Thursday, May 30, 2013

Speedboat and the Problem with Stories

There's a problem with stories; most of the time stories don't act like life. Despite our best efforts, life does not have climaxes or denouements, protagonists or antagonists, themes or symbols; it is just one thing after another and every now and again we do our best to sort it all out, relying, because there is nothing else, on our memory for the “it all,” we're trying to sort out. If we find a climax, it's just one of context and perspective and there's always the chance a phone call or an email will show said climax was just another part of the rising or falling action of however we happen to be compartmentalizing the story of our lives at the moment.

Which is not to say the compartmentalizing of experience of traditional storytelling isn't useful in understanding life. In fact, its un-reality is exactly what allows storytelling to be so meaningful. The front and back cover of a book, the fact of solid beginning and definitive ending allow us to examine aspects of experience that are usually too chaotic to explore. Traditional storytelling pins the butterflies of life for us to examine. We learn the structure, the anatomy, the details of color and texture. But pinned butterflies teach us nothing about their flutter.

The writers who address this problem are usually punished for their crime against comfort far more than they are praised for their veracity. Even if they reach a level of mainstream acceptance like Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Pynchon, Gaddis, Egan, etc it's almost always with a caveat and there are almost always readers and critics constantly fighting against that modicum of acceptance. And for every author accepted by the mainstream there's at least another one toiling away, brilliant and ignored or brilliant and only known in certain circles; B.S. Johnson. David Markson. Karen Tei Yamashita. Sometimes we just wait until they're dead to begin appreciating how hard they strove to give us something real. David Foster Wallace.

Until this year, Renata Adler was one of those neglected writers. Despite being witty, insightful, critical, intelligent; despite being set in a milieu readers generally like to read about; despite crystal clear, accessible prose, Speedboat fell out of print and had to be brought back to consciousness by New York Review of Books Classics. (Sidenote: NYRB Classics is a National Fucking Treasure.) Rather than being a traditional story it is a collection of short anecdotes (or “renatas” as this reviewer brilliantly suggests we call them) told by the journalist narrator, that accumulate into a portrait of a time, a place, and a character that looks on to more general aspects of humanity. Though it will sound dismissive to some, I like to describe Speedboat as the Facebook feed of your most interesting and intelligent friend.

This style lets Adler explore ideas and experiences that are usually just about impossible to describe in point-A to point-B storytelling; for example, the absolute misery of singing Happy Birthday. In a traditional story, to communicate the inferno of awkwardness that is Happy Birthday, you'd have to write a birthday party, then the song, then somehow show the agony all the singers go through; a scene that any writer will know presents a ton of narrative challenges. (Whose birthday is it? Who has been invited? How are they arrayed around the table? Is the cake carried in or is it already there? Who lights the candles? How do they light the candles?...) Adler, however, can just tell us how awful singing Happy Birthday is. “Show don't tell,” is one of those writing program mantras, and though it's reductive, as all mantras are, for a point-A to point-B story, it's solid advice; there's nothing I hate more than an author explaining her own image or metaphor. But not all of life moves point-A to point-B. Not all of our interior experience can be reflected in external detail. Sometimes the best way to show us your idea is to tell us your idea.

“There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots. At a slower pace, in a statelier world, the equations are statelier. The mayor has run off with the alderman's wife, and it was to be expected if on looks back....The other consequences, it will turn out, might have been foreseen. In three households and two generations, and the treehouse instantly, the track, to a degree, can still be kept. But here, the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time. Seven people go off into the sunset, and the eighth is the custodian of the plot. There were so few variations. I had begun to believe that a story line was a conceit like any other.” p162-3

Here Adler explains my point better than I do. A story line is just as much a technique as extended metaphor or reference or symbolism. A plot itself is just as artificial, the fact of a plot just as fictional, as any fantastic event that might happen within it. To tell us it began when a man went on a journey and ended when he returned home is just as constructed as endnoting your fiction, shuffling your chronology, unbinding your chapters, strategically rejecting grammatical expectations and accumulating short, loosely related anecdotes into a novel. Any reader who insists that stories must have anything is mistaking their assumptions for rules, removing stories from the evolutionary chaos all ideas are subjected to, and ignoring the history of experimentation, innovation, and failure that lead to us right reading what we are reading now and will lead to someone later reading something different.

