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New word: the footnote!

Monday October 06, 2008 @ 10:54 AM (UTC)

From the convoluted pages of House of Leaves comes a word I felt like I had heard, but had to look up anyway:

amaurotic: Total or partial blindness, especially blindness that occurs without external signs on the eye. (From the Greek for ‘dim’.)

Now that is a super-ornate way of saying something fairly simple. I approve.

What's in a frame?

Thursday October 02, 2008 @ 02:52 PM (UTC)

I’m reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is on one level a horror book. I don’t read many horror stories: while I do, like most humans, enjoy the occasional self-induced frisson, and I have a fondness for ghost stories, I can imagine all manner of phantasms into the darkness without professional help. In short, they tend to stick with me for too long (estimated time from viewing The Ring before could stare into darkness without eyes resolving nonsense lights into you-know-who: 10 months.). This book came highly recommended by Ryan, and threatened, via said Ryan, to transmute my love for Poe’s Haunted into fear. Of course I wanted to prove him wrong on that point. On top of these inducements, Ryan told me a recent xkcd strip would be hilarious when and only when I had read House of Leaves.

I’m a third of the way through the physical volume, a “remastered full-color edition” snagged from Ryan’s shelves, which means I’m almost halfway through the body of the novel (there are copious appendices). It is legitimately creepifying, and its typographical oddities do work, for me, to physicalize the wandering in the story and depict an erosion of the rational and solid. These contrivances are part of why the book’s considered experimental and postmodern. But one device it uses is not in itself postmodern, and has been used to great effect in the horror genre over at least a century.

I speak, of course, of framing. The frame story is a very old device indeed (at least some versions of the Ramayana are framed, and that’s around 2,500 years old), but I’m thinking especially of its use in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. In that classic novella, there are two frames. The ostensible narrator that begins the book (Frame 1) has a friend who introduces and reads a manuscript to him (Frame 2) that has been written by a woman once governess to the friend’s younger sister (the story itself). Much has been made of these nested frames, which put layers of hearsay and distance between the reader and the governess. If The Turn of the Screw were presented without these introductions, the narrator might not be seen as unreliable (though in the 19th century a governess, an unmarried woman in an interstitial social class, was fairly unreliable to begin with) and the reader might take at face value the ghost story she relates. The frames remove some of our intimacy with this primary narrator and help to create the piece’s legendary ambiguity.

Other uses of frames in horror include the very effective stage play of The Woman in Black by Stephen Mallatratt, where the audience is invited to identify the artifice of the performance with the frame and thereby believe the central story to be real, and found-story narratives like The Blair Witch Project, where the story itself (a manuscript or video) is found as a mysterious artifact after the characters in it have disappeared or died. As I said, I’m not terribly well-versed in horror, so I may be overlooking other striking examples.

House of Leaves has a number of frames I have not yet counted. Let’s count them together! (Ah-ha-ha!) The book begins with a Foreword from “the Editors” who make “every effort” to translate and attribute, et cetera, and make references to previous editions, in what appears to be Bookman Old Style. Given that this is a novel, not a found manuscript as the text maintains, it’s safe to assume this is a narrow little frame, Frame 1. Then we have the Courier stylings of manuscript-finder, anecdote-teller and annotater Johnny Truant, Frame 2. Then we have the main body of the manuscript, a discursive and highly footnoted piece of eccentric criticism by Zampanò (Frame 3) on a documentary. This documentary, The Navidson Record, does not seem to exist as far as Truant can discover, nor do the endless articles of criticism on the work Zampanò references. The documentary is the main story. Although arguments could probably be made that it’s not, they would, themselves, get pretty damn academic pretty fast, which would probably please the spirit of the book. The documentary film, since this is a book, is unseen. There’s an empty center at the middle of the frames. It’s interesting, since Ryan told me that this book actually shows you what drove a character mad (unusual) — but the central story remains unseen, or half-seen, translated, transcribed, half-captured.

