Ha Jin, the author of Waiting and War Trash, reflects on why he left the Chinese language behind for the sake of English, 20 years post-Tienanmen.
His essay is short (i.e., go read it) and makes his case in plain language. He could have gone back to China and struggled, probably fruitlessly, against the censors and the state — or he could continue to do the work he knew needed to be done, in a language and a society where it would find an easier reception and develop a life of its own, one that much more easily brought back home at the right time.
His line about literature transcending language is something I go back and forth about. Translation is imperfect; in many cases it is treacherous. But it opens a door that was previously shut. Even if that door is now only open by a fraction, sometimes that fraction is all that's needed.
Her name was Kaoru Kurimoto and she wrote a 120-volume-plus fantasy epic named Guin Saga that became a cornerstone in Japanese (and now possibly world) popular culture. A record most anyone would envy; for me, it was absolute proof no goal need be unattainable. And in her case, maybe a goal unfinished, but not unfulfilled. All it took was discipline, devotion, work — love, under it all, love for something that didn’t exist yet and which you had to bring into existence. Surely no greater love exists than for something that is impossible to others only because they can’t see what you see.
I wanted to meet her, as I want to meet so many people who’ve touched lives through their vision. I only knew her through her work, and only her work in translation, at that. “To translate is to betray”, say the Italians, but what middling sense I had of written Japanese told me Alex O. Smith hadn’t betrayed her. And on hearing she’d died with Guin Saga still ongoing I am ashamed to admit the first thing that came to mind was: Dammit, I hope we’re not left in suspense.
Maybe it isn’t possible to talk about the death of another without thinking of yourself first. Certainly not so soon after. Someone else dies, you mourn those left behind, all those things they left unfinished. Only by degrees does your attention turn back to all that was complete. I talk about the woman’s work and not the woman herself, if only because that’s what I know.
It was strange to read the first few volumes of Guin Saga, knowing that the series was still ongoing in Japan and that native Japanese readers had an unfair advantage over the rest of us. I touched on that peculiar feeling back when I looked at a recent manga adaptation of the first few installments (designed to be released in conjunction with the animated TV series). It was a little like pressing your ear to a wall and listening to the heated discussion raging on the other side: you could hear everything going on, but there were hints, nuances, subtle drops of meaning that you knew revolved around the fact that manga artist Hajime Sawada (or the crew that produced the TV series) had seen so much more of it than the rest of us had. They were acting out of that knowledge. The rest of us, stuck behind a language barrier, had to wait and wonder.
But under and above and despite all of that, there are the books themselves. Or, rather, the stories. A book’s an artifact; a story is a living thing not bound to any one piece of paper. So goes the theory, anyway. I remember buying a remaindered hardback copy of the first volume and throwing it in the trash in frustration because a good third of the book was a repeat of another third of the book due to a printing error. Imagine you’ve snuck into Star Wars, and right after the Star Destroyer roars overhead the film catches fire inside the projector.
But once I had clean copies in hand, and once Vertical, Inc. did Kurimoto the justice of issuing the self-contained cycle of the first five books in paperback, the whole Vision Thing she had established with her Japanese readers started to become clear to the rest of us. Director Werner Herzog once said that mankind is hungry for images, for transcendent visions, and without them he will starve. Kurimoto threw cap-V Visions on the page like she was bailing water out of the canoe of our collective psyche. A desert swept by amoebalike monsters; an army on a plain sweeping out in all four directions like a flowering monster; a city of crystal towers gone to sack; a giant rock in the middle of a desert of bones; a man with the head of a leopard.
But behind (and under, and above, and slightly to the left of) the vision, there’s the story. All the best stories are about somebody you care about. Kurimoto didn’t waste any time giving us someone who tugged at our heart even if we didn’t realize it at first. “The body of a gladiator, the head of a leopard, the heart of a hero” — I came up with that tagline after reading the first book and wondering when the hell we were going to see it on a movie poster. Kurimoto just threw him at us and let him land on his feet: right on the first place he’s face-down in a marsh with no memory, no history, no allegiances, no allies. And out of nothing but the force of sheer will and an underdog’s compassion he earns the label of Hero with a cap H. He sticks his leopard-spotted neck out all the way, every time, all the time. This, I told myself, is a hero — not, say, the whiny, self-important likes of Rand al’Thor from The Wheel of Time (which accomplished less in its elephantine dozen volumes than Guin did in the first five).
If there is a key difference between Japanese genre authors and their Western counterparts, apart from language, it appears to be this: Japanese writers are passionately unafraid of allowing you to empathize with and even weep for the people they create. Heart and soul: what awful words, beaten into pulpy shapelessness and threadbare meaninglessness by so much misuse. What a thing it is to open a book and see heart and soul leap back to life, to see someone putting heft and flesh on those stupid words again, to give you a hero that actually lived up to the label from the inside out.
