Saturday, November 18, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

-- Joan Didion

Friday, November 17, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

An excuse uglier than the guilt.

-- Iraqi saying, as quoted on the internet (so take with salt!)

"…a cosmos in which rude pictures of beats and monsters had been painted with flaming suns"

I spent the remainder of the night staring at the stars; it was the first time I had ever really experienced the majesty of the constellations… How strange it is that the sky, which by day is a stationary ground on which the clouds are seen to move, by night becomes the backdrop for Urth's own motion, so that we feel her rolling beneath us as a sailor feels the running of the tide. That night the sense of this slow turning was so strong that I was almost giddy with its long, continued sweep.

Strong too was the feeling that the sky was a bottomless pit into which the universe might drop forever. I had heard people say that when they looked at the stars too long they grew terrified by the sensation of being drawn away. My own fear—and I felt fear—was not centered on the remote suns, but rather on the yawning void; and at times I grew so frightened that I gripped the rock with my freezing fingers, for it seemed to me that I must fall off Urth.…

At first all the stars seemed like a featureless mass of lights, however beautiful, like sparks that fly upward from a fire. Soon, of course, I began to see… shapes, some corresponding to constellations of which I had heard, others that were, I am afraid, entirely of my own imagining…

When these celestial animals burst into view, I was awed by their beauty. But when they became so strongly evident (as they quickly did) that I could no longer dismiss them by an act of will, I began to feel as frightened of them as I was of falling into that midnight abyss over which they writhed; yet this was not a simple physical and instinctive fear like the other, but rather a sort of philosophical horror at the thought of a cosmos in which rude pictures of beats and monsters had been painted with flaming suns.

— Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor, chapter 13

Thursday, November 16, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.

-- Sidney Hook

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

The only completely consistent people are the dead.

-- Aldous Huxley

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

-- William Pitt

Puzzle Literature: A Querry

I have a question.  I'd like to list examples of a genre I shall call (for want of a better term), "puzzle literature".  I will define puzzle literature as literature whose narrative essence is a puzzle: which is to say, which can't be understood on a surface level (what Jews refer to as pshot) without unraveling various mysteries.  I want to refer to it not as a genre (since I don't think it has the social support and interlocking influence networks of a genre) but as a mode: a type of writing different writers can use, occasionally or regularly.

I shall take as my twin holotypes (yes, yes, I know you can't have more than one, feh) for the mode Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Gene Wolfe Book of the New Sun.  (Both authors write in that mode repeatedly, but those are my favorite examples.)  The most basic facts about the plots of each book — who is Kinbote (is he Botkin? Shade wearing a disguise? A real king? A madman actually named Kinbote?) in the case of Pale Fire; the nature of multiple basic events in the plot in the case of Book of the New Sun — are not only up for grabs, but are not remotely clarified.

Narrative games are a commonality here, as are games and jokes of other sorts. Unreliable narrators are another, although not all unreliable narrators qualify (I wouldn't say that Ford Maddox Ford's A Good Soldier qualifies, for instance.)

To further clarify my definition, let me list some things that it is quite specifically not.
• It is not mysteries, that is, works which present conundrums as part of their plot but which then overtly and clearly solve them.  So not Dickens, and not Agatha Christie.
• It is not works which are, in a sentence localized-way, hard to parse, or thematically/symbolically rich.  Ulysses is, as Joyce famously said, sufficiently full of puzzles that it will capture a generation of scholars; but the basic narrative is more or less clear.  That's not what I mean.  (This is presumably the category which is going to be hardest to distinguish from puzzle literature; but I think it is different.)
• Similarly, puzzle literature tends not to be extremely difficult on a sentence-by-sentence level; the puzzles are larger. So not Finnegans Wake, and probably not The Sound and the Fury either, although I am less sure about that one (does Faulkner count? I dunno.)
• In some sense, one can use the reading protocols of puzzle literature on anything.  James Kugel, in effect, argues that "scripture" as a textual category is created by treating a text as puzzle literature, so that minor inconsistencies become theological, require unraveling, etc.  It creates rich readings. But I am talking about books (presumptively although not necessary post-Gutenberg ones, with identifiable authors) which are written to be puzzle literature.

That hopefully clarified, my question: can we list works of puzzle literature beyond the basic holotypes?  Who else writes in this mode, whether occasionally or routinely?