These frames within frames do remind me of Turn of the Screw (which is mentioned, and its connection to the Navidson Record rejected along with all the classic ghost stories of Western Literature in footnote 167), but there’s more at work here. The book is, despite the nebulosity of the term, postmodern. Here’s the definition of postmodern from the American Heritage Dictionary (as I said, it’s a nebulous term, and this is only one opinion:)

Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes

“Extreme” is a good word for this book. The use of three frames (James’s two is already pretty unusual), the way the frames do not just stand aside once the central story is introduced but continue to interfere and interact with it - which may make the term ‘frame’ less literally applicable° - the multiple appendices, and the crazy typography are all pretty out there. In addition, the classic horror trope I mentioned, the found-story, recurs. Within The Navidson Record, some footage is found. The Navidson Record itself may not qualify, since it’s un-found: Truant can’t find it, even though Zampanò and all his perhaps fictive academics have access to it. Zampanò‘s manuscript is, again, found. And while Truant is very much present in the earthy footnotes to it, in footnote 197 if not before SPOILER: it becomes clear Johnny has disappeared. As I’ve said, framing is older than Modernism, but he’s certainly applying it to extremes here.

Without a doubt, the frames do allow Danielewski to cast doubt on his narrator(s). But it seems like the interplay of doubt and faith in a narrator is one of the things he’s playing with: the way Zampanò‘s academic pretensions seem to be a way of bolstering his authority, a plea to convince the reader (and, I think, perhaps the universe) to believe him; the way you find yourself attentively reading Zampanò’s arguments for the authenticity of The Navidson Record even when you ‘know’ that in the universe of the book – assuming the universe of Truant and Zampanò to be the same – the film doesn’t exist, hoax or not! Who is reliable? What’s truth anyway?

Tolkien condemned dream-frames, in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, as deprecating the fantastic nature of a framed story. A realistic frame can trick a skeptical reader into accepting a non-realistic story. In horror, there’s another reason for a realistic frame — it’s a reality the reader/watcher accepts, which makes it easier to suspend disbelief and enter upon the fantasy of the inner story. That suspension of disbelief is necessary in order to give the audience the fear they came for. In House of Leaves, the nesting of frames lets the House exist several removes from the world of the reader, the world the reader accepts natively as real and true. But at the same time, the frames jostle and shift against each other, making the reader militate for the existence of the horror, making the reader want to believe the film exists, the House exists, because it’s interesting, and because it’s scary. A found-story frame allows the audience to see the story-record itself as its own evidence, its own artifact, even though they know the frame is fiction as well. In House of Leaves, the reader is even more complicit in scaring herself. Reading this book is tricky, it’s work. I am not only scaring myself, I’m working hard to do so. How much more complicit can I get?

° Update, 10/4/08: in footnote 308, Zampanò calls them ‘generations’:

Here in particular, he mockingly emphasizes the fallen nature of any history by purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations. Consider: 1. [event] —> 2. Navidson’s perception of [event] —> 3. Navidson’s description of [event] to Reston —> 4. Reston’s re-telling of Navidson’s description based on Navidson’s recollection and perception of [event].

—> 5. Zampanò’s scholarship on the event. Heh.

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

Wednesday October 01, 2008 @ 03:28 PM (UTC)

Since Ryan let the cat out of the bag, it seems time to mention that I’m in the midst of a big ol’ move. Ryan’s dream job was, as advertised, both dreamy and jobby, and has proven so dreamy that they will let him telecommute from home. I kid you not, his boss said “work should enrich life, not vice versa.” Really. People say that.

Anywho, I’ve been an endless ball of whine about moving down here, and I know it. As Anya said once, “This tone in my voice? I dislike it more than you do, and I’m closer to it!” I can tell that I’ve been a kvetch about the (cloudless) weather, the crazy traffic, the constant merging, but I just couldn’t stop. I’m an alien here. I’m a creature of water. My skin needs it, my lungs need it, my soul needs it. I’m dry, itchy, asthmatic (smog and smoke, more than lack of water) and grumpy. It’s time to go home.

