Archive for November, 2009

The Road: Cormac McCarthy's Guide for Helicopter Parents

Posted in books, eco anxiety, education, genre fiction, genre wars, science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by katekanno

The film adaptation of The Road opens this weekend, perfect timing for post-Thanksgiving guilt and much easier than a long workout. I’ve never quite been able to take McCarthy seriously, which probably has much to do with an overabundance of road trips: the cowboy, sacred steer of middle class radio listeners was a common form of torture employed by my parents, who’d flip immediately to the Prairie Home Companion, or those utterly unfunny Cowboy Poets.

And then there’s McCarthy’s blatant misogyny. In the Road it comes through with the “Woman,” i.e. the bad mother, who kills herself – a sensible decision in this case – but before doing so spends two pages calling herself a whore: “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. . Because I am done with my whorish heart and I have been for a long time.”

The Road’s sonorous prose and kiddy pool depth has also been a choice target in the genre wars: bald proof that literary fiction is at a loss for ideas as it rifles through the sci-fi candy bag, scarfing down undeserved critical acclaim. Once you realize there aren’t any actual ideas behind the chest beating, Bunsen burner cannibalism, and miraculous morels, you should rush out to read Canticle for Leibowitz or Parable of the Sower.

Ah, but there are! Maybe.

The popularity of McCarthy’s novel, you see, is not merely another sign that literary taste is a matter of conformity. Forget about climate change, meteor fears, or annihilation via nukes or Oprah, because that’s not what the book is about. It’s not about an archetypal father really either, but rather an archetypal helicopter parent: the “man,” who still finds the time and strength to sensitively minister to his son’s every physical and psychological need, despite starvation, cannibals, and an utter lack of hope. Just look at the guy, slavishly hovering over his child, lovingly scrounging for that Pepsi, and hacking up his lungs in bad weather rather than spending a few extra days in that food-stocked bomb shelter. The son — like two 18-year-old boys I saw being massaged by their mother at the library while they studied (creeped out yet?)  — does nary a lick of work in this bleak landscape.

Then there’s the pop psychology: “What you put in your head is there forever.” McCarthy plops this truism throughout the book, hoping it will magically gain weight, while the father, on top of the physical privation, still manages to shield his child from horror after horror, like some superhuman V-chip, although if he really wanted that kid to survive, he might want to own up to the frakked state of the world.

Leave it to those as naïve and jittery as a helicopter parents, who live in gated communities free from the terrors of working poor to believe it. Only those who trust the mantras of test scores and college resumes, who think that a prestigious degree means that one is “educated” would find depth in this misplaced nugget of therapy culture.

It all falls apart when one confronts the pesky reality outside the book, wherein millions of children in less cushy areas of the world live under not quite as awful conditions, but pretty damn close. Those children do not enjoy the luxury of such assiduous parenting in the form of covered eyes and stories about “carrying the fire.”  Much like kids in those generations muckraked by Dickens, they live and toil away in hellish conditions, without the luxury of someone worrying about what they put into their precious psyches.

There forever? I doubt it. And if so, so what? I much prefer a line from faux suburbanite Donald Draper — once again, TV trumps literary fiction: “It will amaze you how much it didn’t happen.”

I guess it’s not surprising that scads of terrified parents who’ve chosen to battle rather than to engage with their communities would find The Road appealing. The trials of The Road’s starved, embattled superdad provide the perfect ennobling reflection of their own daily squabbles with teachers, principals, and admissions officers, the piecemealing of academic resumes for their infantilized progeny. For as bleak as it gets, the book nevertheless  provides the delusion that even in such horrifying conditions, they might still micromanage our children’s lives, while in the real world protecting  them from the glaringly obvious fact that our progress on social and economic equality, not to mention that pesky climate, are in dire need of a reality check.

 

McCarthy’s book certainly isn’t one, but it’s popularity is just a sign that many have already given up trying. When I hear the term helicopter parent, the words overprotective and assertive rarely come to mind. Remember that helicopters after all, are a privileged means of escape.

 

Just watch any pre-Road apocalypse film. You’ll see.

Social Networking: Playing Sidekick to our Shadows

Posted in blogging, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by katekanno

I was listening to an excerpt of Patricia Bray’s workshop lecture on the protagonist. Bray is the author of The Chronicles of Josan and the Sword of Change series. Although she actually spent more time (at least in the clip) talking about the sidekick, she made some very interesting points that immediately pushed me into a few wild speculations on how social networking and the use of technology might be shifting the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Sidekicks, Bray states, are useful as they can stimulate audience interest in the first person while still acting as chronicler. She uses the Watson/Holmes model as an example: Watson narrates the story, taking care of all of the workaday details, while remaining in first person and thereby creating a gateway for reader identification.

