The nail that sticks out gets hammered in.
— Japanese proverb
Some of the best movies are about nothing more than the look on someone’s face. Bashing works like that: in its many moments of deep emotional discomfort, it zooms in on the face of its main character, Yuko Takai (Fusako Urabe) and unblinkingly watches her suffering. Here is a woman who wants nothing more than to work at her job, go to her local convenience store, order a bowl of noodles — in short, do all of the things we take for granted every day that should have no repercussions. She’s not that lucky.
We learn about her a little at a time, much as we learn about anyone. She was a relief worker in Iraq, where she was held hostage for a time and eventually released. On returning home, she was not greeted as a hero or even as a curiosity, but as a pariah. In the very first scenes, she loses her job as a maid in a hotel, all because a co-worker got on the Internet and posted scurrilous things about her. Her boss doesn’t need this sort of hassle, he tells her. Callous bastard, we think. We soon realize he’s one of the less malicious people we’ll see. Read more
Next weekend I'll be visiting my good friend Sarah in Jersey, and making a key stop on the way back: the Princeton Record Exchange. There, I'll be unloading most of my existing collection of vinyl. Most of it is actually my wife's — between us we have mostly Eighties heavy metal, punk, underground / noise / alternative / college tunes, and some weird one-off bits. (CM von Hausswolff's Life and Death of Pboc, for instance.
After mulling over selling off the collection picemeal on eBay or Craigslist or the like, I decided it was just easier to dump the lot there and be done with it — there's only so much time I can devote to curating a collection like that, especially when most of anything important in it has already been released on CD or as a download. Most of them aren't in great shape, anyway — they've been played pretty aggressively, the sleeves are rather ragged, and neither of us were terribly obsessive about keeping them in forensically perfect shape anyway.
The nostalgia of the LP never completely left me. I loved the fact that LPs had cover art you could hang on a wall (as opposed to postage-stamp-sized CD sleeves), how turntables had tonearms that looked like surgical instruments from a science fiction movie, and that little electric sput that jumped from the speakers when the needle met the record. And I don't think vinyl will ever quite die — not as long as there are wheels of steel and DJs to man them, and milk cartons to shove the records into. And folks like me to go digging through them.
You know what was cool?
You know what else is cool?
Geisha. Geisha are cool.
You know what else is cool?
Ninja. Ninja are way cool.
What's cooler than either of those?
Geisha Vs. Ninjas. By the action director of Death Trance.
What's even cooler than that?
A domestic DVD of it.
The only thing cooler than that?
A domestic Blu-ray.
Sorry, not yet.
But, hey. A man can dream.
The good news about Darker Than Black continues unabated. This has shaped up to be one of the best shows coming out in 2009 — not just a great anime, but a solid TV show even for people who would never label themselves as “anime fans”. So, yes: those of you thinking of using this as a gateway drug for that special someone, do it. You (and they) may need to stick with it for several episodes at a time for it to really click, but that’s actually one of the best things about DTB: it builds its impact cumulatively. The longer you stick with it, the more rewarding it is.
Disc three’s four episodes are actually best thought of as two double-length installments, and are in fact billed that way: “When One Takes Back What Was Lost Within The Wall…” and “A Heart Unswaying on the Water’s Surface…”, each with parts 1 and 2. In the first half, Li’s new assignment is to infiltrate the PANDORA research base that’s in the Hell’s Gate forbidden zone. There’s no way he can just waltz in there and use the full gamut of his powers, and for two reasons: a) the PANDORA people would skin him alive if he pulled a stunt like that, and b) Contractors, him included, tend to have serious trouble keeping their powers on a tight leash when they’re in or near the Gate. To that end, he’s given a cover story: he’ll apply for a job with the janitorial team and hide in plain sight. His ultimate goal is to recover an artifact from within the Gate that might have game-changing consequences for Contractors as a whole. Read more
Ong-Bak was fantastic. Ong-Bak 2 shows every sign of leaving its predecessor in the dust.
I must see this film immediately.
Most people reading this probably know by now I’m not a gigantic fan of e-book systems like the Kindle. I’m also not naïve enough to assume I can just ignore the consequences of how reading and publishing are going digital. Some people (Baen) get it; others (everyone still wasting money on prestige hardcover printings) don’t.
This in mind, I must ask: Who here would find it worthwhile for me to start doing e-book versions of my work? This wouldn’t have to happen right now or even anytime this year, but rather as a long-term prospect.
Here’s the possibilities:
One underlying assumption is that people will still be willing to pay for printed copies no matter what else happens. I’m confident that’ll continue to be the case for a while to come, but I would really hate to be proven cruelly wrong in that regard.
There may be other avenues I haven’t explored yet, so if you can think of others, do mention them here.
Nicholas Kristof just echoed my thoughts.
I saw a version of this not-challenging-one's-prejudices problem in college as well. Many of the people who go to college, from what I saw, weren’t interested in the usual liberal-arts or higher-education line of guff about broadening the mind or whatnot. They wanted to do their time (pace all the usual comparisons between educational and penal institutions, ha ha), get their sheepskin, and get a shot at making more money than all the other people they knew who were stuck pumping gas or slinging Slurpees.
It is, I guess, human nature to surround ourselves with things that are most like ourselves, or that reflect our beliefs. There was a time when we didn’t really have a choice in the matter: we lived and died in the same spot on the globe, and what little word we received about strange doings in strange lands was filed under Mythology or Xenophobia. But now we have the choice – although, as with the first iteration of the use of anything new, we’re using it mostly to continue the same bad old habits without thinking about the consequences of extending a given behavior globally.
This sort of thing is what higher education was supposed to be about, at least in part: giving someone the sense that the world was bigger, far less definitive, and more nuanced than you might suspect – and giving them the tools to spar with both it and themselves. Unfortunately, I get the feeling too many of those tools arrive far too late in the educational process to do much good; we should be teaching logic and critical thinking as far back as grade school, alongside arithmetic and spelling, and not confine it to some adjunct of the computer sciences or more esoteric specialties like philosophy (which was how I wound up taking and acing that particular course).
What’s disturbing, according to Kristof’s piece, is that most people with an education don’t use what they have learned to further their understanding after they grab their diploma and split. They use it to insulate themselves from anything that might further disturb their world-view. Some of this is not bad: there are some ideas that are worth rejecting out of hand because they don’t even pass the most basic common-sense sniff tests, and without some bedrock core of ideas you can’t build anything like a coherent outlook. But it doesn’t help when the end result is people who can’t even come into the room and have a coherent discussion because they all hate each other on (potentially totally fictitious) principle.
It has become more crucial than ever that people be able to challenge and test things they simply accept within themselves on face value. This does not mean that they should be compelled to shed and re-clothe themselves in the idea of the moment for the sake of passing fancies or public pressure – that’s just the same thing in its antipodeal form. Rather, we need to inspire people to understand how it is just as useful to leave a point of view behind as it is to defend and uphold it (something I get the impression they do for the sake of solidarity with a larger whole, whether real or imagined).
The only thing that seems possible, as Kristof suggests, is for each of us to find within ourselves a way to spar with that Great Immutable, and maybe move Leviathan by inches at a time.
Tokyo Inferno is now just south of 40K words. It “feels” about a little less than halfway done, so it’ll probably come in at 100K proper — about the length I’ve been aiming for with most of my work.
A couple of conventions ago when I was sitting in on a panel about writing, someone popped the question: how long should a story be? My own answer to this was something like “Where’s the ‘should’?” Meaning that you always want to look into what’s compelling you to make the thing the length you feel is right. I don’t have a particular ambition to write anything the size of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, if only because I’m pretty sure anything I would have to say would be long exhausted before I ever got to even the 500 page mark, let alone the 900 or 1,085 or however many pages that elephantine thing is.
On the other hand, I have the worst time with short stories. I cannot pull off anything that compressed — or, rather, I haven’t been able to do that since I left high school. Back then I was able to throw down a story a week or so for class, but a) that was high school and b) I was not turning out anything I’d want to unearth and parade around now. What few ideas I feel are worth dwelling on at all typically get turned into long-form pieces because that’s where I feel like I’m getting the most for my effort.
There are some shorter pieces that are probably worth polishing and anthologizing at some point. Two come to mind: “A Review Of The International Anthology of Android Literature, 2nd Edition [Revised]” and “Shunga-Satori”. The former’s a story in the form of a book review (think one of Dale Peck’s self-professed hatchet jobs); the latter’s one of those pieces that wanders around freely between psychological horror and straight fiction and confessional epistolary writing and who knows what else. I’d probably want to pack them together with a third or maybe even a fourth item in one volume and add that to the catalog. No title yet save maybe for Shunga-Satori and Other Stories, or something equally unassuming.
People who can bang out short stories are like the folks who can tie cherry stems in a knot with their tongue. It’s such a little thing, but damn, dude, the fact that you can do it at all is monumental.
It’s been said that TV’s matured to the point where long-form dramatic shows (The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire) provide the kind of depth of character and scope of story that we’d normally get from a novel. In a novel you can stretch out and explore at your leisure; you can create a whole world, populate it, examine each corner of it in turn, and allow the reader all the time he needs to do the same thing. We’re getting to that point now with episodic TV, too — thanks to DVD sets, video-on-demand, and round-the-week reruns, a good TV show can be savored just as thoroughly as a book you re-read and get that much more out of each time.
There’s been few anime that reach the same heights. The few that do are as good as anything else on TV, live-action or animated: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex; Berserk; and a select handful of others. Darker Than Black is slightly shy of that category — but only slightly. Even before its first volume was released Stateside, I’d seen a few fansubbed episodes and been enthralled, and when FUNimation snapped it up for a domestic release I stuck my neck out for it and was not disappointed. It’s not just the intriguing concept or the broad roster of characters, but the consistently intelligent writing and storytelling. The premise, convoluted and complex as it is, has been subordinated to the needs of the characters. Usually it’s the other way around. Read more
A discussion over at IMC about gaming, which spills over a bit into writing in general:
We’ve all seen it. The great idea for a room that seemed to fizzle to nothing shortly after getting out of the gates. The really well crafted C that just doesn’t ever seem to be used in actual play. The room spanning story arc that never gets resolved because the ST/GM/DM ran out of steam to tie it all together. While it is frustrating for the players, it is even more frustrating for the one whose creative well has gone dry. It has happened to the best of us. The question is how to recover from the lost of muse…
People (read: other writers) talk about “muses” and inspiration a lot in general, so this is probably as good a place to talk about that as any.
I’ve come to realize that inspiration is not much more than the act of honing and directing your attention. From time to time I’ve posted that anecdote about someone who says I have no ideas, this sucks, and I ask them okay, what happened last week? and they run down a list of 37 things, but none of those are interesting enough for a story; they’re not what you’re looking for.
I drew a couple of conclusions from this, the biggest one being: It’s not about what you’re looking for; it’s about what presents itself to you unbidden. That requires you keeping your eyes and ears open in places where you would never expect to run into something “useful” — in short, it’s a honed skill, something you have to keep at.
I’m obviously not arguing against going out and trying to find inspiration or ideas from different sources or anything like that. I am arguing in favor of allowing yourself to be surprised in the deepest possible ways, so that you can put aside what you’re looking for — or, rather, become that much more aware of the implications of what you’re looking for so you can set them aside and be truly knocked out when something nifty comes along.
Okay, back to the question at hand: how do you reignite a spark after it fizzles? The trick again, I think, is to not let yourself be limited by what’s right in front of you — to constantly ask what could go here or work there. I wrote some 250,000 words that I had to throw away, some two novels’ worth of material, before I finally found a place for my character Gō-sensei. Before I could get there, though, I had to admit defeat (as it were) not just once but twice. Admit defeat, but not lose hope — eventually, I would find a home for him, and soon I did.
Now: If you cultivate within yourself the idea that a muse is something you summon from within yourself — and not something you wait for as an outside agency, like a bus or a taxi — then you get into the habit of bringing the muse back a great deal more easily. Most people think of inspiration as lightning that strikes you at random; I think of it as a faucet with a funny-looking handle that you eventually learn to turn properly. Fiddle with it often enough and it’ll pop open, but after a while you figure out how to get it to work on demand.
Every child born of every mother and father asks the same questions. Why is the sky blue? What happens after we die? What am I, anyway? My guess is that when the human race as a whole has its first child, it will be a sentient machine — a robot, or an AI — and we will know it is so when it, too, relentlessly asks these same questions.
I wonder if that was the reason Osamu Tezuka created Astro-Boy, or Tetsuwan Atomu (or “Atom” for short) as he was in Japan. If an AI is meant to have the curiosity of a child, then why not create one that looks and behaves like a child, and will be treated like on by the adult (read: human) world? It made sense to me when I first read Astro-Boy in English, and now that I’ve been reading Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto — itself a reworking of one of Tezuka’s most famed Astro-Boy stories — it makes all the more sense. No child remains a child forever, but how the child becomes father to the man is critical. Read more
I sat down with Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man the other day — one of the first books I’d read when I had started making my foray into things Japanese. It struck me both then and now as something which worked decently well as a novel, but probably could have been condensed to a short story without losing much. I did have to wonder how much of what was in it was Tanizaki himself lamenting the advances of old age — needing the length and girth of a novel, even a relatively short one (certainly short compared to The Makioka Sisters!), to surround the reader with those feelings.
I understood a great many more of the topical details in the book on coming back to this this time, but my sense of its core meaning then and now remains unchanged — namely, how the life force and the libido are psychic and spiritual, and freely transcend the limits of the body. He’s not mad at all; in fact, he’s probably saner than most other people his age, because he knows exactly what he’s missing and wants to do everything he can to reclaim it before he really is gone. Death itself doesn’t frighten him so much as the process of dying: the decrepitude, the worry, the hassle.
Diary is one among many books I read way back when and which I’m now circling back to re-read. I don’t know if a full review is needed, but there may be other works which absolutely demand that kind of treatment, especially now that I can come back to them with a far better sense of what they are and why. One major example: Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry, which along with many of Oe’s other books (and Oe himself as a writer) has divided bitterly the people I have talked to about it. Cry is absolutely not the place to start with Oe — go with A Personal Matter, it’s shorter and conveys a good sense of the man’s writing in a relatively constrained space. But Cry was, for better or worse, one of those few books (like Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies) that served as a reminder of what fiction can do at its best. Or, in my case, the kind of book(s) that made me want to go out and write one myself because I didn’t want to be left behind.
On the same note, the “hero project” keeps rattling around in my head, refusing to leave but also refusing to take a definitive form. So far the best I’ve been able to pin down is that it will be an episodic or at least quasi-episodic (that is, each “episode” being more or less self-contained) story, with several other works as possible points of reference: Berserk, Claymore, the Tales of the Otori novels, Yoshikawa’s Musashi, and maybe also Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s deeply frustrating to have a project like this, which is all desire and no substance, despite all my note-taking and theorizing to the contrary.
I've reached the point on Tokyo Inferno where my edits are now caught up with where I left off with the manuscript back when I was still writing it (for NaNoWriMo). I'd decided to stop and backtrack, and do some more research, before diving in and writing the rest of it.
Good news about the research is that most of what I ended up reading turned out to square with my original guesses. At the same time, I wanted to have that many more details to draw on, even if they're just starting points to spiral outwards from.
I'm now about a third of the way through the manuscript — if not by raw word-count then certainly by plot markers. Now that the basics of the story have been mapped out, the rest is (I hope) smoother sailing; all I have to do is put my head down and write my thousand or so words a day and the rest should fill itself in quite naturally.
No, I didn't see Watchmen this weekend — but I will, honest! What's interesting is how the fans of the book are not as enthused about it as most other people — something I suspect will even out as time goes by. Something of the same thing happened with Blade Runner, if memory serves: those who'd read Sheep were irritated at how little the movie resembled the book, but once people got over that they were able to appreciate how they were as similar as they were different.
After what I can only describe as some horribly tedious rock climbing I managed to get past the rewrite that had been bugging me in Tokyo Inferno. It wasn’t even all that big a section — maybe a thousand words, tops — but how to do it and how to rewrite the character in question were the two big killers. It was the endless stop-and-start nature of the whole thing that was deadly, like trying to pull a car out of an icebank when you have no handy cardboard, cat litter, tire chains, tow trucks or UFOs with tractor beams to get you through.
From here on out it should be slightly smoother sailing, with my projected date for a completed first-draft manuscript sometime around the end of April or so. That’ll give me a good 3-4 months time to clean it up, prep the presentation, and create some promotional material. (In the works: a series of “blurb” postcards with eye-grabbing first sentences from the books they promote, instead of just images. Should be interesting to see how those go down when I spread ‘em around.)
The third volume of Claymore brought home something that I’d been thinking about through the previous two volumes of the series. When you have a show with a premise that’s simple and bold, it lends itself to becoming a multifaceted metaphor in the viewer’s minds. Already I’ve seen analogies for the war between the sexes, the superiority (true or alleged) of the male or the female of the species, the difficulty of keeping personal discipline under pressure … and at least a few others I forgot to write down ‘cause I was caught up in the drama of the whole thing.
Is that bad news? I don’t think so. If the mere act of watching a show doesn’t hold our interest on a basic entertainment level, then it’s probably not going to spark much of anything else. But Claymore’s a solid show because it remembers to entertain first, and lets its deeper meanings suggest themselves naturally through the action. I hope they keep that balance through the rest of the episodes, and from what I’ve seen they seem to be on the right track. Read more
There are two authors named Murakami. Don’t get them confused; this’ll be on the test. Haruki Murakami is the master of daily whimsy, the author of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He looks outwards from his homeland and sees endless terrain for his imagination to play freely. Ryū Murakami, on the other hand, writes about violence and nausea and sweat and blood and sperm, and turns his vision back inwards to see a Japan that is rotting from all sides at once.
Like many other people, I mistook one for the other the first time. At Tower’s Bargain Annex on 4th Street (now long gone), I found Murakami #2’s Almost Transparent Blue for $3 — about the most I’d want to pay for a book that was barely 128 pages, anyway. I read it in one sitting and was unimpressed; it felt like a poor man’s reduction of the same cheerless decadence found in books like Last Exit to Brooklyn. A Newsweek blurb on the back cover described it as “a Japanese mix of A Clockwork Orange and L’étranger”, but that’s unfair to Camus, Burgess and Murakami in about equal measure — especially since all three are better represented by other works of theirs.Read more
A new “Thoughts on the Craft” post at POD People deals with the subject of censorship and self-censorship. The central question:
Should you alter [a] story to make [a disturbing truth] more acceptable, and if you endeavor to soften the edges, will the truth you seek to expose lose its virility or its purpose?
I’ll start by noting how it’s always funny what people find disturbing or palatable. Case in point: Japanese censorship, which is notoriously oddball. The cover art for the eponymous Alice in Chains album had to be changed for that country due to sensitivity over images of the crippled (which was apparently what also kept Horrors of Malformed Men off the market there, too). Perverse sado-sexual cinematic material like Flower and Snake shows everything imaginable — except, that is, for genitalia, forbidden by law. What they can’t show on screen, they make up for in mean-spiritedness, which is in itself an argument for the idea that censorship creates more perversion than it ever prevents.
If someone chooses to censor themselves because they’re worried about presenting something that’s likely to turn an audience off, the first thing they have to remember is that there is no one monolithic “audience”. There are as many audiences as there are nations, cities, and ages of men. A book that was banned half a century ago barely elicits an eyeblink today. That said, most people are going to think about the audience they’re most likely to get here and now — but, again, how monolithic is that audience? Right here in the United States you’re likely to find as many sub-markets and sub-strata for a given work as there are sizes of clothing.
If you have a story in mind that you feel needs to be told a certain way, then do it that way; don’t second-guess other people’s reactions. Other people are other people, and you have to grant them the privilege of responding as they will. But you also need to do the dirty work in good faith.
Right now literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic are ripping themselves along the dotted line over Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a near-thousand-page cinderblock of a novel that gives us an unrepentant Nazi as its central character, but which in the eyes of some mistakes truth and reality for vulgarity and garish exploitation. I haven’t read the book myself, but at a glance it seems like an attempt at recreating what Dalton Trumbo was attempting to do with Night of the Aurochs: making comprehensible the eroticism of power. Trumbo died before he could finish Aurochs, and so the only clues we have to what the book might have looked like are the partial manuscript and the welter of notes and letters published with it. The difference — again, from what I can see without actually reading Kindly Ones — is that Trumbo had sympathy for his character and Littell simply seems to have contempt and condescension. If you’re going to tell a story about such towering evil, the least you can do is treat it as a subject worth sparring with sincerely.
Shame on me. Somehow, I managed to read and enjoy The Rose Princess without managing to write a review of it. Blame it on the end-of-the-year rush, an influx of other things all competing for my attention, or a proliferation of desk clutter that makes Fibber McGee’s closet look like a paragon of personal management. I not only forgot to write about the book but needed to go back and re-read the whole thing for the sake of being able to pen a review that wasn’t just Oh yeah, new Vampire Hunter D book, it’s way awesome, go pick it up, what more can I say?
Rose Princess comes billed with one of the best back-cover blurbs I’ve seen in a while: When you make a pact with the Devil, what happens when the Devil wants out? That’s one of the several plot seeds that Hideyuki Kikuchi plants into the perennially fertile soil of the VHD universe for this book, and as always he uses D himself as the gardener to cull what comes up. Strained metaphors aside, this is a good, solid installment in the series — about on the level of a book like The Stuff of Dreams, which gave us poetic images and striking encounters in lieu of a broader understanding of the D-verse (or, for that matter, D himself). Read more
There was a time, not all that long ago, when I asked myself: Do I want to write, or do I just want to tell people I’m a writer?
I get the impression a good number of the folks I meet who have proclaimed ambitions about being a writer have not asked themselves this question. They say, “I want to be a writer” (or, better yet, “I have this thing I’m writing”), but when it comes to actually finishing and putting work out there, something keeps getting in the way. They don’t finish projects; they get sidetracked; they get discouraged; they get caught up more in talking about the thing than doing the thing.
It sounds like the sociology of it all, the going-to-other-people-and-saying-“Hey,-I’m-a-writer”, is what really turns them on. Not the act — and for some people, a fundamentally boring one — of putting your butt in a chair by yourself and pounding some keys for maybe hours on end, every day. It’s lonely work, and most writers have to settle for the occasional fan letter or face-to-face meeting at a convention or author’s function to get to talk to another human being about their work. And then there’s the pitifully little money to be made by anyone (except the lawyers), the condescension from know-it-all fans or other would-be writers, the funny looks from relatives, the giggles from people who … you get the idea. The business of being a writer is unglamorous in more ways than I can count.
Small wonder why people try to inject some hint of true romance into it. It’s only human nature to do that sort of thing. I doubt there’s any occupation (artistic or otherwise) that doesn’t benefit from having a little of the fairy dust of romance sprinkled over the top. With writing, though, the romance has to be something you feel in the doing of it, or it won’t be there at all. If you’re not already in love with the idea of writing, so much so that you can’t wait to hustle on back home and begin typing, few things in this world short of a fat paycheck are going to be fuel enough to get their engines to turn over. (And if you’re getting into this to be rich, you are absolutely doing this for the wrong reasons.)
Are people fascinated with the whole social dance of “being a writer” because they don’t know how rarefied the rewards are? The glamorous few exceptions to the rule, the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings, are not models to emulate. They’re exceptions, rarer than shooting stars in a darkened room. The only true model you have to emulate is yourself — your own passion and your own drive. That means knowing what you actually want, which is something few enough people ever learn in this life.
Also be sure to check out the Berserk fan film made by some folks in Italy:
The trailer for the Guin Saga anime has hit YouTube.
We must have this in English as soon as humanly possible.