The Road is unsteady and repetitive—now aping Melville, now Hemingway—but it is less a seamless blend than a reanimated corpse: sewn together from deaThe Road is unsteady and repetitive—now aping Melville, now Hemingway—but it is less a seamless blend than a reanimated corpse: sewn together from dead parts into a lumbering, incongruous whole, then jolted to ignoble half-life by McCarthy’s grand reputation with Hollywood Filmmakers and incestuous award committees.
In 1996, NYU Physics Professor Alan Sokal submitted a paper for publication to several scientific journals. He made sure it was so complex and full of the latest jargon terms that the average person wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of it. He also wrote its conclusion so it would deliberately flatter the preconceptions of the journals he submitted it to. As he predicted, it was accepted and published, despite the fact that it was all complete nonsense.
The Sokal Affair showed the utter incompetence of the people trusted to judge work for publication. They were unable to recognize good (or bad) arguments and were mostly motivated by politics. The accolades showered upon works like The Road have convinced me that the judges of literature are just as incompetent (and I’m not the only one who thinks so). I don't imagine that McCarthy did this purposefully, like Sokal, but that he writes in the ostentatiously empty style which some judges of literature find safe and convenient to praise.
Many have lauded McCarthy’s straightforward style, and though I am not the most devoted fan of Hemingway, I can admire the precision and economy of a deliberate, economical use of words. Yet that was not what I got from The Road:
"He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy came and took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack. The ate a can of white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty tin into the woods.
Then they set out down the road again."
Simple? Yes. But precise and purposeful? Certainly not. Most of The Road is as elegant as a laundry list (if not as well punctuated). Compiling a long and redundant series of unnecessary actions and descriptions does not make a work straightforward, it makes it needlessly complicated.
I know we're supposed to find this simplicity profound--that old postmodern game of defamiliarization, trying to make the old seem new, to show the importance of everyday events--but none of it ever manages to seem important, because McCarthy isn't actually changing the context, he's just restating. There is no personality in it, no revealing of the characters, and no relationship to the plot.
Perhaps it is meant to show the weariness of the characters: that they cannot even muster enough energy to participate in their own lives, but is the best way to demonstrate a character’s boredom really to write paragraphs that bore the reader? A good writer can make the mundane seem remarkable, but The Road is too bare to be beautiful, and too pointless to be poignant.
Once we have been lulled by long redundancy, McCarthy abruptly switches gears, moving from the plainness of Hemingway to the florid, overwrought figurative language of Melville:
"The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves."
There is no attempt to bridge the two styles, they are forced to cohabitate, without rhyme or reason to unite them. The metaphoric language is equally jarring, as in one sentence he describes 'dead ivy', 'dead grass' and 'dead trees' with unerring monotony, and then as if adding a punchline, declares them 'shrouded in a carbon fog'--which sounds like the title of a bland cyberpunk anthology.
Then we have this example:
"It's snowing, the boy said. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire like the last host of christendom."
Where McCarthy seems to be trying to reproduce the morbid religious symbolism of Melville when he plays the tattered prophet in Moby Dick. But while Melville's theology is terribly sublime and pervasive, McCarthy's is ostentatious and diminutive, like a carved molding in an otherwise unadorned room. Nowhere does he produce the staggeringly surreal otherworldliness Melville achieves in a line like "There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within".
Many times, McCarthy's gilded metaphors are piled, one atop the other, in what must be an attempt to develop an original voice, but which usually sounds more like the contents of a ‘Team Edward’ notebook, left behind after poetry class:
". . . Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?
Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.
People sitting on the sidewalk in the dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. . . ."
I love how he prefaces that like an Asimov robot. Sardonic Observation: I'd almost believe he was one, since he has no understanding of beauty or human emotion. Biting Quip: However, he violates Asimov's first law of robotics, since his work allows harm to come to humans.
Sometimes, right in the middle of a detailed description of how a character is scraping paint with a screwdriver, we suddenly get a complex jargon term which few readers would understand. These terms are neither part of the world, nor are they aspects of specialized character knowledge, so I cannot assign them any meaning in the text.
One of the basic lessons for any beginning writer is 'don't just add big words because you can', it's self-indulgent and doesn't really help the story. It would be one thing if it were a part of some stylistic structure instead of bits of out-of-place jargon that conflict with the overall style of the book--more textual flotsam for us to wade through.
The longer I read, the more mirthlessly dire it became, and the less I found I could take it seriously. Every little cluster of sentences left on its own as a standalone chapter, every little two-word incomplete sentence trying to demand importance because it actually had punctuation (a rare commodity in this book), every undifferentiated monosyllabic piece of non-dialogue like a hobo talking to himself--it all made the book overblown and nonsensical.
It just stared me down, like a huge drunk guy in a bar daring me to laugh at his misspelled tattoo. And I did. I don't know if my coworkers or the people on the bus knew what 'The Road' was about (this was years before the movie), but they had to assume it was one hilarious road, possibly with a busfull of nuns, and one a convict in disguise on the run from a bumbling southern sheriff and his deputy; a donkey is involved.
