Inhuman Swill : Books
This post about The Bone Clocks contains mild spoilers.

When grappling with works of genre fiction, most mainstream literary critics can be counted on to demonstrate a peculiar tone-deafness. Take the case of The New Yorker's James Woods, who calls David Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks "weightless," "empty," and "demented." So "frictionless" does Wood find it, in fact, that it prompts him to call into question the soundness of such earlier Mitchell works as Cloud Atlas.

Upon reflection, I have to admit that The Bone Clocks is probably my least favorite of Mitchell's novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet being the only one I haven't yet read). But I found it for the most part extremely engaging, even thrilling, and I dispute Wood's contention that "the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant" when stacked up against the novel's science-fictional premise.

The Bone Clocks: A Novel by David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks is built, like much of Mitchell's work, around a structural conceit that passes the duty of first-person narrator, like a baton in a relay race, to a new point-of-view character every hundred pages or so. Each of the book's six sections becomes, in essence, a novella of its own, conveying the overall narrative from its intensely realistic beginnings with a runaway teenager in 1984 to its apocalyptic, post-oil conclusion in 2043.

Each subsequent section shows us earlier characters through new, illuminating sets of eyes, while in the background we get glimpses of a long-running secret war between two groups of more-or-less-immortal combatants. The fifth section immerses us fully in this ancient conflict before the sixth returns us to the point of view of our original narrator, Holly Sykes, though 59 years have passed since we first met her.

Critic Wood finds the novel entertaining enough, and skillfully written, though he complains that the supernatural shenanigans rob our lowly mortal heroes of their agency. The story turns these sad "detectives of drivel" into mere puppets marched here and there at the whims of their scheming author-god.

It's true that some of the genre material clunks and clangs, most particularly the fifth section's climactic battle between the good Horologists and the evil Anchorites. (I found it perversely reassuring to see that Mitchell doesn't do everything well.) But this does nothing to rob any of the mortal characters of their agency. Far from being puppets, they continue to love, hate, yearn, rage, seek vengeance, and forgive, just like real people, even as they struggle to resist the larger conflict that periodically disrupts their lives in ugly ways. Yes, sometimes the irresistible forces of the novel alter the trajectories of ordinary lives, but no differently than might a traffic accident, or a job loss, or a chronic illness. A narrowing of options does not imply a loss of agency.

Wood insists that the larger-than-life conflict drains the rest of the story of meaning, that what happens "in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists." I disagree. Mitchell has plenty to say in this book. It's just that critics of Wood's ilk miss it because it's rendered in a register they can't hear (the register of ideas), not the one they're listening for (the register of the human heart). (The irony is, The Bone Clocks is filled to the brim with matters of the human heart.)

So what is Mitchell up to in The Bone Clocks? The key, for me, is in that strange sixth section, depicting the days when our teetering civilization finally teeters too far and slides irrevocably toward collapse. This is when we realize that the battle between Horologists and Anchorites, like all mankind's internecine battles, is what is truly insignificant. Holly's lifelong struggle to ignore the battle waging around her, to carry on with her life despite everything, is the entire point. It mirrors humanity's own struggle to carry on while helpless to oppose the gargantuan forces dismantling our ecosystem and our very society. How often do we raise our heads above the parapet, survey that epic destruction, then do our best to pretend it isn't ever really going to affect us?

It's a bleak view, yes, but one not devoid of hope. The last few pages of the book remind us that, even if our own generation is doomed, the fight is still worthwhile—perhaps only worthwhile—if there's a chance of saving the next.

James Wood closes his analysis by implying that humanity since Milton has had no need of the good-versus-evil story. "The novel takes over from the epic," he says, "not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement." But from where I'm sitting, as feckless, sluggish governments battle titanic, rapacious corporations with the fate of our species and countless others in the balance, human freedom seems as illusory as ever, and an epic like The Bone Clocks every bit as necessary.

Here's the last of the excerpts I'll bring you from the book I've just finished reading, 1904's The Making of English by Henry Bradley. This is the passage that closes the book, and I found it particularly hopeful in light of the increased focus on written communication in this Digital Age of ours:

