Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Olson's Practical Primer in Ordinary Human Magic

Melissa F. Olson, Dead Spots

Melissa Olson salvages urban fantasy, one of the most over-saturated genres of pop fiction today, by reversing the usual boilerplates. Urban fantasy’s brand, based on an overlap between the modern world and a mythic supernatural otherworld, usually runs on the tension created when magic bleeds into today’s ordinary world. But Olson asks: what happens when the banal infects fairyland?

Scarlett Bernard is the rarest form of supernatural being, a Null. In her presence, magic stops working. Witches’ spells sputter out, werewolves turn human, and vampires come back to life. That makes her valuable, because she can clean up supernatural crime scenes before the LAPD can stumble upon them. But it also makes her a valuable commodity, traded among the undead like a desirable stock swap.

And when an inexperienced LAPD detective discovers Scarlett, wrist-deep in a grisly murder with a supernatural odor, vamps and weres are happy to let her hang. Anything to keep human law from finding out about the Old World. Suddenly Scarlett, with her werewolf apprentice Eli and the bemused Detective Cruz, have less than forty-eight hours to find the real killers, before they face street justice, to keep the peace.

In some ways, Olson gives us a straightforward take on the urban fantasy genre. She has created a character mystery that just happens to involve magic—more Charlaine Harris than Jim Butcher. Scarlett has some of the more common UF character traits, including hidden psychic scars, romantic frustration, and a proclivity to snarky witticisms, in the best Dashiell Hammett style. (She includes one supporting character named Dashiell. Consider it an Easter Egg.)

But in other ways, Olson yanks the rug from under our feet. Veteran readers who have grown bored of repetitive boilerplates (not me, but maybe you) will enjoy how she reverses some of our expectations. While some of the supernatural elements intrude into the ordinary world, spreading unhappiness and misery abroad, much more comes when human feelings bleed over into the other world. Our pain, yours and mine, has power to change fairyland, Olson says.

Relationships, not power, are the coin of Olson’s supernatural realm. Scarlett tries to take pride in her self-reliance, but learns quickly that she can’t. The human tendency to form ordinary bonds with one another proves her greatest advantage. And the complete lack of such routine empathy—not sunlight or silver—is the monsters’ greatest weakness. Olson spends a lot of time trading on the power of simple human understanding.

At first, I didn’t understand what Olson meant by this. Despite a couple of muscular action scenes in the opening chapters, her book does get off to a slow start. This is only intensified by some talky discursions in which Scarlett pauses the narrative to explain the Old World to Detective Cruz. I admit, it took me some fortitude to push through the first fifty pages or so.

But once I did, the story really opened up. Olson never pauses to explicitly say the seeming banality of those early chapters is the very point; we sort of pick it up as a dawning realization. The stuff that seems most commonplace, like watching TV with friends or one night stands or just chatting over morning coffee, all this stuff is the ordinary magic that gives Scarlett the strength to combat monsters that have lost the ability to care.

I particularly appreciate Olson’s voice. Instead of treating this story with the wide-eyed gooey sentimentality of paperback fantasy, which is one of the main reasons I drifted away from this genre two years ago, she writes like a mystery. She treats werewolves and witches and vamps (oh my) with the same earnest yet playful respect she would show the Cosa Nostra or the Crips, while still maintaining their magical integrity.

And she handles the romantic subplot, downright mandatory in genre fiction today, in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Too many authors feel the need to highlight this theme, with searchlights and a small orchestra, as though we would miss it. For Olson, though, romance is just part of being human, a part Scarlett initially tries to squelch, though by the end her two competing beaus become her biggest asset.

In all, Olson has taken a fiction genre that has become primarily circular and monotonous, and made it her own. Though she respects the conventions, and gives paperback readers what they’ve come to expect, she isn’t content to merely do what others have done before. And that makes her debut exciting.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Look a Rape Victim In the Eye

Richard Mourdock
Last week, Republican senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock called down richly deserved ire when he said that a pregnancy conceived in rape is “God’s will.” His campaign tried to partially walk that back by saying the rape itself was not God’s will, just the pregnancy. But I have a hard time seeing, since one follows from the other, how they can honestly make such an awkward division.

I wish these were one-off statements. But Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has referred to rape as a “method of conception,” like violence exists on a continuum with in vitro and “woman on top.” Watching ordinary voting Republicans reconcile such ugly speech is unintentionally humorous. A friend I ordinarily trust said: “If President Obama is right about small businesses, Senator Murdock [sic] is right about abortion.” As if rape were an area where thoughtful people could strike a compromise.

Both these candidates, and the critics who answer them, fall down on the same point. They speak of “women,” “rape victims,” “abortion patients,” and so on, as though women are merely another category. This reminds me of history, when the American government used terms like “gooks” and “injuns” in its propaganda to keep civilians loyal to wars of choice. Forcing people into categories steals some of their humanity.

Women who have been raped are individuals, who deserve to have voters, elected leaders, and the whole American population look them in the eye and call them by name. When we lump all women who seek abortions together and treat them like a mass, it’s easy to dismiss them as casual baby killers who simply want a pricy, invasive form of birth control. It gets far harder when we see them as individuals.

