Mourning in Dijon - photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

Prescribed Burns

Parietal Games: Critical Writings by & on M. John Harrison,
ed. Mark Bould & Michelle Reid

Two-thirds of this volume is disposable. After 1975, what lives of "M. John Harrison" is his fiction (and to some extent his interviews, although not the one included here). The "critical writings" of 1979 and 1980 are disengaged, distracted, throwing handfuls of ill-sorted proper names like pebbles against a window. From 1990 on, the byline occasionally appears on reliably professional man-of-letters book reviews in professional man-of-letters venues; not bad, not where the action is.

But no admirer of artisanal butchery should be without the young-loud-and-snotty pieces published beween 1969 and 1975. I was most impressed by his doomed berserker whirls against the incoming tide of Tolkien's fantasy ("By Tennyson Out of Disney")

... in any rural pub you can met Samwise Gamgee’s “Gaffer” swearing and spitting unpleasantly into the fire; and I once worked in a Warwickshire hunting stable with an amiable rustic character who beat up his dog so often it wet itself every time he went near it.

and against science-fiction's marching-morons-of-MENSA ("Filling Us Up"), which left a few nicks in my own carcass as well:

This is how thinking is done in sf: conversationally. Inevitable, then, that it should fall down all the holes that conversation is heir to side-tracking, argument from the wrong side of the analogy, rhetoric as a substitute for logic, the accidental modification of premises (or even subject matter). It is not rigorous. Its vocabulary consists almost wholly of terms like “granted” and “posit”, “given” and “for the sake of argument”; its grammar is punctuative, the oratorical “right?” and “agreed?” used as fish-glue to cement unrelated items; its impromptu syntax reflects its impromptu reasoning; it is a muck of colloquialisms and jargon words used outside their proper fields. [...]

In lieu of actual thought, Rackham and Coney offer brash, colloquial pontification, achieved through disembodied mouthpieces; Del Rey senses that “science” has something to do with careful reasoning, but embraces opinion instead; Maine bases his entire extrapolative argument on nothing more than a value-judgement, effectively bypassing the mouthpiece and presenting his cant direct.

Thought and prose cannot be considered as discrete states: the one modifies the other, to infinity. None of the above writers can make a precise, sensible prose, only a vague uncommunicative babble. Meanwhile, the IDEA! bulbs flash stroboscopically, and with each little explosion science fiction reels back, bemused by its own ability to think of things. With each brief illumination of the irresistible notion, the sense of its own importance grows.

Back at John Rackham’s table they’ve got the drinks in against closing time. The amateur sociologists and historians and technocrats are wiping foam off their lips. The pause that refreshes is over, and fragments of the eternal unformed rodomontade are drifting across the bar on a warm front of cigar smoke:

“We say - and we can prove... like the key principle in cybernation...”
“The energy of a finger movement on a switch can control millions of horsepower.”
“That is simply the logical extension of your postulate.”
“To a certain degree, everyone lives in a fantasy world...”
“You ivory tower boys can always make a good case.”

Who can complain? this is the style of the Seventies. The editorial toad has escaped from the centre pages; comment has eaten the news; punditry swallows both. The majority reveals itself as a broil of minorities, each convinced of its own indispensability and itself comprised of as many minorities as it has adherents. We speak, eventually, in private languages. Fiction isn’t art, is it?

Another great First for science fiction.

Which answers David Auerbach's unvoiced question. What draws big-capital big-bluster libertarian types to science fiction? The fatuous sound of men convincing themselves they're the smartest guys in the room.

. . .
Happy New Year

by Nelo Risi

Ecco l’estate
viene su a dismisura
tutto arde
fin le pietre nella notte
e le mura.
Io sono senza
volontà, non sono mai pronto
ma ho molto tempo davanti a me,
non mi chiedo dove va il mondo
né come andrà dopo di me.
Bastano gli altri
che muoiono ogni giorno
per capire com’è.


Here the summer comes
out of control
burning everything
even at night
walls and rocks.
I can’t get moving, I’m never
ready for anything, but there’s plenty of time.
I don’t worry about where the world is going
or what will happen after I’m gone.
Plenty of others
are dying every day
to figure it out.
- tr. Miller Williams

. . .