Though I won't mention specifics, I will say the notorious ending of the book is completely tacked on, in no way fits with or concludes any of the emotional build of the book, but instead wraps everything up, neat and tight. Though it does bear out McCarthy's admission on Oprah that he "had no idea where it was going" when he wrote it. We can tell, Cormac; well, some of us, anyway.
As you may have noticed from the quotes I have used, another notorious issue is the way the book is punctuated, which is to say, it isn't. The most complex mark is the comma, and it is pretty rarely used. It's not like McCarthy is only using simple, straightforward sentences, he uses plenty of conjoined clauses and partial sentence fragments, he just doesn't bother to mark any of them.
He also doesn't use any quotes in the books, and rarely attributes statements to characters, so we must first try to figure out if someone is talking, or if it's just another snatch of 'poetic license', and then we have to determine who is talking. Sure, Melville did away with quotes in one chapter in Moby Dick, but he did it in stylistic reference to Shakespeare, and he also seemed to be aware that it was a silly affectation best suited for a ridiculous scene.
But it is not only the structure, grammar, figurative language, and basic descriptions which are so absurdly lacking: the characters are likewise flat, dull, and repetitive. Almost every conversation between the father and son is the same:
Father: Do it now. Son: I'm scared. Father: Just do it. Son: Are we going to die? Father: No. Son: Are you sure? Father: Yes.
Remember, you won't get little tags so you know who's speaking, it'll all just be strung out in a line without differentiation. Then they wander around for a bit or run from crazy people, and we finally get the cap to the conversation:
Son: Why did (terrible thing) just happen? Father: (Stares off in silence) Son: Why did (terrible thing) just happen? Father: (More silence)
And that’s it, the whole relationship; it never changes or grows. Nor does it seem to make much sense, based on the setting. The characters are always together, each the other's sole companion: father and son, and yet they are constantly distant and at odds, like a suburban parent and child who rarely see each other and have little in common. McCarthy never demonstrates how such a disconnect arose between two people who are constantly intimate and reliant on one another.
But then, McCarthy confided to Oprah that the is book about his relationship with his own son, so it makes sense why the emotional content is completely at odds with the setting. Perhaps he just sat down one say and thought “I’m an award-winning author and screenwriter who has a somewhat distant relationship with my son. You know what that’s like? That’s like the unendurable physical suffering of people in the third world who are trying to find food and escape crazed, murderous mobs.” So then he wrote a book equating the two, which is about the most callous, egotistical act of privileged self-pity a writer can indulge in.
At least now I know why the characters and their reactions don’t make much sense. The boy is constantly terrified, and his chief role involves pointing at things and screaming. His constant screams punctuate every conflict in the book, like a bad horror film. But things aren’t scary just because the author makes a character react histrionically over and over again--it just becomes silly.
Cannibals and dead infants are an okay place to start when it comes to unsettling the reader, but just having the characters point and scream does not build tension, especially when the characters are too flat to be sympathetic. Another Creative Writing 101 lesson: if you have to resort to over-the-top character reactions to let the audience know how they are supposed to feel, then your 'emotional moment' isn't working. It's the literary equivalent of a laugh track.
You know what’s more unsettling than a child screaming when he finds a dead infant? A child not screaming when he finds a dead infant. And really, that’s the more likely outcome. The young boy has never known another world--his world is death and horror. Anyone who has seen a picture of a Rwandan kid with an AK-47 realizes that children adapt to what’s around them. And you know what would make a great book? A father who remembers the old world trying to prevent his son from becoming a callous monster because of the new one.
But no, we get a child who inexplicably reacts as if he’s used to the good life in suburbia and all this death and killing is completely new to him, even though we’ve watched him go through it half a dozen times already. The characters never grow numb to it, they never seem to suffer from post-traumatic stress, their reactions are more akin to angst.
Every time there is a problem, the characters just fold in on themselves and give up. People really only do that when they have the luxury of sitting about and ruminating on what troubles them. When there is a sudden danger before us, we might run, or freeze up, but there’s hardly time to feel sorry for ourselves.
There is no joy or hope in this book--not even the fleeting, false kind. Everything is constantly bleak. Yet human beings in stressful, dangerous situations always find ways to carry on: small victories, justifications, or even lies and delusions. The closest this book gets is ‘The Fire’, which is the father’s term for why they must carry on through all these difficulties. But replace ‘The Fire’ with ‘The Plot’ and you’ll see what effect is achieved: it’s not character psychology, but authorial convenience. Apparently, McCarthy cannot even think of a plausible reason why human beings would want to survive.
There is nothing engaging about a world sterilized of all possibility. People always create a way out, even when there is none. What is tragic is not a lack of hope, but misplaced hope. I could perhaps appreciate a completely empty world as a writing exercise, but as McCarthy is constantly trying to provoke emotional reactions, he cannot have been going for utter bleakness.
The Road is a canvas painted entirely black--it doesn't mater how many more black strokes he layers on top: they will not stand out because there is no difference, there is no depth, no breaking or building of tension, just a constant addition of featureless details to a featureless whole. Some people seem to think that an emotionally manipulative book that makes people cry is better than one that makes people horny--but at least people don’t get self-righteous about what turns them on.
