Tag Archives: fall 2004

PLANETES: Volumes 1-3

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.comMakoto Yukimura
Tokyopop ($9.99 each)

by Robert Boyd

Science fiction comics, like science fiction movies, differ drastically from literary science fiction. In the best science fiction novels, there are limits to how much you can bend the rules of science; plausibility is far more important, and the very best literary science fiction is not only believable, but emotionally involving as well.

Makoto Yukimura's Planetes is a manga series that reads like a great science fiction novel—no wacky aliens, no giant robots, no beautiful android maids. Set 70 years in the future, humans have conquered space as far as Mars, but the problems of Earth are very familiar. Having exhausted the Earth's oil supply, most energy is supplied by fusion powered by Helium-3, which has been discovered in abundance on the moon. This makes space-based industry necessary, but industrial civilization is still stuck with a finite energy source, a polluted world, and even garbage in outer space. Earth in 2074 is neither a utopia as in Star Trek nor a cataclysm as in The Terminator. Pretty much like Earth today, it's muddling through with short-term solutions to long-term problems.

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Hachi, Yuri, and Fee are astronauts, working as a debris clearers—high-orbit garbage pickers. Their job is to clear out floating trash left over from over 100 years of space travel, this debris being a hazard to navigation—which makes their job very important, if not especially glamorous or well-respected. Yukimura takes real care to make the environment of space as realistic as possible; these astronauts have to worry continuously about osteoporosis (caused by low gravity) and radiation-induced sicknesses like cancer. Yukimura also devises a kind of astronaut culture not unlike that of sailors or roughnecks, characterized by staying away from home for long stretches, having difficult relationships with their families, and glorifying their own peripatetic existence.

With three volumes so far, Planetes has plenty of space to tell all of its characters' stories, but by volume 3, Hachi has become the focus. He's the one who buys the mythology of being an astronaut more than any of them, shunning Earth and the complications of humanity. When a mission to Jupiter is announced, he is one of 20,000 volunteers for the 18-person crew; to make the cut, he pushes himself relentlessly, shutting out all emotion except ambition. He is impatient with anything less than perfection, and takes it out on his replacement of the debris-collection ship, a green astronaut named Ai Tanabe.

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Hachi is selected for the Jupiter crew, but becomes even more withdrawn, losing weight, zoning out, experiencing strange dreams. His crew mates worry about him, but what finally revives him is an unexpected love affair. This is the heart of Planetes—the struggle between the single-minded pursuit of one's goals, and the need for love and friendship. Yukimura seems to suggest that great achievements, like conquering space, are accomplished by people so dedicated and focused that they seem inhuman—but he also consistently undercuts this extreme view, showing the need for humanity underneath all that ambition.

Yukimura's art is beautiful, detailed when necessary and simple when it's appropriate. Compared to most manga, the style Yukimura employs in Planetes is quite restrained; there is a matter-of-fact quality to the art that helps give it verisimilitude without resorting to straightforward realism. His figures aren't heroically proportioned—they have an appealing normality which also helps the suspension of disbelief.

Planetes is an ongoing series. Presumably we'll see the Jupiter mission carried out with Hachi as part of the crew, as well as find out what happens in the lives of Yuri, Fee, and Tanabe. The only problem is that the story is so entertaining, the wait for future volumes is likely to be maddening!

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comWarren Ellis, Darick Robertson, Rodney Ramos, et al.
Vertigo/DC Comics ($14.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

A comic about a gonzo journalist in a grim but not-quite-dystopian future, Transmetropolitan has managed to be unique in a field where uniqueness is more often aspired to than achieved. One More Time, the tenth and final graphic novel collection, is too dependent on the rest of the series to stand on its own, but it's a dynamic conclusion to the story that Warren Ellis and his cabal set out to tell—and an apt reminder of just how good the whole is, a case study in how to employ and/or subvert genre conventions and constraints to the best advantage of the work at hand.

During the time he was writing Transmetropolitan, Ellis was also writing a weekly internet column, later collected in the book Come in Alone. In one installment, titled "The Old Bastard's Manifesto," he laid out his credo of how comics should be done. One point rejects the notion that comics' nature is to be an ever-ongoing serial: "The graphic novel," he writes, "is the optimized form of 'comics.' Comics are not 'habitual entertainment' that need to remain static and require broadcasting regularly until death do us part . . . Comics, like their related media of novels and cinema, must be allowed to tell complete stories."

