is concerned, itís always summer, when a bathing suit is more appropriate then a fur lined parka.

I understand she had pressure to top book four in both content and sales and that sort of capitalist hexing is enough to knock the wind out of even the best writerís verbage. But lack of confidance is no excuse. Iíd have waited another six months to read a slimmer book that was better written. Minus the adjectives, Book five could easily come in another hundred pages shorter (500).

None of these problems are anything that a good editor wouldnít have caught on first read through. The problem is J.K. Rowling has joined the ranks of the elite and no longer requires the meddling of mere editors. She is now a demigoddess of the written word, her every grammatical error a Stylistic Choice instead of Poor Writing. Matters are only worsened when the writer is encouraged to keep making these mistakes by the corporate yes-men and critics who proclaim her a genius without any stipulations. This attitude turns otherwise good writers into zombie hacks, cranking out product rather then art. This curse of fame is not uncommon (see King, Stephan; career of).

I for one wish her editor had a spine and would have said, ìGreat story, Joanne, love the characters and the plot. Now loose about 400 pages of filler.î But I suppose the people at Scholastic are vying for the Guinness Book of World Records title of Childrenís Book most likely to be substituted as building material.

In the end, Harry Potter may vanquish Lord Voldemort but unless J.K. Rowling realizes what sheís doing (and not doing) itíll be too late to save him from mediocrity.