|. . . Carter Scholz|
|. . . 2002-11-18|
|The Asymmetry Within
I washed the dishes, listening with Anya-like anthropological curiosity to a pop song of petty romantic revenge -- something along the lines of "Now you've left me and I'm never coming back" -- and found myself wondering about Michael Jackson's ex-lovers. Not about who, or how old, or what sex they are, but about what they're feeling. Are they grimly pleased by the outcome of his morbid privacy and perfectionism? Are they shaken and depressed? Gleeful? resigned? bored? And if some mix, then sequentially, contrapuntally, or chordally?
It's an obsessively rehearsed story: the cat grooming its bald spots, the oil paintings daubed to mud, the hygiene-frenzied billionaire awash in filth and surrounded by excrement; wrapping one side, landscaping the other, until the entire cliff starts to crumble.... (And lord knows I've attended enough rehearsals: the promising little tune overcooked into indigestible glutin; the mild aperçu pounded flat, tanned, shredded, and threaded into an unreadable essay; the novel's first page rewritten back into originary chaos.)
One can't maintain a firm line between outside and inside while simultaneously trying to induce an ideal form. You think you're shaping clay and find you've been crushing eggshells. Self-control and the impulse to control one's image, control of materials and the impulse to control one's production -- they're hard to distinguish in theory, and an ugly overextended lifetime can be spent without learning to distinguish them in practice.
So then, naturally, I started to wonder how someone who works for John Poindexter feels.
Here we have a perjurer, conspirator, felon, and traitor with proven disregard for the liberty and lives of American citizens, but oh! how the Bushes ensure his continued professional prosperity! To the extent of giving him responsibility for the most ambitious domestic surveillance repository in history!
Working for such a man, would one consider oneself a thug? a pirate (garrh)? a broken-spined creature thrashing toward nutrient and shelter?
Or does one go to work each day to touch the hem of a stately senility?
Or does one view IAO as merely a scam along dot-com lines, except with less risk of discovery? "The fools are giving money away, and we'd be even more foolish not to take it"? And "we'd be even more evil than our masters if we didn't at least partly believe it"?
Because if we believe it, and if we take the money, then isn't it possible that it'll all come true?
Clicking through the PowerPoint, it's certainly easy enough to picture the next generation of Andreesens suiting up and making the Poindexter scene. Each moronic whimsy that pops from their doughboy foreheads has a sacred (and tax-funded) right to life, swaddled in 80 yards of management-blather and trundled off with a roll of hundred-grand bills into the ever colder, crueler world.
So how do Poindexter's workers go about their job? Cynically? Or willfully deluded? Or (as surmised by Carter Scholz in a barely different setting) in some unstable combination?
|. . . 2004-05-06|
The ambiguitities of genre and the literary class system are a bit of an obsession with me. They instigate many of my essays; they were the foundation of a monthly column and of a public debate; when other web writers stray into the topics, I leave comments of unneighborly length on their sites....
But my obsession is a reader's. For a working writer, those fascinating spurs are more like barbs on a wire fence, and nowhere more tenaciously lacerating than round the S-Bar-F-Bar-F Ranch — or is it a Corral?— plateaued between the Universal Studios Plunge and the DeLillo Decline, divided and frequently flooded by the River Jordan. The communal aspects of independent science fiction are about the only thing sustaining it as a healthy independent genre these days, but human beings, no matter how slannish, seem unable to sustain community without insularity.
Knowing my readerly obsession, writer Carter Scholz was kind enough to send me a preface he'd drafted for his recent short story collection The Amount to Carry. As a corrective and an addendum, I'm pleased to post it here.
John Gardner, who of course had an opinion on everything, did his part to champion SF in the hallowed halls; in On Becoming a Novelist, e.g., he lauds "...the fiction of Samuel R. Delaney [sic], some of Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, and, when he holds in the fascism, Robert Heinlein." Etc. But writing teachers who will Xerox half of The Art of Fiction for their students never seem to mention this. Maybe they consider it an anachronism of the times. Like Nehru jackets, or Robert Coover.
|. . . 2010-12-11|
A plot only tells so much about its telling. And where better to exhibit the gap between narrative line and narrative effect than the cinema, at twenty-four gaps a second?