So home we go! I’m moving closer in to Portland than I’ve ever been before, which is quite exciting. I’m hoping to utilize Tri-Met and my own two feet and let the Poky Puppy rest a bit. Walking is good time to ponder plot and pick up details from the real world to cram into my writing. I feel like walking’s more or less our primary mode as humans, and that we don’t do it enough in modern America.

So that is one of the reasons (a recent push of story submissions is another) why I’ve been posting less lately, and I’m sure in the next few weeks I’ll be sporadic about it. But then I will be home, and a happier blogger for it. Let’s face it, adaptability is not one of my greatest virtues, at least when it comes to leaving my home region. Webs between my toes and they never go away.

The Booker and other Prize Reading

Monday September 29, 2008 @ 09:36 PM (UTC)

I was a little surprised the other day, perigrinating Powell’s City of Books, to run across an Award Winner section. Maybe they had this before, but it’s certainly noticeable now, and features free bookmarks with lists of winners of the Pulitzer for Fiction, the National Book Award, et cetera. Then, of course, there were shelves and shelves of the books. I took a quick look and realized that I’ve read very few NBA winners, very few Pulitzers. What I do read is Bookers.

  • 1981 Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (on my to-read list)
  • 1982 Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s Ark (aka Schindler’s List, read)
  • 1983 J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K
  • 1984 Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac
  • 1985 Keri Hulme, the bone people
  • 1986 Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
  • 1987 Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
  • 1988 Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (read)
  • 1989 Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (read)
  • 1990 A. S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance (read)
  • 1991 Ben Okri, The Famished Road
  • 1992 Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (read)
  • 1992 Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger
  • 1993 Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
  • 1994 James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
  • 1995 Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
  • 1996 Graham Swift, Last Orders
  • 1997 Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (read)
  • 1998 Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
  • 1999 J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace
  • 2000 Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (read)
  • 2001 Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang (read)
  • 2002 Yann Martel, Life of Pi (on my to-read list)
  • 2003 DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little
  • 2004 Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
  • 2005 John Banville, The Sea
  • 2006 Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
  • 2007 Anne Enright, The Gathering

Now, obviously I haven’t read the majority of these, the Booker Winners in my lifetime. But that’s a lot more than I’ve read of the Pulitzer Winners or NBA Winners since 1981.

But another thing I notice is that the ones I’ve read are from 2001 and earlier. Of the more recent novels, the only one that sounds familiar — even having looked at shelves of Booker Winners just over a week ago – is The Gathering, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. It takes a long time for books to come to my attention. Because of this, I am always amazed at how up-to-the-minute some readers are. I’m still trying to catch up on all the books I didn’t have time to read during grad school, a few classics I feel a dunce for not having read, any number of modern sci-fi works because my sci-fi reading was guided by a member of a previous generation. How do people manage to have read most or all of the Booker shortlist in time to have strident opinions about it? (The Booker’s juried, so their opinions are just that.) Are they all librarians and booksellers, book critics and Lit professors, so that it’s part of their job to know what’s coming out and whether they should read it? My way of reading is more haphazard, more organic. I gather suggestions and sometimes act on them immediately, sometimes wait for more information or opinions. I don’t buy many hardbacks and I borrow things from the library, on the whole, for which I don’t have to wait on a list.

I suppose the reason I’m faintly nervous about this topic is that I recently lurked on a forum discussion about SFWA members and the Nebulas. (SFWA is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Active members can recommend works in the various categories for the preliminary ballot and vote on the preliminary ballot, which determines the final ballot that goes to judges.) Basically, the gist was that SFWA members aren’t active enough in recommending stories, and sometimes vote based on notoriety if they haven’t read the works. I’d like to be a full SFWA member someday (I am becoming a junior Associate Member as we speak) and I worry. I want to be diligent and do my civic duty (as a citizen of the galaxy). Am I going to have to be up-to-the-minute? Buy hardbacks, wait on library lists? Shove my half-read classics and obscure nonfiction reading aside to tackle the latest and greatest? But, then, I suppose, if I get to be an Active Member, doing the diligence will be part of my job too. Maybe I worry too much, because I feel like that would make me more proud than put upon.