Maybe that wasn’t even how the whole mission started. Yanni at Vertical once put it this way (I’m paraphrasing): she wanted to take every fantasy trope she could think of, mash it up, and make it work. She was telling, as he put it, a history for a world that didn’t exist a place with its own geography and biology and religion and culture and warfare and commerce and, yes, heroes. Guin was the linchpin around which all of it revolved: pull him out and the whole thing just flies off in all different directions. You need a hero at the center of something that big to give it heft and depth. That didn’t stop her from shifting her attention away from Guin for whole volumes. But that was always done in the context of the lives he’d touched; even the books where he isn’t there, even the scenes where he’s not present, a Guin-like spirit can be felt. It’s always been his story.
I could not tell you what, if any, plans have been assembled for Guin and his kingdom now that the queen has descended from the throne. I do know, though, that there are a hundred and fifteen more volumes of his story that aren’t in English yet, and the best tribute to her memory would be to continue to translate them however we can afford to do so. Publish-on-demand, digital download, whatever’s possible; knowing that the rest of her work is out there somewhere and yet unreadable is like only seeing one Kurosawa movie, reading one chapter of The Lord of the Rings, watching one episode of The Prisoner and knowing there was oh so much more just out of your reach. And I’m sick of living like that. And I hope a bunch more of you reading this get just as sickntired of it, if not more so, because that’s about the only way that stupid wall is ever gonna get knocked down.
I know now, I think, what I would have done if I had met her — that is, short of becoming a complete genuflecting nitwit fanboy, something I’ve had to sternly school myself out of time and again when other luminaries stepped into the room and took a seat. I would have thanked her, and I would have asked her this question: was Mr. Herzog right? Without some wild leap into the fantastic unknown, we starve and don’t even realize it — and she’s been keeping us fed all this time. Is that what she wanted? But in lieu of a definitive answer, I will believe she said Yes. Because, god knows, we’re not much of anything without a dream or three.
The last word I’ll leave to another man from another land in another language, but who seems to have been thinking the same thing.
My silken heart,
it’s filled with light;
with long-lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I’ll go so very far,
past all those hills,
past all the seas,
near to the stars
and beg of Christ
the Lord give back
the soul I once had
when I was a child,
ripe with legends,
with a plumed cap
and a wooden sword.
— Federico Garcia Lorca
Kaoru Kurimoto, the mystery, fantasy, and historical novelist best known for her Guin Saga epic series, has passed away on Tuesday at 7:18 p.m. She was 56. She was in a Tokyo hospital due to pancreatic cancer which was diagnosed in 2007. She leaves behind her husband Kiyoshi Imaoka.
And a (126-volume) body of work.
I will have more to say when I'm not quite so shellshocked.
[EDIT: And I've gone and said it.]
Courtesy of my buddy adgy on LJ, here is a massive online archive of all things Kurosawa. Note that you do need some comprehension of Japanese to make sense of it all, and it uses this horrible Flash-driven front-end (die! die! whose brilliant idea was that!?), but you could easily lose a few days in there.
Would that my comprehension was better, or I would use it as a companion to my as-yet-upcoming discussion of the Kurosawa memoir Waiting on the Weather.
I don't talk much about SF, for a couple of reasons.
For those reasons, I run the risk of seeming pretty damn out-of-touch if I talk about what SF I still hold dear after all this time. But if this gives you an idea of what I like and why, and you can recommend something that you think I won't cringe from, fire away. I could afford to get back into the loop and stop being such a refusenik (what a word).
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination / The Demolished Man. It rarely gets much better than this, if only for the sake of the sweep of the man's vision and the ideas he corrals together. These were both very much a product of the Golden Age, where the universe was seen as something mankind could tame, rather than something he had to inhabit or share with others (or, as in [see below] Phil Dick's case, be wholly at the mercy of). But for sheer adrenal rush and "oh man, what happens now?" storytelling, these are the places to start. The former is a far-future retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo with the added element of humanity having learned how to teleport himself by force of sheer will as part of the way society works in that future. The latter has a similar powers-from-within-unlocked twist: telepathy is commonplace, and premeditated crime is very difficult to pull off ... which to one man sounds more like a dare than anything else. They've both dated, but not in ways that make them bad stories.
Something by Philip K. Dick. I'm being annoyingly nonspecific here for a reason; it's because I'm still having trouble narrowing down a couple of his books that really embody his whole approach, which didn't fit conveniently into any one niche. I will simply say that there are three that I come back to perennially and habitually — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, and The Divine Invasion — all of which I read while still a wee lad and all of which I responded to by thinking, This is the first writer I've ever encountered who understands how I see the world. Bad Hollywood adaptations aside, he's still a giant.
Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human. Another one I encountered very young, and I had to come back to it over and over again as I grew up to truly understand it. Sturgeon's big theme was Love (much as Dick was also writing about Love, in a different way — love as the weapon against cosmic indifference), and when he put together this tale of many beings blending their strengths to become one, he was making a case for big-L Love as the thing poor old humanity would need to make its next evolutionary leap. Give me $10 million and I'd make a movie version of this that would blow your pants clean off.
Evgeny Zamyatin, We. Before 1984, before Brave New World, this bitterly funny Russian satire of a mathematically perfect society (written in 1924 or so) still stands up today. Zamyatin is virtually unknown either inside or outside of his native land, and has only this and a handful of other, shorter items to his name; he coulda been a contender. And, again, gimme some money for the movie version, please. It wouldn't be all that hard to shoot today. The version linked here is the third translation into English; the previous two (Gregory Zilboorg; Mirra Ginsburg) are good for different reasons but this one is unhesitatingly recommended for a new reader.
Stanisław Lem, The Star Diaries. Well, anything by Lem, really, but this is a fine place to start: comedy, tragedy, wonder, slapstick, the whole bit, all in nice bite-sized chunks. His novels are also well worth the trouble (Solaris having been filmed not just once but twice), but this was where I got started and I recommend it as a good place to get hooked, too. Viva Ijon Tichy!
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. Yes, I know he has a ton of other books that may actually be better (The Wanting Seed comes to mind), but this is the one everyone remembers whether or not we like it. Most of the discussion about it is over the usual stuff — free will vs. determinism, or whatever you want to call it — but I see it also as a good starting point for a discussion about how the human being is seen as a product or endpoint.
Gertrude Freidberg, The Revolving Boy. The owner of my local used bookstore back home introduced me to this little gem, and it's gone in and out of print in the decades since it first appeared. That's a shame, because it's one of the two or three books most SF readers, let alone most readers, have never heard about and are grateful for when they are introduced to it. Go dig it up. Ms. Freidberg never wrote another novel that I know of, which means her batting average for masterpieces is about 1.000.
There's obviously a few things missing. There's no Heinlein, if only because I've never liked much of his work at all; there's little in the way of hard SF of the Niven/Pournelle variety (again, I just don't find it very interesting); no Ender's Game (obnoxiously overrated piece of stacked-deck storytelling, don't get me started); not much in the way of early pulp SF if only because it's dated very badly indeed and doesn't hold up well as either entertainment or curiosities. But this should give you a good idea of what I went looking for, when I went looking — and what I'd like to try and find again.
Sorting through the welter of ideas in my head is a little like playing billiards with balls made out of Silly Putty. Sometimes you sink 'em, sometimes they bounce off each other forever, and sometimes they get stuck.
Consider the hero story. Last time I checked in with it, it's been trying to merge with another item I doped out a mini-treatment for. The short-short version: The eight million gods are all really one god, but even he doesn't know that, and he's going to need some help from "mere mortals" to get it together.
Originally the two ideas had nothing to do with each other. And now that they've spent enough time zinging around between my ears, they're threatening to become the same damn thing. Unfortunately that still doesn't mean an actual story framework, so it's still on the level of a map with no grid lines.
I shall have more as soon as there is ... more to have.
I spent part of the weekend getting caught up on both writing and reading. Tokyo Inferno for the former, and Berserk for the latter. The more of it that comes out, the more I see what they mean about this being its creator's "life's work" — it contains a world-view, a cosmology, a philosophy of life and death and everything in between. I had to wonder what, if anything, Kentaro Miura would come up with after this.
I had trouble not thinking of Mishima's comments about the Sea of Fertility tetraology — his "major work", after which there was nothing left to do but go die as spectacularly as possible. Somehow I don't see Miura doing anything of that caliber, but it's clear he has invested so much of himself into this that it's difficult to see what comes next.
Even he probably doesn't know that. I'd be willing to bet that by the time he's done, he will see things that much more differently than when he'd started — and that, in turn, will mean he will be able to turn his attention to something else. It would be distressing for him to think there was nothing more to be done — even after finishing something of Berserk's caliber.
If Miura drops dead before finishing it, I'll chase his ass into the next world and beat the rest of it out of him.
The short version: Trek was pretty good!
The long version:
One of the blogs I read regularly is Respectful Insolence, written by a (thus-far-pseudonymous) oncologist. He is proud of the work he does, and he has no tolerance for those who attack his work out of stupidity, spite or miseducation. People who just don't know are bad enough; people who actively go out of their way to remain stupid are a whole 'nother brand of burning stupid entirely.