The most horrifying such exhibitions are start-to-finish misreadings like Adrian Lyne's Lolita and Joseph Strick's Ulysses. The most satisfying are burlesques like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Altman's The Long Goodbye, Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer, Rohmer's Dangerous Liaisons (AKA Claire's Knee), and Gilligan's Island's Hamlet. Most alienating are the mob actions.
But as a connoisseur of closure, my favorites reverse the end's polarity.
They do so within the small back wiggle room between fabula and reflector, that magical space in which we drop our cake and eat it too. A favorite hangout of Howard Hawks, who suffered from a morbid fear of unhappy endings — for example, in Come and Get It, which has all the makings of a Greek tragedy and follows through on most of them, only to have the tragic lead decide, "Fuck this shit, I'm Edward Arnold!" It's as if Oedipus Rex closed on a shot of the retired monarch shrugging, twirling his cane, and shuffling a jaunty soft-shoe while being led down that lonesome road.
And while the fingers fumbled on the dread bomb, his woman waited, patiently, for Sam Rice to prove his manhood.
For conceptual purity, however, nothing beats Powell-&-Pressburger's reversal of The Small Back Room.
Midlist middlebrow mainstream novels don't win the twilit immortality of other genres, and Nigel Balchin never tipped into academic respectability. But I'm fond of this novel, and I suspect it might find fellow admirers among the Better Sort of science fiction readers — it's the depressive alcoholic reclusive grandfather that Carter Scholz's Radiance never met.
You'll find it over there on the left, courtesy of Perkus Tooth's garage sale. Ah, the glory days of paperback publishing, when even impotence was titillating.
The come-on is, as always, a rip-off. Any attempted fucking in Sammy's and Susan's illicit cohabitation takes place offscreen and near-as-damn-it to unconsciousness. The come-on is understandable, though, insofar as our hero has had one foot cut off, has an aching stump, is relentlessly defeatist and drunk, and was authored by a psychologist.
So far, so midcentury mainstream. But these are just the generic handholds one sets to let oneself finish or publish a story. Try to focus past them, as you focus past the talking squids in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you find something very special: a novel about work. (The text excerpted on the paperback's front cover actually concerns career strategy.)
And not gangster work or cop work, but intellectual work, done with skill and for a good cause — yes, even a better cause than Google, perhaps even better than open-source software for institutions of higher education! It's the appropriate day job that was denied to poor Denard and his poor president.
And it still sucks, because at the end of the day it's still a day job. The book's real titillation is having been published by an Army researcher during World War II, in the same year Churchill wanted to ban Powell-&-Pressburger's sentimentalized Colonel Blimp. It's a home-front geek's "Willie & Joe." If you thrill to this selected-at-random scene, you may be among the intended audience:
I was busy with the report for the progress meeting. Not that anybody would read it properly. No one ever did. But it kept things straight for me.
I said to Joe, "This colour filter thing. It's been on the books for about six months and nothing ever happens to it."
"There are four other outfits messing about with it anyhow," said Joe.
"Passingham. The doctors. Rea. The Staines Lab. And I think the R.A.F. are doing something themselves."
"Where did we get it?"
"God knows. The Old Man came back from a meeting full of it. The whole place was chucked on to it for about half a day, and then he got bored and it's never been touched since."
"Think we might write it off?"
Joe said, "I should think we might write off about two-thirds of the stuff you've got there."
I said, "I think I'll go through and do a grand scrap."
Till said, "That's a most extraordinary thing."
"According to this," said Till, peering at his figures, "the seventh round had a negative muzzle velocity."
"Oh come!" said Joe.
"Was there anything funny about the seventh round?" said Tilly to me.
"Not as funny as all that," I said.
In such fashion Balchin keeps the pages staggering downhill to a deservedly celebrated finale: Sammy somewhat arbitarily sets himself a near impossible goal which should conclusively decide his worth, most likely by erasing him utterly at the moment of failure, and then we watch him work it.
And god damn it all to hell, he doesn't quite meet his arbitrary goal and it doesn't kill him:
The facts were that Dick was dead, and Stuart was dead, and the Old Man was gone, and Waring was Deputy Director, and I was just where I had always been. The good chaps went and were killed, and the crooks got away with it. But I just stayed put. I tried to think of something concrete to do — resigning and going to the Old Man, or something like that. But it wouldn't fire. I knew it really didn't make any difference where I went, or who I worked for. And I was too tired, anyway. I didn't like what I was, and couldn't be what I liked, and it would always be like that.