Which is not to say that Speedboat is devoid of traditional stories; in fact, it's filled with them, each one its own complete artifice for examination. She tells one story about living with her lover in a crappy apartment in Venice, drinking too much and getting sick from the hangover. The old Italian ladies who live in the same building beam radiant smiles at her as she leaves the communal bathroom after vomiting because they think she's pregnant and her lover will have to marry her. Then her lover confesses something that happened in the night. Something strange. These flash fictions show Adler knows how to tell a story. She could move point-A to point-B if her ideas fit within those structures. But she is searching for something different, a strange paradoxical balance between the genuinely universal and the precisely idiosyncratic, a general portrait of how we see the specifics in our lives.

However, saying this is a “problem” with traditional storytelling isn't quite right; it's like being upset you can't eat your soup with a screwdriver. (And the same goes for readers dissing an experimental novel for not giving them a traditional reading experience.) Traditional storytelling is a tool good for certain tasks, not so great for others. For example, Ulysses showed us that the flow of human thought doesn't really express itself in traditional storytelling; it just kind of happens, sometimes with a logical progression of thought from conjecture to conclusion, and sometimes all over the place as observation interacts with memory, memory falters, and suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, you remember that guy's name (Penrose!). In Speedboat, Adler tells the “story” of that “all over the place” of existence, showing us both the chaos of daily life, and, if you pay attention, how character accumulates from that chaos. You can learn a lot about butterflies from those pinned to boards at natural history museums, just like you can learn a lot about life from A-to-B stories, but you simply cannot understand them until you watch them fly.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

There Is No Discoverability Problem

As publishers struggle to make ends meet by selling books, buzz words and terms and strategies constantly pop up. Just like pretty much every business in the world, publishers bandwagon onto anything that looks like it will help them keep the lights on. (Since this is publishing, I'm not going to say “make a profit,” because most people in publishing just want to make rent and great books, so “profit” is far less of a goal than “sustainability,” but that's a different essay.) Right now, one of those terms, trends, strategies, is “discoverability.” Discoverability refers to the processes, forces, and techniques that introduce books to readers, that facilitate readers, “discovering” books. The idea is that by finding more ways to introduce more readers to more books, more readers will buy more books.

That. Is. Not. A. Word.
The core principle makes a lot of sense, and as a bookseller, reviewer, and blogger, I have a lot of personal investment in the idea of helping readers discover books. But I have problem with “discoverability” as a business strategy, primarily because, to readers, there is no discoverability problem. There are tons of ways to discover new books. Sure, we all think about GoodReads and how its purchase by Amazon will affect how readers discover new books, but every single one of the shmillions of book blogs is a “discoverability” engine. Bookslut, The Millions, BookRiot and The Rumpus are all “discoverability” engines, as are all social media on which books are discussed, as are any and all TV shows and movies that reference books as are any and all book coverage in the media (which has declined in newspapers, but authors are all over news shows and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report both seem to have one or two authors a week), as are all parties at houses with bookshelves, all public transportation people read on, all awkward breaks at business conferences whose miasmic silences are broken by someone asking someone else if they've read a book, as are all movies adapted from books, as are all book stores and booksellers, as are all of those other techniques and strategies publishers develop to increase “discoverability.” In a literate world, the world is a “discoverability” engine.

With the rise of ebooks, some of those traditional methods; those based on seeing book covers, are diminishing, and as I've said, I don't know a million times, fewer physical bookstores means fewer book sales, and newspapers and traditional media don't cover books like they used to (which, I mean, people read newspapers, which, I would think, would imply newspaper buyers are readers, so when budgets shrank newspapers decided to cut COVERAGE SPECIFICALLY FOR READERS, which makes about zero sense until you begin to wonder just how many marketing managers in other businesses read the books section at which point, wait, no, it is WAY too early for a cocktail...), but, if you take the time to look, the Internet is absolutely filled with opportunities to discover new books. And most people still get most of their book recommendations from friends and family, either in person or through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Ravelry... The nature of discoverability might be changing, but the fact of it is not.
Can't help you. This dictionary only has the "ENs"

I suppose there is nothing wrong with publishers spending money on creating new ways for readers to discover books, but given how many other discovery engines there are, their money might be better spent on programs and charities the create, motivate, and nurture young readers, or used to support physical bookstores (as some publishers are now beginning to do), or to increase the quality of their product by, I don't know, making sure every book with their name on it is well-edited.

That said, there is one discoverability problem.