The Blind Assassin

Friday September 26, 2008 @ 10:10 PM (UTC)

I haven’t made a habit of reposting my book reviews from book cataloging websites here (I now review everything I read for the first time.) However, I just finished reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Now, I have read another book this good recently: I perused Mrs. Dalloway this Spring. However, I had been prepared for Mrs. Dalloway — everyone told me how fabulous that was. Everyone told me The Blind Assassin was good, but it blew me away.

So, here is my review, also posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.

I’ve already been an Atwood admirer for a few years, but The Blind Assassin is too gorgeous to merely admire. I love it. Where it isn’t exquisite, it’s precise. It moves expertly between the dry, the brutally truthful, and the passionate, and brings the keenness of the author’s eye to them all. Atwood describes both the elusive and the everyday with a transforming grace.

All that is merely on the level of prose, of paragraph. Her narrator is human, complex, and honest. The other characters are interesting, Laura chiefly so, of course, and I appreciate the way Iris acknowledges and interrogates her own inability to do others’ characters justice. I particularly appreciated the way that Atwood drew us into the book with the mystery of Laura, and then gradually made us (well, me, at any rate) fonder and fonder of Iris. A beautiful literary bait and switch.

All this and a compelling plot. Really, if I try to think of something wrong with this book, the first thing that swims to mind is that it’s more than a little intimidating to a young author. My consolation is that she was 61 when it was published. I still have some years to practice.

Here are some quotes from the book:

She stubs out her cigarette in the brown glass ashtray, then settles herself against him, ear to his chest. She likes to hear his voice this way, as if it begins not in his throat but in his body, like a hum or a growl, or like a voice speaking from deep underground. Like the blood moving through her own heart: a word, a word, a word.

Was this a betrayal, or was it an act of courage? Perhaps both. Neither one involves forethought: such things take place in an instant, in an eyeblink. This can only be because they have been rehearsed by us already, over and over, in silence and darkness; in such silence, such darkness, that we are ignorant of them ourselves. Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance.
You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labelled bones.

Mass Effect Two: Asari Boogaloo

Thursday September 25, 2008 @ 01:36 PM (UTC)

So, we’ve covered the fact that Mass Effect is probably my favorite game since Nethack. But one of my pals, Rock Star, bought a 360 and played through the game himself, so I’ve been thinking about the game a little more. There are, as Rock Star points out, some things wrong with the game. The looting and inventory management are a little too flimsy for the amount of lewt going through them, for example. I’m sure they have plenty of sarcastic web comics and whiny forum posts that point this stuff out to them. However, I’m not sure if they have a lot of comments from plot-addicted table-top-gaming English-majorish types like me (and, since I put ‘ish,’ like Rock Star.) Who knows if story-loving FPS-players are even a useful demographic?

So here are a few suggestions, most serious, and proposed titles (not at all serious) for Mass Effect 2. Many of these suggestions are of the (probably frustrating) “you’re doing this well — but I want more!” variety. Tiny spoilers (such as that you can save the galaxy in a game about galaxy saving) are contained. Other plot spoilers are preceded by “SPOILER” and whited out – select to read if you like.

  1. Plot-fanciers like to change the world. Mass Effect already does this. Hearing news broadcasts in the elevators about your doings and even yourself is awesome. However, a little more wouldn’t hurt. Specifically, if I don’t see a statue of SPOILER:Ashley (or Kaidan, if your Shepard didn’t give the Williams family their heroic redemption) in Mass Effect 2, heads will roll. (Who am I to threaten? I’m Commander effing Shepard. (And so can you!))