The average length of these "complete stories"—at least the somewhat quirky, more or less creator-driven sort in which DC's Vertigo imprint has come to specialize—seems to be about 60 to 70 issues. The standard practice that's evolved is to group these issues into story arcs and issue these collections as graphic novels. So there's still a form of serialization going on; however, since graphic novels have a much longer shelf-life than monthly comics, the long-term reader is more likely to encounter Transmetropolitan as a sequence of ten graphic novels rather than a series of 60 individual comic books. Thus, a comic like Transmetropolitan, unfolding over a period of five of six years of monthly issues, has roughly the same pop-cultural life span as a reasonably successful television show. The process of being collected and issued in graphic novel form is roughly analogous to a TV show being issued season by season on DVD.

What sets Transmetropolitan apart from most series—either in television on in the comics—is that Ellis and his collaborators have used the dimensions of the 60-issue/10 graphic-novel format to present one carefully constructed narrative. One More Time points up the nature of this long arc by providing a conclusive ending, not only pulling together the various plot threads in Spider Jerusalem's struggle against the President of the United States, but also rounding out the stories of several secondary characters and bringing Spider's journey full circle. Some of the earlier collected volumes contain what originally seemed to be standalone short stories illustrating facets of the comic's future world—vignettes in which both the art and writing are at their most lyrical. In One More Time (and the preceding graphic novel collection, The Cure), however, these apparent detours prove to be necessary parts of the overall story.

Another thing that's unique about Transmetropolitan is the stability of the art team over the life of the comic: penciller Darick Robertson is credited as Ellis's co-creator and sees the book through from start to finish; Rodney Ramos inks the vast majority of the stories; colorist Nathan Eyring and letterer Clem Robins are constant presences. In an industry where art teams tend to shift frequently, this is remarkable. It creates challenges for the artists—there are only so many ways to draw Spider's bald, tattooed, black-suited figure—but it also allows for more nuance, since small changes in a character's expression, posture, and gestures will read more easily against a background of a thousand earlier drawings of the same character. Since we see the world consistently through the same eyes, the comic's world is all the more solid; since characters and settings aren't reinterpreted by different hands, the resulting artistic unity reinforces the strange familiarity of the book's future city setting.

That setting is key to the work's story and success: Transmetropolitan takes place at some indeterminate point in the next few hundred years—far enough into the future to allow some fairly extreme technology but near enough that the recurring tropes of politics, media, and urban life retain their familiar contours. It's worth mentioning here that, give or take the occasional origin story maguffin (e.g., an exploding home planet or radioactive spider bite), there's relatively little science fiction in comics—at least science fiction of the extrapolate-present-social-and-technological-trends-and-imagine-what-life-in-such-a-future-would-really-be-like variety. That Transmetropolitan has a fair amount of such speculation embedded into its setting—and therefore integrated in its plot—is another element that sets the series apart from the usual.

To be sure, a great deal of the city that is Spider's loathed and beloved home is an exaggerated version of New York, often satirically so. This is a world where artificially intelligent home appliances can become addicted to drugs, where you can buy cloned human-flesh fast food, and where you can modify your body at the level of DNA to become literally alien. But Transmetropolitan's future isn't just a more extreme version of the present. However magical the technology, Ellis is careful to enmesh its use in concentric circles of cause and effect—for example, while Spider can break open a capsule of "source gas" that will allow him to walk into an interview without any visible recording devices and still transmit the conversation to nearby recorders, the politicians who are his quarry are capable of blocking the transmission, if they happen to be watching for it.

Another sign of Ellis's science-fictional savvy is his being unafraid to take the trend of minaturization—what Buckminster Fuller used to call "ephemeralization"—to extremes, even when such extrapolating leaves him without a gadget or prop. This is a risky move in a visual medium. It doesn't seem too radical when Spider's assistants take pills that will give them a "cancer trait" so that they can smoke with impunity, but when he uses a "phone trait" so that he can make phone calls without the aid of a mechanical device, we see conversations in which the only reason we know that the people talking in adjacent panels are talking to each other is the conversation itself. This technique requires intelligent and attentive readers—and shows that Ellis and Robertson expect and encourage such readers.