It'll be all right with Susan. She'll take it and make it into what she wants, just as Strang did. We shall all know, but I'm the only one who'll mind.
(Those who accuse Susan of fantastic saintliness might want to review Balchin's 1955 screenplay for Josephine and Men, which instead suggests a diagnosis of "perversity." Misery loves company, and Balchin's kind of woman loves misery.)
So how were Powell-&-Pressburger able to turn this downer into a tale of redemption and optimism? Their solution was elegant: don't include a voiceover. Because without Sammy's whine, the producer and the director and the cinematographer and the composer and the audience can, just as Susan and Strang did, take it and make it into what they want.
|. . . 2010-12-28|
While following three different strands of research, I've recently tripped over three different frustrated academics grappling with the use of "fugue" (meaning, roughly, some contrapuntal form which we don't fully follow) to describe texts by Joyce, Pound, Zukofsky, &c., none of them noting the most fruitful interpretation: Written language, like a violin but more so, is not a polyphonic instrument, and therefore it can only imply complex harmonies and simultaneous lines through anticipatory or reflective aberrations which the mind weaves across paragraphs and pages, as when weaving the implied melodies of Bach's works for solo strings. The term "fugue" appeals by emphasizing the mental effort without which intended polyphony remains apparent disorder.
(Kenner or Senn or someone must've sounded off about this sometime, but I can't find the reference. Can you?)
I agree, Ray, some academics should learn to play a few fugues before they play around with the term.
A serious issue, and not confined to the campus: for example, I myself can barely fake a power chord and yet listen to me chatter. However, these particular three academics are likely expert fuguers, capable of fuguing round the clock. Their fugues of choice, though, were keyboard works which (as they pointed out) were not closely imitated by the solo vocals of the poet or novelist. I don't dispute that; I merely wanted to counterpoint that word-sorters and bow-scrapers must rely on more skeletal or subliminal or fragmented approaches.
Fugue and counterpoint in Ulysses have of necessity to be in linear form as we are trapped in a narrative - so Joyce uses various methods to build in the semblance of parallel occurrences. But then he moved on: Thelonious Monk used to play two adjacent piano notes to imply the quarter-tone between; could it be that in Finnegan's Wake, Joyce was hoping to spark the mind to run all possible meanings of his portmanteau words simultaneously?
Yes, I agree, although again he couldn't quite sustain the feel of simultaneous voices — we tend to search for a "base" meaning to provide the rhythm of the prose, with the other meanings connecting in a more staccato and less linear way, forming (as we remain immersed) sequences of characteristic mists or fogs whose effect may not be so far removed from the free-indirect-discourse with which Joyce began. Cage's "Roaratorio" does a splendid job of conveying this musically, but it couldn't be described as fugal.
Fiction-writer and songwriter Paul Kerschen writes:
Auguste Bailly registered this as a complaint back in 1928:
"The necessity of recording the flow of consciousness by means of words and phrases compels the writer to depict it as a continuous horizontal line, like a line of melody. But even a casual examination of our inner consciousness shows us that this presentation is essentially false. We do not think on one plane, but on many planes at once... At every instant of conscious life we are aware of such simultaneity and multiplicity of thought-streams.
The life of the mind is a symphony. It is a mistake or, at best, an arbitrary method, to dissect the chords and set out their components on a single line, on one plane only. Such a method gives an entirely false idea of the complexity of our mental make-up."
That's quoted in Stuart Gilbert, who made the very sensible response that perhaps giving a verisimilar picture of "the life of the mind" wasn't actually Joyce's first priority... and then everyone forgot that point for fifty years. My own view is that Henry James has sympathies much closer to Bailly's, and that his various experiments with time-loops and periphrasis are an attempt to get at something like Bailly's symphonic mind (though then again, this has nothing to do with polyphony in Bakhtin's reigning sense). This is all done to death in chapters one and four of "The Modernist Novel Speaks Its Mind" (PhD dissertation, UC-Berkeley, 2010), which I think might be up on ProQuest now.
Fiction-writer and composer Carter Scholz writes:
Though I revere them and their works, I have faint respect for Joyce's, Pound's, or Zukofsky's practical knowledge of fugue, or of musical composition in general. All had matchless ears for sonority and rhythm. But what they knew about "fugue" as a practice could be put on a postcard. It got waved around as an impressive magic word; hence the confusion and frustration.