  2. We like our interactions to affect character actions. In some ways, a more specific version of #1. Mass Effect does have character arcs and Shepard’s relationships with her squaddies do evolve. I’m not talking solely about the romance arcs here, but about things like winning Wrex’s trust and subsequently SPOILER: having an easier time getting him to stand down at Virmire. More of this would increase engagement with the game (and replayability) for plot-fanciers. For instance, if you play the end of the game with the squad member Shepard has romanced, don’tcha think it would be nice to mark that in some way? Captain Anderson is not going to court-martial her for hugging. She’s Commander effing Shepard, after all, and she just saved the galaxy. The more personalized the squad members’ reactions to things are (see “Don’t have a panic attack” in last Mass Effect post) the better. I know it’s more work, but it’s not that much more work.

  3. Use your backstory to more effect. Mass Effect has obviously been lovingly crafted – its universe, not just the game. Random worlds have fun, interesting info attached to them. The codex entries are extensive. However, that can mean oversights seem more glaring. I overheard the Turian Council member haranguing Rock Star’s Jordan Shepard about SPOILER: killing the Rachni queen. Umm. So, it’s okay if you do it slowly with a genetically engineered disease? Seriously, the whole krogan backstory makes my head hurt and my I-can-fix-everything gamer-thumbs itch. I hope something happens with that in the sequel. There are also unprosecuted opportunities to tie in squad member history, like the Williams family honor. I like the increased richness the character histories offer, and this would reward us for taking an interest in our NPCs’ lives.

  4. Animate some object interaction. This is whiny, and perhaps less English majory than advertised, but it does sort of break the cinematic illusion when all props are handed off below the shot and we spend time chasing a McGuffin only to see the characters stare offscreen at it. If this is too much work, fine. I stop whining now.

So those are my main plot-fancier suggestions for Mass Effect 2. Because I am a giver, I have also come up with several possible titles!

  • Mass Effect 2: Now with 20% More Seth Green

  • Mass Effect 2: Kill More Things, Take More Stuff

  • Mass Effect 2: James Bond vs. Spectres (I am officially too dorky to live.)

  • Mass Effect 2: Commander Effing Shepard Beats Up Everyone (after the famous xkcd, suggested by Rock Star as the consequence of my not getting my statue from #1.)

  • Mass Effect 2: The Search for Liara’s Daddy

I’m a giver.

Fame-o-Meter unveiled

Wednesday September 24, 2008 @ 02:48 PM (UTC)

This gadget has existed in my brain for long eons (you might say the Mark 0 lacked substance.) However, I found myself referring to it the other day, as someone I met once attained one of the Fame-o-Meter’s highest tiers. That was the push I needed to make the thing real as part of the Felicity Self-Encouragement Wall (TM, under construction, buy tickets now).

Fame-o-Meter Mark 1

I’m not entirely satisfied that the rankings reflect the importance of the events, and I’m sure that in my haste to fill in the pre-existing benchmarks (Powell’s pillar, “Fresh Air”) with others, mistakes have been made. By me. However, calling it “Mark 1” wiggles me out of that nicely. As you can see, I aim both high and low. I hope to someday get prizes and such, but I have not put movie deals or TV interviews on the scale. What can I say? I try to be ambitious but reasonable.


Monday September 22, 2008 @ 09:45 AM (UTC)

I’m on the last day of a long weekend in Portland. I had an excuse for coming here, a high school reunion, but the truth is I missed the place. Missed Powell’s, rain, Schmizza, my friends…I even missed things I didn’t realize were different, like there being squirrels everywhere.

So that’s why I’ve been less communicative than is my wont: I’ve bought half a dozen books at Powell’s (and one at Powell’s Beaverton), eaten lunch at Pizza Schmizza, browsed the stock and watched the letterpress at Oblation Papers, had a pot of tea at the TeaZone, bought necessities at Fred Meyer, had a Porter or two off the nitro at McMenamin’s and another pint at the Bridgeport Brewpub. I have gone for many walks, listened while a rainstorm built from shower to deluge, sat about reading companionably with my friends, taken the bus and the Portland Streetcar.