Yet the sidekick narrator, she adds, also allows the reader the cushy position of superiority to Watson. We may identify with the good Dr, but we can imagine ourselves to be more like Holmes, the old “If I were like Watson, I like totally would have figured that out by this point.” And last and most obvious, the appeal in creating creating a sidekick , Bray states, is because multiple characters pick up a larger audience/readership.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Social networking applications also allow us to present a “real” version of ourselves that takes on the dual role of first person chronicler. Take the status update in which we can switch back from first or third person. “I am not happy that my cat has lobbed a hair ball on my lap,” or “Ryan is not happy that her cat has gobbed a hair ball on her lap.” This is both an act of chronicling and a call for identification.

Second, in creating these personas on Facebook or Twitter, its often the case that we try to project someone who is more Holmes than Watson — and this is a very loose comparison, by which I mean the role of a main protagonist — but the irony is that through our labors our real selves play sidekick to our own projection.

Third, no matter how little glamor or mystique our own profiles actually present, our voyeuristic tendencies mixed in with our ability to haze over reality, allow us, like the reader, to feel superior to those other personas that our “friends” project on the web. Think about how many times you’ve curled your lip ever so slightly at seeing your friends misspell a word or hearing that their movie plans include a second viewing of New Moon? That we rarely reflect on how asinine we may in fact look to others, insures that we remain busy pumping air into that puffed up and ultimately phony profile.

And as for attracting a larger audience through multiple characters, can you think of a better example than Twitter, where retweets from our collection of followees spawn an even greater of followers and so on until we can barely make out why we signed up in the first place.

There are arguments that social networking is in fact thinning out our personalities, making us hollower, flatter, and ultimately less interesting. I definitely agree that there’s something to that. But it’s even more unsettling when we remember that it wasn’t Watson who was performing all of those amazing mental feats. It was Holmes who kept his eyes and his mind trained firmly on the world, while we, pale shadows to that series of sparsely worded one liners, fabricate a weak reflection of what was once ourselves.

On Lists

Posted in blogging, books, lifehacking, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by katekanno

This week’s Der Spiegel has an interview with Umberto Eco on the subject of lists. Eco states that lists are stabs at immortality, an attempt to take control of the infinite through categorization:”We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

I’ve always attributed it to something less grandiose, the desire not to squander whatever limited time we have, or to just plain get organized.

Of course there’s always the old saw about cultural insecurity, particularly among Americans. Lists of cultural artifacts, books, paintings, films,  have often been a quick way to stack ourselves up against others — “At least I’ve read Proust. Sniff.” I’ve seen evidence of this;  a few months back, in fact, I was appalled when a social networking friend humorlessly posted the Booker list, and then checked off each one he had read, even adding the number of times read in parentheses. But we’ll leave him to his demons, and as long as one uses them playfully, lists can be good references, to safely shake us out of our habits, show us something new.

A few weeks back though, when jotting down ideas for a list-based project, I was suddenly overtaken by a severe, albeit brief spell of depression, not about mortality as Eco argues, but the recent prevalence of list-making in popular culture.

“The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.” Eco says. “Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.”

But if the list creates culture, what in fact is behind the creation of the lists?

I began to wonder about the increasing presence of the list, and not just those numbered sets of bullet points, but graphic organizers, Powerpoints, and so many creative works gleefully basing their form on the dumbed down worksheet absurdities of K-12 education. Take Sufjan Stephen’s grandiose plan to record an album for each of the 50 states, or the graphs albeit tongue-in-cheek in the Believer. This reverie then glommed onto NaNoWriMo, Edmo, Drunkmo, all of these attempts to impose creativity through organized allotments of time or space.

I’m not out to bash these things. I’m a participant in this year’s NaNoWriMo and believe me, it’s good to be writing rather than fretting over where my life is going. Besides, when you’re looking to brainstorm fiction ideas, lists are an insanely effective way to tap memories and ideas you had no clue were there.

But I also wonder if this recent surge in list making might not also be the result of our waning ability to organize our own thoughts.

Take research on multitasking, the implications of which are ignored in inverse proportion to the frightening results. According to an August article in Wired, Dr. Clifford Nass found that multitaskers do poorly on cognitive tests, showing an inability to ignore “irrelevant” information.“Whether people with a predisposition to multitask happen to be mentally disorganized, or if multitasking feeds the condition — “that’s the million dollar question.”

To add a ten-dollar question of my own, is this mental disorganization being fed by the computer, and is that in turn stoking our desire for order; is the smog build up in our gray matter behind our recent, and often misguided attempts to assign rank to novels, works of art, or experience itself? As much as I enjoy checking them off, you’ve got to admit that the 1001 Books/Places/Painting/Records to Read/Visit/See/Hear Before You Die series is not the end all and be all of taste.