For my store, the absolute most powerful discovery engine, except the store itself, is NPR. Pretty close to once a day, I personally help a customer find a book said customer “heard on NPR.” NPR is so good at selling books, the American Booksellers Association actually gave them an award. But if you go on NPR's website and click on a book to buy it, you go to Amazon. Same with Bookslut and The Millions and most other book blogs on the internet. That's because the Amazon affiliate program, the system by which websites are paid a commission for links to Amazon that result in a purchase, is much better than the IndieBound affiliate program. It's just the nature of the two different businesses, a single nationwide business is going to be better at selling nationwide than a network of totally independent small business. Pretty much every time someone buys a book on Amazon instead of from an independent store, the publisher loses a little money. (Same for every time a reader doesn't buy a book because of the clunky nature of the IndieBound affiliate system, but that's a different issue.) On top of all the other ways Amazon is able to leverage sales away from more sustainable venues, some of which are totally legitimate, others of which are predatory pricing that risks destroying the American publishing industry, nearly all of the new organically developed discoverability engines drive sales to Amazon.

In a world where Amazon is a just company, this is not a problem and more of an expression of the advantages and disadvantages of different business models. A national/international book retailer that can sell to anyone, anywhere with a click or two, is going to meet the needs of a buyer who just read about a book on a blog or newspaper website or whatever far better than anything that can be stitched together from thousands of different stores with different websites, POS systems, and online presences. But because sales at Amazon feed far less back into the publishing industry, the way in which readers act on this discovery makes publishing precarious at best and completely unsustainable at worst. (Or different worst, turns publishers into merely the “text based” arms of media parent companies churning out novelizations of movies, TV shows, and video games, which in and of themselves are fine, but you don't want them dominating America's literary landscape.)

I envy its ennui.
I know. I'm blaming Amazon. Again. For all of publishing's woes. But, here, an extended metaphor. Your village has a cholera problem, but you're not aloud to do anything about the raw sewage in your water supply and if you talk about it, you're whining. There are certainly things you can do to control the cholera problem that do not involve solving the raw sewage problem. For example, you could educate everyone in the village about the need to boil their water (that's the recent Buy Local campaigns if you're following), but, until you deal with the biggest source of the problem, nothing you do will be sustainably effective. This doesn't mean that cleaning the raw sewage will solve all of the villages problems (especially if they continue to insist on putting DRM on their ebooks even though DRM doesn't prevent piracy, makes it illegal for other retailers to sell ebooks into Kindles, and is extremely inconvenient for readers to move their ebooks from place to place) but it will solve a big one and it will render the village far more able to solve whatever problems and challenges it faces.

If there is a publishing question that warrants a hackathon, it's not “How do we help readers discover our books?” but “Why do we all know how to read, but so few of us want to?” Or to phrase this with a little more detail; “Why do so many of us conclude our decade plus of compulsory literacy and literary education with absolutely no desire to read for entertainment or personal enlightenment?” Readers will find books, but very few Americans are getting out of high school and college as readers. I've said before that if Amazon acted justly in its business operation, there wouldn't be a crisis in publishing; there would be struggles, of course, as there are in all endeavors, and there would be areas where publishers would need improvement, as there are in all endeavors (if you skipped the extended metaphor above, it's where I said that), but the stakes wouldn't be the potential collapse of the entire industry. But you could also say Amazon's unjust business practices would be much less of an existential threat to publishing if America were truly a nation of readers. Maybe creating a nation of readers is beyond the capacity of publishers, but every reader they could create wouldn't be just good for publishers, bookstores, and authors, it would also be good for America.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What We Learned From the Toronto Series

I haven't written about the NHL playoffs yet, because, until some of it actually happened, I didn't really have much to say. As has been the case for the last decade or so, the team whose goalie plays the best and who has the most healthy stars, will win. Just look back the last few years and you'll see. Because you cannot predict injury and because goalies sometimes just get hot in the playoffs, there is absolutely no way to know how those two key dynamics will play out. I wondered if the compressed season might have affected the teams making the playoffs because the normal attrition of an NHL season would not have winnowed the less deep teams, but in the end it was the Rangers, Senators, and Capitals and not the Jets. Only the Islanders (at least in the East) could be described as a “thin” team.

Before moving on to what we learned from Boston's series with Toronto, I do think it is fascinating that half, HALF the teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs were from the Northeast Division. Four out of the five teams and the fourth of those teams, Toronto themselves had the same number of points 57 as the Southeast Division winning Capitals. This is fascinating (vindicating) because the entire Northeast Division made changes in the off-season to be more like the Bruins. Last year only two Northeast Division teams made the playoffs. Clearly, the Bruins are on to something.