It is not unlikely that the future historian of the English language may find that its development in the nineteenth century has been less powerfully affected by the really great writers of the period than by authors of inferior rank, both British and American, who have had the knack of inventing new turns of expression which commended themselves to general imitation. There never was a time when a clever novelty in combination of words, or an ingenious perversion of the accepted meaning of a word, had so good a chance of becoming a permanent possession of the language, as now. In no former age was there such an abundance of writing of a designedly ephemeral character, intended merely for the amusement of an idle moment. The modern taste in style demands incessant variety of expression; the same thing must never, if it can be avoided, be denoted in consecutive sentences by the same word: and so those who are engaged in supplying the popular demand for 'reading matter' eagerly adopt from each other their new devices for escaping monotony of diction. When we consider that the literature which is for all time is read by comparatively few, while the literature which is for the passing moment is read by all, we may easily be tempted to think that the future of literary English is in the hands of writers of defective culture and little seriousness of purpose, and that the language must suffer grave injury in the loss of its laboriously won capacities for precision, and in the debasement of words of noble import by unworthy use. While these apprehensions are not wholly unfounded, there is much to be said on the other side. Even the much-decried 'newspaper English' has, in its better forms, some merits of its own. Writers whose work must be read rapidly if it is to be read at all have a strong motive for endeavouring not to be obscure; and the results of this endeavour may be seen in the recent development of many subtle contrivances of sentence-structure, serving to prevent the reader from feeling even a momentary hesitation in apprehending the intended construction. We may rest assured that wherever worthy thought and feeling exist, they will somehow fashion for themselves a worthy medium of expression; and unless the English-speaking peoples have entered on a course of intellectual decline, there is no reason to fear that their language will on the whole suffer deterioration. In the daily increasing multitude of new forms of expression, even though it may be largely due to the unwholesome appetite for novelty, there must be not a little that will be found to answer to real needs, and will survive and be developed, while what is valueless will perish as it deserves. It is therefore perhaps not an unfounded hope that the future history of the language will be a history of progress, and that our posterity will speak a better English—better in its greater fitness for the uses for which language exists—than the English of to-day.

Backhandedly hopeful, but hopeful nonetheless.

Last week I told you a bit about my recent bedtime reading, The Making of English by Henry Bradley. The book was published in 1904, and one of the peculiar delights of reading it more than a century later is seeing Bradley hold forth about "modern" words that now either seem archaic or have slipped out of usage altogether.

He will also occasionally express some hope about the future development of the language that we, as his future readers, can experience in a way that his contemporary readers could not. For instance, this passage:

It is worth while to remark that in some instances words have undergone changes of meaning because in their literary use they have been popularly misunderstood....

In bad modern 'newspaper English' the verb transpire is used for 'to happen or take place,' and this sense has even found its way into recent dictionaries. Literally, to transpire is 'to breathe through'; and a circumstance may correctly and expressively be said 'to have transpired,' in the sense of having become known in spite of efforts made to keep it secret. It is through ignorant misapprehension of sentences in which the word was thus correctly used that it has come to bear a perverted meaning. As this blunder, unlike some others of the kind, does not supply any need of the language, it may be hoped that the misapplication of the word will not be permanent.

Oh, the grave-spinning which must have transpired!

Riddle me this

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My light bedtime reading lately has been from a fascinating little book called The Making of English, by Henry Bradley. Bradley was a mostly self-taught linguist and lexicographer who would eventually become editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Making of English, published in 1904, is a compact, elegant distillation of everything he had learned about the development of the English language.

It's not a quick read, but it's often quite delightful. Here's a prime example from the chapter on how the meanings of words change over time:

A word was needed to describe the action of interpreting the meaning of written characters; and our ancestors supplied the want by using the verb read (in Old English rǣdan), which meant, like its modern German equivalent rathen, to guess a riddle. The noun riddle (in Old English rǣdels) is a derivative of this word. To the early English a piece of writing was, we see, a mystery which only the wise could solve.

The Making of English is available as a free download at Archive.org. Happy riddling.

Twitter & badness

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I have an apology to make. It's been called to my attention that for the past several days I've been splashing a word around my blog, podcast, Facebook page, and Twitter stream that many people find offensive.

No affront nor slur was intended, yet I have come to realize that in the 21st century such hurtful relics of a benighted past have no place amongst us—not in civil discourse, not in right-thinking minds, and certainly not in popular culture.

There is no room on our airwaves for the employment of any sense of this word that could be construed as imputing fun, cuteness, or endearment to such a condition as this term pejoratively describes.

No self-respecting purveyor of books should allow any volume adorned with such a term to disgrace its shelves.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

And furthermore, any collective artistic endeavor of entertainment that dares apply this denigrating term to itself in part or in whole should be banned, shunned, and otherwise made to wander without end in the wilderness of pariahdom. Really, do we want our children exposed to corruption like this?

Let me repeat more vigorously, only brutes and clods would march into the arena of entertainment under a banner emblazoned with such a rubric.

Please don't fall into this same trap I did and allow yourself to perpetuate such perversity.

Again, my deepest apologies for such unthinking, archaic belittlement. Now I must lie down. I find myself overcome by the vapors.

ShunnCast #56

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Epidode #56 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill urges you with all urgency to support the Glitter & Madness Kickstarter campaign, then rewards you with a reading of his story "Care and Feeding of Your Piano."

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=56

I'm in New York City today to hang out with writers, editors, and agents at the annual SFWA Reception for Industry Professionals, so maybe it's an appropriate day to post this radio interview. Gary K. Wolfe and I appeared this past Thursday night on WGN's "Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg" to talk about science fiction, not to mention the new Library of America collection American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s which Gary edited.

We had a great time talking with Milt Rosenberg. You can listen to WGN's podcast of the interview online at WGNRadio.com, or hear the two segments of the show embedded below. Commercials and news breaks deleted!