This is tragedy porn. Suburban malaise is equated with the most remote and terrible examples of human pain. So, dull housewives can read it and think ‘yes, my ennui is just like a child who stumbles across a corpse’, and perhaps she will cry, and feel justified in doing so. Or a man might read it and think ‘yes, my father was distant, and it makes me feel like I live alone in a hostile world I don’t care to understand’; he will not cry, but he will say that he did.
And so the privileged can read about how their pain is the same as the pain of those starving children on mute during commercial breaks. In the perversity of modern, invisible colonialism--where a slave does not wash your clothes, but builds the machine that washes them--these self-absorbed people who have never starved or had their lives imperiled can think of themselves as worldly, as ‘one with humanity’, as good, caring people.
They recycle. They turn the water off when they brush their teeth. They buy organic. They even thought about joining the Peace Corps. Their guilt is assuaged. They are free to bask in their own radiant anguish.
And it all depresses me. Which makes me a shit, because I’m no more entitled to it than any other well-fed, educated winner of the genetic lottery. So when I read this book, I couldn’t sympathize with that angst and think it justified, just like I couldn’t with Holden’s. I know my little existential crisis isn’t comparable to someone who has really lost control of their life, who might actually lose life.
But this kind of egotistical detachment has become typical of American thought, and of American authors, whose little, personal, insular explorations don't even pretend to look at the larger world. Indeed, there is a self-satisfied notion that trying to look at the world sullies the pure artist.
And that 'emotionally pure, isolated author' is what we get from the Oprah interview. Sure, she's asking asinine questions, but McCarthy shows no capacity to discuss either craft or ideas, refusing to take open-ended questions and discuss writing, he instead laughs condescendingly and shrugs. Then again, he may honestly not have much to say on the topic.
Looked at in this way, it's not surprising he won the Pulitzer. Awards committees run on politics, and choosing McCarthy is a political decision--an attempt to declare that insular, American arrogance is somehow still relevant. But the world seems content to move ahead without America and its literature, which is why no one expects McCarthy--or any American author--to win a Nobel any time soon.
This book is a paean to the obliviousness of American self-importance in our increasingly global, undifferentiated world. One way or the other, it will stand as a testament to the last gasp of a dying philosophy: either we will collapse under our own in-fighting and short-sightedness, or we will be forced to evolve into something new and competitive--a bloated reputation will carry you only so far.
But then, the Pulitzer committee is renowned for picking unadventurous winners--usually an unremarkable late entry by an author past their prime. As William Gass famously put it:
"the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill"
Of course, to readers of genre works, this book will have a familiar and unpleasant taste: that of the big name writer slumming. They pop into fantasy or sci fi with their lit fic credentials to show us little folk how it's really done, but knowing nothing about the genre or its history, just end up reinventing the wheel, creating a book that would have looked tired and dated thirty years ago. Luckily for such writers, none of the lit fic critics that read the book know anything about other genres, either--meaning that any sort of rehash is going to look fresh to them, as long as you have the name-recognition to get them to look.
So, McCarthy gets two stars for a passable (if cliche) script for a sci fi adventure movie, minus one star for unconscionable denigration of humanity. I couldn't say if McCarthy's other books are any good; I will probably try another, just to see if any of his reputation is deserved, but this one certainly didn't help. All I see is another author who got too big for his editors and, finding himself free to write whatever he wanted--only proved that he has nothing of value to say.
"Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are merely lists . . . Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's . . . not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world . . . most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?"
A rather simple, straightforward story with no surprises. It's very difficult to build up and maintain a sufficiently disquieting mood for a short pieA rather simple, straightforward story with no surprises. It's very difficult to build up and maintain a sufficiently disquieting mood for a short piece of twist horror, and requires a much more precise tooling of the details of the story.
However, in this story, the dialogue is often repetitive and cut up, serving the immediate needs of keeping things moving, but not looking forward to the climax. It reminds me of the advice everyone gets in Creative Writing class about how they are supposed to 'write naturalistically' and 'listen to how real people talk'. This is really terrible, novice advice. Real speech--full of pauses and 'um's and repetitions--is painful to read, often bordering on the nonsensical.
Speech which seems to read naturally is actually highly contrived, using breaks and repetitions sparingly, since they will always stand out to a reader, much more than they would if spoken aloud. It is important to tailor the specific cadence and use of speech to give personality to the characters, but not to the point that the speech becomes conspicuous or distracting. It's difficult to cut up speech without losing the flow of the story.
Instead of the mood being developed through incongruities between the characters, descriptions of scenes, or unexpected quirks, we tend to just be told how the characters feel, even if it isn't always clear why. If the reader isn't able to share the view of one or another character, it will be difficult for them to eschew disbelief in the face of a reaction which seems inexplicable.
A particular difficulty in horror is writing a skeptical, wary character when it is very clear to the reader that something unnatural is going on, especially if it is clear to the reader exactly what that thing is. Unless the character's disbelief is delivered in an idiomatic way which reveals something about the character, it will just end up sounding repetitive and will not ring true.