What We Learned from the Toronto Series
We actually didn't learn that much about the Bruins during the series. We already knew their power-play is awful and that they lack scoring and have struggled with inconsistency. We knew they are resilient, Tuukka Rask is a big-time goalie, and, in a just world, Patrice Bergeron would win a Hart Trophy some day. We knew their fourth-line is a huge asset and they have depth on defense. In short, we saw the same Bruins we'd been seeing, with varying results, for about three years. However, we learned a lot about the Leafs, some of which should be reflected this off-season.

James Reimer Won't Win a Cup Unless He Fixes His Re-Bound Problem
In games five and six, we saw that James Reimer has the potential to be a dominant goalie, because he was the only reason the Leafs were able to stretch the series to seven games. Both five and six were strange games; the Leafs spent a ton of time in the Boston zone and got a ton of shots. But while Boston did not play particularly well, most of the Leafs shots weren't dangerous and not only did the Bruins end up with more scoring chances, their scoring chances were generally better than the Leafs. Only Reimer's fantastic saves won the games for them. But his glove hand was weak and he gave up way too many rebounds. Most teams in the NHL use a shoot and crash goal scoring strategy and it doesn't matter how much talent you have, you cannot lead your team to any kind of substantial success if you give up rebounds. The good news for the Leafs and Reimer is that this is a very specific skill set that he can work on in the off/pre-season for next year. Control rebounds and improve his glove hand and he could be something special. But if another year passes and he doesn't improve, the Leafs could be waiting a long time for another cup.

Phil Kessel Cannot Carry a Team
This was actually a break out series for Kessel, in that he actually scored against the Bruins. More than once. In fact, for the first time against the Bruins, he was exactly what the Leafs pay him to be; a dangerous skater and opportunistic scorer. (Despite ultimately losing, there were a lot of positives in this series.) But, after Nathan Horton scored the make it 4-2 a little over halfway through the third period, Phil Kessel needed to take over the game. He needed to double shift, demand and receive the puck, run the Bruins ragged all over the ice, and score or set up the Leafs fifth and deciding goal. Lucic saw the need and imposed himself on the second half of the third period, and, as always, Bergeron stepped up and did exactly what needed to be done for the Bruins to win. And Kessel?

The problem, of course, is that Kessel is not and never has been a take-over-the-game player and the Leafs will be kicking themselves for years for acquiring him and paying him as if he were. This is not a knock on Phil Kessel. He, like Tyler Sequin is a piece-of-the-puzzle player, a weapon, a tool, an offensive compliment to a well-rounded team. He's not the player you build a team around, he's the player you fit in for an offensive burst. Which is not to say the Leafs should ditch him in the off-season, but that they need to rethink how their team is constructed and how Kessel should fit into it. Now, whether Kessel has the maturity to understand himself as a piece-of-the-puzzle and adjust his game to win as opposed to score remains to be seen.

Remember When Dion Phaneuf Was an All-Star
Dion Phaneuf was embarrassingly bad in the series. I don't know if he had one of those lingering, hidden injuries, or he just didn't have the physical strength to stick with Lucic and Bergeron or what, but as a first pair defenseman and captain, the Leafs needed a lot more out of him in that third period meltdown. He really didn't even have to play that much better; he just needed to be an emotional and mental anchor, especially after Lucic's goal to bring it within one, to keep the Leafs from panicking, to keep them making plays in the last minute of the game and he didn't. And Phaneuf's inadequacy highlighted a general lack of depth for Leafs defensemen that played a major role in the Bruin's comeback. As I pointed out before when talking about Reimer, the Leafs gave up a lot of quality scoring chances late in the series, and one big reason why is there defensemen as a corps just didn't have the skills and depth to prevent those chances. In contrast with the Bruins, who had two rookies in the game and lost their 2nd best defenseman :37 seconds into the game, and still managed to keep the game within reach. With a lead like that in the third period, the Leafs really didn't need to do much to win the series, but they did nothing of what they needed to do, and, at least, will get a jump start on improving their already improved team.