The blog itself is, like Ebert's blog, a source of a great many interesting and insightful commentators — and, unlike Ebert's blog, also a dumping ground for comments from the occasional wingnut. Sometimes they are relatively harmless, like the Libertarian-with-the-cap-L types who believe in "medical freedom" (and at the same time betray almost total ignorance of how medicine or science actually work); sometimes you get full-blown, raw-throated rage.
Most recently "Orac", as the doctor calls himself, has been following the increasingly sad story of Daniel Hauser, a young man with Hodgkin's lymphoma whose mother is refusing to allow him conventional treatment that may very well save his life. HL is, is caught early enough, extremely curable; I know a couple of people who have had it, been treated for it, and have gotten on with their lives. Daniel's mother refuses to let him be treated and has in fact gone so far as to abduct the kid and disappear with him (possibly to Mexico, home of a good deal of cancer quackery).
The post and the comments about this most recent turn of events have been terrific reading. For one, there has been a good deal of intelligent, informed debate about the ethics of the situation. The poster "James Sweet" is a good example of this: he's hesitant and uncertain about the benefits of forcing treatment on someone, but after people explain to him the situation is not as tentative as it might first appear (the kid is clearly not capable of making an informed decision; the mother's behavior amounts to endangering her child; etc.), he goes on to derive some good insights from the whole situation. I liked that: people were approaching a touchy, difficult subject and actually learning something.
And then came "Lee". His argument (against having the kid taken from his parents so that his life could be saved) was that "anyone should be able to turn down a good deal, even if he doesn't know how good of deal, even a life-saving deal". And "Has freedom been trumped by medical nazis [Godwin's Law!] in your part of the country. Doctors are smart but not smart enough to take away your decision making."
Good thing the other people in the thread didn't take this attitude lying down:
... you're cool with people dying for no "great cause" other than simple ignorance. and not ignorance amidst a culture where everyone is equally ignorant and no other options have yet been presented, but ignorance as an island in a country and culture where other options are known and widely practiced.
you seem to want to champion one's right to make one's own decision free of coercion, and that seems superficially very honorable. what i cannot understand is how you construe making a choice in ignorance to be a genuinely free and true choice.
dying to promote the "noble right of willful ignorance" is never a worthy death.
willful ignorance shouldn't be celebrated in any functioning society. when it is, and by the majority, that society is guaranteed to be on the brink of total social (and perhaps physical) total collapse. [*]
Go check out the whole thread, it's well worth it. Ditto the blog itself.
[* My feelings about "alternative" medicine are simple: there's no "alternative" medicine. There's stuff that can be demonstrated to work, and stuff that doesn't. The former we call, simply, medicine.]
... most of the running time is occupied by action sequences, chase sequences, motorcycle sequences, plow-truck sequences, helicopter sequences, fighter-plane sequences, towering android sequences and fistfights. It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.
I'm fully prepared to dissent from this view, of course. I get the impression that after stuff like Lars von Trier's Antichrist, his mind is very much elsewhere right now. (And for those of you in the videogames-as-visual-art category, he gave you that much more ammo for the attack ... although I'm 110% sure he's pretty tired of that whole argument, too.)
... there were lots of special effects in the film, but each had a purpose in the greater scheme of things, and at no point did I get the impression that someone was playing a videogame before my eyes, or showing me what their computer could do. Coupled to the fact that there was no ridiculously over-the-top slow motion gimmickry, along with no unnecessarily confusing edits, and I left with the real impression that this was a film made by people who absolutely, top to bottom, knew what they were doing.
This stands in rather stark contrast with Jim Emerson's earlier criticism of the film (which was, granted, more about the camerawork than the FX), but the two tend to go together. If one is overdone, the other's typically overdone as well. That gigantic walking slagheap Transformers, for instance; that movie hurt in so many ways that I couldn't bring myself to write about it, but they couldn't keep the damn camera still even when we were looking at a pencil on a table or something.
Not long ago there was a short piece about the making of David Fincher's Zodiac (excellent movie, will hold up immensely well in time), and one thing I noticed was that the editing bay was entirely digital and featured screens about the size of a 40" plasma or so. I thought: Have the people making these films spent so much time seeing them on TV-sized screens that they've forgotten what the effects of moving the camera even slightly are in a theater? Fincher's camerawork in that movie was tightly controlled and not very flashy at all, and one result of that was you were able to sink that much more deeply into the story. Transformers pitched and rolled and yawed so much, I got seasick at my desk.
