Inhuman Swill : Literature

The Bone Clocks: A Novel by David Mitchell
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 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.

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Luminarium by Alex Shakar
Novelist J. Robert Lennon wrote recently on Salon.com that young writers should avoid reading much contemporary literary fiction because most of it is terrible. (The essay, in fact, is headlined: "Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible.") It's a well-argued piece, worth reading, but what really caught my attention was this passage:

But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre — I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose.
The emphasis there is mine, on a sentence I find troubling. I certainly support Lennon's contention that writers—all writers—should read widely, and read what they enjoy. What's problematic to me is that word privileged, as if writers of "literary" fiction inhabit in some class superior to writers of other genres, and they're the only ones permitted to reach down and rummage through the toolboxes of their inferiors, and then only for purposes of upending genre conventions.

This is a limited, and limiting, view of genre. It implies that no genre but literary fiction can amount to more than the sum of its tropes, and that the tropes of genre fiction are only useful to the literary writer insofar as they can be employed to ironic or postmodernist ends.

Both those implications are false. Central to Lennon's essay is the proposition that most of contemporary literary fiction is stuck in an insular, navel-gazing loop—in other words, that it continues to reinforce and perpetuate its own tropes. A few works might break out of that cycle and transcend it, but if we accept that most works in the category are stuck inside a constraining boundary of accepted elements, then we are defining literary fiction as a genre. And if any works in that genre are capable of transcending its limitations, then why can't works in any other genre do the same?

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Iain Banks
Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

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A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jeff Lang sent me a link to Studio 360's listener cocktail challenge—create a cocktail inspired by and named after a classic work of literature.

I wanted to give it a try, but I wasn't able to work on it before the August 12th deadline. Last night I had some spare time, though, so I cobbled together a drink I'm calling the Quiet American. I combined 1.5 oz. of Laird's Applejack, 0.75 oz. of Créole Shrubb liqueur, and 1.5 oz. of blood orange martini mix (blood orange, key lime and cane sugar), stirred with ice, and strained.

The result was not bad—sweet and orange-y with a slightly bitter undertaste. It gets that name because of the distinctly American spirit (the applejack) getting all into the poor tropical country's business (in this case, Martinique). Of course, it was Vietnam in the novel, so my cocktail inhabits the entirely wrong part of the world, but hey, it was the best I could do.

Laura thought it needed more of something tart, like lime juice or a twist. I'll keep meddling with it, like a good American.


shaun-meta-david.jpg
UPDATE!  After this blog entry was written, I emailed the text of it to John Hodgman on a whim. A few hours later, to my surprise, I received a response. His Honor told me he would endure my "gut punches" if I disagreed with him, but that I should not ask him to answer for Martin Amis.
Dear Judge John Hodgman:

I must take great exception to your summary judgment in a recent episode of the "Judge John Hodgman" podcast, to wit, that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy only and not a horror film.

Your Honor, this opinion is, if you'll permit me, patent hogwash. If we are to accept your definition of a horror film as one designed to provoke terror and dread in its audience and to help that audience confront and process their own existential fears as their on-screen proxies battle horrors from beyond the grave, then in what way does Shaun of the Dead not meet that definition? Yes, we may be laughing at the same time, and we may chuckle wryly here and there in recognition of nods to earlier classics in the zombie canon, but that in no way reduces our identification with Shaun, Ed, and the rest of our heroes, nor does it diminish our well-justified fears for their safety or our investment in their fates. Whatever yuks may be afoot, these characters are in very real peril, and we can't help experiencing that peril along with them. Shaun of the Dead clearly manages the feat of being effective comedy and horror both, at the same time.

I am weary to my bones of the tired assertion that a thing that is one thing cannot also be another thing, particularly when the one thing is seen as high art and the other as low. I recall years ago attending a lecture by literary enfant terrible Martin Amis at the NYU library. His New Yorker short story "The Janitor on Mars" had just been named by Locus Magazine as one of the year's top works of science fiction. During Q&A, a young woman asked Amis if the publication of that story meant that he was now a science fiction writer. Amis hemmed and hawed, eventually asserting that, while he had read and absorbed copious amounts of science fiction as a youth and certainly wasn't embarrassed by that fact, "The Janitor on Mars" merely deployed the tropes and language of science fiction to a higher literary end. It was not itself, he claimed, science fiction.