Series Wrap-Up
As much as I want this series to be about the Bruins winning, ultimately it was about the Leafs losing. Except for game one, and isolated stretches of play the rest of the series, the Bruins did not put on a playoff performance. They picked up right where they left off the regular season; solid team defense compensating for inconsistent offense enough to get the necessary wins. A more talented team, a Leafs mentally and physically capable of weathering the storm the few times the Bruins played as well as they could, Leafs without all the flaws we learned in the series, would've moved on.

On Round Two
One of two players will determine the winner of the Boston vs. New York series. The first, and I can't even see the edge from this statement, that's how far from it I am, is Henrik Lundqvist. (See above about goalies, etc.) Since last year's round one loss to the Capitals, the Bruins have developed a unique stonewallability. It's lead to a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 wins and losses. Lundqvist hasn't been his best this year, but if he ups his game to something close to how he played last year, I just don't think the Bruins will be able to score enough goals to win four out of seven games.

The second player is Tyler Sequin. Sequin quite noticeably struggled against the Leafs, but I wonder if that had more to do with the Leafs overall team speed than it did with anything in particular Sequin was doing poorly. Unlike most teams, Sequin can't just blast around all the Leafs. Even if he is still faster than most of them, he's not so much faster that he can create scoring opportunities just by skating by opponents. The Rangers are not as fast as the Leafs, so Sequin should be able to skate by opponents. He needs to hit the net more when he shoots, but ultimately his lack of scoring this season involved a lot of bad bounces and a lot of great saves. A bounce or two his way, a more relaxed approach to scoring, and/or a few momentary lapses from Lundqvist and Sequin could easily put up 10+ points in 6 or 7 games.

Of course, neither of those players might matter all that much if Seidenberg, Ference, and Redden are out for the series. Bartkowski and Hamilton have done fine so far, and Krug is definitely talented, but all three of those young defensemen bring a different skill set to the game than the three injured veterans, a skill set far less relevant in the playoffs. Every team has a critical mass of injuries after which, they just don't have the talent to win a playoff series. The Bruins clear depths means their threshold is higher than most and it's still there. And three of the six starting defensemen, including, in Seidenberg, a player who would be the number one just about anywhere else, might be it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Just a heads up, this post is a little ranty and sweary, but, you've got to get these things out of your head, lest they become aneurisms. Anyway, ONWARD!

We're the richest, most powerful nation in the world and yet we can't have a safe national roads and bridges system. We can't have affordable healthcare. We can't have renewable energy. We can't have higher education without incurring a massive amount of debt. We can't even have the nice things we used to have, like pension security and jobs that can support a family on a single salary. Some of us can't get married and apparently we can't even have a law that 90% of us want. Here's why we can't have nice things.

Meteorology was weird in the 80s.
Some of Us Are Still Fighting the Cold War
Despite the Cold War being over for twenty years and despite the fact that the only “socialist” aspect of the USSR was the second “S,” and despite the fact that we weren't particularly beacons of freedom during that time in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and despite the fact that our capitalism has pretty much always been managed, to varying extents, by the Federal government, there are Americans who see any attempt by the Federal Government to do anything as “socialism” that is inherently “evil.” Raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations to build roads, bridges and schools is socialism, so it's bad, so is regulating Wall Street even though they created the most recent crisis, so is regulating anything about corporations or taxing them or really doing anything at all.

For many Americans, especially those who are of governing age, the Cold War defined their identity, and unfortunately but understandably, their identity was forged on a very shallow understanding of what the Cold War actually was. They knew that the USSR was socialist and evil and the USA was capitalist and good. They knew the USSR oppressed its people and the USA didn't. They knew the USSR was atheist and the USA was Christian (except, of course, for all of us who aren't, but more on that later). The result now is a deification of the rich with absolutely no consideration for how the rich got rich, a totally irrational hatred for regulation, and a fundamental inability to understand the potential and actual benefits of federal spending (unless, of course, that spending is in their district).

As a result, we were prevented from replicating the strategy that got us out of the Great Depression and contributed to our wealth and power in the first place. Every attempt to restrain the idiocy or at least the consequences of the idiocy of speculation and finance on Wall Street was blocked, prevented, or gutted. Every attempt to prop up the American middle class with Federal spending programs was watered down, diminished, or destroyed, even when those programs were shown to have immediate and long term additional benefits. (You know, of not having bridges fall.)

The point is that, because they're still fighting the Cold War, there really isn't a way to argue against their points. Their point is socialism is evil. That's not an argument. That's a cardboard sign some guy with a tin-foil helmet might carry. Furthermore, because it is a “war” mindset, they treat their principles, ideas, and policies not as principles, ideas, and policies, but as territory in a violent contest, hills they cannot allow their enemy to capture.