Even if it makes sense for the character not believe, it can still be annoying to depict them as resistant, because we, as genre savvy readers, already know what is going to happen, so such delays just end up feeling like the story is stalling out for no good reason.
Likewise, reminding the reader of the state of things through numerous clues and hints grows quickly tedious if there is no mystery left to be revealed to the audience. Sometimes, tension can be built by letting the audience know something the character does not, but only if there is some specific climax that character is inexorably moving toward. If the reader thinks they know what is going on and no other reveal has been foreshadowed, then no further tension will be created by delaying.
All in all, the story has little dynamic. The bookstore owner has no specific role, nor can we quickly identify his character. He is not menacing, nor is he mysterious, because he has no motives, nor any no apparent agenda. This means his discourse with the protagonist, who also has no particular agenda, comes off rather flat.
The conflict she has with another woman, later in the story, has a great deal of conflict, but to no end. They banter uneasily at length, but not toward any outcome or climax. The story lacks focus. It is not all building to the twist climax, and has many redundant or periphery parts which lead nowhere in particular and add nothing to the mood, meaning, or climax, especially in such a short work.
PS: one of the characters is also described as a 'circus ringleader', which is not a thing. A ringleader is the head of a gang of criminals, a ringmaster is the Master of Ceremonies in a circus....more
I know there is a lot going for this book, in terms of popular opinion, influence, and originality, so you'll have to forgive me for interposing my boI know there is a lot going for this book, in terms of popular opinion, influence, and originality, so you'll have to forgive me for interposing my body with the flywheel; we'll see what's left at the end.
In a discussion between Douglas Adams and Lewis Wolpert, the argument was made that the individual is unimportant in science, but is paramount in art. Walpert proposed that scientific discovery is inevitable, as the confluence of ideas will tend to produce parallel developments, such as with Newton and Leibniz, or Darwin and Wallace.
However, I would venture that this is equally applicable to the arts, which respond just as readily to shared influences and social pressures. The process of an artistic movement developing is often geographically precise, and more an indication of similar origins than of proselytism.
The vast cited influence of this book, then, is less remarkable when looking at the movements and ideas surrounding it. The themes of horror always follow scientific discovery, as the Industrial Revolution brought forth Frankenstein, or the Communist scare 'alien threats'. This book draws upon the same sources and brings in the idea of apocalypse--newly popularized by the nuclear age--to create something which is not altogether as insightful as it is inevitable.
Apocalyptic literature was hardly new, whether in a modern vision like Shelley's 'Last Man' or ancient religious eschatology. The nuclear age personalized the apocalypse, so that it was no longer the result of chance or divinity, bringing it to the forefront in a way more pervasive than the religious warnings of a 'nigh end' which go unfulfilled every other year.
Yet Matheson's vision is not this new, personalized apocalypse, but a continuation of plage fiction.
For his proto-zombies, Matheson took influence from the 'Communist scare aliens' and bodysnatchers of the pulps to create a force which is mindless, anti-individualistic, and inhuman, combining it with the vampires of film. One can look at this as an early recognition of the danger (and power) of viral memetics.
These same ideas will contine to be carried on after this work, not only though the oft-mentioned zombie stories, but also through speculative fiction as represented by the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits (which Matheson wrote for). Beyond this, you may see 'I Am Legend' as prototypical of the standard 'gotcha' ending on which these series came to rely more and more heavily.
All these movements and ideas are rife with opportunity for writers looking for a paradigm shift, but I would argue that 'I Am Legend' fails to take advantage of these plentiful ideas. One might point out that it is an early example, but this alone does not save it, as we may point out earlier writings which tackle similar issues with a greater depth and sense of conceptual exploration.
There is Shelley's 'The Last Man', Bierce's 'Can Such Things Be', or the works of Mann, Hesse, and Conrad, who explored similar themes of inhumanity, hopelessness, sex, death, loneliness, and plague; and who did so much more fully and with a sense of joy and artistry.
There are many cases where pulp authors are later found to have overcome the simplicity of their genre, whether by sense of psychology, or character, or vibrancy, or theme. Shakespeare was considered a populist, and in all his fart-jokes, cliches, and story borrowing, we might compare him to 'Family Guy' or 'The Simpsons'; the latter drawing allusions from 1980's culture as he drew his from Greek Myth.
But I digress; Matheson as an author does not bear these strengths, and misses many opportunities to take advantage of the themes he explores, which may be new in their particular combination, but not without literary precedent.
Matheson often lays open his characters' psychological motivations. His every statement of action (or interaction) is followed by an explanation of the thoughts and events which have just occurred. However, his explanations do not expand our understanding of the characters. Instead, the accompanying narration is so simple that one begins to feel that Matheson is simply telling you the same thing twice; or even three times.
If our protagonist asks a question, Matheson inevitably follows with 'he asked, incredulously'. It seems the fact that the character was both clearly incredulous and asking a question did not seem self-evident enough. Then again, nothing in the book is too self-evident to prevent Matheson from painstakingly explaining it several times.