Paul Ryan
A woman I know was raped. I’ll call her “Linda,” since I have no Facebook friends of that name and nosy Nellies can’t track her back that way. A man Linda met mere hours earlier held her down on the bed of her own apartment and forced his body onto her. Afterward, he tried to make conversation, as though it were a one night stand. Like nine-tenths of rape victims, Linda was too ashamed to report her attack to the police.

Two months later, Linda faced a pregnancy scare. Because Linda and her boyfriend are Christians, they had not had sex. The father could only be the man who raped her. She had to face the implications of her rape, now that all prosecutable evidence was gone, and now that it appeared her lingering effects might be physical, as well as psychological. As a Christian, she had to weigh all her options in terms of her relationship with God.

Thankfully, after a trip to her doctor, it turned out no pregnancy existed. Her symptoms were probably related to the ongoing psychological trauma of her rape. But during the time while that scare existed, its consequences for Linda, and for everybody who cared about her, was very real. She, and her loved ones, had to make a decision that would have consequences for all of them, for the rest of their lives.

The last thing they needed was some politician, who would never meet Linda, making decisions for her.

Chances are, you know a woman who was raped. If she hasn’t told you already, she may never do so, because that isn’t something survivors like to bring up; some find that they cannot say the word for years after the event. But an estimated one in four American women has been raped, usually by somebody she previously trusted. And most of those women do not report the rape to the law, for fear of being judged or ignored.

Politicians, theologians, moral absolutists—in short, anybody who wants to dictate choices available to rape survivors—I defy you to sit down with a woman who has been raped. I defy you to look her in the eye and tell her that her pregnancy is somehow morally separate from her rape. I defy you to tell her that you have more right than her to make decisions about her body.

Especially since somebody else already tried to take control of her body away from her.

Stop treating these women, who have already been harmed by men, as though they lack the autonomy to comprehend their own choices. Stop treating them as a class, deserving either our high-handed control or our abstract pity. They need us to treat them like individuals, with all the respect individuals deserve.

On a related topic:
Todd Akin and the Enchanted Uterus 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An American In the Land Where the Dead Walk

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Two
Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow

One day in 1982, Harvard graduate student Wade Davis traveled to Haiti, a poorly understood nation wrapped in myth and plagued with economic despair, to find the truth about one of that nation’s most famous products: zombies. Ever since the American occupation of 1915, legends of black magic and the walking dead had scared white people the world over. Davis discovered that these stories weren’t mere campfire legends, but something more interesting.

But above his specific discoveries, Davis’ 1985 account of his journey began a pattern that would dominate his career. Instead of treating other cultures as merely exotic, or focusing on the gap between “our” customs and “theirs,” Davis treats distinct cultures as worthy of consideration in their own right. Though he hardly invented such an approach, at a time when unquestioned racist assumptions drove global interactions, Davis pushed this view into public discourse.

Davis, a former forest ranger and river guide accustomed to the rigors of life in the wild, ventured beyond the Haitian capital of Port au Prince to pursue the elusive zombies. This in itself made Davis remarkable among outsiders. Graham Greene wrote his classic novel The Comedians, depicting Duvalier’s Haiti as a sinkhole of crime and moral turpitude, without ever leaving the grounds of the Hotel Oloffson. Sadly, Greene’s behavior has been about typical of global visitors.

Wade Davis
Outside the city, Davis found a nation wrapped in traditions dating back centuries, a nearly unbroken line of family, religion, and oral history. This is a nation where the majority cannot read, and has little hope of moving up the economic ladder or living far from where they were born. Yet they maintain not only a firm connection with the past, but a hope for the future, that would make them the envy of more “advanced” nations that live in a technology-addled present.

Strangers before Davis had immersed themselves in the culture and religion of Haiti, most prominent among them Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Deren. Davis followed in their path, not only speaking to Haitians, but participating in their ceremonies, and undergoing initiation into the voodoo religion. But unlike the artists who preceded him (Hurston was a novelist, Deren a filmmaker), Davis brought a scientist’s eye to the proceedings he observed and shared.

Voodoo—or, as Davis spells it, more in keeping with its Yoruba origins, vodoun—has been misrepresented by outsiders. Remember, most Haitians’ heritage runs back nearly unmingled to African slaves brought in by the colonial French. And from the days of empire, to the occupation, to the present, there have always been people willing to cheapen anything people of color hold sacred, just to keep anything different or challenging at bay.

And that goes double for the most misrepresented aspect of Haitian folk heritage, the zombie (Davis writes zombi). White people, at least since George Romero, have depicted a shuffling mass of mindless corpses, ravenously hungry and jealous of the living for being alive. It’s tough to observe Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead without recognizing a poorly coded metaphor for white racist stereotypes of lusty, savage Negroes at our gates.

Books like Gone With the Wind, and movies like Birth of a Nation, show African Americans as a faceless mass, wearing shabby clothes, motivated entirely by appetite, and obsessed with the desire to have sex with white women. While the mainstream culture now thankfully condemns such depictions, they remain present as part of our heritage. And if you change the black skin to rotting skin, you see the influence of naked racism in zombie imagery.