Some of Us (And Not Just Southerners) Are Still Fighting the Civil War
What do you mean? This is nothing like cosplay.
This part isn't about systemic racism, though systemic racism is also one of the reasons we can't have nice things. (So is systemic sexism.) One of the stories some people tell themselves about the Civil War is that the real problem was not Southern desperation to preserve slavery, but the Federal government butting its nose in where it didn't belong. Despite zero evidence that this is the case and despite the constant efforts of Southern politicians to extend slavery in America, even by fomenting revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua, some people seem to believe that if the North had left the South to its own devices, they would have worked the whole slavery thing out on their own, and it would've turned out better for everybody including the slaves. Or that, with something closer to the truth, the North wasn't really fighting to free the slaves anyway, but against Southern culture, which the North opposed because, you know, stuff. Those who are still fighting the Civil War aren't really (at least I sure as fuck hope not) arguing for a return to slavery, but that every single effort by the Federal government is an invasion, an attempt by Northern (or Liberal or whatever) elites to abolish their way of life (for profit or something I guess). Therefore, every Federal regulation of any kind is assumed to be, not a good faith attempt to improve American society, but an attempt to control people's lives. (Well, white, straight, Christian people's lives, of course. Non-white, non-straight, non-Christian people, we can regulate the shit out of them.) This shifts the burden of proof away from Monsanto or a fracking company or an investment bank or any other corporation to prove their product or technique is safe for society, onto the Federal government that must prove whatever Monsanto is doing is so fucking unbelievably dangerous it justifies taking away our freedom.

Absolute, Apocalyptic, Persecuted
But feel free to keep up the whole executing black men thing.
There are lots of different ways to be religious, most of which have nothing to do with our relationship vis a vis nice things and having them. But there are strains of Christianity and Christians in America that practice their religion as the absolute truth of human experience, during the approaching endtimes, while being persecuted. This attitude leads to believing no one has any good reason to live in a different way, that everything is part of the coming catastrophe, and that everybody else is out to get them. So when an atheist asks that his or her property taxes not be spent on religious icons on public property it is a WAR ON CHRISTMAS, and when the Obama administration logically extends an existing healthcare regulation that merely asks health insurance companies to treat birth control the same way they treat Viagra it is A WAR ON RELIGION, or really anything from “Happy Holidays,” to family planning, to acknowledging that after a few thousand millenia teenagers still really want to have sex and some of them actually do, to anything that suggests maybe not everyone in this country is Christian the way you are (or, gasp, not even Christian at all) isn't part of living with others in a diverse society, it is THE FUCKING APOCALYPSE AND NEW INCARNATIONS OF PILATE LURK IN THE SHADOWS TO ABORT OUR BABIES AND I DON'T KNOW GAYS!!!!!!!

Exploiters of the Above

A system, bereft of nice things as it is, is really good for some very rich, very powerful people, who are using their money and power to keep things just the way they are. The people still fighting the Cold and Civil Wars and practicing absolute, apocalyptic and persecuted Christianity are very useful to the rich and powerful. They can be whipped into a frenzy to oppose any act by the Federal
government at all, from common sense regulations to protect against another financial catastrophe, taxation to ensure the viability of government programs, spending on programs whose goal is to FEED CHILDREN, or regulations, programs and policies designed to move us out of a fossil fuel based economy.
Name 1 bad thing rich white men have ever done . OK, 2, OK, you can stop. Stop or I swear to God I will steeple my fingers so fucking hard at you.

Whether it's through Fox News, SuperPacs, lobbyists, advertising, donations to think tanks or whatever, some of today's rich and powerful use the people above to enforce a status quo that makes them rich and powerful.

Obamacare Hit a Grand Slam
Obamacare managed to bring all of these groups together and the result was absolute fucking madness. Because it involved federal involvement in the healthcare system it riled the Cold Warriors, because it could be seen as dictating policy to states the Civil Warriors were up in arms, and because healthcare involves sex and reproduction the Persecuted Absolutist Apocalyptifiers were there too. Oh, and rich fucking asshole heath insurance companies. The result was that many people were so against Obamacare, that it played a major role in the 2010 election, despite agreeing with everything in it. Then there was the Death Panel non-sense. Which was complete and utter non-sense, that was covered in the news and had to be responded to.