He tells us what his characters are thinking almost constantly, despite the fact that it rarely offers any further insight. One might achieve a similar effect by taking a Hemmingway story and having a high-schooler add in how the character would be expected to feel after every piece of dialogue.
Matheson doesn't have a flair for psychology, and so his characters' reactions are often either unjustified or oversimplified. Instead of writing characters who fit the story, Matheson seems to constantly change the characters or the story to try to achieve his authorial goals. But then, how would one build an entertaining story around such shallow characters?
The protagonist is fond of lecturing the reader on behalf of the author, at which point Matheson seems to recognize his own transparency, deflecting by providing the character with sudden mood shifts before slowly creeping back. Comparisons to Stephen King are apt: another author whose storytelling is jumbled and rough despite the potential of the concepts driving it.
It is not difficult to understand why this book was so influential: in the process of reading it, I was constantly thinking of things I wished the author would do with the story. Every time he overstated a point or underexplored a theme, I began to imagine how I might do it differently. I pictured Romero closing the book having already built an entire movie in his head by simply extending where Matheson faltered.
Indeed, the book often reads like a screenplay, complete with plodding character descriptions to keep the actors from getting lost. At every turn, it breaks the rule of authorship that it is better to show the reader what is happening than to tell him. Matheson's combination of ideas and influences should have been interesting, but his repetitive overexplaning mars the form of the story while his borrowed themes go unexplored for the sake of a gimmick ending.
I will not deny that this work exists in a certain nexus along the development of some very important and interesting genres and works, but it is more rough draft than groundbreaking original.
It is less an inspiring work than the one which revealed that there was a lot of space for other authors to re-introduce old ideas by new means and methods. If only Matheson had been able to take up this challenge himself, instead of making the void conspicuous by inhabiting it, we might remember this book not from where it happened to be, but from what it managed to do there....more
This send up of religious institutions was so devestating that many religious leaders called for Lewis to be stoned to death for writing it. His bitinThis send up of religious institutions was so devestating that many religious leaders called for Lewis to be stoned to death for writing it. His biting, insightful, and humorous look at religious hypocrisy is as pertinant today as it was when it was first written.
The pure strength of Lewis's prose is refreshing after reading more recent authors. His control and understanding of syntax, grammar, and words maintains a strength and clarity of voice throughout the work. However, he does not sacrifice wit or levity for all his precision.
There are occasions when his passion overcomes him and his critiques fall a little heavy-handed, but these moments are rare and short. He never falls to the sort of surrogate lecturing that many 'political' authors do, and so does not risk boring or underestimating his reader.
He certainly never partakes in the more grievous sin of lecturing the audience as the narrator. Indeed, he rarely makes a point towards his own opinions without undermining it with a little hypocrisy or hubris on the character's part.
The absurdity of Voltaire's satire has nothing on the ridiculous yet believable world created by Lewis. Hyperbole is the haven of the idealist. Realism is more interested in engaging reason than inciting passion, and while Lewis's understated wit never insults his reader's intelligence, it still presents an unsettling and prescient view of power, ignorance, and the masses....more
While not quite a superhero, Doc Savage is as heroic and capable as a man could be. Savage was meant to combine the physical prowess of an athlete witWhile not quite a superhero, Doc Savage is as heroic and capable as a man could be. Savage was meant to combine the physical prowess of an athlete with the mind of Holmes and the conscience of Lincoln. He was the antithesis of The Shadow, bright instead of dark, merciful instead of brutal, and world-famous instead of mythical.
If The Shadow's masked alleyway justice was the prototype for Batman, then Savage is the righteous boy scout is the inspiration for Superman. Savage even has an antarctic island retreat called 'The Fortress of Solitude'.
The Pulps have made a recent resurgence, and Doc's influence is being felt yet again. Though many fans might not realize it, many movies, films, and comics hearken back to him. Johnny Quest, Indiana Jones, Duck Tales, Alan Moore's 'Tom Strong' and 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', Warren Ellis' 'Planetary', and The Venture Bros all take cues from the brilliant adventurer and his band of loyal friends.
This book is a bit of a mess, as the earliest example of the hero, but pulp makes no apologies for its weaknesses, and claims to be nothing more than rip-snorting fun. With so many stories coming out every week (Upton Sinclar was known to write 8,000 words a day, seven days a week for the pulps), authors had to attract and keep readers.
The Doc Savage books are renowned for their wide-ranging creativity, where no idea was unwelcome. The author was told to write what was most exciting, most unexpected, and inspiring. Savage shows this tendency in droves of far-flung ideas, though a reader might not realize just how revolutionary they were, since every single one has since been cannibalized and adopted authors of adventures and comic books.
Beyond the remarkable creativity, the books are crammed with description, metaphor, and detail. Though often laughably ridiculous, this thick literary gumbo is certainly filling. There is an invigorating freedom in these books that one misses entirely even in many modern adventures.