I am also interested in some related questions:
• Are there writers who work in puzzle mode only sometimes?  (Do Wolfe and/or Nabokov ever not work in that mode? Could one tell, since once one is expecting it it tends to dominate reading?)
• Are their works of other forms that are in puzzle mode? (Some candidates: the films of Shane Caruth (Primer, Upstream Color) and Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Inception). Alan Moore's comics come close, but I think ultimately fall into the Ulysses category: thematically rich with lots of decipherable puzzles, but there is no basic question as to what happens in them).
• Are there any good critical essays/books about this topic (including, presumably, better names for this category than I am using)?

So: thoughts?

Update: I posted this on my Facebook page as a public post; much discussion ensued, so if you're interested you can read the comments here.  But let me also add some of the clarifications/emendations I made in that discussion to this post. So:
• I should stress that whether or not something is puzzle literature is not an evaluative judgment. I do love both Nabokov and Wolfe; but to say a work is or is not puzzle literature is not, in my mind, to praise it. (I actually go back and forth on the whole notion, which is one reason I asked the question.)
• (in response to some suggestions)  I don't think either difficulty of the text, nor ambiguity about the story, nor the unreliability of the narrator counts. What distinguishes VN/GW for me is that there are puzzles in the work, and ones that touch on the fundamental nature of the narrative. Puzzles: meaning there are pretty clear and definitive answers. But puzzles, meaning also you can read the book, even several times, and NOT get it (and some, doubtlessly, we still don't get). It's different than ambiguity or difficulty. (One further example: the name of the narrator in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is never given. It was several years, I believe, before ANYONE figured it out. Most people didn't even SEE that it was a puzzle! But once you see it, it is SO obvious that it is hard to imagine that anyone ever did NOT see it.)
Two possible criteria that might help clarify: to count, the puzzle must be missable: that is, it's not something that anyone who's read the book (seen the movie) would get; but the puzzle must also be solveable, that is to say, it's not simply an ambiguity that can be read multiple ways. Maybe that'll help.
Another one that I think clearly fits: Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.

-- Tacitus

Sunday, November 12, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

You say you have a counterexample to my argument, but you must be misunderstanding me, because I did not intend for my argument to have any counterexamples.

-- David Lewis

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Photographic Novel, Happenstance, Is Now Being Serialized Online

So some of you know that I spent much of the past decade working on a (photo-based) graphic novel titled Happenstance. I'm pleased to announce I've begun serializing it online. My plan (kenina hara) is to post new images twice a week, Monday and Thursday (where each image is a two-page spread: the contrast between the pages becomes important down the line).

The graphic novel to date can be read here:

So please check it out, like & share with your friends!

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Poem of the Day Year: Good Bones

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Maggie Smith
There's an interview with the author on this poem here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Two Contradictory Thoughts on the Record-Breaking Corruption of the Future Trump Administration

I'm of two minds about the virtual certainty that Trump will run the most corrupt administration in American history (follow-up) by an order of magnitude or more. On the one hand, given the number and scale of problems we face, it's way, way down the list. Next to the unleashing of attacks on minorities of all stripes, the ending of health care for millions, the destruction of the planet's biosphere, the reinstatement of torture as official US policy, etc, etc, it's trivial.

Frankly, if they were really just in it for the money, I for one would personally be thrilled to highball the amount Trump & all of his cronies expect to make from their years in office, multiply it by ten, and give it to them in straight, no-strings, untaxed cash, if they would resign & let the winner of the popular vote take office in January. The Republic would be vastly better off.

On the other hand... Corruption gets to a lot of people who don't care about (or are even on the other side of) other issues. Clinton lost so narrowly that any of dozens of factors can be blamed, but among the leading causes is clearly the (largely false) idea that she was corrupt (laughable compared to her opponent, of course). And Trump's farcical claim that he would "drain the swamp" was, apparently, a big deal for those who voted for him. Certainly the notion that corrupt elites run things helped him, so that showing that he is the most corrupt of them will probably do some good with at least some Trump voters.

So... yeah. Trump: corrupt. Let's make that point, early and often, along with all the others.

Update: This quite seriously understates the danger of Trump's corruption. See this Matt Yglesias post for what I missed.