[And the more I hear about Trek, the more dismayed I get. By all accounts, it sounds like they took the original inspiration, gutted it, and shoved in a bunch of action-movie tropes. That may be the Star Trek we deserve at this point, unfortunately.]
Yesterday's most blazingly good (and funny) film was Bong Joon-ho's "Mother", another dark comedy from Korea. Although he had a cult hit in the U.S. with his 2006 film "The Host", his earlier features "Barking Dogs Never Bite" and "Memories of Murder" have only been seen on the festival circuit or in cinematheques. "Mother" is very likely to open a few more theater doors in the West.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, wild, idiosyncratic crime movies were the brutal and boisterous business of Nikkatsu, the oldest film studio in Japan. In an effort to attract youthful audiences growing increasingly accustomed to American and French big-screen imports, Nikkatsu began producing action potboilers (mukokuseki akushun, or “borderless action”) modeled on the western, comedy, gangster, and teen-rebel genres. This bruised and bloody collection represents a standout cross section of the nimble nasties Nikkatsu had to offer, from such prominent, stylistically daring directors as Seijun Suzuki, Toshio Masuda, and Takashi Nomura.
... I love this company.
The Criterion Collection has officially announced two titles for release on Blu-ray on August 18: Akira Kurosawa's 'Kagemusha' and Jacques Tati's 'Playtime'. Both films will be presented in 1080p 1.85:1 video with stereo lossless audio (DTS-HD Master Audio for 'Kagemusha', uncompressed for 'Playtime') and optional English subtitles, and will include all the bonus features present in their respective DVD editions.
I wonder if Warner Brothers will follow suit and give us a BD of Dreams as well — not my favorite Kurosawa by a mile, but incredibly deserving of high-def presentation.
I don't know how I missed this one: a movie version of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood.
Kenichi Matsuyama, best known as L in the live action Death Note films, has been cast as Toru Watanabe, the main character in the film. More interesting to me (and I assume all of you) is the addition of Rinko Kikuchi, who has made her mark with Babel and The Brother’s Bloom, has been cast as Naoko, the emotionally trouble love interest who causes all sorts of heartache for Toru. The book is essentially a tale of Toru’s love life in his younger days, but as with everything Murakami it’s also so much more.
I've got a few review-related projects worth mentioning.
First, on the Edogawa Rampo front, is a review of both the book and movie of Moju: The Blind Beast, one of Rampo's most widely-adapted and -referenced works. The movie was released on DVD a few years back and the book has just hit the streets. (There was also Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf, but the less said about that the better.)
On the Natsume Sōseki front, I'm going to be checking both the book and movie of Ten Nights of Dreams, the latter being especially interesting for having folks like Yoshitaka Amano among the contributors.
When showing opticals, miniatures or CGI — especially when they are supposed to exist within the gravitational fields of planetary atmospheres — do not, DO NOT program complex twisty-turny "camera movements" that no actual camera would or could ever make. It just calls attention to the shot's inherent phoniness. In other words, just because you can send the camera hurtling through the air, upside down or sideways, is — in and of itself — not a good reason to do so. All it accomplishes is to make the more attentive members of your audience notice the shot, and perhaps the labor that went into it, rather than what they're supposed to be looking at, which is whatever's happening in the world of the movie. There's a shot of a Starfleet ship leaving Iowa in broad daylight that is so needlessly complex you forget what the shot is about. All that effort just to make plain old earthbound Iowa look unconvincing.
If, in the middle of an action sequence (or, god forbid, what ought to be a simple establishing shot), the viewer is thinking, "Look at those special visual effects," then the effects are badly done. You want them to accept the reality of what's on the screen — "Look out for that Romulan ship!" — not to be sitting back and thinking, "Why is the camera upside down?" or, even worse, "Oh, look, we're back to CGI again," like that Monty Python "Exterminating Angel" sketch where the characters are trapped on video inside a house and surrounded by film outside. Somebody needs to go back and look at "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Blade Runner" or "Alien" or "Terminator 2" to see how to build a believable world that incorporates visual effects.
I've been thinking much the same thing myself for a long time, and in fact I said as much when I reviewed FFVII:AC and Shinobi. Just because you can make the camera do the impossible doesn't mean it's a good idea — in fact, it's usually a terrible idea, because most of us by now have a good idea of what the camera can and cannot do when you're actually holding one and using it. It's not just that such tactics "call attention to themselves" (everything in a work of visual art calls attention to itself; that's why it's visual); it's that they are to the vocabulary of filmmaking what l33tsp33k and txt msgs are to the vocabulary of storytelling.