The authors took themselves very lightly, they were making a product and making a living, and they would never have rights or fame from pulps. The stories, even Doc Savage, were written under pseudonyms shared by many different authors in the same publishing house. Though your boss might know who was the most capable writer, the fans couldn't know you if they wanted to.
However, fans did come to recognize and empathize with their favorites, like 'Good Duck Artist' Carl Barks, the fans could pick them out by style, if not by name. Though we now know the men behind the pens, there was no guarantee when they wrote their enduring stories that they would receive any recognition beyond a simple paycheck.
Eventually, adventure serials like this one would go out of favor, replaced by superheroes, science fiction, and cartoons. However, the tropes, plots, and characterization of the pulps carried through into the new stories, and even if most Superman and Batman fans have never heard of Savage, the adventures they read or watch each month are not new. The Man of Bronze was overcoming them before world wars had numbers....more
As in the first book, Farmer bites off more than he can chew. By using real individuals and cultures from history as his fodder, Farmer invites closeAs in the first book, Farmer bites off more than he can chew. By using real individuals and cultures from history as his fodder, Farmer invites close inspection by readers familiar with (and fond of) those characters and cultures.
His protagonist is an unfunny Mark Twain, whose occasional spoutings lack the vitriol for which Twain is renowned. Farmer seems to take direct quotes (often from Twain's books) and place them awkwardly into the conversation, which only makes conspicuous how dull the rest of the dialogue is.
Likewise, the many conflicting cultures are oversimplified and whitewashed. Peace and war both come too easily, and intrigue tends to be replaced by bare conflict. Farmer includes the grandest political players to ever take the stage, and then reduces them to petty warlords.
The whole plot is moved along by a mysterious and literal deus ex machina, and despite the buildup of the first book, Farmer brings us no closer to uncovering the grand mystery. Though I was curious how he meant to resolve the questions raised by his grandiose world, he revealed too little to titillate.
This, combined with the massive influx of minor characters to an already busy and muddled plot did little to keep me reading. Perhaps I will get to the other books at some point, but with my current to-read pile, it doesn't seem worth the trudge.
There is an entertaining throwaway character in this book, a huge pre-human giant. Farmer strains credibility by having him quickly learn human speech (impossible even for normal humans who were not exposed as children, let alone a pre-human larynx). The titan also quickly grasps abstract thought, humor, planning, rationality, and sarcasm. Perhaps Farmer is a hard-line Chomskyan.
Farmer's idea for this series was audacious, but his plotting and characterization are rather bland, and seem even moreso against the unbelievably grand backdrop of Riverworld. Like Feynman said of religion: "The stage is too big for the drama"....more
I remember the sense I had as a child that sexual perversity had been invented in the 1960's. Before that, everyone did it purely for procreation, andI remember the sense I had as a child that sexual perversity had been invented in the 1960's. Before that, everyone did it purely for procreation, and only to people they were married to.
This was often the face put forward in the fifties, the dark ages of sex as culture. It's no wonder that this is where we get stories about couples having no idea what they are actually supposed to do on their wedding nights.
The depression and the war resulted in the centralization of cultural power. Nationalism, McCarthyism, church-based religion and patriotism are all about surrendering individuality for the safety of the group. Sure, the most eccentric 5% of the populace will be imprisoned, committed, or blacklisted, but the dull majority will be able to cling to the reliability of enforced normalcy.
This also allows the culture to transfer the energy normally spent on chasing tail to material production. There's a reason the puritans and Amish get so much done. However, once the war, persecution, and economic hardship disappear, leisure returns, and with it, recreational sex.
That isn't to say that there was no recreational or enjoyable sex in the fifties. It was not sex itself that went away, but the cultural discourse that has often surrounded it.
As usual, anyone who looks to the literature of the past can find all the peculiarity and perversity their heart desires. From Fanny Hill to De Sade to Sappho, there is plenty of sexual history to contend the myth that the clitoris was discovered in the 1960's. Most fourteen year old girls can tell you it doesn't take a team of scientists to find it. Fourteen year old boys might disagree.
The Satyricon presents a great deal of straightforward sexuality, including all the various sodomies and same-sex pairing. Particularly interesting from a sociological standpoint is the sympathetic presentation of pederasty. For the uninitiated, that would be a sexual relationship between a grown man and a pubescent boy.
Pederasty has been recorded among many cultures, from the Spartans and Athenians to the Romans, Japanese Samurai, and the most prestigious colleges of Britain and America. It was often a method to tutor the young man in the ways of life, not just sex.
After the West romanticized procreative sexuality under Christianity, a father might have brought his son to the town prostitute to 'educate' him. In my youth, it was vintage issues of Playboy passed from friend to friend. Now we have the internet and sex ed in school.
Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, but as the Satyricon shows, they are different means to the same end: producing a fully-fledged member of your society. Though pederasty is now a deviant practice, it is not inherently psychologically damaging (at least, not more than any other sexual relationship has the potential to be).
Even sexual abuse is not necessarily harmful outright. Psychological damage can also come from social moralizing after the fact. The culture of victimization and powerlessness saps all strength and identity from those who have been forced to endure unfortunate circumstances. In cases of abuse, children often do not feel frustration and depression until people around them make it clear that they are supposed to feel this way. A man who becomes bankrupt is not hurt by the loss of pieces of paper, but by losing the freedom and power the culture ascribes to them.