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I don't say enough here about Tuesday Funk, the reading series at Hopleaf that I co-produce and co-host with Sara Ross. We have a great show coming tonight, with a lineup that includes Joe Weintraub, Keith Ecker, Maggie Kast, Steven H Silver, and Jenny Seay. I'll even read one of my poems (which is what I normally do, at least when I'm not reading someone else's).

We bill Tuesday Funk as Chicago's Eclectic Monthly Reading Series. We feature essays, poetry, short stories, and less categorizable performances in all genres of writing, but since being asked to help out with the series I've tried to shine a light where I can on science fiction. This month I'm very pleased to have [info]shsilver on the bill, and in future months we'll have [info]brad_beaulieu, [info]finitemonkey, and even a night featuring participants from this summer's Wellspring Workshop.

All of which is by way of saying, please come out and hang with us tonight! Hopleaf is at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago. The reading takes place in the upstairs lounge. Seating begins at 7:00 pm, the reading at 7:30 pm. Arrive early or stand! Click the image below for more info:

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My funky Tuesdays

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One of the most exciting and unpredictable reading series in Chicago is Tuesday Funk, which takes place the first Tuesday of every month upstairs at Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville. Tuesday Funk has hosted wild-eyed poets, doe-eyed troubadours, and more excellent fiction, verse, and essays read live than you could shake a blue pencil at. I've been fortunate enough to have been asked to read there four times in the past couple of years myself, and I'm proud to have been considered an adjunct member of the Tuesday Funk family.

Reinhardt Suarez and Hallie Palladino of the Gothic Funk Nation have run the eclectic series with scary efficiency for nearly three years, but they're both moving on to greener pastures. I'm very pleased and more than a little humbled to announce that I will now be co-producing Tuesday Funk together with Sara Ross. We hope to keep the same great mix of genres and disciplines that has made the series so much fun in the past, while throwing in some curve balls to keep things fresh and interesting. We have some big shoes to fill.

While I never want the series to get away from its roots as a showcase for Chicago writers, I'd love to bring more out-of-towners into the mix too. So if you're a writer (or something similar) and plan to be in Chicago the first week of any given month, please drop me a line and I'll see if we have room for you. We'd love to have you.

Oh, another thing. Chicagoans, please mark your calendars for our next reading on Tuesday, October 5, 7:30 pm, at Hopleaf. I'll be reading again that night, together with a full slate of compadres, but most importantly we need to keep our attendance high so we can continue using Hopleaf's upstairs bar month after month. More reminders will follow, but I hope to see you there.

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Tuesday Funk Reading, March 2, 2010
Hey, Chicagoans! I have a reading coming up tomorrow, Tuesday, March 2, 2010, as part of Chicago's Tuesday Funk Reading Series at Hopleaf.

It's my fourth appearance at Tuesday Funk, where I'll be appearing alongside Lisa Chalem, Reinhardt Suarez and (my Writers Workspace colleague) "Etiquette Bitch" Marianna Swallow. I'll be reading a segment from my collaboration with Derryl Murphy, Cast a Cold Eye.

The event takes place in the upstairs bar at Hopleaf, which opens at 7:00 pm. The reading itself begins at 7:30 pm. The address is:

Hopleaf Bar
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60660
That's just south of Foster, in the Andersonville neighborhood.
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Flowers for the grave (um, the one in the book)
Just a quick reminder of my book launch party for Cast a Cold Eye, this evening in Chicago. All the event details are here:

http://tinyurl.com/coldeyeparty

Hope to see you there. The nice checkout women at Trader Joe's gave me free flowers for it this morning (I was there buying lots of wine), and it would be a shame for the bouquet to go unappreciated!

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The problem isn't that Luke sees dead people. The problem is that dead people see Luke.

CAST A COLD EYE BOOK RELEASE PARTY
w/William Shunn
Friday, January 8, 2010
7:00 to 9:00 pm

Time and Again
1239 W. Cortland St.
Chicago, IL 60614
site | map

Come out to Time and Again in Chicago to celebrate the hardcover release of Derryl Murphy & William Shunn's new novella Cast a Cold Eye! Mingle with fellow book lovers, browse unique treasures from the era of the story in an elegant setting, and sit back with a glass of wine while William Shunn reads chilling selections from the book. (Readings begin at 7:30 pm.)

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