I confess I like the first-person-POV shaky-cam look, but only when it's mitigated by the storytelling. It worked in Bourne, because it put us in Bourne's shoes: it made us feel what he felt. It doesn't work for a battle between spaceships, where you have no idea what the real embodiment of your POV is, and so you fall back on being dumped back into "oh, it's only a movie — er, a bunch of CGI".
On a related note, I hate Michael Bay.
Sorry, OpenID (LJ/AIM/etc.) sign-on wasn't working for a bit there.
It should be okay now.
Also among the aggrieved: Harlan Ellison, whose battles with USENET pirates are legion. A sort-of dissenting voice is also heard from: Cory Doctorow, who gives away free digital copies of his books day-and-date with the print versions.
I've considered something similar, but the most I was able to bring myself to do was offer the first few chapters free. Maybe I'll try the same thing later on with books that are specifically designed to be given away as well as sold in print, but my impression has long been that the quality of the material being offered trumps whatever price you're offering it for. A great book that sells for $12 will move more copies than a decent one that's given away.
Get ready for major savings on must-have manga, graphic novels and other books from Vertical – from classics by Osamu Tezuka (Black Jack, MW, Dororo) to best-selling Japanese novels (The Summer of Ubume, Guin Saga) and quirky how-to guides (Aranzi, Easy Japanese Cooking). From now through May 13, take 33% OFF the retail prices of all titles from Vertical, Inc.! (This includes items that are in-stock, pre-order and on-order!)
Be warned that some of the titles listed (aka A Guru Is Born) are not actually out yet but were solicited by Vertical, Inc. before those titles were put on indefinite hiatus.
Tak (Versus) Sakaguchi's Samurai School is headed our way! Hilarious by all accounts — and hey, he could be in a four-hour documentary about peat moss and I'd watch it. You know, punching it and stuff. (He was also in Death Trance, now in Blu-ray, which is achievement enough for most people.)
Another Shock Cinema discovery now back in the land of the living: Combat Shock, in its full 100-minute director's cut incarnation (aka American Nightmares). Yeowtch.
Harvey Keitel's crowning moment of sleaze, Bad Lieutenant, back on the streets and as vile as ever.
A friend of mine asked me the other day: "So when are you getting a Kindle?"
I said, "Around the time winged pigs circumnavigate the frozen-over reaches of hell."
My friend was, to say the least, taken aback. He knows I'm not a Luddite. I work in the tech biz; both of my computers are up-to-date and quite nicely tricked out; I even got on the Blu-ray train quite early.
But the Kindle, even in its 2.0 incarnation, still makes me feel like I'm being cheated out of something. It isn't a substitute for a book. It can't be, because it is everything a book is not, and that is exactly the problem.
I've written about this before, and since then I've found my stance has only grown all the firmer. The changing of the number to the left of the decimal point doesn't change the fact that the Kindle is a chunk of plastic and electronics.
First, some praise. I like the Kindle as a way to get certain kinds of information. As a replacement for a pile of textbooks that you're just going to sell back to the store at the end of the semester, for instance. I fully expect it to become a killer educational device. Or as a way to get fast facts, or as a way to consume things that would normally require some recycling to stay out of landfills (magazines, papers, etc.). But not as a substitute for the technology that has served us in good stead for longer than the language I write this in has existed.
I don't think the Kindle was devised as a substitute for the paper book. I'm fairly sure it was seen by its inventors as a complement to it — a way to make reading a little less cumbersome. Now you don't have to lug around all those books! they say. But to me that just shows their prejudices all the more: if a book is good, I don't care how much lugging is involved. The fact that I have to lug the books around makes me all the more selective and deliberate about my reading.
Technology has given us movies and music to go, and that's all acceptable to me. Movies and music have always been a little bit abstract. The movie is over there on the screen — oh, wait! Someone turned off the TV or the projector. Now it's gone. Likewise the symphony or the White Album. Lift the needle or eject the disc, and it disappears. But reading has always been bound to its carrier, doubly so, like a painting on a wall where the brushstrokes can be seen in just the right light. The act of reading IS the book.
The very fact that you have to put a book down to get away from it is not a design flaw. It is its greatest attraction. A book is built to lionize the senses. It commands your eyes with its print and its design; its paper and edges enlist your sense of touch; and I doubt there's any serious reader who doesn't get a nice little perk at the smell of a new book, either. (A friend of mine, now dead, used to stand in the entrances of bookstores and take deep breaths in through his nose as if preparing to do his calisthenics. People stared; I laughed.) The Kindle's Internet connection and quick links to dictionaries and online encyclopedias only give you all the more reason to not let what you're reading fully command your attention. They are that many more ways to distract ourselves in the name of "extending the conversation".
