Just finished reading Katharine Haake’s formally adventurous post-industrial dystopian nightmare, The Time of Quarantine. It’s a genre I’m attracted to, both as reader & teacher — I’ve taught Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Butler’s Parable of the Sower many times, finding them particularly effective with my first year students at Clarkson. I bought Haake’s book with these ideas in mind, but was quickly disabused of the notion that I could use this book with first-year students: the language & especially the shifting point of view & non-sequential presentation of events would throw them for a loop. It takes training to read this sort of fiction!
Imagine a novel set entirely inside Second Life. All of the characters are avatars, in the sense we now use the word, of actual people who also populate the novel, though the avatars are more “real” than the human beings they represent. That’s how The Time of Quarantine feels & it has interesting & troubling consequences that affect narrative technique & what I suppose I’d have to call fictional ontology. I found it difficult to track the shifts between flesh & blood & avatars, which I think is the point: in the world of the novel the cyberworld has begun to engulf the physical world. Under such circumstances, human agency beaks down & the characters behave like half-conscious puppets.
There are four central characters, Peter, Lyda, Helen, & Will. All but Will (get it?) have implants in their brains that connect them into the network, though how the internet is stiff functioning at a time when virtually all the rest of the world & its institutions have have gone kerflooey stretches plausibility. Peter is the puppetmaster. Removed by his neurologist father to an Intentional Community (IC) during the time of quarantine, he watches everyone in his small community die off of a plague he has himself brought in from the outside. After that, he is “raised by computers” that have been programmed by his father to entertain & deceive him. Not sure why. And that’s the big problem here: it is very difficult to track any of the characters’ motives for doing what they do, to the extent that they act on their own at all, for it is Peter, ultimately, from his defunct quarantine community, who goes out onto the net, finds, Lyda, Helen & Will & draws them to himself. They will start over. It’s not exactly Eden, but that’s where the story ends. Peter insists that they must remain in this eden of his making of their own free will, but how can that be, since he has lured them there & made it impossible for them to leave. Peter’s solipsism is quite monstrous.
The tone of these comments belies a good deal of exasperation, I know. Haake often writes beautifully, but so much of this story is spent inside the characters’ heads — actual events almost always being remembered or dreamed — that the narrative develops virtually no forward momentum. I’m not demanding a page-turner; I can appreciate modernist fiction; but the gravitational force of interiority ultimately causes this fiction to collapse in upon itself.
Using functional M.R.I. scans, the researchers found that after facing a missed opportunity, young adults average age 25 and depressed older adults average age 65 had similar brain activity in a region called the ventral striatum, which is associated with feelings of regret.Healthy older individuals displayed a different brain pattern, suggesting that they were able to regulate their emotions more effectively.“It seems that we have a lifelong ability to use our brain to regulate our emotions, even when we are old,” said the study’s first author, Stefanie Brassen, a neuroscientist at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. [Italics added.]
via Analyzing Feelings of Regret – NYTimes.com.
Just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Kindle Single short story, “Starved for You” & while I am a great admirer of her work, I have to say Atwood seems to be coasting here, or that it is the first chapter of something longer that didn’t pan out. It certainly ends as if there could & probably should be something more. But beyond that relatively superficial level of plot mechanics, the fictional world seems a little thin here. One might compare it, for instance, with the opening chapter of Oryx & Crake, where Atwood is writing at the very top of her form, to see what second-level Atwood looks like. The writing in this story remains graceful & stylish, but the imagination falters.
The story is set in a near-future dystopia in which prison communities run by a corporation have been developed in which citizens spend half their time living as prisoners and the other half as “prisoner-civilians” in the gated community that surrounds the prison. For the residents, once you sign up it’s a lifetime commitment. One month as a prisoner, one month as a civilian tending the prison & surrounding town — for the rest of your life. As in Oryx & Crake, life outside the confines of the corporate community has degenerated into a nasty amalgam of poverty, criminality, and disease. People go into the Conciliance (for so the town is called) program because it offers them security, though at the cost of their freedom. Instead, they are given a simulacrum of freedom.
Predictably, for some characters the simulacrum proves insufficiently stimulating & it is from that dissatisfaction that Atwood fashions her plot, which revolves around unapproved sexual desire. But the characters, particularly Max, are cartoons. (Ah, it just occurred to me writing that last sentence, this would have made a good graphic novella.) In an interesting twist, one of the characters whose sex drive seems to be trying to compensate for her loss of freedom, has the job of euthanizing prisoners who cannot be reformed. It is a job she takes seriously & performs responsibly, feeling no conscious remorse. No sense of guilt or complicity clouds her idealism in performing this task & the scene in which we see her at work is deeply creepy, certainly the strongest in the story. Would that the sex scenes rose to this level. Perhaps if this story gets developed into something more, that will happen. The final scene of the story certainly suggests kinky possibilities.
