Monday, April 29, 2013

A Dream of Perpetual Motion

I finished Dexter Palmer's Dream of Perpetual Motion a little bit ago, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and what it says about our world.  It was one of the best, most thought-provoking novels I've read in a long time (and that includes Cloud Atlas, much as I loved that book as well)

I'm still finding it difficult to write coherently about the novel, so, forthwith, some general thoughts...

Palmer has written a book with the trappings of steampunk, but A Dream of Perpetual Motion doesn't really have a steampunk vibe.  Part of that is the way that most of the trappings Palmer uses have an important thematic function rather than just functioning as stage scenery.  For example, the novel is full of attempts to mechanize what we normally see as things that make as human.  Most obvious of those is the mention that Prospero wants to create an artificial/mechanical soul.  But we also see the ubiquitous mechanical men as attempts to supplant human beings (with a specific mention being made that it might be more efficient to have them not look human, but then it wouldn't achieve the aesthetic goal of replicating humanity).  And, of course, Harold's job at a greeting card factory, making ersatz sentiments, ultimately reduced to parody when he and his co-workers are told to create individual rhyming couplets that can be strung together by someone else in different combinations to create new greeting cards.

One thing I think was really interesting is that Miranda is rarely described, except for having long hair.  We just sort of tend to assume that she's beautiful because she's (in some sense) the heroine.  When the sculptor finally mentions that, in fact, she was kind of ordinary and had bad skin, it's a call-out to the way we romanticize and objectify others, just as Prospero, in a much more horrific way, objectifies Miranda and denies her agency.

There's also a theme of noise-as-destruction that runs through the novel.  Harold's telling his sister about noise-cancelling waves leads to her self-destructive art project; the musical constructs that go insane near the end of the novel are producing noise instead of music; and there's a mention somewhere in the novel that we need to find the music under the noise of life so that we can connect.

These are really random thoughts about the novel, and none of them is particularly profound -- partly because Palmer does such a great job of twining everything together.  It's sometimes said that if you can summarize everything that a book is trying to say into a few paragraphs, then you didn't really need the book, and I think that Dream really demonstrates the truth of the saying.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ursus of Ultima Thule

There are some writers who perfectly marry the style of the their story to its content.  And some who just have a sort of neutral style that goes with whatever story they happen to write.  But I've never come across a novel style and substance seem to be so much at odds with each other as Avram Davidson's Ursus of Ultima Thule.

I always think of Avram Davidson's narrator as slightly fussy erudite professor.  He knows a lot of obscure information, and he backtracks in his narration to fill in those details every so often.  (This is clearly a deliberate authorial persona; I don't claim that Davidson himself talked like that, of course).  This is a device that works really well for his "Vergil" stories, for example, with its intellectual protagonist.

But in Ursus, Davidson seems to be channeling Robert E. Howard, writing a story about a barbarian warrior in a mythical land in the frozen north.  Davidson's ornate style, with its repetitions, back-trackings, break-outs into metered verse, and so on, seems oddly fitted to this type of story at first glance.  And at second glance.  Overall, though, I'd say Ursus has some real high points, where Davidson's overlays lend a feeling of strangeness to this story of what should be, after all, a very strange land to us.  On the other hand, there are climactic moments when one can feel the force of the story moving forward, but Davidson slows down, not so much to build tension as to add another arch comment or something.

In the end, I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it, but I would certainly not recommend it as a first taste of Davidson to anybody -- the Vergil stories are Dr. Esterhazy stories are much more successful.

Iron Tears

I recently acquired just about the last R.A. Lafferty short story collection that I hadn't read till now, Iron Dreams.  I had a bit of trepidation starting it -- would it be up to the standard that I remember Lafferty setting in 900 Grandmothers?  Was he ever that good?

Fortunately, Iron Dreams shows that he was indeed that good.  Not that every story is a masterpiece; it's a decidedly odd-lot collection, containing the second story he ever wrote (unpublished till now) and also late-career stories from 1992 or thereabouts.  But at their best, these stories are whimsical and deep, funny and serious, and with a voice unique in fiction.  But what I found that I wasn't expecting was also a real wistfulness that I don't usually associate with Lafferty.

The title story is a great example; it's the story of an oread, though in the usual Lafferty fashion we're never actually told that that's what she is.  The actual story is hard to describe, as it always is with late Lafferty.  But there's an undercurrent of sadness in the way that she can never form an adult attachment.  The same current of wistfulness is more obvious in the first story, "You Can't Go Back Again."  It's the story of five kids who go to visit a small moon floating just about a canyon in Tulsa.  Later, as adults, they go back to find that it's just not as marvellous as it was when they were young.  Of course, it's also a commentary in how adults see the world, because as adults they're not impressed with the fact that they're visiting a moon; they can only look back and see that it's not as impressive as they'd thought as kids.  (And the moon-yetis are somehow smaller than they seemed back then too).