A book, once purchased, confers ownership. It is yours until the pages falls out, and even long after that. The Kindle puts you in the position of being a perennial renter, at least as far as its Amazon-supplied media goes. What good is being able to take your library with you, when the can take it away from you just as easily?
I don't say this because I have an axe to grind against technology or computers or blogs. I savor all of those things. I also savor being able to leave them all behind. Sometimes I simply want to sit with something in my hands that could have been produced at any time in the past few thousand years of the history of our species, and use that as my method of transportation to places I could never go and people that no one would ever meet.
Before writing this, I was reading the second of the Moribito novels (I looked at the first one last year), and was marveling at how the publishers had created something I wanted to hold in my hands. Everything from the texture of the cover wraps to the choice of ink color — this book was designed by someone who loved books, and who wanted to make sure you picked it up and had as few excuses as possible to put it down. It didn't hurt that the book itself was a good read.
Irving Wallace, a writer I am not fond of, nonetheless managed to find it in himself to say in one of his own novels that a book was not just a wad of paper. It was humanity, civilization, life itself. Its very immutability, its very existence as an artifact and an end result, is not something to be resisted any more than a black-and-white movie is to be seen as a coloring book waiting to have digital makeup slapped over it.
I'm prepared to be proven wrong. But I reserve the right to have my reading in the form of sewn leaves that require only ambient light to be useful. Some things never go out of style, because they were never fashion to begin with. Andrei Codrescu once lamented how the onion, the fragrant little bulb that was the core of his Romanian childhood, was being chased out of the kitchen for being declassé and hincty. If we let them chase away the book for being bulky and primitive, then we get what we deserve.
No, not a bootleg. This is an MGM-sanctioned and ad-supported version of Koyaanisqatsi on YouTube. Obviously the picture quality isn't what it could be — the Blu-ray ought to be a stunner — but if my review of the film has you curious, give this a spin.
Drugs are optional.
UPDATE: Hulu has it, too.
The first graf of Ebert's review of the new Star Trek movie makes me worry that my fears about the franchise being turned into a loud, annoying action movie are all too founded:
“Star Trek” as a concept has voyaged far beyond science fiction and into the safe waters of space opera, but that doesn’t amaze me. The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action. Like so many franchises, it’s more concerned with repeating a successful formula than going boldly where no “Star Trek” has gone before.
And that was exactly what I told everyone who asked me what I thought of the trailer: Star Trek is not, at heart, an action story, and I am tired of it being shoved relentlessly in that direction. Then again, the original series was the product of a peculiar moment in time and a specific outlook that you probably couldn't duplicate today even if you wanted to, so perhaps what we have now is the Trek we deserve.
I'll still see it; I just don't have high hopes for it being more than eye candy (shilling for nose candy).
Last night a friend of mine and I got into a bit of co-musing about why we do the things we do (cue the Motown song). He wondered why he was drawn to stories, as he put it, "about violence, about people pushed and pushing themselves". I could have asked the same question in a different way: why am I drawn to write about Japan, etc. Here's how I talked about it.
From what I see, there are two kinds of artists (for the sake of this argument, writers). The first are people who encompass a great deal in their work — they seem to be reflecting as much as possible. Big obvious version: Shakespeare. Or Dickens — people who seem to be reflecting a whole spectrum of human experience in what they do.
The second are folks who see things through an intensely singular focus. They may not go to the material with that explicitly in mind, but that's how it comes out. Stanley Kubrick is like this: everything he does is about a few basic themes, over and over: dehumanization, mechanization. Or you have painters who transmute the whole world through their metaphors: H.R. Giger, Jackson Pollock, etc.
The thing is, neither of these things is superior to the other. They're just both ways of doing things. In the end, if you have a good story, it always lasts: it doesn't matter how broad or how tight the scope, or what the psychology is that informs it. But that still leaves the question "okay, why?" Why do we have some folks who seek out the same material over and over again and explore it obsessively?
When I first started to get into writing about art (read: being a critic), I ran into, early on, the standard potted Freudian theories about this sort of thing. The problem is that these explanations are pretty self-limiting, so I abandoned that after a while and started looking for a wiser explanation, or at least a wiser view.
For that, I had to go inside myself, and sure enough, I had people asking me: why write again and again about a culture and a world that you've never been to, did not grow up in, have no direct experience with, etc.? I had to think about it a good deal because I didn't have a ready answer. To me, this was just something that felt right — the things I wanted to say came out best when I put that stuff in front of it, like wearing a mask that somehow perfectly enhances your particular way of enunciating (as the old Greek drama masks did). Once you find such a fit and you find reasons for how well it complements what you are trying to do (in your mind, that is), you tend to stay with it. It becomes personalized to you, and you to it.