Some have argued that youths cannot make informed decisions, and hence are liable to fall into manipulative and unequal relationships. While this is certainly true, many full-grown adults are equally uninformed and prone to manipulation.
I don't mean to suggest any need to change our laws, since our cultural traditions have no role for pederasty, there is no way for it to operate as a healthy relationship. However, I would suggest that people try to appreciate that our traditions are just as arbitrary as those of the Romans. There's nothing like history to remind us that there are many, many ways.
The Satyrican is also historically important for its uniquely accessible form. It is one of the only surviving examples of a novel-type narrative from the Roman tradition. It depicts the lives of small people and their everyday activities, from theater to dinner parties to beggars, prostitutes, and impotence.
The tale even follows the form of a comedic picaresque romance. Even though there is no direct tradition linking the development of the modern novel in seventeenth century Spain and the nearly identical narrative structure of the Satyricon, it provides an example of parallel evolution for the edification of literary critics.
The lighthearted tone and humorous situations give this work a remarkably modern feel. Indeed, it is more accessible than many newer works. It is intriguing for its presentation of Roman life, for its similarities with the novel, and for its frank depiction of the unheroic.
The Greeks and Romans developed calculus, crossbows, and steam power a thousand years before they would enter common use. Why should they not also innovate realism? I find comfort in the fact that the funny sex novel predates the codification of the bible. It seems history is as much the property of the prurient as the holy; maybe even moreso....more
Perhaps it is not surprising that I managed to guess the 'who', if not the how of this prototype mystery. What may be somewhat of a surprise is that tPerhaps it is not surprising that I managed to guess the 'who', if not the how of this prototype mystery. What may be somewhat of a surprise is that this recognition did not make the book tedious, nor did it become a plodding step-by-step towards inevitability like many mysteries are.
Like The Virginian, this predecessor of a genre never seems to fall into the same traps as its innumerable followers. Indeed, with both these books, the focus itself becomes something entirely different than the obsession it inculcates in others.
Though this book certainly contains a mystery, a set of clues and twists, and a brilliant detective, the focus is not on these but on the characters themselves. Firstly, there is the fact that the book is narrated in sections by different observers and participants. Secondly, there is the fact that the chief mover of the entire series of events is never the mystery itself, but the maddening effect that the unknowns and miscommunications have on the personal relationships surrounding the events.
The characters themselves, chiefly in the case of the narrators, are such discrete and believable characters that part of the enjoyment of the book becomes an appreciation for the author's knowledge of human behavior and ability to represent wholly different mindsets without any lingering authorial voice intruding.
It is not only the psychology of the characters and their movements which are represented here, but also the little shifting falsities of how they see themselves and how they are seen by others, none of which represent a truthful opinion, but all of which flow from the way people generalize one another.
Collins succeeds greatly at the old authorial adage that one should show instead of tell, as innumerable details and observations build up to give us a more thorough view. He does have somewhat of an easier time of this due to his method, it may be noted. By using constant and somewhat unreliable narrators, he may be seem to be telling, but in truth these opinions represent more about the narrator than about those whom they cast their judgment upon.
Also like The Virginian, Collins carries with him a strong and concise voice bred of that Victorian generation for whom Austen was the venerable master. He was also, it may be noted, a close friend to Dickens.
Another pleasantry with both authors is that they retain a certain humility, such that they never seek out more lofty heights than their prose may bear up. This is the reason their stories each stand as the foundation of pulp movements, whose writers were more concerned with writing to their own ability than to reaching for far-flung achievements they might or might not be equal to.
However, while those later authors attached themselves so much to archetype and rare coincidence to produce the strength of their work, the earliest hands to touch the page were fueled by human emotion and character. There is some sense of stereotypical characterization in The Moonstone, but it is tempered by extending even the joke characters a surfeit of humanity.
That being said, the main joke character in this book nearly drove me down in the few chapters she stood as narrator. It was not because she was too ridiculous, not because she was annoying, nor too cliche. She was simply too accurate to a type of person I loathe to meet or to spend a free minute with; namely: the self-righteous, proselytizing old maid.
This was the curious tangent which passed between this text and 'The Screwtape Letters', which I was also reading at the time. It was especially marked in comparison to the earlier narrator, who though simple, retained a charm and a welcoming humility in his various shortcomings.
It always seems a shame to look at the first movement of a genre, be it Wister's, Collins', or Tolkien's, as those creators who later move to take up the torch miss the point: that independent of the magic or mystery or gunfight being the main event, what keeps and impresses the reader is the emotional content, psychology, and strength of the pure writing, itself. Collins stands in good stead with the other innovators in this: that his work is a fine novel that happens to be a mystery, and not the other way 'round.