"Style is respect for real life" - Joanna Russ

Pilgrims from the high-mainstream should be put at ease by the conceptual purity of We Who Are About to..., fantasy & science fiction fans may appreciate the eclectic ingredients of The Adventures of Alyx and Picnic on Paradise, those who remember a world without female cops (or with Donald Trump) could beat a path to The Female Man, those who've watched novel repressions bloodily defended by appeals to "tradition" might brave the pinch of The Two of Them, and we who consider pretentious more prescriptive than insulting may repeatedly extend our rebuffed sympathy to And Chaos Died.

Or not; Joanna Russ's novels are not to all tastes. And her star hasn't risen since 1980, or even stayed put.

Most of its decline can be put down to historical contingencies, such as the long illness which froze her career midstream, the loss of in-print backstock among publishers in general, and her books' post-publication consignment to gender-branded presses.

Some might be due to history in a less flattering sense: references die; battle cries fade from infuriating to quaint. Seventeen-year-olds of today who attempt The Female Man might become as irritably alienated as the book's own Janet: "What the fuck is a Pogo!?"

Even given access and accessbility, Russ can be a tough sell. The sales resistance pushes against something essential. Across genres, across the controversies and dogmas of her alotted dozen years, Joanna Russ's writing is distinguished by its style. Stylishness in a crafts sense balanced composition, precision of fit, and tonal shapeliness but also style as "that characteristic stink we're unable to cover up or scrub away." The dedicated craftswoman removes the debris and rot which might obscure that signature scent, and thereby makes it unignorable.

All Russ's novels relate cruel truths with exuberant indulgence in an unshakeably arch tone, driven by anger on behalf of tenderness. In this she's an American daughter to Nabokov; an expressionist after the impressionist, what she lacked in sensual stupefaction, she gained in drive and focus. Nabokov himself, however, is not everybody's cup of frightful garbage. I've heard middling-sort readers call him "creepy," and it's a reasonable reaction to that imperturbable hybrid of sneer and icky-sticky.

Us hyar elite-folks are trained into different repulsions. Contemporary crossover Thomas M. Disch was protected by his mimicry; crossover Philip K. Dick was protected by his hackery. But the voice of Joanna Russ's texts is the voice of Joanna Russ. That's the one voice you'll hear, and it broadcasts unabashed uncool earnestness with almost every sentence. The sound of the home-grown red-blooded ever-lovin' American intellectual: cutesy, dimissive, show-offish, and disgracefully lacking in abjectivity.

For us whose native tongue is demotic geek, it's like submitting to the indignity of dialect writing. Nabokov's aristocratic ironies and charities may grow tiresome but they're not embarrassing. Can such contemptible familiarity be redeemed by mere euphony, insight, and structural novelty? I can't rightly say, but last I checked I was still able to creakily dismount my leased high-horse, at least for the extent of a long walk through the old neighborhood, surrounded by the neighborly sounds of a swaggering gray squirrel, a cozily quarrelsome scrub-jay family, or an American robin, that "gross fowl with its untidy dull-red livery and revolting gusto."


Fave Russ quote:

Then he said, leaning forward: "You're strange animals, you women intellectuals. Tell me: what's it like to be a woman?" I took my rifle from behind my chair and shot him dead. "It's like that," I said.

(from On Strike Against God)

. . .

Movie Comment : An Ideal Husband (1947)

The movie's triumph is to prove that Oscar Wilde's jolting, jammed, and stalling lines can in fact be delivered engagingly, amusingly, and even naturally. The movie's tragedy is that only Glynis Johns can deliver them. And although a little Glynis Johns goes a long way, 96 minutes is longer than a little Glynis Johns can go.

. . .

"What can I do to help?"

"Surprise me."

"... I guess that's the problem."

. . .

Movie Comment : Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

... in the Heart of the Heart of the Writers' Workshop.

. . .
Tender and Private
from the back cover

as stuffer or stuffing

The Lovely Horrible Stuff
by Eddie Campbell

Everything goes from grand to paltry. Given long enough the human being can destroy anything, even the planet he lives on. Destroying a system of equitable exchange is child's play.
- Eddie Campbell

The Lovely Horrible Stuff was published in 2012. Following on the full-color mysteries of The Fate of the Artist and the house-museum of Alec: The Years Have Pants, odd looking and oddly structured, marketed as a book "about money" but disconcertingly apolitical, it was, to reappropriate Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "very quietly received."

