Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fables of Monsters, Nightmars of Ourselves

art by Dave McKean
"Evil comes I know not from where. But if you take a look inside yourself--maybe you'll find some in there." -Jarvis Cocker

There is always pleasure in remembering our favorite stories, those tales which once read never leave us. There is arguably even greater pleasure in revisiting those same narratives and discovering that you still find them as well-told, if not more so, many years later. When I was in high school, I discovered and quickly grew obsessed with Neil Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman. Gaiman's tales of Morpheus, The Lord of Dreams, captivated me so much, both in terms of their mythology as well as their human drama, that years later specific scenes remain clear, poignant memories. (Credit must also be given to the wide range of highly talented artists who worked on the title over the course of its run). Recently, I began, for the first time in nearly twenty years, rereading the series from its beginning. Now, I will admit that some of the arcs I read only once and cannot recall much what happened within them. Others, however, I remember as well any piece of literature I have ever read. And, I shall call Sandman literature, as it was, and still is, a work that I rank equally with any of my favorite prose novels. Is this verdict flavored with tinges of nostalgia? Why, yes, of course (more than once I have caught myself grinning upon seeing a favorite supporting character once again -- oh, Lucien and Matthew, I never realized how much I have missed you). Yet, there is also a deeper grasping of the full extent of what Gaiman accomplished in these tales, how complex they truly were. This is especially true of the second volume, The Doll's House, which I just completed.

When I was younger, the earlier more horror-flavored stories were never among my favorites. Now that I am older, though, I see beyond the gore to the themes that Gaiman was exploring. A good example of this is found within the fourteenth issue of the series, "Collectors." This issue takes place at a large gathering of serial killers, modeled after any mundane trade (or fan?) convention. (The sign outside the hotel discreetly welcomes attendees to the "Cereal" Convention). When I first read this chapter in the early 90s the idea of such a gathering seemed an exercise in slightly outrageous, morbid black humor. When I picked it up to revisit last week, I wondered if, in this pop cultural moment of Dexter and Hannibal Lecter, it might seem prophetic.

The truth is certainly less glib. Holed up in one room are the only two non-collectors in the hotel at the time: the arc's heorine, Rose Walker and her mysterious companion Gilbert. Rose is on, if you will, a quest to find her long-lost brother and is stuck inside while awaiting an update from the police. Restless, Gilbert tells her stories, including a rather un-sanitized verision of Little Red Riding Hood. Here not only does the Wolf murder the grandmother, but also "poured her blood into a bottle and sliced her flesh onto a plate." (Artist Mike Dringenberg illustrates the Wolf up on his hind legs, employing a carving knife on what looks like any ordinary piece of meat). Riding Hood arrives and is told by the Wolf, now dressed as the Grandmother, to enjoy the food and drink he has prepared for her. She does, and the Wolf calls her "slut" for consuming her own kin. Then, she is instructed to undress and get into bed with the Wolf. When she asks what she should do with her skirt, she is told to toss it onto the fire as "you won't need it any more." This is repeated with each article of clothing elicting the same repsonse from the Wolf. (The language chillingly echoes what we have come to expect from a contemporary child predator). Eventually the naked girl gets into bed with the animal who devours her. When Rose expresses disgust at the tale, Gilbert replies "There are earlier versions that are even worse."

So, why do we keep telling these stories then? Why the constant, universal need for fables soaked in blood, mythologies of gore? How many times need Apollo flay Marsyas? Why does Little Red Riding Hood's Wolf need to be reborn with the mischievous grin of a Hannibal Lecter?

Dream himself provides the answer when he arrives at the hotel to confront their guest of honor, The Corinthian. Dream created The Corinthian, but the nightmare slipped loose during his master's recent absence. Dream expresses disappointment at the battered trail of bodies his creature has left in his wake. Dream wished for this nightmare to be his masterpiece, "A black mirror made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront." Evil is within us all; we all contain the potential for terror and cruelty. This is part of who we are, a piece of our nature that we should be aware of, because it is only by acknowledging our darker urges that we can overcome them. None of us are pure, and thus we should not pass easy judgement on the failings of others. This is the lesson that Dream hoped The Corinthian could haunt into humanity, only to be let down. "In the end," Dream decrees, "You've [simply] told them that there are bad people out there. And they've known that all along."

We don't need stories that tell us that there are monsters, we need narratives that help us understand why there are, where they come from. If we stared into the eyes of a cornered child molester would we act any differently than Dexter? Should we?

Having dealt with The Corinthian, Dream offers his own fitting punishment to the hall of mass murderers. He explains that over the years they have been able to justify their crimes through elaborate illusions in which each of them was the misunderstood hero of some grand drama, "Comforting daydreams in which, ultimately, you are shown to be in the right." Dream evaporates this deception of self-righteouness, leaving behind something much harsher: "you shall know, at all times, and forever, exactly what you are. And you shall know just how LITTLE that means."