By contrast, Davis depicts a people who fear, not being surrounded by zombies, but becoming zombies. A nation which emerges from the fight against slavery would naturally fear any force, human or supernatural, that would strip people of free will and turn them back into slaves. Just as the zombie reflects undiluted American fears, it also reveals the one creeping dread all Haitians share.

Davis opens up a world many people think they know, exposing without judgment the texture of a nation that is beautiful precisely because it is different. Now that zombies have hijacked media culture, it behooves us to consider not only the origin of our myths, but the unspoken assumptions which drive our fears. I leave you with this important quote from Davis himself:
The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Unsettling Tension of Poetic Truth

Linda Gregerson, The Selvage: Poems

Linda Gregerson’s very long poems, with their loping lines and exploratory tone, channel the likes of Walt Whitman and Ciaran Carson, without merely imitating those who have gone before. Her use of classical allusions reminds me of AE Stallings and Aaron Poochigian, though Gregerson stakes her own territory in this neoclassical vein. She has not been the most prolific of American poets, but her compressed intensity makes up for her relative scarcity.

Gregerson participates in the recent trend toward very long poems (she has more than one which reach to nine pages), but I never feel in reading that she has stuffed them with filler. Her language retains an urgency that I have struggled to maintain in my own verse. But when I say “urgency,” don’t mistake me to mean “frenetic.” Her work is characterized by a spirit of inquiry, as in this example from “Getting and Spending”:

We’re told it was mostly the soul
          at stake, its formal

          setting-forth, as over water,
where, against all odds,

the words-on-paper make
          a sort of currency, which heaven,

          against all odds, accepts.
So Will, which is to say, May what

I purpose, please, this once, and what
          will happen coincide.

This passage is entirely representative of Gregerson’s style: extremely long sentences fractionated by very short lines. Clich├ęs subverted by compounding them. Linguistic shortcuts that conceal how the narrative voice evidently still searches for what point it hopes to make. Though seemingly shapeless, we still get a sense that these questions deserve an answer now. (These very qualities, though, make finding reprintable excerpts difficult.)

Notice, also, the aggressively enjambed line breaks. June Jordan, back in the day, encouraged her students to use line breaks as a form of punctuation. My poetry professors discouraged this, calling it cheap. Gregerson does neither, using line breaks instead to create a tone. By breaking sentences mid-clause and drawing attention to punchy one-syllable verbs, Gregerson makes common language less familiar, forcing us to look harder at content which seems ordinary.

Gregerson emphasizes the unfamiliar hidden beneath the veneer of ordinariness which surrounds us every day. Even when she utilizes scenes unfamiliar to us—English slate miners, Greek landscapes—she essentially immerses us in the commonplace, which she then makes strange. I like how she accomplishes this in “Ovid in Exile”:

          Omitting the rust-
bedazzled storage tanks and parched

cement, the cedar-and-pressboard
          pavilion, the border

          of marigolds mustered in
forced good cheer, ignoring

the beachfront disco (closed), the eighteen
          crumbling stations of miniature

golf and now the singer at the microphone
          in solemn Dolly Parton

          aspirational, the bravery’s
in the welcome here.

You may also notice, in both excerpts so far, Gregerson’s use of unrhymed couplets. Gregerson makes nods to the familiar by her half-glimpsed forms; other poems use tercets and quatrains, and appear at a glance to feature some form of meter (do scansion, and this proves an illusion). This movement toward, but not actually into, conventional form, heightens the sense of familiarity that never quite arrives, keeping us pleasantly disoriented.

This oscillation between the familiar and the alien extends into her subject matter. In the passage above, she successfully contrasts Ovid’s ancient Black Sea banishment with the post-Soviet tourist trap now on its site. Elsewhere, she turns a contemporary eye on poetry’s ancient heritage, defamiliarizing Greek and Christian myth, as in “Dido Refuses to Speak”:

                    There is no
          outside to such arguments.
And surely I took precautions? What

          was true for me ought doubly to
have been the case for one whose
                    future he

secured. So hostage both.
                    All three. And now
          I’m told he wasn’t a

                    child at all but a
          god in the shape of a child.

Be honest: you didn’t get a word of that, did you. But this take on Queen Dido’s passion when the god Eros touched her breast, causing her to love a man who cannot return her affections, seems nevertheless somehow familiar, like something we’ve all felt when we loved someone who did not love us back. The universality of her sentiment creates a tension with the specificity of her language, keeping us engaged.

That, perhaps, is why Gregerson succeeds in a poetic field so crowded, lately, with striving mediocrity. That same tension of what we all know, poised against what only she can express, gives her the kind of power that all struggling poets wish we could share. Gregerson speaks as only she can speak. Yet at the same time, she voices the truths we all, somehow, share.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sherman Alexie, Indian Giver

Sherman Alexie, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Writers usually publish “New and Selected” collections when engineering how audiences remember them after they die. Which seems early for Sherman Alexie. Only forty-six, he hasn’t been on the national stage for twenty years yet, which is lightning speed in today’s glacial literary publishing. He has an output other writers can only envy, not only because he’s prolific, but because he adapts to multiple genres with grace and apparent ease.