That doesn't mean it didn't land an impact here and there. It just meant landing in a soft place.

And now aw shit.

* * *

I have a similar soft spot for 1993's Graffiti Kitchen. After a decade of charming groove, Graffiti Kitchen was a "departure," as the critics say. The King Canute Crowd's scrappy Zip-a-Tone vanished along with grins, pratfalls, and pubbish inconsequence. Instead, Campbell scratched the page till it bled.

The departure was permanent. Starting with his next personal work, Campbell changed "Alec"'s genre, marital status, profession, homeland, and (before long) name. That new groove spooled over the next two decades and there at the end of the spool lies The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

* * *

On the explicit face-and-title-page of it, "Lovely Horrible Stuff" refers to money, but most readers easily spot family squirming under that label, too. Either way,whether enthusiastic or not-so-much, whether amateur or professional, reviewers saw the book as another slice of a familiar cranked sausage. A plurality of Campbell's post-Canute work depicts the unresolvable conflict between

  1. a professional livelihood which can only be sustained by vigilant hunting, scavenging, and hoarding
  2. and

  3. a professional practice which can only be sustained by free-floating reverie and temporary delusions of omnipotent control,
and since at least The Dance of Lifey Death the conflict's been iconized as an obscuring thought balloon. Domestic squabbles and worse, in the grand tradition of newspaper comics and stand-up comedy, were there from the start of "Alec"/"Campbell"'s marriage. Furious dunning letters had been a mainstay gag since Shakespeare started penning them in 1992's The Cheque Mate. Campbell's discursive impulse had already digressed into informal research and documentary across a multitude of single-pagers and one-offs over the years. So, not much new.

In particular, The Lovely Horrible Stuff clearly "builds on" seems inappropriate; let's say led from the gorgeous full-color artwork and interstitial fumetti of The Fate of the Artist. Most bizarrely, Fate's metafictional TV adaptation became a metafactual attempt at something like "My World and Welcome to It" with James Thurber playing the role of William Windom.

The one novelty everyone noted was that Fate's photography and hand-crafting had digitally merged into something well, reactions ranged from masterful to amateurish. My own was, if I had to pick a word, "worrisome." Not the failed reassurance of CGI's uncanny valley; not with that Photoshop-airbrush applied like mascara in a Kuchar movie. Something sadder, more Cronenbergian....

In other ways, too, Stuff seemed to me like a business-as-usual brim shading some sort of breakout, or breakthrough, or breakdown.... Yes, "Campbell" had dunned before, but never so close to home:

Jack, my father-in-law, one of the six or seven truly marvellous individuals I have met in my life
Jack vs. balloons in 1988, The Dead Muse
You have given no thought to our interests in this matter so obsessed are you with
... & in The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Even when The Fate of the Artist's domestic violence drew blood, it was more or less successfully played for laffs. But the staging went awry this time round: Stuff's most physical conflict lacked any hint of slapstick, and Campbell's dash towards the safety of a gag pointedly flopped. The closest thing to nuptial comfort is confined to one page of such nakedly intense nostalgia that I avert my eyes whenever I reach it.

Despite its egocentrism (in the sense of heliocentrism), frets, and blunders, the Alec series never seemed neurotic or despairing. Even at the end of one's rope, you (almost) always reached stabilizing humor. The previous first-person installment kicked that stool aside. In Stuff, it's liable to tip over, and the failures convey self-loathing with more conviction than anything R. Crumb or Joe Matt ever mustered: as comics characters, at least, "Matt" and "Crumb" are mercifully numb to personal responsibility, much less responsibility for three children.

Structurally, The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an odd book out as well, almost two books, scored down the middle for easy snapping:

First a pacing round "Campbell"'s loathings, delusions, and losses, punctuated by brief vocational escapes into Cloudintellectualpropertyland. In this half of the book, we don't see his memorable fancies for ourselves; they're drawn as simple icons or fogbanks. "Campbell" has left the building, and like other characters we're stuck with his blind and deaf husk.