You can legitimately try to get something remotely like that effect in prose or poetry, but it looks as much like antiphony as "fugue" or "counterpoint". It's like trying to dance architecture; only annoys the pigeons. Maybe I'm one.
It seems to me that the Bach solo string works imply harmony rather than melody, but that's a more interesting discussion. Do the voices dictate or follow? Cage's Roaratorio doesn't care -- it's heterophony.
Update: I picked it up from Basil Bunting! (Not a bad T-shirt slogan, that.) Bunting mentioned the analogy in interviews, letters, and lectures; viz., from Basil Bunting on Poetry, lecture 12:
Pound, however, and Zukofsky after him, was fascinated by the close texture of the fugue and by its somewhat spurious air of logicality. They wanted to know whether the design of the fugue could be transferred to poetry. A short but incomplete answer is that it can't. A fugue is essentially contrapuntal, several voices imitating each other, yet free of each other, all talking simultaneously, whereas poetry is written for one voice at a time or, at most, for voices in unison. But Bach had set an example. He wrote at least two fugues for unaccompanied violin. Of course they are not really fugues. No amount of double stopping can get three or more voices to sing simultaneously on the violin. The entries in Bach's unaccompanied violin fugues wait till the last entiry is done or nearly done before they start. Yet he manages to convey a rather teasing sensation of a fugue, never really satisfied. Similar sequences of notes are thrown up time and again, but they never mesh together as those of a true fugue do. Zukofsky wrote a fugue of this sort for unaccompanied voice. It's Part 7 of his long poem "A". It is not a fugue, but it does suggest one, suggests it very strongly.
Jeet Heer adds:
You might want to listen to the Bob Perelman lecture here -- he stars with a critique of the modernist poetics that draws facile parallels between poetry and music.
|. . . 2016-02-28|
Gypsy by Carter Scholz, PM Press (2015)
The enormous weight of the waft which was quite light was the thing that kept me contained in my perfect state which was as good as the state of any other thing before it is broken.- Madeline Gins
Hold on to what you got but don't let go. Don't let it go.- Bo Diddley
This is a soft time to write future history. Our post-1980 vector's so well defined and so evenly accelerating; we've so clearly passed "If this goes on" and entered "As it will be."
Too soft to support hard science fiction, or at least too soft to support the supersized undertested battleships which have served as its principal transport since, oh, say 1980. What's your rusty debris worth without a hero's journey? Where's your rotting corpse's character arc? And the three-act structure? Where are the next eight hundred pages?
There were once other ways to make the trip, still choosable if not necessarily profitable. For his first hard science fiction publication Carter Scholz went old-school.
By his own account, he was old-schooled. Like me, Scholz "grew up and was educated during the Cold War, when math and science education were priorities." There was a certain fogginess about utility then, before our rulers successfully separated education-for-maximal-exploitation from the chaff of pure-science truth and high-culture beauty — I think they call it "rationalization"? Those were the irrationally unexuberant years when, as mentioned on the fourth page of Gypsy, someone like Louis Zukofsky could find a stable day-job at Brooklyn Polytechnic.
Passing references to poets are themselves a bit old-school in fiction: Shakespeare or Eliot for titles; Dickinson or Blake for epigraphs; Villon or Rimbaud for stock characters. Louis Zukofsky is an unusual choice, though.
Zukofsky's poetry wasn't widely available until the late 1960s. Back in 1978, the year of his death and the year his long "poem of a life," "A", was published, niche readers like myself and (I suppose) Scholz still thought it likely Zukofksy's brand of difficulty would follow the Modernist course of things and become, if not widely known, then about as widely known as twentieth-century poetry gets. It never happened. His niche readership now is probably no larger than his niche readership in 1978. Rather than poetic heroism triumphant, Zukofsky exemplifies th'expense of spirit in a waste of craft, sloughed off by posterity as insufficiently instantaneously rewarding.
At any rate, Louis Zukofsky's name does not appear after the fourth page of Gypsy.
* * *
Before turning even to the first page, readers will know Gypsy as a throwback by sheer lack of heft. Classic science fiction's markets were magazines and cheap paperbacks. A novella sells either/both, and novellas like Scholz's therefore became the classically approved dosage of mindblowing science fiction. (Longer volumes such as Asimov's Foundation trilogy would be constructed from semi-autonomous novellas and short stories, an assemblage known as a fix-up and carrying its own stylistic markers.)