Such expectations are a far cry from the level at which most superhero fare is pitched, but that doesn't mean Transmetropolitan has nothing in common with superhero comics. Later in "The Old Bastard's Manifesto," Ellis writes: "Rip from their steaming corpses the things that led superhero comics to dominate the medium—the mad energy, the astonishing visuals, the fetishism, whatever—and apply them to the telling of stories in other genres." In Transmetropolitan, he puts this strategy into action. Spider Jerusalem doesn't dress in tights, but with his black clothes and tattoos, his appearance is nearly as iconic as any superhero's. Spider's glasses, with a rectangular green lens and a round red one, are so recognizably part of his image, and so perfect for merchandising, that one scene in the comic has Spider stumbling into a crowd of his fans who've bought replica glasses. And it isn't hard to see Spider's assistant Yelena and bodyguard Channon as sidekicks in the classic superhero comic mode—at least on the surface, since Spider often addresses them as mentors. The relationship is more complex, however, since Ellis makes it quite clear that Spider would be unable to function without the women's support.

Another superhero comic staple is the arch-nemesis, a role filled by the politician Spider nicknames "The Smiler." In name and appearance, The Smiler echoes Batman's arch-enemy The Joker—and with a bit of imagination, one can see Transmetropolitan's plot as a riff on Frank Miller's re-envisioning of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Both comics follow the return of a main character who had retired from the world in which they were previously active; both Batman and Spider are afflicted with a life-threatening illness near the end of the story; both comics feature an urban milieu that's central to the action, but end in an idyllicized non-urban retreat. Where Miller intercuts a chorus of television news talking heads as a counterpoint to his vigilante's activities, Ellis's hero has a more intimate connection to the wash of television images which he alternately culls, contributes to, or recoils from. In terms of "mad energy," Spider is presented as both verbally and physically kinetic—we don't just see him pacing in writerly fashion, but running down the street on the roofs of cars, or dashing up to a rooftop to dash off a column. Yet ultimately it's Spider's words and what they represent that charm—he is, after all, a writer, and words are both his livelihood and his lifeblood.

This brings us to what is perhaps Transmetropolitan's crowning achievement: aware that an information age calls for information heroes, Ellis and his collaborators present a vision of the journalist as hero. In a time of highly publicized story-fabricating scandals and the increasing partisan polarization of news, the journalist as a character who's not only sympathetic, but potentially heroic, is more and more difficult. Still, that's what Transmetropolitan delivers. Spider Jerusalem is cynical enough to see through the spin, half-truths, and disinformation, but (beneath his crazed/manic/gonzo exterior) still caring enough to act. The stories he uncovers—with their glib, hollow, ruthless politicians, their extremes of degradation and insulated privilege, and their lifelike sense of ambiguity—are both wildly fictional exaggerations and naggingly true to life. The plot, of course, is constructed so that Spider can save the world—or lose it—but he has no special powers beyond the ability to see the world and communicate his vision. In One More Time in particular and Transmetropolitan as a whole, Ellis, Robertson, and their talented crew demonstrate that they also have these abilities—and that they, too, will use them in the service of the truth.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Ben Marcus
Anchor Books ($13)

by Laird Hunt

In his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno writes of those artists, "of the highest rank," for whom "the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality." Future trajectories of taste and circumstance will determine just how many highest rankers The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories ultimately proves to contain, but it is certainly the case that many of the 29 works that make up this excellent gathering of contemporary American short fiction seem to echo the substantive portion of Adorno's phrase.

Whether in George Saunders intriguing neo-realist/neo-fabulist hybrid, in which shabby beefcake, trailer park particularities and resurrected relatives do a kind of double-time tango, or in Mary Caponegro's characteristically probing and quietly unsettling investigation of a priest who assigns himself expanded duties, or in Aleksandar Hemon's hilarious and strangely haunting mock biography of an individual whose gastro-intestinal "winds" excite the commentary of personages as historically foregrounded as Tito and Stalin, the world of appearances gets held up, even kissed, but then either shoved away or squeezed so hard it coughs, groans, and breaks into rivulets of fascinating multi-colored sweat. Consider, for example, the opening of Gary Lutz's "People Shouldn't Have to Be the Ones to Tell You":

He had a couple of grown daughters, dissapointers, with regretted curiosities and the heavy venture of having once looked alive. One night it was only the older one who came by. It was photos she brought: somebody she claimed was more recent. He started approvingly through the sequence. A man with capped-over hair and a face drowned out by sunlight was seen from unintimate range in decorated settings out-of-doors. The coat he wore was always a dark-blue thing of medium hang. But in one shot you could make out the ragged line of a zipper, and in another a column of buttons, and in still another the buttons were no longer the knobby kind but toggles, and in yet another they were not even buttons, just snaps. Sometimes the coat had grown a drawstring.