Overall, the collection has plenty of good works in it, and I'm glad to have finally have had the chance to read it.  It's a good showcase for his ability to make stories strange through his unique narrative voice.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Paradise Lost

John Milton's Paradise Lost was inflicted on me in 12th grade, and it left enough scars that it's taken a long time for me to return to it.  I use the term "inflicted" advisedly; as I recall, we were given minimal preparation, and such as it was was about Renaissance cosmology (the relationship between Heaven, Hell, and Earth).

This time, I decided to give myself the advantage of an annotated edition (sorely missed in high school), but the passage of time has been helpful as well.  In addition to having more familiarity with the Bible, I find the Latinate language and syntax less challenging than I did back then.  And, with no pressure to earn a grade, I could concentrate on enjoying Milton's epic.

It's a hard poem to write about, and not just because lots of people have already written better things than I ever could.  The real problem is that it's an easier poem to admire than it is to like.  It's a more unified epic than, say, The Faerie Queene, as well as having more distinctive characters, a flexible mastery of meter, and so on.  But I had more fun reading the latter work, even as I see the former's brilliance.

One thing I did really like was the way Milton uses the same word twice in a line (or sometimes even more within the space of a couple of lines) in different forms, or in different stress patterns.

For example,

...what seemed fair in all the world, seemed now
Mean, or in her summed up, in her contained,
And in her looks
(italics mine, to show stress)

Monday, April 15, 2013


I enjoyed David Ignatius's Bloodmoney, although probably more because it's a while since I've read a good modern espionage novel than because it's one of the greats.  Not that any of it is actually bad, and I thought Ignatius's villain is an interesting character.  (Also, his motivation at the end was very well done).

But it also doesn't really have the sorts of high notes that characterize, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with its complex characters and narrative reverses.

Watership Down

I've always thought of Watership Down as the sort of funny animal book my son reads, and it had about as much appeal as one of those books.  (Evan Hunter's "Warriors" books, for example).  This even though I've been told more than once that it's really not, there's more depth to it, and so on.

But I decided to give it a try anyway.  About three hours in, I was ready to throw in the towel -- it was just a funny animal book about rabbits after all.  But for whatever reason, I decided to give it another hour, and it somehow came into focus, and I ended up really enjoying it.  I loved the rabbits' folk stories, and also felt like the story of Hazel's growth into a real leader was very effective.

I know that people like to read allegories into it (particularly the fascism angle), but I'm not sure those parallels make this a better book.  Instead, read as an adventure story with real depth, it's a charming success.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Time certainly flies...  I started Haruki Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle a long while back.  Then I lost volume 2, and by the time I get back to it 5 years have passed.  So I re-read vol. 1, and finished it last week.

Murakami breaks with the practice in his previous stories (that I've read) of having an unnamed narrator.  It's not really a big deal, I guess, but it gave me an odd moment when his character suddenly introduced himself (around p. 50 or so, if memory serves).  On a weirder note, the character names are almost all in katakana, except in dialogue; I'm not quite sure why he does this, but it's got a weirdly distancing effect.

Overall, it's (so far) slightly less wacky than, say, Dance, Dance, Dance or Wild Sheep Chase.  The psychic stuff is played more seriously, and the last two chapters in the volume (where we here about the Japanese army in Mongolia during WWII) are the grimmest of his work that I've read.  Although it's not all entirely successful (the Russian officer feels like a villain in a bad movie), it's nice to see Murakami's expanded range.

And characters like May, the girl whom the narrator befriends, show that Murakami hasn't lost the ability (or desire) to write oddball characters.  The brief turn at doing surveys for a toupee manufacturer is a great break from the developing grimness.

I'm looking forward to finally moving on to volumes 2 & 3, now that I've got them all in one place.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a perfect melding of style and substance.  It's impossible to imagine that story being successful in anything but her pastiche of 18th century prose.  The Ladies of Grace Adieu is similar, in that Clarke has again written her stories in a pastiche of old writing, but these stories show her range within that format.  These stories are by turns gothic, whimsical, or fairy-tale-like, and each one has its own narrative style that fits perfectly.

As a side-note, Clarke is now my go-to example for how to pastiche 18-19th century fiction.  Jonathan Strange and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas are the only examples I can think of where the writing doesn't end up setting my teeth on edge.  (Mitchell, of course, is working in a very different genre in the 19th century sections)