All this and the promise of a baby oliphaunt…huzzah for home!

Useless crowing

Wednesday September 17, 2008 @ 11:39 AM (UTC)

You cannot say you were not warned. Last night, in the process of executing my day’s 4 pages of novel, I finished my current writing notebook and started a new one. (not Clairefontaine this time — I’m trying to use up the other blank books I have sitting around. If anyone actually cares why Clairefontaine is my paper product of choice, even compared with {new notebook} the wildly popular Moleskine, I would be more than happy to blog about that.)

The reason this transition is almost interesting enough to warrant your attention is that I started this new notebook August 14th. One month and two days to get through 192 pages, and they aren’t exactly mingy tiny pages either. I am massively proud of this productivity, and on top of it, September 16 marked one month without break of the 500 words a day project. I actually kept a resolution for a whole month! About something other than flossing!

Now I guess I’d better go recalibrate and figure out how many pages in a Moleskine is 500 typed….

Write a fan letter, I dare you

Monday September 15, 2008 @ 10:59 AM (UTC)

In my very limited experience of publishing (one story, baby! As a former teacher says, “In jazz, we say as long as you’ve been paid once, you’re a professional.”), fan letters are splendid little bombs of joy. I use the term ‘fan letter’ generally: obviously, having published only one story, I cannot receive ‘fanatic’ missives declaring how the writer has read all the kajillion stories I’ve written et c. et c. Also, they weren’t paper. I received a few e-mails around the time of my publication, one from a fellow writer and a couple from readers, saying they read and enjoyed my story. One chap said he hoped I published again soon.

Is it necessary to describe how thoroughly my day was made by these things? When I saw my name in print – in Asimov’s Science Fiction no less – I felt the world would change. As I’m fond of quoting, I felt “Perhaps there may be golden trumpets!” But there were not, of course, as my more rational mind predicted. I still went to Queequeg’s every day, encountered the same scammers and scallywags, rejoiced if the weekly tip haul worked out to $1.60 an hour. What those e-mails told me was that I had been heard. Which, after all, is half of why we do this, right? Otherwise we’d all be Emily Dickinson, content to hoard our scribblings. When you’ve been heard, the world has changed. Your words are part of the internal universes of those who’ve read it, and knowing that, you feel changed as well.

I hadn’t thought about it that deeply, or for a while, when I read the September 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction the other day. The novella in it, “Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, was wonderful. An intriguing setting, a compelling character conflict, and soon enough a fascinating plot. I enjoyed it immensely, not only for those separately listed elements, but for the way they interacted and informed each other. It was a beautifully balanced thing that caught the imagination and heart.

And so, when I put the magazine down (always a sign of a good story: you can’t go on ravenously to the next), I wondered if I should look up the author and send her a note. I never would have considered this last year, but for some reason the idea did arise, and I couldn’t dismiss it. I’d feel so foolish! I thought. What would I say? Some slightly less gushy version of what appears above between ‘An’ and ‘heart’, obviously. But why should I suddenly start sending appreciative e-mails? The answer to this one was just as obvious: because now I know what a difference it makes. I also told myself that sci-fi has a more collegial atmosphere, and it wasn’t really that odd to send a spec-fic author a note – very much of the spec-fic culture. (I don’t actually know if the literary mainstream engages in this note-writing activity or not, since I won’t be published in it until next summer – anyone want to enlighten me?)

So I sat down and searched up her e-mail, wrote her a note, and pressed ‘send’. And you know what? She did appreciate it. Even widely published authors want to know they’re heard. I don’t know whether it made her day, but it sounds like it brightened it. So next time you read a story in a magazine that really strikes you, that you can’t stop thinking about, hang up your self-consciousness on a peg and write a fan letter. It’s a simple way to spread a little happiness in the world.

For fun, I formalized the rules I made up for myself before writing the aforementioned e-mail: here they are.

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