That's how it worked out for me. When I started writing about these things the way I did, I thought: this is what I've been looking to do, isn't it? It really clicked after Summerworld — that was, for me, the real turning point. I finished that book and I looked back on it and I said, "That's it, you've busted it wide open. The door has been kicked down."
My friend then mentioned that after completing the fantasy story he had been working on ("fantasy", for lack of a better term, but an accurate one here, I think), he didn't want to write fantasy anymore. He put it this way:
We are all looking for something better, something else, when everything we need is right here — and that includes every story we could ever tell and every metaphor we could ever need. Besides that, when you set something in a fantastic world, you create a distance, a division — I want my stories to have an impact, an immediacy, for the person to look down the street and think, "Jesus, this person could live on my block." I don't want my readers to be able to say, "Well, this couldn't happen in real life."
Sometimes, there are people who will be hit by something precisely because of that distance. I was skeptical of this myself, but here's how it works. You start with something that has that degree of fantastic remove, but at the same time you build empathy and passion between the reader and the character. The guy may be a stranger in strange lands, but there are things that are common to all of us: a lost love, a determination to claim what's yours, and so on. The emotion may be more difficult to summon, but if you do it right it can have just as much impact.
Obviously not everyone is going to do it that way, and in his case it sounds like it's not the method he's comfortable with. But I've seen it done before, and it's a little like that girl in the Olympics a few years back who did a perfect 10.0 vault, then went back for the hell of it and did it again, and got a perfect 10.0 again. We are surprised at ourselves for having such an emotional connection, and out of that surprise comes further emotional depths.
Big Man Japan comes to American shores at last! By all accounts it's hilarious and highly recommended.
A new DVD edition of a truly odd little movie, The 10th Victim, adapted from Robert Sheckley's almost-similarly-titled novel and curiously true to its black-comedy-of-
martial-marital-manners roots. A modern-day update of this flick would be fun to see, but as Oscar Brotman once said, satire is what opens on Friday and closes on Saturday.
Oh! My Zombie Mermaid gets points for having the best title ever. I also hear tell it's one of the more berserk things released Out East as of late, which as you can probably guess is saying one hell of a lot.
I forgot to mention Criterion's issue of the epic three-part The Human Condition starring none other than the inimitable Tatsuya Nakadai. The previous Milestone Films edition (was it them? I'm not sure) was okay, but Criterion hasn't let me down yet with these types of sets.
Don't forget to snap up the Sleepy Eyes of Death set, either.
You know, I remember seeing this thing on cable TV when I was a wee tot, but don't remember a thing about it. Was it actually worth a Synapse Films-style from-the-vault restoration?
Kinji Fukasaku Jr. picks up the pieces after his abysmal Battle Royale sequel and his entertaining if goofy Sukeban Deka live-action production for X-Cross. I'll have to ask Meredith if she's seen this one.
Andy Kaufman's sidelong giggle at My Dinner With André (now getting a Criterion edition), My Breakfast With Blassie, finally hits DVD. Not that too many of us were holding our breath, mind you, but I wound up hearing about this perplexing bit of cross- and self-referencing comedy back when Steve P.'s Shock Cinema site was still hosted on AOL.com, and it stuck in my head like a piece of shrapnel. Inspired Dadaist comedy or total timewaster? Now You Decide!
In re Sun Ra:
I've been planning to talk about some of the Sun Ra sides as soon as I'm able to say something that isn't simply a repetition of just about every other appreciation written about him. I suspect I'll start with the movie Space is the Place.
I'd long been suspicious myself of the "flash of lightning" / "touched by the hand of God" approach to genius. Frankly, it sounded like creationism: you're a genius because, well, you're a genius. Magic Man diddit, and all that.
I know that on my end, the diligence-and-discipline side of things holds water. I was a terrible writer when I was young, but I kept at it non-stop for decades. What looks like something tossed off is not: it's the product of a lifetime of tossing and testing, of getting back on the playing field over and over again. "My week is your year," as someone else once put it.
This outlook also helps explain a number of other things. I've known plenty of people who had a "gift of gab" — they had a raw degree of creativity with the language — but when it came to actually finishing things or creating something cohesive, they had nothing to show for it. They were more interested in the outcome than the process, which might explain why they were typically very well read. They had the patience and drive to finish reading a book like Foucault's Pendulum, but not to produce anything of even one-tenth the scope. I'm not denigrating such people; I'm just fairly sure that even they didn't know what the deal was.
What comes out of this amounts to a truism, but it has a fair amount of significance: People do what they like to do. Not what they say they're going to do, but what they are drawn to doing. If they weren't writing habitually before and finishing what they wrote, then the odds are they're not going to form the habit spontaneously.