But we see this in all kinds of other attempts to improve the state of American society. Pretty much any attempt by the Federal government to help American society get a few more nice things ends up being delayed, derailed, or demolished by one or more of these groups of people. So we limp along, until the next stock market crash, the end of cheap oil, or the coasts are flooded, and we go from trying to improve our society, to trying to save it.

We Actually Have a Lot of Nice Things
OK, we do actually have a lot of nice things, like the laptop and WiFi connection I'm using right now. Too many of us are hungry, but very few of us starve. Too many of us get shot, but our medicine can save many of their lives. Our travel habits are destroying the environment, but we can stay connected to friends and family in ways that were impossible less than a century ago. But just because our nice things are nicer than the nice things we had fifty years ago and nicer than many of things other people around the world have, that doesn't mean rich fucking assholes can do whatever the fuck they want.

The point is, we can do better. We can have a society where those who work, can live in material comfort for their entire lives, where the sick can be cared for without going bankrupt, where our energy is clean and sustainable, and where those of us who are lucky and talented enough to become very wealthy, can still be very wealthy, while paying it forward into the various societal systems that made their wealth possible. And we can find a lot of common ground amongst different ideologies. Funding family planning and effective sexual education will reduce the number of abortions that happen. Everybody already supports background checks for gun purchases. There is a progressive tax code structure that will generate the needed revenue without meaningfully impinging on the lifestyles of the wealthy. We can move out of a fossil fuel economy, educate our citizens and care for them when they get sick. The real frustration I feel is that, with all our money and power and all the brilliant and generous people living here, it would be so easy. If not for those above, we wouldn't just have nice things, we would have the best things in ways that made life better for everyone we share the world with.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Satantango is Difficult

Yep. The spiders. You'll see.
Satantango is difficult. Satantango is brilliant and weird and disturbing with moments of dark, dark humor and dynamic prose. But "difficult" was the first adjective that really stuck with me. I personally, really like difficult books. I think of them as the equivalent of climbing a mountain or competing in an Iron Man competition. There's the thrill of rising to a challenge, the fun of finding your intellectual limit, and the long term benefit of a better brain. I mean, if you got me in the right mood (Thursday night maybe, an extra beer or three, after reading the news, maybe) you could probably get me to argue that all of our society's problems stem from our reluctance to tackle difficult books. I don't always want to read difficult books and I don't like every difficult book I read, but I do think that, if you want a better brain there's no better way to get one than reading difficult books. Because the term “difficult” stuck so forcefully and completely on Satantango, even amongst all the other ways to describe it (if I said it was kinda of like your hallucination spent most of its time at the DMV and that was somehow still a good thing, would that make any sense at all to you?) I began to think more about what makes a book difficult.

In terms of reading, difficulty seems to be defined by comprehension or completion; by how much attention and energy you must spend understanding what is being expressed and by how much motivation you need to get yourself to finish the book. With some books, the sentences are basic and the plot is formulaic so you use almost no energy understanding what is being expressed and if its a story you're into you don't have to generate any extra motivation to finish it. That would be an easy book. Two things can make a book difficult; style and content; what the book is about and how the book is written. (Which is almost to say, “A book can be difficult,” but when you look hard enough pretty much every idea ends up as a tautology.) Both kinds of difficulty are present in Satantango (at least to me, as there is an element of relativity to difficulty) and I think exploring them will explore the idea of difficulty in general, and perhaps even something about the general nature of books and reading. (And maybe, a little bit about friendship. Nope. Nothing about friendship.)

Satantango has almost no paragraphs. Or rather, virtually every chapter is a single paragraph. And there are many long sentences with lots of clauses in those very long paragraphs. Oddly, the two pose different reading challenges. As we all learned in Comp 101, paragraphs are used to organize the ideas of whatever it is you're writing about; ideally, every paragraph should contain one idea. If it's a complicated idea, it'll be a long paragraph. If it's a simple idea, it'll be a short paragraph. In a way, that's how paragraphs are used in Satantango. But in the act of reading, paragraphs are also about giving you a convenient place to stop. I loves me some massive Proustian paragraphs as much as the next guy, but stopping in the middle of a paragraph requires real effort, both when you put the bookmark in and when you take it out. And there is something daunting (if not terrifying) of getting near the end of your reading day, flipping forward a few pages to find a good place stop and not finding a good place to stop. The absence of paragraphs has less to do with comprehension and more to do with endurance, with reaching a point where you're “reading exhausted,” rather than just “reading tired.”