10:00 - 11:00 p.m.  (43:59)

11:00 p.m. - midnight  (41:48)

Telegraph

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This poem was written for Tina Woelke, a donor to the Chicago Writers Conference Kickstarter campaign. One of the reward perks available was an original poem composed by me on a topic of the donor's choosing. Tina chose "reading," and I debuted the poem at a special edition of Tuesday Funk on Friday, September 14, 2012.

The telegraph was not invented in 1836
but three thousand years before Christ,
when the first writer took up a pointed stick
and traced out on papyrus the careful,
casual chain of coded symbols that
transmitted meaning across time and space
directly into a brain equipped to decipher it.

The telephone was not invented in 1876
but over five thousand years ago
when the first writer took up a pointed stick
and scratched out the vibrations in clay
that tickle the tympanic membrane of the heart
with thoughts conceived in days older than dirt.

Telepathy was not invented in 2170
but forty thousand years before Christ
when, by the light of smoky torches,
the first writer poured out his heart
in ochre, hematite, and charcoal,
unable in any other way to express
the experience of stalking a god,
and slaying it with a pointed stick.

Update: Since writing this little review, I've learned that Elmore Leonard gave the manuscript of Raylan to the writers of Justified a couple of years ago so they could "hang it up and strip it for parts." This answers some questions of mine but doesn't change my opinion of the book.
raylan.jpg Let me say up front that I adore Elmore Leonard. Wait, rever might be a better word. Worship. Idolize. I've been working my way through his immense canon for years. When I bought my iPad, the first thing I did was load it up with his ebooks. His minimalist, dialog-driven prose conveys more than most writers' wordier, clumsy attempts at clarity. He's surely our greatest living writer of crime fiction, and I wish I could write like he does.

That said, Leonard has always had a problem with sequels, which is what his new novel Raylan essentially is. Whether bringing Chili Palmer from Get Shorty back in Be Cool or Jack Foley from Out of Sight back in Road Dogs, he simply seems to have trouble finding a story of equal weight to build around characters who've already had their perfect turn in the spotlight. I appreciate the fact that major characters from some Leonard novels often show up in supporting roles in others, but two major outings always seems to be one too many.

This, I regret to say, is the case with Raylan. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was a supporting character in Leonard's 1993 novel Pronto, then a more major character in 1995's Riding the Rap, but he probably enjoyed his finest role in the 2000 novella "Fire in the Hole." In that story Givens, who sees himself as a modern-day gunslinging lawman, is punished for his trigger-happy ways with a reassignment from Florida to Kentucky, where he grew up and mined coal as a teenager. He is drawn reluctantly but inevitably into a showdown with his former friend and colleague Boyd Crowder, who has gone the other way into a life of crime and violence.

"Fire in the Hole" was the direct inspiration for the FX series Justified, which is in its third season and is currently one of my favorite shows on television. Unfortunately Justified seems to have been the direct inspiration for Raylan, which is less a novel than three slightly overlapping Raylan Givens novellas smooshed together into one book. The first plotline, about a gang who steal kidneys and then try to sell them back to the victims, has appeared in slightly different form on Justified already this season. The second, about a mining company's attempts to intimidate land owners into selling, was the story underlying most of Justified's second season. The third features hookers coerced into committing dangerous robberies in exchange for oxycontin, a plotline that appeared in last week's Justified, and I think it's reasonable to assume that the high-stakes poker subplot will show up in a future episode.

I found the book to be an unfocused, disappointing mess. I'm not sure whether Leonard assembled it from scenarios he'd generated himself as an executive producer of Justified or borrowed ideas from the show's writers, but either way it's hard to see how it would appeal to anyone. The narrative is too fractured and too reliant on familiarity with past Givens stories to appeal to new readers, and it recycles too much familiar material from the show to appeal to Justified fans.

In the end, though I'm pained to say it, Raylan simply comes off as a crass attempt to cash in on the popularity of the show, and on that level I guess it worked. It fooled me into parting with my 25 bucks.

Having seen the French caper flick Rififi last night, in which an alarm system is disabled with fire extinguisher foam, what are the odds that I would today read a Donald E. Westlake short story ("The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter") in which an alarm system is disabled with Redi-Whip? Long odds, it seems to me. Long, long odds.

If I hadn't seen the movie last night, I doubt I would have caught that tiny joke in the Westlake story. Yet how many times have you caught a reference that you wouldn't have caught unless you'd seen, read or heard something else within a fairly short amount of time? I know it's happened to me quite often.

As uncanny as these coincidences seem, it seems to me that culture can only exist and be transmitted via a vast network of shared references. There must be a supply of these matching references that is limited only by number of nodes in our network of cultural references, a vast supply, which we only really notice when a pair of them smack us in the face, like foam defeating an alarm system. Rather than finding the coincidence usual, I tend to think that the strange thing is that we don't notice more of these coincidences. After all, they must be going on around us all the time.

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