What could have been dreary domestic minimalism is here torched or torqued into something fresh and strange; gentle neologism, unabashed alliteration, off-beat rhythms, repetition, and observational obsessiveness collide into delightfully un-realist surfaces. The opening of Dawn Raffel's "Up the Old Goat Road" offers related pleasures as it fuses the pastoral with the paratactic:

We are here on the peninsula, where pie is made from scratch and the goats are getting fatter on a nearby roof. It is an upwind roof. This is industry, my father says. Company, my sister says. This is not the dells. All the supper clubs are shut or tight. The falls are somewhere else we have not been. Overhead is where it's lusher, fresh—green above this hard-luck thumb. But the goats, my sister says, look overwarm. The water is our neighbor, and what washes up is sorry or worse.

As in so many of the stories here, this is writing where style is not treated like varnish or ornamentation but rather as integral to the proceedings. For those who have read their Barthelme and Baudrillard, this might seem like old gravy, but the average mass-circulated compendium of short fiction in this country has continued to propagate the notion that language is just something to look through, not at. It's refreshing to open an anthology and find so many stories where style is celebrated as thoroughly as narrative, characterization, and plot—where, in short, the literary breakthroughs of the twentieth century are integrated, rather than ignored. As editor Ben Marcus puts it, "The writers here have absorbed the fiction methods of the past and added their own hunches, instincts, desires, fears, cravings, and artfulness to command a reader's attention in compelling ways."

In addition to the above-mentioned authors, it would be as relevant in this context to quote from the contributions of Stephen Dixon, Matthew Derby, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, and others whose carefully constructed language fields engender or strongly amplify their far from under-determined narrative thrusts. In fact, I can't resist presenting one further example, this sentence from Brian Evenson's "Two Brothers": "He lay on the floor of the entry hall, the rug bunched under his back, a crubbed jab of bone tearing his trousers at the knee." Evenson is known in his fiction for shedding fresh light on the vicious give and take between language and violence, but it seems to me that in this assonance- and marrow-rich exemplum he sets a kind of standard.

It's important to point out that a significant part of the pleasure of reading this anthology derives from the variety of the work presented. Indeed, a number of the stories (e.g. Jhumpa Lahiri's "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Deborah Eisenberg's "Someone to Talk To," and Anthony Doerr's "The Caretaker") are handsome, even stately, examples of realism—stories that don't shove away or squeeze/throttle the real, but instead stare long and hard into its eyes before offering the reader full, if elliptical, status reports. If these works had been conjoined with a majority of the usual realist suspects, the results might have been tedious. Instead, Marcus has managed—while placing the emphasis of the anthology on formally and stylistically innovative writing—to set up a bracing conversation between a wide-ranging spectrum of contemporary works. The shift from Eisenberg's gorgeous Katherine-Anne-Porter-inflected prose to the high-octane abrasive intensity of David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" is a highlight in this regard, as is the striking distance between, say, Anne Carson's wonderfully gnomic paragraph-length prose/poetry hybrids in "Short Talks" and Lahiri's crystal-clear, classically understated contribution.

In his introduction, Marcus (whose own work could have been seamlessly included in the lineup) elucidates his selection process: "My idea was to read hundreds of stories, in as many styles as I could find. I wanted to align contemporary American story writers who might have radically different ways of getting to a similar place. In each case as I sat down to read, I had to be turned from a somewhat dull, unpromising person into one enlivened, antagonized, buttressed, awed, stunned by what he was reading." If some of the entries fall a little short of the transmogrifying mark, the majority will wake the reader out of whatever stupor they happen to be in. The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories is a book to own, read carefully, and keep close at hand.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comDan Simmons
EOS ($25.95)

by Allan Vorda

Dan Simmons's first foray into science fiction since his epic Hyperion saga Ilium stretches across over four thousand years in yet another astounding display of writing and ideas, not only about the potential future but the potential past. As with Hyperion, the reader must await the sequel for the story's conclusion, but there is plenty to digest until the sequel, to be titled Olympos, is published.