Long sentences, however, are all about comprehension. The longer the sentence, the more information you have to keep in your head in order to understand the expressed idea. Who hasn't gotten to the end of a long (even beautiful) sentence only to have absolutely no idea how the sentence started. In some ways though, the long sentences in Satantango are easier to grapple with than, say, the long sentences in Proust or Henry James, because unlike those two, Krasznahorkai's (even this guy's name is difficult for us) sentences are more like lines of Whitman (dark, angry, dour, bitter, Hungarian Whitman) than the prose operas of those two master stylists. Details and clauses barge in, relevant only because they live in the same world as whatever else the sentence is about. Krasznahorkai's sentences have a core you need to keep in mind to comprehend them, surrounded by flagella of detail and statement. With the long paragraphs and long sentences, there were plenty of times when I looked up from the book with no idea what was going on.

Because of personal taste and mood, difficulty of content is a bit more, um, difficult to pin down than difficulty in style. There are some topics that people, for whatever reason, simply cannot read (Lolita is one I hear about rather frequently.) and  there are some topics that will always be painfully boring to some people. But I still think Satantango at least touches on general content difficulty.

What? Were you expecting rainbow unicorns? Don't be ridiculous.
First of all the plot is...vague. There are some peasants on an estate in central Hungary. There's some funny business with the money from a herd, horses I think, but maybe cows. (What happened to that money?) Also, there's a city and that's where the “protagonist” (if this book has one) starts out. Also, maybe he's a spy. All the peasants are miserable, they all go to a bar and are miserable there, talking about how miserable they are. Maybe the doctor who never washes and watches them all from his house isn't miserable himself, but he sure is miserable to read about. The “protagonist” Irimias shows up with his best bud Petrina. Oh, the peasants thought Irimias and Petrina were dead. Because some kid told them so. They all go to the town. Irimias scatters them all around the area in various jobs all so he can...collect information maybe, because he's spy, maybe. Or some other plan he doesn't bother to share with them or us. Rinse and repeat. There is no solid ground. You never know where (or if) you stand. The components of literature we learned about in high school; rising action, climax, conflict, etc, aren't present and so it is more difficult, not necessarily to remember what happened, but to organize the events in relationship to each other. What do the bells mean? Who is the antagonist? And the spiders, what's up with the magic spiders? (Oh yes, magic spiders, though, as a I write this, I think they might actually be a fundamental image/metaphor for the book. Yeah. Totally. When you read Satantango, pay attention to the spiders.)

And there are no likeable characters. I'm always annoyed by readers who put down books because they don't like any of the characters, but liking characters is one of the ways writers motivate readers through their books. (Though, Claire Messud might have finally killed the idea of “likeable characters.” Writers and readers, raise a glass to her next time you're drinking.) Essentially, you care about what happens to characters you like and so you read on to find out what happens to them. But with the exception of maybe, maybe Futaki, the lame character and the first character we meet, who is rewarded for his troubles with a concussion, it's awfully hard to care what happens to these dour, miserable characters.

Throw in a couple of truly brutal moments, brutal not from graphic violence, but brutal from a profound level of squalor (oh man, the cat), and you have a book a lot of people will struggle through. And in the end, you get no answers.

Just Like Life!
Just like life, you get no answers. (Can you mic drop in a blog? No. Well, I have more to say anyway.) Perhaps the distaste some readers feel for difficult books comes not from the difficulty I've outlined here, but from the books' reality; those who read to escape life dislike difficult books because they paid for a story but got a survival guide. And that is why I think difficult books are so important. As much as I love a good, entertaining, escapist story every now and again, reading is how I confront, cope, and understand the real world, and difficult books, in some ways because of their difficultly, capture and express the real world.

Satantango is difficult. It is frequently unpleasant. One passage made me feel a little sick to my stomach. (Oh man, the cat.) But the world is like that and when the world poses difficultly and unpleasantness, when the world makes you a little sick to your stomach, you don't often have the luxury of a highlighter and pencil to take notes, of the opportunity to study, to explore, to critique, to talk back to the text. You can't put life down on the nightstand for a moment while you recover. We can do all that and more with books, which means that, in the same way you don't run 26.2 miles every day to train for a marathon, the challenges of difficult books makes us better able to face the challenges of life.