The second half shows one place he went: a continuously engaged topic-and-travel documentary (as opposed to the memoir documentary of How to Be an Artist). "Campbell" looks happiest here, in the inflated non-ego of not-painstakingly-verified research and formal control, semidetached from the ground while remaining firmly of the world, floating/sinking by his clutch of stone balloons....

* * *

I itched to write about The Lovely Horrible Stuff after my first half-dozen readings or so. But even a childless self-serializing essayist must deal with some family and finance concerns, and you see how things have gone around here.

The artist's own blog froze at March 2012. As years went by with no Campbell news other than reprints, illustrations, and, more recently, a scholarly book, the topic started to feel a bit taboo, as if the book's toxicity had leaked into the environment.

Because, like Graffiti Kitchen, it did taste toxic, or (depending on the taster) bracingly medicinal. Graffiti Kitchen put paid to the King Canute sequence; a new sequence began. Apart from the hero's signature look, what made this second, longer, sequence part of "Alec" was Campbell's faith that a world of omnipotent imagination might be built on the unscrupulous details of the real. Unlikely sounding, maybe, but certainly not unheard of.

Aestheticism-and-reality as vocation, meanness-and-dreaminess as motif, material-and-virtual as technique: three knockabout marriages of stubborn antitheses. If it was true that, after a quarter-century, the series had again scorched its own earth, where would it migrate next?

I'd still be wondering if I'd continued to look for word: the aftermath's been described only in audio. Campbell-the-artist killed his series hero off before The Fate of the Artist began. Having resurrected him in good American comic book fashion, what could the artist do for an encore? The solution was straightforward, if not exactly satisfying.

First, and barely able to get a word in edgewise:

EC: I've kind of put my own voice in storage right now. I'm applying myself as a craftsman to someone else's stories. [...] I was very driven. I felt I'd got hold of something important to say about life
FT: Heh-yes!
EC:And I was driven to
FT: To say it!
EC: ... to get it down on paper, and build
FT: Hmm!
EC: — upon it and investigate it in all its nooks and crannies and facets and variations. And I'm not feeling that at the moment
FT: No. [a spew of fucking twittery]

And then a Comics Journal podcast with room to lay down his weary voice:

Q: What's the closest you've come to quitting cartooning?

A: Recently. What I was talking about before, having lost this context. I've spent three years doing this book about the history of cartooning. But the same time I'm not creating new cartoons myself. There's probably a couple of years there where I just hadn't created any new comics work. The last thing I did was the book I did with Neil Gaiman. [...] Recently I've been drawing myself out of this funk. I've been illustrating illustrating the stories of my wife, Audrey Niffenegger. A quick catch-up there: I got divorced four years ago. And this year I married Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist. And for some time I've been working on a book where I'm illustrating her short stories. [...]

The money book, The Lovely Horrible Stuff I think that book took a lot out of me. I think it left me, I think I wrestled with so much realer stuff in there I kind of dislodged myself out of my comfort zone, [indecipherable]. I kind of left myself stranded on the beach of that sandy island in the South Seas, like O'Keefe in the story. I felt a bit wrecked after that one. In fact it was shortly after that book that I got divorced.

Q: I'm obliged to ask how was the

A: I'm kind of playing out in that book the disintegration of my own family life in a metaphorical way. The whole money arguments were really arguments for a disintegration of a harmony in my life.

Q: Was the creation of the pieces about your stepfather, even at the time of the creation, was that more taxing emotionally than the traditional Alec comics?

A: I didn't think so at the time but I think probably, in retrospect. I think in the end my feeling was that I shouldn't have done a comic about this. I shouldn't be... I think I kind of wrecked my own concept of what I was doing, by thinking "Now, how far can I push that?" Have I pushed this too far? Should I be putting real people in here in such a raw form, where they don't get a chance to give their side of the story? I-I, you know, and so many comics today are maybe going too far and you know Alison Bechdel's another one, Roz Chast's we're treading a fine line of propriety.

Out the window it goes...

. . .