P.S. Some may point out Poe as originator of the mystery, or even point to older cases. This is an old debate, which I will not enter into, suffice it to say that Collins is the first example of a mystery novel, as Poe believed one should never write something which takes more than a sitting to read. I'm glad Collins didn't feel this way, but it's probably good that Poe limited himself. Collins also originates most of the Mystery tropes in this work, which is a tally in his favor....more
Like most of these collections, there are several fairly strong stories but one which stands above the others. In this second installation, it is theLike most of these collections, there are several fairly strong stories but one which stands above the others. In this second installation, it is the convention of serial killers where Gaiman is able to tap into his sense of human nature and draw out something that is funny, terrifying, and well-written. Often, his archetypal main characters cannot hold a candle to the depth and complexity of the small throwaways such as Gaiman creates here.
Perhaps he is afraid of alienating the reader, and hence always lays a fairly neutral and mysteriously cool reader surrogate at the center of things. I think I might prefer what Gaiman could become if he descended completely into the world of his minor characters more often, and left the moralizing to the reader.
From the very first page it's clear that this is a vibrant and unbridled work. Pope's art can be loose and grotesque, taking anatomy lightly, he has sFrom the very first page it's clear that this is a vibrant and unbridled work. Pope's art can be loose and grotesque, taking anatomy lightly, he has sacrificed it for movement, for the wide frames darting through space, telling the story precisely with evocative images, and for the physical representation of personality. There's a great overview of the wordless opening pages here.
After reading a poorly-written, awkwardly visualized comic like Fables, it was a shock to my system to watch Pope push the form, pumping life into every page. The mixture of elements here, from subversions of the Batman mythos to an understated cyberpunk plot reminiscent of Aeon Flux, corrupt and violent cops in sports jersey uniforms right out of Marshal Law, a bat-suit fit for a luchador, and touches of Manga in the character design mark this as the sort of original vision that defies genre or storytelling modes.
I felt almost breathless at the action and violence as the plot leapt up at me, but unlike Miller's futuristic Bat-Tales, Pope isn't painting with violence for the sake of machismo, but to provide a sense of palpable danger in the story's central conflict. Even so, there were moments when the flashy barrage of bullets and sound effects surrounding the nightmarish crusader were a bit cartoonish, working against the mood Pope had set. But then I hate visualized sound effects.
Unfortunately, Pope also has a tendency to overexplain sci fi, which bogs down the story, especially the latter half. He's very interested in procuring and re-using terms, trying to fit them into an array of pseudoscientific explanations that would be better dealt with in the briefest and least intrusive way.
Curiously, the story doesn't rely on the character implications or political explorations that have made Miller's Bat work lasting. When Pope does try his hand at moralizing, it ends up not just artificial, but rather pointless. There are not really any grand social questions here.
There's a lot going on, but it's not clearly directed, instead it's a combination of interesting elements which, though they make up an original world and provide some insights, do not build towards a grand central theme, as we'd expect from Moore, Miller, Gaiman, Ellis, or Morrison.
The characters are not 'explored' by the usual artificial means of internal narration or awkward expositionary dialogue ("Hello there, cousin Mark, who used to be in the Army"). Instead, we have to take these people and situations as they are, and perhaps strain a bit to figure out what we can about them from what Pope gives us. We know about them what is necessary for the plot, and Pope feels no need to encumber us with any other extraneous emotions or background.
It's rather elegant, but is bound to upset some comic readers who are used to free access to their favorite characters' deepest thoughts and desires. After all, the industry constantly inundates them with melodramatic soap opera plots and endless background summaries to rival celeb mags. It's just this sort of overweening obsession with the canon that Pope rejects.
Similarly upsetting to the average Batman fan is Pope's unwillingness to answer the question of Batman's identity, which I find hilariously ironic. Ever since the comic debuted, we've had the same Batman, the same Bruce Wayne. Any time they tried to substitute another Batman, any time they killed Wayne, fans were outraged: "Bruce Wayne can't be dead, only he can be Batman!"
So now, seventy years later, we have the same guy, the same backstory (with a few tweaks), the same late thirties mobsters and cars, but now with cellphones and the internet. Yet no one asks how this century-old Batman exists. The fans won't let him die, they refuse to accept any change.
Yet Pope presents a Batman of the future who seems inexplicably to be an impossibly ancient Bruce Wayne and suddenly, everyone reverses their position: "Bruce Wayne has to be dead, he can't possibly be Batman!" We shouldn't be asking Pope "how could Batman still be alive?", we should ask "how could Batman ever die?" The fans certainly won't let him. While Pope's other future predictions can be a bit silly (specifically the telepaths) his suggestion of an inexplicably ancient Bruce Wayne is practically guaranteed.
Pope wants us to ask ourselves how much the identity of Batman is dependent on a particular person, time, or place. The character of Gordon's son, of the new Robin and of 'The Doctor' and her daughter all approach the question of the identity of archetypal characters in different ways, and the relationship each has with Batman is important to how we think of his identity.
This imprecise combination of ideas is hardly a death-knell. Milligan has thrived on it by layering webs of meaning in surprising, inspiring, subversive ways. Pope is not the master of form Milligan is, but we can appreciate the fearless, madcap vision he presents here, even if it sometimes falters, his achievements are not lessened.