Looking back, I’m surprised how few short story collections Alexie has actually put out. Perhaps because he has become such a force in literature, his works picked over not just by literary critics but by writers eager to unlock his style, his short stories seem more ubiquitous than their real numbers. For a man so associated with the most exciting developments in modern short fiction, he’s really more of a poet. (His novels, though good, are also few.)

This collection allows us to see the development of themes over the course of two decades. If The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven blurred the line between novel and short fiction, and ongoing critical opinion says it does, Blasphemy blurs the role that covers play in a book. Themes, actions, and narrative arcs which Alexie began in that first collection prove to play out in new and exciting ways long after we closed the back cover of that book.

Alexie’s stories range from less than one page, to over fifty, some rich in dialog and action, others wrapped in a protagonist’s head. Some burn with anger and passion, driven by characters who keep laser focus on their goals. Others meander alongside characters who have lost sight of their own lives, their slow, somber narration reflecting the sadness that permeates lives lived on society’s margins. His stories can feel fast or slow without ever bogging down.

If I had to compress Alexie’s main themes into one word, I would pick “outsidership.” His protagonists, primarily but not exclusively Spokane Indians like himself, stand on the outside of whatever situation, observing the inbred self-seeking that characterizes society’s mainstream. Characters like Seattle’s oldest playground basketball champion or the only rich Indian at a table of poor fundamentalists give Alexie a powerful perspective on banal situations.

This perspective allows Alexie to include sudden caustic humor. I’ve noticed this in a lot of writing by minority authors: they are often the funniest workers in the business. And as is often the case, humor gives him a chance to explain less-than-obvious truths. When that rich Indian explains why “Jesus was a fag,” I may not agree with his conclusion, but his logic about Jesus’ actions reveals why the message has persevered for centuries.

These wave-like narratives resist easy analysis, urging us instead to bask in the experience. Reading Alexie’s stories resembles getting lost in a strange city: we think we know what awaits around the next corner, but we’re entirely wrong. Even his Indian themes defy easy white expectations, grounded in Desert Southwest exoticism. After twenty years in the field, Alexie retains the ability to make audiences uncomfortable with his frank, off-kilter observations.

Alexie writes with a level of intimacy that suggests at times he works in journalism rather than fiction. Sometimes we can’t tell how much of Alexie himself appears in his characters. He has written about once reducing a woman to tears at a reading, with a story about a father’s tragic death. He claims he had to explain that his father was sitting right next to her. (But he wrote about it, so... Aaah! It’s getting very “meta” in here!)

Who could blame anyone for such confusion? One story features a writer protagonist, who, in his internal monologue, says he wants to write about his situation, but will have to change identifying details. This indistinct boundary between artist and art doesn’t just engage the reader It also quietly satirizes the literary industry’s naive lionization of “realism.” After twenty years, Alexie has become a veritable brand name, and it’s a joy to watch him subvert that prestige.

It would be a mistake to suggest Alexie speaks for all Indians, much less all minorities. But he certainly represents a certain kind of Indian, the educated and insightful man who speaks the language of insidership, but does not live the life. In prior eras he might have been the court jester or royal vizier; today he’s an author. We have always needed truth-speakers like Sherman Alexie, and this collection provides a good capsule summary of his truths.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We Are Marlow: Joseph Conrad's Modern Relevance

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part One
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

We can wrap up the entire scope of current scholarly controversy surrounding Joseph Conrad’s most-read book with a single quote, about one-fifth of the way through. Describing a landscape seemingly fecund but devoid of a population, Conrad’s vicarious narrator, Marlow, notes:

Well if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon.
Conrad concisely summarizes that he can easily understand why the African landscape through which Marlow travels has been rendered bleak in the face of European colonial powers. The locals are not lazy, shiftless, or any other label slapped on them; they just want no part in somebody else’s imperial ambitions. On that level he seems downright sympathetic to the natives, a rarity in the waning days of empire.

But notice the word he uses to describe the natives. Perhaps no other word in English so completely summarizes the history of racial violence, reflexive dehumanization of strangers, and the use of labels to keep The Other under the thumb of power. It seems that Conrad (or Marlow at any rate) knows the problem, and just doesn’t care.

This split in the narrator’s psyche drives not just the deeply conflicted critical response, but the downright psychotic nature of the narrative itself. Marlow is a part of the very system he so vocally deplores, and not only cannot reconcile the gulf, he seemingly will not. He admits the white colonists, painted as devolved creatures one and all, have demeaned the Africans; then, in the next breath, he characterizes the Africans as amoral mud-dwelling beasts.

If your high school Brit Lit class resembled mine at all, you heard the threadbare myth that we study British classics because they somehow transcend time and place, speaking to all people everywhere equally. Nobody makes such claims about American or French literature. And many colleges don’t even offer courses in the literature of Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Do these other cultures lack some quality which permeates Britain?

Of course not. We consider a work “classic” not because it speaks to everybody, but because it speaks to us. And Heart of Darkness, the story of a man who cannot reconcile his high ideals with his base desires, speaks to us because the very same conditions that inspired Conrad in 1899, if you change a few proper nouns, still exist for us in 2012.

At the time Conrad wrote, European powers wanted colonies because they conferred wealth and influence. Central Africa made a tempting target for colonists as a source of highly valued ivory. Today, the conquest of land has fallen on political disfavor, and the ivory trade has been curtailed. But American and European corporations feud and, according to the UN, arm militias in the very area Marlow traversed, fighting for immeasurable mineral wealth.