Ilium—the title comes from the Latin name for the ancient city of Troy—entails three seemingly disparate stories that eventually intertwine. The first story, a retelling of Homer's epic poem the Iliad, is narrated by one Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., an English teacher from the late 20th century who has died but has been brought back to life by the Greek gods to witness and help interpret the war between the Achaeans (Greeks) and Trojans.

Hockenberry is typical of Simmons's wonderful characters. He is no super-hero, and not particularly handsome or athletic. Because the gods are scheming (Aphrodite, for example, wants Hockenberry to spy on the gods and to kill Athena), Hockenberry knows that if he makes a mistake, his resurrected life will end. When Hockenberry displeases Aphrodite, the goddess of love threatens to split him open and use his "guts for my garters."

Yet Hockenberry has the guts to take matters into his own hands. Far from being a conscientious recorder of events, Hockenberry aspires to challenge the gods and change history. He has been given devices by Aphrodite to help him spy on others. The items include a quantum teleporter, a Hades helmet (which makes him invisible), and the ability to morph into other people. One wonderful scheme is when Hockenberry morphs into Paris and makes love to Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Later on, Hockenberry muses to himself: "If I'm not allowed to speak, the events of this night will diverge from the Iliad. But I realize they already have diverged. What's going on here?" One thing going on here is a revisionist interpretation of history and the Iliad by Simmons. Not only does Simmons inject new dialogue and scenes, he even incorporates a science-fictional explanation as to why such warriors as Achilles, Diomedes, and Hector are so powerful: it's because the gods of Olympos have injected a modicum of nanotechnology into the most powerful warriors in order to influence the ongoing battle.

While the Trojan war is going on somewhere around 1200 B.C., events are taking place on Earth, in a place called Ardis Hall, in the year 3001 A.D. Here the story is set on the smaller scale of a love triangle: Daeman, an out-of-shape middle-aged man with Nabokovian tendencies, wants to seduce Ada, a physically beautiful young woman who sees the inner beauty of Harman, a ninety-nine year old man who prefers learning and dying to being waited on by strange creatures and the hope of immortality. The reader cannot help liking these characters—even Daeman, who thinks he is intelligent and a man who knows butterflies, though he is no more intelligent than he is a lepidopterist. Daeman's thought about Harman's desire to read "made no more sense than celebrating one's ninety-ninth year." Yet to Simmons's credit, it is Daeman who learns something about himself and becomes a better human being by the end of the novel.

Simmons also introduces some strange creatures in the future as well. There are the Zeks or Little Green Men (chlorophyll-based workers) who erect thousands of Great Stone Heads on the planet Mars. There are also the mysterious bipedal creatures called the Voynix, who are assumed to be simple servants for the people of Ardis Hall, but are as indecipherable and esoteric as their namesake (taken from the Voynich manuscript). Yet the most interesting of Simmons's creatures are the Moravecs, biomechanical robots with human traits who work under the extreme gravitational moons of Jupiter.

This brings us to the third ongoing story that takes place in Ilium. The two central Moravecs are the tiny Mahnmut and the larger and more powerful Orphu. At first glance, they appear simply to be like the good-natured robots from Star Wars, but they become perhaps the most complex of all the characters in Ilium. Mahnmut is first seen exploring the seas of Europa while Orphu is mining on Io. Before long, these two robots become pivotal characters in the struggle on Mars, but they also argue at every opportunity over the merits of Shakespeare and Proust. In Simmons's universe, literary arguments are debated by robots whereas the human race cannot even read; it is a scary thought (or is it?) that those who will keep literature alive are machines.

What is also frightening is that Simmons has projected the apparent demise of humanity by robotic creatures around the year 3001 A.D. Yet writers like Hans Moravec in his book Robot or Raymond Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines predict substantial robotic takeover by 2050 (Moravec) or as early as 2029 (Kurzweil). These writers see it not only as inevitable but as a good development.