A poetic justice more fitting, I suspect, than anything that Showtime shall concoct for Dexter's final fate . . .


ps: Can I also say how good it was to see Hob again? We should all be so lucky, if Death overhears our drunken tavern boasting.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Forms of Fiction

Good fiction does not date, which is good for those of us woefully behind on our New Yorker reading. Last week, I was rummaging through that unruly stack of back issues living under my coffee table when I came across one of their "deluxe" issues (i.e. twice as many ads combined with roughly the same amount of content). These editions are often organized around a theme, which in this case was "Science Fiction." Those of you playing along at home can locate your own copy wherever you stashed your issues from July, 2012. Yep, nearly a year a ago. So, as I said, good thing that quality fiction does not date, right? During the course of the week, I made my way through the majority of the issue's contents, and can say that it was overall a strong collection of pieces. (I still have one fiction piece to finish, but, unless Mr. Diaz bungles his ending, I think that it's safe to include his work among the highlights). On another day, I might ramble on a little on China Mieville's defense of genre, but instead I would like to say a few words about Jennifer Egan's contribution.

Summer is usually a very hectic time of year for me, but, still, I am not sure how I would have missed the news that Egan was releasing a new short story via Twitter. I would think that such an announcement would have been (arts section) headline generating. Perhaps it was and it simply happened the week I was on vacation, not paying much attention to the news. Regardless, it flew under my radar. Thus, I unknowingly consigned the print verision of this spectulative tale to the limbo of my "to-read" pile.

This is not the first time that Egan has attempted to create a new form for fiction. One of the final chapters of her fabulous novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is written from the perspective of a young person in the near future. Here the story is told more through graphs and charts, literally drawing connections between characters, than through the conventional building blocks of sentences and paragraphs. It is an intriguing experiment, as well as commentary on how social media and smartphones are changing language, but one that does feel as though it could be self-containing. As one part of a larger tapestry it works; however, I have doubts that it could be sustained for an entire novel.

Egan's Twitter tale "Black Box," on the other hand, feels much more successful. Each tweet is the equivalent of a paragraph, with these tweets being grouped together in numbered sections which resemble chapters, or more aptly, stanzas. The narrative focuses on a woman (again in the not too distant future) using her beauty to investigate violent men of dubious incomes. Exactly what criminal activities these men are engaged in is never directly stated, though my inference is terrorism. Business transactions are referred to, as well as the goal of following the money trail, but every cell, no matter how remote, does require fundraising. What is clear is that the unnamed protagonist is a government employee, a "citizen agent," who is often reminded of her patriotic duty.

We also know that she is American. One of the more striking passages of the piece explains a new theory of the self, which is not centered around individual accomplishment, but, instead, the common good. "In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona." Many are surprised by what they find through this process, comparing the expansion of awareness to "a dream in which a home acquires new wings and rooms." In the past, individuals sought personal glory, only to make themselves weak in the process, defenseless to those who would do them harm. However, these new citizen agents have learned to use these expectations to their advantage and turn the tables on their adversaries. "Now our notorious narcissism is our camouflage."

This passage is also a good example of how Egan succeeds in her project. Each unit of thought might be compact (it is hard to imagine a writer like Saramago on Twitter), yet still able to convey not only practical information (the tools of an agent), but evocative imagery and social commentary as well. It does what all of the best writing, regardless of form, does: it bewitches you with words, a steady rhythm, leaving you feeling something after you have put down the piece.

Is this a vision of the future, the shape of stories yet to come? Maybe. It is definitely another tool that authors can add to their kit, another form that they can poke around at. Will there be imitators? I'm sure there already have been (remember I am behind the curve on this one). Would I read a whole novel written in this manner? Yes, I would. Reading the story I thought of the older, now mostly abandoned form of the verse novel. As I hinted above, I feel that this is the best comparison to how Egan manipulates the restrictions of Twitter in her piece. Tweets become the equivalent of lines in a poem, her numbered sections the same as a stanza. In both poetry and Twitter there are conventions, rules to which the writer must conform. Both require an economy of words, a stress on the perfectly turned phrase. Something both pithy and evocative is expected by the reader. Would I wish every author to follow this example? No more than I would desire that every novel be written like Eugene Onegin, or every drama to be constrained by the same metric structures of Shakespeare or Moliere. Like I said, what Egan offers the reader is an intriguing glimpse at how future writers might manipulate language in new and thoughtful ways.

Or, for the time being, we could simply enjoy the story according to the more old-fashioned and timeless standard of a captivating tale well told.