If you own a cell phone, computer, HD television, late-model car, clothing, or refrigerator, you own a product produced, at least in part, on the back of exploited peoples. The Western world’s cheap consumer goods are made possible because brown foreigners are kept in poverty, willing to do difficult and dangerous work at appalling wages. Yet I have not sworn off consumer electronics or started making my own clothing. If you’re reading this, neither have you.

We, like Marlow, know our actions have created a gulf between privileged and disadvantaged nations. As youth protested last year in Zuccotti Park, most wore clothing and slept in tents they could afford only because they were manufactured by poor foreigners. We want fair treatment for ourselves that we know, if we’re honest, we aren’t willing to extend to others.

Many critics, Chinua Achebe foremost among them, have tried to expel Conrad from Western Literature’s canon for his racism. And Conrad, like most of his generation, was certainly racist. But trying to bury that attitude because it offends our enlightened modern sensibilities loses sight of Conrad’s true message.

Thus, Heart of Darkness is not a novella of a foreign man visiting a foreign nation a century ago. It’s our story, here, now. We cannot paper over the jagged seam between Marlow’s sympathy and his racism, because we are Marlow. We believe truths which we know, if enacted, would harm our own bottom lines. Each of us, individually, stands ready to sail upriver to our own Heart of Darkness.

On a related topic:
Racism Versus Joseph Conrad's Mythology Gap

Monday, October 15, 2012

Christians as Citizens of Two Nations

Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology

Christians once had an adversarial relationship with the state: many Roman believers went to martyrdom for refusing to recognize the Emperor as God made manifest. As Europe became Christian, however, the church enjoyed power and privilege, built on the belief that all citizens were parishioners, and vice versa. Now the church finds itself in a third arrangement: no longer persecuted, but no longer the peak of earthly power, either.

Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff endeavors, in his newest scholarly book, to address how Christians can frame this third arrangement for life in modern liberal democracy. Instead of longing for the past or fleeing the dilemma, as too many have tried, Wolterstorff proposes embracing the difficulty. Only then, he implies, will we have a meaningful relationship, not only with our God, but also with our state.

As Wolterstorff emphasizes around the middle of this short but remarkably rich book, “political theology” is a species of political science, not theology. That is, rather than dealing with the nature and desires of God, it addresses how people of theological insight should approach the institutions of power in this world. How should the church, and members thereof, conduct themselves toward the state? The answer defies easy summary.

Christians have traditionally struggled with our relationship to the state. In political discussions, some wag inevitably cites Romans 13:1-7. But if we must submit to the state, what of those Christians whom the Empire ordered to renounce Christ? Wolterstorff bookends this essay with the story of Polycarp, who as both a Roman citizen and Christian bishop, died when he could not appease this duality. Remember what Christ says about the servant of two masters.

Many recent theologians have tried to answer this same conundrum by asserting that Christians are under only God’s authority, or that earthly polity cannot extend to Christians or the church. Wolterstorff demonstrates how such views don’t withstand scrutiny. All Christians have the duality of earthly citizen and transcendent disciple, and if we try to smooth over that duality, we blunt the richness of life that both identities provide.

Wolterstorff reconciles the problem by reframing Romans 13. He believes most interpretations, since at least the Renaissance, have treated as central what he demonstrates to be a subsidiary argument. Wolterstorff believes Romans 13 actually specifies the state’s domain, and in so doing, circumscribes its authority. When the state exceeds its authority, as in enforcing racist laws, it has abandoned Romans 13, and Christians are right to resist such false power.

Instead, Wolterstorff proposes a dual interpretation, in which state and church exist in tandem, each placing certain limits on the other. The state cannot, for instance, say who may attend worship, or even require any worship whatsoever. The church is free to practice what it believes right. By its very existence as a separate community within the polity, the church places limits on state authority.

But the state also imposes limits on the church. Christians cannot baptize anyone by force, as they once tried, or impress piety on secular laws. Individual believers may hold earthly power, but the church itself must stay out of power. When the church and state become entwined, each loses its distinct authority: the state has religious justifications for injustice, and the church loses sight of its divinely ordained mission in the vain pursuit of earthly power.

That’s not to say that church and state don’t have coinciding domains. Recent religious jeremiads on poverty and war come to mind. Consider a Venn diagram: two circles may overlap while retaining their unique identities. But when they become so enmeshed that we cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, or one swallows the other, we have a new breed, and one or (probably) both circles lose their distinct nature.

This book epitomizes the bromide “this book isn’t for everyone.” Wolterstorff’s approach, reliant on compressed language, intricate Aristotelian terminology, and numerous footnotes, requires a committed reader willing to take time. The author makes many points through allusion: having written on this topic for decades, Wolterstorff refuses to repeat himself, directing our attention to his prior publications. This book is for scholars and specialists, reflected in its steep price.