To sum up Ilium is virtually impossible. Suffice it to say that by the end of the novel—with a cataclysmic battle looming between the Greek gods and a coalition of forces that include the Achaens, Trojans, Zeks, and the Moravec army—the stage is set for a sequel that will have readers waiting in anticipation. Having already written the magnificent Hyperion (and the subsequent Hyperion tetralogy, possibly the greatest SF saga ever), a brilliant novel about Hemingway set in 1942 Cuba (The Crook Factory), a superb suspense novel (Darwin's Blade) and a gothic horror novel (A Winter Haunting), the genre-defying Simmons here adds another startling epic to his already impressive oeuvre.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comDavid Foster Wallace
Little, Brown ($25.95)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

One of the great things about Oblivion, the new collection of stories from David Foster Wallace, is that it absolutely would not get a passing grade in your typical writing workshop. Wallace's refusal to offer resolution, the relative absence of action or dialogue, and the stories' resistance to easy summary subvert the traditional form; likewise, his intentionally incorrect grammar buttressed by rigidly correct grammar, and the long acronym-laden sentences forming long paragraphs jammed full of minutiae and enough "SAT words" to keep one lunging for the dictionary, will be maddening for some readers. Yet all this is to say that this collection ranks with Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again as Wallace's most complex and most re-readable work, as its myriad layers and innuendoes and clues continuously lead the reader and re-reader along darker, bleaker, and more fascinating superhighways of intellectual thoughts and re-envisioned narrative structures. Furthermore, Wallace beautifully explores loneliness and despair and the inability of his characters to connect with anyone on even the most basic level; there is so much heartbreak and humor and tension in these stories that in many instances they nail down that abstract concept of What It Feels Like To Be Human.

"Mr. Squishy," first published pseudonymously in 2000, lets the reader in on a secret focus group meeting whose members are asked to contemplate the Felonies! snack-cake line. It's an examination of advertising and its often questionable and unethical methods of representing products to consumers. At the same time this group is contemplating the fate of Felonies!, an "urban daredevil," perhaps armed, is scaling the building, and there's the threat of biological terrorism via dissemination of deadly bacteria in the snack cakes themselves. (The threat of terrorism recurs and looms in "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "The Suffering Channel.")

"Good Old Neon" is recounted by the narrator after his death, or, "outside of linear time and in the process of dramatic change," or so it initially seems. But as with other stories in the book, the clues and hints masterfully left behind at various moments in the piece's narrative arc begin to point at a narrator very much outside of what is expected. That is, the story creates its own rules, but doesn't follow them to their natural conclusion. Here we encounter a man whose whole life is centered around his admitted fraudulence, and his inability to cease and desist with that fraudulence, and his awareness that those he most hopes will see him as genuine are the ones he's most sure can see right through him.

In the title story, Wallace unleashes a torrent of frivolity that starts with a brainy—albeit very extended—joke, as well as one of the best descriptions in the book: "Her shadowless face resembling something De Kooning himself might have torn from the easel and discarded in media res." Of all the bizarre narrators in Wallace's ouevre, the narrator of "Oblivion" might be the most neurotically annoying yet endearing, as he explicates the trouble with his marriage and how it eventually led him and his wife to a sleep chamber.

There are two shorter pieces, and "Incarnations of Burned Children," the story of a mother and father facing a terrible tragedy, is a highlight of the collection. "If you've never wept and want to," Wallace writes, "have a child." The theme of childhood is elaborated in the juggernaut of the collection, "The Soul is Not a Smithy." Narrated by a pupil "classified as unsatisfactory in Listening Skills, as well as its associated category, Following Directions," it's the tale of a classroom of children scared witless by a deranged substitute teacher. The narrator, not paying attention to the crisis situation but rather creating astonishingly complicated daydream scenarios, recreates much of the tale based on what he heard or read later. Wallace—without being sentimental—creates sympathy not only for the children taken hostage, but also for the teacher as well as the various characters inhabiting the narrator's daedal fantasies; the daydreams mirror in intensity the hostage situation, which, though terrifying and moving, is also pretty hilarious.