As Nass states, acts of multitasking involve exploration, the act of gathering up as much information as possible over exploitation, focused concentration on what we’ve gathered. All of these lists seem provide the promise of exploitation, or a false sense of mastery over that information. But more importantly, I think they attract us because we can sense something is wrong. Lists provide a simplified route to exploitation, a cognitive lifeline to those flailing about in a morass of often irrelevant information.

"Fathomless Stupidity" and November Noir

Posted in books, education, literature, movies, Queer life, Queer Lit, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2009 by katekanno

Ash_MalindaLoYesterday, I went in to buy Malinda Lo’s Ash. It’s a relatively new book, or at least I thought so. After all, Lo is still doing book tours. You’d think her hardback might still be on the shelves.

Now usually it’s not my habit to purchase a new book unless it’s something I’m really excited about, and I was very, very excited about a lesbian take on Cinderella. Enough, I’m embarrassed to say, to break my previous vow on this blog to read only the stack of unread books glaring from the living room shelves.

I went into Barnes and Noble in Irvine. Probably Orange County’s most depressing chain book store; Irvine’s B&N is a the kind of dim halogen mall hole where fathers read “Rapture Ready” aloud to their children, and the latest idiocy a la “Why do Men have Nipples?” is prominently displayed.

But I was determined. I looked in sci-fi, in fiction, in YA. Nothing, until hope draining, I slogged up to the counter and asked the clerk, who said, “We do have one copy, I think.”

We returned to the YA section,but the book was still not there. “Hmm,” he said, “Let me check in the back. It might be being shipped back to the publisher.

Huh?

I was just in time, it seemed. After a few minutes, he appeared from the back room, that last copy in hand, rescued from the shredder.

“But, why were you shipping it back?” I asked.

“Got to make room for new books,” he said.

Maybe my eyes aren’t very good, but this book looked new and shiny. It had a dust free jacket and a September 2009 publication date on the inside.

And there was only one left.

I could go into all sorts of Orange County conspiracy theories, that a lesbian-themed fairy tale for teens might be targeted in a bookstore with umpteen mega churches within a ten block radius. But as Ursula Le Guin remarked in a Jan, 2008 issue of Harper’s, it’s probably more that “the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless.”

If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off—it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate. This week’s blockbuster must eclipse last week’s, as if there weren’t room for more than one book at a time. Hence the crass stupidity of most publishers (and, again, chain booksellers) in handling backlists.

This is far worse than any conspiracy I could dream up. If you’re a lonely adolescent living in Orange County, surrounded by squealing, dimwit fans of Twilight and questioning your sexuality, good luck. Your own vampire romances are being shipped back to the publisher by virtue not of homophobia, but lack of instantaneous profits.

But don’t worry, homophobia will always be there to limit even more of your reading options. I’m talking to you Scholastic, now that you’re in the business of blatantly censoring LGBT children’s books.

Now on to November Noir.

“I met him a corral. He had the jump but I guess hate made me fast.”

RanchoNotorious

This movie killed me. Marlene Dietrich riding piggy back on a cowboy in a saloon, that crazy ballad about the legend of “Chuck-a-Luck.” Do you mean dog food or a defunct sporting goods store?

Actually the song narrates a great Johnny Guitar style piece of Western Noir, referring to a game of chance. Fritz Lang, in fact, wanted to call it “Chuck-a-Luck” but was stopped by Howard Hughes who argued that European audiences wouldn’t understand. Lang retorted that neither would they get the name “Rancho Notorious.”

This movie is insane! See it!

Halloween!

Posted in ghost stories, Halloween, writing with tags , , , , on November 1, 2009 by katekanno

Non8pumpkinToday I don’t have much time, but we’ve made it to Halloween. I’ve been ramping up my own writing today, after stumbling over a brief spell of whining. As today is the day, I’m doing three favorites.

The first is Number 13 by M.R. James.

The second is Pickman’s Model by H.P. Lovecraft. This one I first encountered as an episode of Night Gallery. It scared the hell out of me, and to read it years later was even more terrifying.

The third is Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, referenced in a previous post. Go lesbian vampires!

And that makes 31 stories in 31 days! Actually, if you count all of the stories in the Vernon Lee collection, there are more. Of course genre is year round, and I’ll probably add more ghost stories to the list and continue to dig up wonderful OTR podcasts among other strange and terrible things.

Happy Halloween!

Now it’s time for  another literary and alliterative project: November Noir! This will include films, short stories, and novels. I’m not promising 30 as the writing will keep me busy, but I’ll try for at least three recommendations per week.