Rereading what I’ve written, I fear I’ve made Wolterstorff seem less complex than he is. Not so: he abhors the intellectual passivity with which some prominent theologians have tried to paper over modern polity. This book, though slim, is very, very hard. But it also more than justifies the effort in its ultimate liberating rewards.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The End of Everything Ain't What It Used To Be

Tracy Spiridakos and Billy Burke anchor the ensemble on NBC's Revolution

In the fourth episode of NBC’s well-meaning apocalyptic drama Revolution, after listening to a bandit whine about the looters who took the medicine that could have saved his daughter, series lead Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos) says breathily: “I’m so sorry. I am. But people just aren’t like that anymore.”

“They’ve always been like that,” he growls back, staring through brows heavy and grey with years of loss.

Bonhoeffer noted, decades ago, that humans cannot comprehend true beginnings, because we seek what came before. Creation ex nihilo evades our limited thinking. The same applies to ends. Science fiction has long traded on post-apocalyptic scenarios, because we always believe that something must come next. But our expectations about that succession have grown distinctly more bleak in recent years.

Though set fifteen years after a yet-unexplained catastrophe caused electricity to fail worldwide, apparently taking hydrocarbons with it, Revolution depicts a world in which anarchy reigns. Feral dogs and roving rapist wolfpacks make overland travel a fatal proposition, and the ad hoc government is little better than a well-armed street gang. Charlie’s exchange with her bandit could serve as a thesis for the show.

This makes a radical change from past apocalypses. Movies like The Terminator and books like Stephen King’s The Stand may not showcase the best in human nature, but they show people organizing some form of civil order. Revolution, by contrast, indicates that only our glossy technology stands between humankind and our base impulses. Light bulbs and TV, not the social contract, keep us from killing each other, implies creator Eric Kripke.

The ensemble pose, evidently mandatory in TV promo packages

In the pilot episode, the heroine and her family live in a circle of houses apparently built around a small cul-de-sac. Inside is so safe that children run and play in the former traffic circle, but outside, soldiers and bandits rove freely. Charlie’s father and his common-law wife repeatedly lecture her on why the world is dangerous and offers nothing she could want. It’s the suburban white parental terror come true: if you wander off our street, somebody will kill you.

Therein lies the problem: though Earth has suffered changes that should transform civilization, Kripke offers only a caricature of today’s world. And not even today’s world, but what comfy white Americans stereotypically think of as today’s world. From a bucolic nucleus of rural truck patches, the characters venture into cities that are not meccas of opportunity, but decaying cesspits. Nothing shields the clean, Caucasian countryside from the cities but miles of trackless waste.

In this world, everybody you meet has your harm in mind. Parents have always cautioned children about strangers, but kids learn that most people behave honorably if given the chance. Here, though, your mama’s worst warnings prove true: literally everyone Charlie meets when venturing away from home wants to kill, rape, or rob her. Only well-placed violence keeps her alive.

Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, asserted that humans must learn, from parents, states, churches, and others, not to indulge our desires for domination through violence and sex. This thesis is roundly rejected by current psychologists, yet remains influential in pop culture. This series takes that further, implying that nobody is teaching our kids to restrain themselves. Take away our electronic distractions, and our animal sides will run wild.

One of the show's trademark landscapes. Squint closely
for a glimpse of creator Eric Kripke's fleeting optimism.

Beneath this bleak present, the characters keep glancing over their shoulders at the past. An enigmatic artifact evidently restores electricity (from where? Don’t overthink things), and the monomaniacal general running the East Coast strives to turn the power back on. A band of rebels wants to “bring back the United States.” These characters seek solace, not from what they can build, but from rebuilding what others already tore down.

This longing for the status quo ante reflects a certain brand of American conservatism. Not the principled conservatism of George Will and Bill Buckley, but the reactionary reflexivity of believing that things used to be good, and now they’re not. By excoriating the decadence of the present, and lionizing the idealized past, Kripke showcases a vision of America that says only: we used to be better than we are.

In the 1990s, The X-Files taught that two zealots could “fight the future.” In Revolution, it’s too late. The Disaster is already upon us. The transition is much broader than two titles (witness the gulf between Terminator 2 and Terminator 3), and it’s risky to attach cause and effect, but differing apocalypses in different decades speak to wild, rapid changes in Americans’ view of ourselves and our prospects.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Writing Like an Entrepreneur

Dara M. Beevas, The Indie Author Revolution: An Insider's Guide to Self-Publishing

Every day I receive two or three requests to review books which the authors have published (or rather printed) at personal expense. Most look like fly-by-night operations, typeset on an antique Smith-Corona and mimeographed in the author’s basement. They may have good content for all I know, but they don’t look like their own authors took them seriously. I wish these aspiring writers would read Dara Beevas’ new guide.

Beevas, a professional publishing mentor, makes her living guiding would-be independent writers through the difficulties of getting a professional-quality book on the market. Because the publishing business has so many aspects, many of which are not visible when you browse bookstore shelves, many guerilla writers miss important steps. Beevas’ solution is to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a legitimate entrepreneur.

Though the author gets the byline and the glamor of writing, dozens of professionals have a hand shepherding a book from raw idea to marketable commodity. You can do some of this yourself: Beevas gives detailed instructions on how, for instance, to devise your marketing plan. But I especially appreciate Beevas’ explicit advice on knowing when to bring other professionals into your “self-publishing” fold.

For instance, you absolutely need an editor, to act as a sort of surrogate audience. Your best friend who spells really well is not an editor. Beevas describes not only what an editor does, and what you can expect to pay for an editor’s services, but what you need to do to get a manuscript in shape to present to an editor. Remember, you’re a professional; don’t give collaborators product below your ability, or below their dignity.

Dara M. Beevas
Likewise, resist the temptation to think that, just because you set your Word document in PDF format, you know how to design your product. Book designers make books look clean and polished for today’s media-saturated market. We say not to judge books by their cover, but we do so just to winnow today’s overcrowded shelves. (Beevas gives many good pointers, but Joel Friedlander goes into even more detail, if you need it. And you do.)

And marketing means more than buying ads or listing your book on Amazon. Beevas discusses topics like knowing if your book meets a real marketplace need, and how to distinguish your book from similar, but not identical, titles. Will you sell more print or e-books? Do you know how to sell your book on social media and other new platforms? Nobody knows with scientific accuracy, but Beevas knows which questions to ask in finding the answers.

Beevas repeatedly claims throughout this book that we have entered the age of the independent author, when writers armed with a little ingenuity have the market power once exclusive to media conglomerates. I’m willing to say that’s possible. However, I have a cabinet full of books, mostly from vanity presses, that indicate such an age faces an important counter-influence. Indie authors still need to pay their dues if they want the prestige.

Many vanity presses like to point out that William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf self-published the books that made them famous. This is true, and it does not jeopardize their prestige with literary history. But all three were more than just authors. They were skilled entrepreneurs who managed their careers the same way they would manage their own store or factory. Too few self-starter writers have learned such business acumen. Yet.

Unfortunately for contemporary aspiring authors, going it alone means the dues you must pay have become more intense. In Hemingway’s day, he had to be the best writer he could be. Today’s guerilla authors need to be business-savvy, technologically forward-thinking, and engaged in all aspects of publication. That’s where Beevas steps in, providing us the questions we need to ask our inevitable partners, and the facts we need to evaluate their answers.

Though Beevas includes a chapter on writing for publication (as opposed to writing for enjoyment or a class), this is not a book on writing. This book empowers writers to manage their careers without the sometimes myopic interference of multinational conglomerates. This book guides entrepreneurs who have the potential, but not the know-how, to get in the ring with publishing’s major contenders, and play to win.

Going indie is not for everyone. Some writers are better off following the old rules, which do survive for a reason. But for writers ready to plow a new path, Beevas is the mentor you’ve waited for. Follow her guidance, and go get ‘em.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

For Conservatives Who Can't Stand Mitt

As Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign fails to generate heat, or win converts to Republican principles, many American conservatives wonder whether they have a home in today’s political landscape. The Republicans have become dominated by doctrinaire drum-beaters who apparently abhor discussion, or even viewing issues from multiple angles. Polls indicate undecided voters find the calcified Republican party at least distasteful.

A month from election day, Romney enjoys support from partisans and a handful of voters who explicitly oppose President Obama. But Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, like Sarah Palin before him, is blatantly bracing for his own future without the ticket. Conservatives unwilling to follow party orthopraxy feel alienated from the current debate. Who could blame them if they chose to skip our small-D democratic processes this year?

The answer is that the American two-party system has no legal foundation. George Washington, in his farewell address, openly called Americans to resist parties, which he called “factions,” as divisive and opposed to America’s best principles. He knew that two of his closest deputies, Jefferson and Hamilton, had organized parties to advance their own candidates, and their small squabbles had threatened to derail Washington’s own cabinet.

Two parties have dominated our politics since 1854, forcing Americans into one of two boxes. If you believe in social justice and poverty protection, you must also support gay marriage and UN multilateralism. If you believe in firm law enforcement and national security, you must also support unlimited gun ownership and abortion control. But few voters really accord that completely with an either-or vote.

Libertarian Party Presidential
candidate Gary Johnson
Noam Chomsky notes that, in the 2000 Presidential election, one candidate shared more of the general electorate’s stated principles. While Bush and Gore ran largely interchangeable campaigns, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader’s positions should have touched voters, left and right. He favored strict trade controls and labor laws, sparing military engagement, and warm relations with our NATO allies. Naturally, the media laughed Nader off as a mere Loony Lefty.

Fortunately, American conservatives have alternatives in this year’s election. You do not have to go Red or Blue to have a say; a truly free society has choices beyond what some quasi-official organization gives us. If conservatives want to vote, but can’t support one of history’s most lackluster campaigns, they might want to consider some of America’s alternate options:

The Libertarian Party began in the early 1970s as a loose conglomeration of nudists, pot smokers, and Star Trek fanatics. The Republicans have adopted many of its economic principles, but not its emphasis on civil liberties. The Libertarians believe the same freedoms afforded to corporations should apply to individuals. As such, they favor relaxing speed limits, abolishing tariffs, and decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana.

Though the Libertarians are America’s largest third party, they are something of a political outlier. They have adopted Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, slightly watered down, as the party’s economic platform, and as such are the only party actively courting atheists and agnostics. In past elections, they were less interested in winning than in disseminating their message, but under Bob Barr in 2008, that reversed, and they are now considered contenders.

The Libertarians are running former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson for President in 2012.

Constitution Party Presidential
candidate Virgil Goode
The Constitution Party, formerly the US Taxpayers’ Party, takes a mixed view on important issues. They favor states’ rights in law enforcement, and value the Federal system of conjoined local governments. But their views on issues like border enforcement and national security take a hard line on the national level. Former concerns about homosexuality and teaching evolution in schools have given way to more practical concerns like illegal immigration.

This party is explicitly Christian, and many disillusioned Christian Right leaders have migrated here from the Republicans. While the party has a policy of strict non-intervention in personal affairs, they have strong connections with the Christian Identity movement. The Constitution Party’s unusually strict platform on abortion and euthanasia was copied almost verbatim into this year’s Republican platform.

The Constitution Party is running former Virginia congressman Virgil Goode for President in 2012. This party is incorporated under different names in some states; check the web or your local registrar of elections for more details.

Other third parties, including the Independent American Party, the Modern Whig Party, and Ross Perot’s Reform Party reflect important principles of American conservatism. Allowing one party to hold as noble a tradition as conservatism hostage to its leadership is distinctly un-American. Hopefully, American conservatives will investigate their options in the month between now and Election Day.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Short Stories

Tom Perrotta, editor, The Best American Short Stories 2012

I keep hitting the same problem reading new short story collections: they’re not short. I first noticed this problem in 1996, though it probably began much earlier. As the magazine market contracts, well-funded glossies find they can sell 50,000 extra copies by slapping a famous novelist’s name on the cover. It doesn’t matter if the story reads like an unfinished outline, or an orphan chapter from a phantom manuscript. Fame outranks content every time.

Meanwhile, critical theory has put forth increasing evidence that short stories—real short stories, I mean, which are actually short—are a different order of beast than novels. Short stories aren’t compressed versions of full-length books, or mere incidents that authors could string together to make a novel. Critics like Charles May and Susan Lohafer show that authors create, and audiences receive, well-made short stories completely differently than they do novels.

This makes it frustrating when TC Boyle or Haruki Murakami pulls an unfinished novel outline from a bottom drawer, sells it to McSweeney’s, and make more for one half-assed sale than I’ve ever made for all my writing combined. The Best American Short Stories, published annually by Harcourt since 1978, has sometimes compounded this trend by spotlighting the wrong works, sometimes resisted it. And sometimes, as in this year’s edition, it does a little of both.

In his intro, editor Tom Perrotta contrasts his early short story influences, tightly controlled writers like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, with more recent writers, specifically David Foster Wallace. Where Carver and Wolff drill down on one viewpoint and hold taut focus, Wallace’s sprawling, digressive stories use egregious erudition to display the postmodern tragedy. You can view it that way, sure. Or Wallace was an unreadable smart-ass. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Tom Perrotta
I stand amazed at how fast this collection rockets from laser-focus insight to unsightly mess, apparently without intended irony. On one page, you can have something like Mike Meginnis’ “Navigators” or Julie Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi,” stories in which not one word is wasted, nor one narrative beat adrift. Then you George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” or Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life,” both of which feel like outlines the authors haven’t gotten around to writing yet.

The twenty stories in this collection come from writers at different stages in their careers. Some, like Edith Pearlman and Jennifer Haigh, are mid-career journeyman writers, who write to get paid with little expectation of pop cultural acclaim. Others are younger in their careers, with only a few publications, or even Taiye Selasi, whose first professional sale ever is reprinted here.

Importantly, seniority doesn’t affect story quality. Alice Munro, probably this anthology’s best-known writer, turns in “Axis,” a story that is more idea than narrative, so lacking in through-line that I got to the end and shrugged. But Nathan Englander, a jack-of-all-trades who writes so slowly that he goes a decade between books, describes a mighty collision between past and present in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

It would be easy to blame the sources Perrotta culled from. Several stories debuted in glossies like The New Yorker and Granta, or well-funded literary journals like Ploughshares and Tin House. These magazines’ large subscriber bases make them naturally leery of offending sponsors. Smaller, funkier, less risk-averse rags like Hunger Mountain, Denver Quarterly, or n+1 see their stories appear in the Honorable Mentions appendix.

That would be easy, but it would be facile. My two favorite stories in this collection, Mary Gaitskill’s psychological thriller “The Other Place” and Eric Puchner’s touching science fantasy “Beautiful Monsters,” first appeared in The New Yorker and Tin House, respectively. Both strike cobra-quick, every sentence quivering with potential. I never sensed, reading either story, that any details needed filled in or that any iota of type was wasted.

The problem lies not in the purveyors, but in the marketplace. Working writers have lost interest in short stories, because novels pay the bills. And readers who eagerly embrace long, discursive novels, have grown unaccustomed to short stories’ inherent intimacy. It’s easier to shield our hearts from sprawling romances and epic conflagrations, which are too big to comprehend anyway, than to lay ourselves bare to one moment of intimate frankness.

Perrotta does an admirable job trying to peddle shorts under those circumstances. I don’t blame him for the stories which leave me unmoved, and I thank him for bringing the best stories to my attention. He only suffers for his milieu. I just wish more short stories today were actually short.