As for three-act structures, an equally viable narrative strategy is available in hard science fiction's native version of the picaresque: one-damn-thing-after-another whack-a-bug-make-a-bug problem solving, drawing straight from the genre's turpentine-soaked roots in hobbyist magazines. Hollywood itself recalled that formula into service for two of its best recent spectacles, and that's how Carter Scholz builds Gypsy.
Although Scholz gives "Earth's first starship" every reasonable break, it finds (as it reasonably must) problems sufficient to his purpose. By way of comparison, consider our national attempts at an oceanic habitat, summarized by Ellen Prager in Chasing Science at Sea:
The U.S. Navy's first undersea laboratory, Sealab I, sank twice and filled with water before a successful launch in 1964 in the Bahamas. A tropical storm then halted the Sealab mission after only eleven days, although it was supposed to have lasted for three weeks. [...] Hydrolab also had its share of problems in the beginning, including one 25-mile (40-km) trip out into the Gulf Stream after breaking loose in a storm. [...] During decompression, when the air pressure inside the habitat was decreased, the internal air inside the toilet's holding tank not only expanded, it literally exploded, splattering its contents all over the entry trunk of the habitat.
A breathable atmosphere was within reach of Sealab; Gravity had Earth (and video-game physics); The Martian had NASA (and public funding and international good will). Scholz takes hard-science-fiction's nominal rules at their word, and so Gypsy has, at best, in its hoped-for sequence of events, seventy years of nothing. Pulp self-sufficiency could hardly desire a more congenial home. It is therefore, of course, populated by a secret band of brilliant, dedicated, rebellious, rationalist-if-not-necessarily-rational brethren and sistren with hands-on can-do attitudes; there's even Heinleinisch intervention by a left-behind robber baron.
There's not much Hawksian teambuilding chatter, though. Sustainability requires redundancy for backup; constraints of mass and energy require as quiescent an organic load as possible. Therefore at most one crewmember at a time can be conscious. The book's chain of puzzles must be linked in, as writer Juliet Clark put it, a game of exquisite corpse played against actual corpses.
These P.O.V. transitions provide Scholz ample opportunity to mimic fix-up novels' stock three-asterisk-separated gestures towards excyclopediac range and cosmic sweep, weaving flashbacks, expository passages, back-stories (almost aways of refugees, almost tautologically: anyone who reaches adulthood must have survived something to get there) — and monologues, of course, monologues: little self-pep-talks, little cries-on-one's-own-shoulder, simulated second-guessing, checking off the list, working shit out....
As decades pass, and glitches and kludges accumulate like a hoarder's maze of newspaper stacks, first delimiting paths and then blocking them, and the spacecraft-and-story Gypsy nears its destination, characters are given more time for reflection, and their monologues shift register. They abstract; their rhetoric is shaped. They become arias of anger, arias of despair, arias of nostalgia. They fit 2016, yes, but to some extent they'd fit 1917, or 404 BC, or 586 BC.
* * *
Gypsy's closing lamentation may not be instantly recognizable even in 2016. I don't know if the initial Locus reviewer saw the same printed letters pass her eyes; we certainly didn't read the same page.
Myself I found it most effective; it led me to write this to you. But how can I explain the effect without snuffing its already-slim chances of replication?
Tossing another kludge on the pyre, then:
That last chorus is a reference but not a quote. A collaboration of sorts between dead author and not-yet-dead writer, but also between immersion in books and immersion in the melting shards of a human-free but human-welcoming world. Its import will be missed entirely by most readers and missed deeply by a very few. "The Happy Few," I want to say; happy in the Stendhalian sense, as in "Happy to have met you" — no one would claim we're distinguished by our cheeriness, or by our good fortune, or by much other than our reluctance to trade up.
Even when we're offered sweet fuck-all to trade up to, to return to future history. In his deauthorized transtemporally award-winning story "The Nine Billion Names of God," Scholz editorially queried "That is the real last question: Do we need fiction? Do we need science?" and introducing those two interrogative sentences as a single question was no mistake. The triumphalism of art is as beside the point as the triumphalism of science: Two Cultures, one boat, no Coast Guard.
Going old-school one older, Gypsy brings grounded technophilia's sense-of-wonder back to its source in the Sublime of terror and pain. While a surplus of Big Dumb Objects may have calloused over our shock at the infinite scale of the universe, shock at the infinite scale of our loss snuffs out only with us. Science fiction still has one vacuum-packed export for the stars.
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.