Heritage Turkey

If you're getting drowsy, it's not the L-tryptophan, it's the bunk

I'm not entering this old nag in the Tragedy Sweepstakes; my bookie says the fix is in for Climate Collapse. Still, one of the most trivially persistent annoyances of living in interesting times is how much more boring it makes me. Conversation has always been my sustaining pleasure, but at age 58 I've reached stable and fully-articulated conclusions on so many common conversational topics that I can empty a room of interlocuters in half an hour. Since I'm not sure I want to ripen into full Harold-Bloom, I'm increasingly limited to uncommon conversational topics.

. . .

Trolling the Neuralnet of Things

Partisan of Things by Francis Ponge,
translated by Joshua Corey & Jean-Luc Garneau

At first, it's a luxurious sink into surface, like wading into a cozy cushion until the upholstery reknits overhead.

And then slight dizziness from the echoes of reflections, as, for instance, from "FIRE"

Once the methodically contaminated masses have collapsed the escaping gasses light a path for a solitary rabble of butterflies.

across pages to "BUTTERFLY"

A flying match of uncontagious flame. Besides, he arrives too late to do more than note that the flowers have already opened. Never mind: like a lamplighter, he checks each lantern's supply of oil. He drops atop the flowers the withered rag it carries, avenging at last his long caterpillar humiliation at the feet of their stems.

Therein a glance into the unsolvable labyrinth of Ideas in Things, as the poet sang, or, to prosify the poet, the strange entanglement of subject-minds with subject-matters, particles-of-the-observer refracting right through the most solid of apperceived bodies. Thereby a handful of handcarved woodchips off the spiritual block supporting M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, minus the colorless flavorless icing of super-science.

. . .

I Got a Right

The flip(-off) punk side of Imposture Syndrome Blues, genteely put by Stephen Greenblatt:

I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale's vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon.

Less giddily, there's my forever-adolescent fury at credential-based blockage. (Fifteen years of university dirt-shifting finally tunneled me behind those walls but what an absurd pretext!) And the disconcerting violence with which I met AB's and XZ's curiosity about why I follow John Crowley's career as closely as Jack Womack's, or why I should squander attention on sixteenth century literature and other hifalutin' highbrow longhair moldies when birthright entitled me to such a wealth of TV, junk food, ephemeral gadgets, and respectable edginess. The This-is-mine! snarl of a poorly disciplined cur.


Mememeister Josh Lukin fills me in:

Thanks for calling my attention to Greenblatt's sentimental essay. I like its atavism: one can imagine Howe or Fiedler or some other midcentury cosmopolitan recounting similar adventures and sentiments. Indeed, I expect Greenblatt's approach owes something to the novelists whom those Intellectuals influenced. My uncle would have enjoyed the piece, and I'm sure Greenblatt's friend Natalie ate it up.

Anent respectable edginess, the erstwhile Miss Spentyouth recently began a Facebook conversation that culminated in people discussing whether they were edgelords or edgevassals . . . I should have staked a claim for the nascent edgebourgoisie.

. . .

Don't know but I can say

One of the things the fourth season of "The Wire" got right was that upward-mobility selects for glibness. I made it into an exclusive private college (via an alumni in-person interview and pre-Reagan financial aid) and I don't know as I ever scored an A in a class that didn't rely heavily on in-person discussion.

. . .

"Speaking as an echo chamber, this resonates with me."


Date-range web searches support my memory that the "resonates with me" formula, with its two-way passivity, first became ubiquitous after 2000.

yet: no 'I resonate with this'???

I've never heard it in the flesh; it probably sounds too Quasimodish.

. . .

Agreeing with Cavafy


Whether I am happy or unhappy I do not question.
But I do, with joy, keep one thing in mind
that in the great addition (their addition that I hate)
that has so many numbers, I am not one
of all the many numbers there. In the total sum
I have not been numbered. And for me that joy suffices.
- translated by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis

Some people describe life as a shopping list carried in a bucket (that's how big their shopping list is, they have to keep it in a bucket!), followed by an inventory of assets and an itemized bill.

How do they sum a sequence like -1 + 2 - 3 + 4 - 5 + 6 - 7 + ... ?

Does a scuffed-up crumpled sheet have a sequence at all?

I can't keep accounts on happiness and grief. But I know what I like, and I like knowing a no-’ccount goes off the books or never on them.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .