Basil Pascali is a spy for the Ottoman Empire, which as of 1908 is well into the terminal phase of its decline. Nevertheless, on the tiny Greek island where he has taken up residency, he has been writing and filing his reports for nigh-on twenty years and being paid just as dutifully for them. The money doesn’t buy as much anymore, and his pleas for a raise have gone unheard, but he knows nothing else other than this life. Companionship is a luxury he can’t afford (in any sense), and trust is for other people. Read more
Jack Finney (he of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame) once wrote a story called "I'm Scared", where an unnamed narrator describes a slew of cases collected by him over the years in which time itself seems to have become put out of joint. Finney wrote "science fiction for people who don't read science fiction" — the sort of thing that was marketed to slicks like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post back when a person could make quite a decent living as a short-story author.
"I'm Scared" wasn't my first introduction to SF, time travel, or Finney (I'd seen Body Snatchers on TV). It was, I think, my first introduction to SF-that-is-not-SF, at least in written form. Michael Crichton, if memory serves, came after that, as did Kurt Vonnegut. It also wasn't until sometime in high school that I ran into Vonnegut's own words about SF-or-not-SF and his unease at being lumped in with it. As Frederik Pohl once mentioned, Vonnegut had visited the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference and walked out of there with a bad taste in his mouth. "From them on," Pohl wrote, "he distanced himself from science fiction in every way he could — except in what he wrote." Read more
Brad Warner’s first book Hardcore Zen was an attempt to bring Zen Buddhism to the very people who might never have bothered with it, but at the same time might benefit most from it. I liked the book because it attempted to undo the decades of pop-cultural manhandling that Buddhism has suffered, often at the hands of its own well-meaning proponents. It was not designed to tie in with the feel-good New Age leftovers that, in Warner’s view, make up too much of the writing on Buddhism.
Sit Down and Shut Up is in some ways even more radical, since it tackles as its subject matter one of the more esoteric, impenetrable, monolithic and challenging texts in all of Buddhism: Dogen’s Shobogenzo, an eight-hundred-plus-year-old text that has appeared in various translations (Warner’s master Gudo Nishijima produced one himself) and attracted only the most, well, hardcore of readers. It is the Being and Time, or maybe the Being and Nothingness of Buddhism: a text more famous for its influence and the shadow it casts than for it having been actually read. Read more
Ain't it fun when you're always on the run
Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you become
— The Dead Boys, “Ain’t It Fun”
In the second volume of No Longer Human there is a moment when Yozo, the self-destructive and conflicted main character who has spent his whole life keeping the rest of the human race at bay, dismisses the idea that he’s a good person. He’s fooled everyone around him into thinking that, because it’s all he knows how to do. “You are a good person,” says the little girl he’s talking to. “Everyone says so.” She is the daughter of the woman Yozo has shacked up with, used for sex and milked for money, and even she chooses to look the other way.
A story about someone so despicable should not be so absorbing. But that was one of the paradoxes of the original 1949 Osamu Dazai novel: it was about someone we ought to hate, who engages in things we find revolting, but all the same we cannot look away because he exposes himself so completely. The face he presents to the world is not the face he presents to the reader, and out of that dichotomy comes all the energy and fire of this story. The same has happened here in Usamaru Furuya’s adaptation, with the split between the Yozo we know and the Yozo the world sees widening all the more precipitously.Read more
On my last trip to the library to pick up some stuff on hold*, I ran across a couple of books which I remembered being blurbed about at the time of their release as being written in the style of this or that type of book from decades past (e.g., The Qincunx).
I've flirted with the idea of writing books like that — something clearly modeled in the manner and spirit of a work of previous days, although of course written in the present day. The problem, as I've come to understand it, is that it is literally impossible to write such a thing.Read more
It was in a conversation about the ubiquitous The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I brought up a homily that’s been repeated many times elsewhere: A mediocre book can often be made into an excellent film, and many of the best books — even those without terribly radical storytelling or use of language — are all but unfilmable.
I was late to the Dragon Tattoo party, I admit. I already knew the bare outlines of the story — and the backstory, which is at least as interesting as the books themselves — and was able to read the first volume equipped with that understanding. But what was good about the story, the various interlaced knots of intrigue and the ways Lisbeth Salander takes revenge on her tormentors was buried under prose so pedestrian and unabsorbing I could barely sustain an interest. Read more
Zen Buddhism is about, among many other things, paradox and contradiction. Likewise, Zen masters have a history of being iconoclasts, which is a contradiction right there: how can one be an iconoclast and yet at the same time a proponent of a tradition? Maybe the best way to avoid that dead-end is not to think of Zen as a tradition, but rather an evolving continuum, the way rock’n’roll is at least as much about paying your dues as it is about killing your idols. The expression flowers differently in each soil and from each planting, but the colors and scents are always vivid and fragrant, and nobody would ever want to confuse Bob Mould with Bob Dylan anyway.
That brings me to Brad Warner — an American Zen master, emphasis on American. Not just in the sense that he was born here, but in the sense that his approach to Zen is unmistakably a product of Life In These Here United States, and that such a transformation is positive and crucial, not an affliction he needs to rid himself of. He is also funny, and not merely in the sense that he does eccentric things for attention: he understands humor is powerful and uses it well. He was also, and still is, a rock star, albeit a minor one, but he’s evidently more famous as a Zen master than as a rock star — something he’s himself as amused about as we might be. Read more
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Been a while since I looked at what movies are coming down the pike, so —Read more
Back here I mentioned in passing how one of my constant bugaboos in bad writing is when we get description vs. observation. This was one of those on-the-spot coinages, where I took two words with marginally different shades of meaning and used them to imply two markedly different things.
When you describe something, you're simply looking at it and giving us external details. When you're observing something, you're doing more than looking: you're assessing, comprehending, coming to an understanding about it, and then communicating that understanding. It's the difference between "He was bored" and "He pulled out pocket lint and lined it up on his desk".
Joseph Mitchell was a master of reporting back telling details — not surprising at all, since he was a reporter, y'know. In Joe Gould's Secret, his marvelous book about New York street personality Joe Gould, Mitchell noted many things, but one detail that always stuck with me was something in the man's eating habits. It wasn't just the fact that Joe put ketchup on everything ("It's the only grub that's free", said Joe), but that he would ask for a cup of hot water, add ketchup and maybe pepper to that, and have himself a cup of ersatz tomato soup to go. Such a detail might have slid through another writer's fingers, but Mitchell's eyes and ears picked up on them faithfully.
Because we get description far more often than observation, and because observation's so hard to do reliably well (god knows I don't do it well enough), I try not to come down too hard on other people for tending towards the former. But the latter is always worth fighting that much harder for and sticking around to find.