A teisho is a dharma talk given by a Zen teacher, usually during sesshin. In Soko Morinaga’s memoir Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity, each chapter, though far more autobiographical than is typical of the form, has the style & feel of a teisho, a teaching. The book relates in a very straightforward manner the author’s journey from Rinzai novice immediately after World War II to dharma holder & highly regarded Rinzai teacher. He was an important figure in bringing Zen from Japan to the US, so his story has historical significance; but he is also a graceful writer whose story — in the way of the best memoirs — transcends the particulars of time & place to say something important or at least interesting about what it means to live a human life. In the case of a memoir by a Zen master, genre & subject matter reinforce each other.
In Belinda Attaway Yamakawa’s translation, the roshi writes gracefully. With genuine humility & insight, he describes the period immediately following the war, when much of Japan lay in ruins physically & even more so morally. Morinaga had been a high school student when the war began & when things got desperate for Japan he was drafted to train as a kamikaze pilot, though the war ended before he was called upon to fly a suicide mission. The early chapters of Novice to Master describe his profound disillusionment on discovering that the war he had believed just was a war of imperial aggression. He movingly describes his & his friends’ descent into nihilism & despair & how, upon graduating he had no prospects, no family, & no desire at all to go to university, even if he could have afforded it. Continue reading “Memoir as Teisho”
I stopped blogging last summer — not really consciously — because I was doing so much reading. I must have read a dozen books in July & August about cosmology & quantum physics & I may write something about those before long. Basically, what I learned is that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy. But mostly I’ve been reading fiction & in particular Henry James. I started with The American, then in quick succession read Washington Square (which I had read before), Portrait of a Lady, & The Ambassadors. I mixed in some of the shorter tales as I went along, including “The Figure in the Carpet” & a rereading of “The Jolly Corner.” I’m probably forgetting a few. And yesterday I finished Edel’s one-volume version of his massive five-volume biography. Along the way I read David Lodge’s Author, Author, which takes as its subject a five year period in James’s middle years in which he attempted without much success to write for the stage. Along the way I read Lodge’s essay, “Consciousness and the Novel,” which is mostly motivated by a concern for understanding James’s depiction of personality, though it ranges into modern neuroscience and philosophy as well. About half-way through the sequence just noted, I paused to read Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend in order to see what the novel had looked like in the decade before James.
And that was just one little piece of my reading in recent months. I think I’ll be using the blog in the near future to review a good deal of this recent reading, returning to the original impulse under which I started blogging, which was to record a writer’s notes on his reading.
I just finished I, Stagolee, Cecil Brown’s novel about the life of the semi-legendary Richard Shelton, aka, Stack Lee, Richard Lee, Staggerlee, etc. The figure of the “bad man” Stagolee comes down to us in a wide variety of folktales, blues, and ballads, all based on the story of Richard Lee shooting Billy Lions in a St. Louis barroom on Christmas in 1895. In some ways, Stagolee is the prototype in African American culture for the modern “gangsta” persona. I first got interested in this subject when I heard Tom Rush’s version of the ballad when I was a freshman in college. Brown’s novel catches the potent ambiguity and contradictions in the mythic character of Stagolee: He was a humanitarian, but also a pimp, a politician but also a killer, a riverboat roustabout and cab driver who nevertheless became a very rich man, an abuser of women who also loved women and was loved in return. Cecil Brown has also written a non-fiction account of Richard Lee’s fateful encounter with Billy Lions, Staggolee Shot Billy, which I think is more successful, not because it is more true, whatever that might mean, but because it is more convincing as a piece of writing. My main problem wit I, Stagolee is the first-person point of view. On first thought, the idea of having the character from the ballad tell his own history must have seemed like a brilliant move, but it leads to all kinds of technical problems. Most ballads – virtually all of them, really – are in the third person for a good reason. A third-person narrator can dramatize action and present dialog in a way that a first-person narrator cannot. And combined with the problem, in this case, of having to present historical information and context with which the reader is not likely to be familiar, the technical decision turns out to force the novel into an awkward structure, especially at the end. Finally, there is the matter of the character Stagolee’s speech. He often sounds like a combination of a history professor and a character in a 19th century stage melodrama. I cannot decide whether this is a failure of technique, or an intentional strategy employed to give the reader some objective distance from this first-person narrator, perhaps in the service of political critique. This was what the German playwright Bertold Brecht recommended (and practiced) for a political theater and there is something Brechtian about this novel.