Though seven dazzling, complex stories set up this collection, roughly 27% of Oblivion is devoted to the closer, the forgettable clunker "The Suffering Channel." As in "Mr. Squishy" there are two parallel story lines: one involves a man who excretes little objets d'art; the other explores the eponymous cable station that broadcasts clips of the most tortuous human pain and anguish. The descriptions of the channel itself are wonderful—and there are not nearly enough—but the story is marred by limp pop-culture references and juvenile conversations about poop, while the constant reminders of the terrorist attacks of 2001 seem like a sluggish attempt at profundity.

Wallace uses accumulation of the picayune as a foundation for solid interpretation of human emotion: a boy is eager to help his father by snapping open his briefcase locks for him; a man fantasizes about having sex with his coworker while she wears her cross-trainers. It's sort of like those floating islands made of recycled soda cans: pretty from a distance, weird when you get close, but ultimately beautiful once you realize the accomplishment.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comNicholson Baker
Knopf ($15.95)

by Andrew Palmer

When Knopf belatedly added Nicholson Baker's latest novel, Checkpoint, to its summer list, the announcement generated as much controversy and official nervousness as might have been expected from a novel by a prominent author about two men discussing the potential assassination of George W. Bush. The clamor died down when the book proved to be relatively harmless, no more than a work of literary fiction. It was widely reviewed in the mainstream media, and widely—though not universally—panned. Leon Wieselteir, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, called Checkpoint a "scummy little book"; Timothy Noah, on Slate.com, dismissed it as "pornography." Those who praised the novel tended to sympathize with the anti-Bush rhetoric of its characters, while tempering their praise with reservations about its thin plot and apparent lack of conclusion, moral or otherwise. So Checkpoint was either deliberately inflammatory, pointless, or both.

It turns out to be neither. Checkpoint has been both underestimated and misunderstood, a shameful disservice to one of the best, most original, living American novelists. Though less substantial than Baker's earlier books, it's a significant addition to his work, developing many of the themes he has explored since 1988's The Mezzanine, and revealing his imaginative range to be even broader than he had already demonstrated.

Checkpoint is a short book—just over a hundred pages—and it consists entirely of the supposed transcript of a conversation between two middle-aged men, Jay and Ben, in a D.C. hotel room (with a brief interruption from room service). Right away, Jay tells Ben he's planning to assassinate Bush ("I think we have to lance the fucking boil"), but it soon becomes clear that there is little chance of this actually happening: one of Jay's proposed methods of assassination is to crush the president with a remote-controlled boulder. The conversation turns into more or less of a therapy session. Ben enumerates the reasons why killing Bush is not a good idea (even while venting his own rage against the president), engages Jay in diverting conversation, and gently offers him advice. Jay, for his part, explains the sources of his anger, much of which boils down to ranting against Bush and the war in Iraq: "No, Ben, this guy is beyond the beyond. What he's done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It's too much. It makes me so angry."

The two men also touch upon their personal histories, from which we learn that they're old college buddies drifting in different directions. Ben is a professor of American history, with a wife and son, while Jay, divorced, has abandoned teaching and spent the last few years drifting from job to job. Jay also has a history of mental instability, though its most serious manifestation up to this point has been a harmless prank—sawing the legs off the chair of an assistant principal.

By the end of the novel, Ben has apparently succeeded in talking Jay out of the assassination attempt. As an alternative, Ben convinces Jay to hit a photograph of a smiling Bush with a hammer. Jay finds the catharsis of this act only somewhat satisfying, but he admits to feeling a little sorry for Bush, and agrees to let Ben drive him home.

Checkpoint is hugely enjoyable. Despite (or maybe because of) its brevity, it is well paced and compelling, and Baker's ear for the rhythms and nuances of dialogue remains unparalleled. Take this early exchange:

JAY: When did we last get together? Was that three years ago?
BEN: May have been. Long time.
JAY: I'm so sorry about that wheelbarrow, man.
BEN: No no no.

Ben's stuttering demurral is exactingly true to life, and the wheelbarrow incident (besides being both humorous and revealing) is never mentioned again—nor does it have anything to do with the dialogue that precedes and follows it. This is precisely what makes it convincing as a turn in a friendly conversation, whose forms are rarely linear. Ben and Jay answer each other's questions and build on each other's points, but they also interrupt, ignore, and mishear each other. They struggle for the right word, misspeak, or make up their own words. Their conversation is awkward and scattershot, as most real conversations are.

Beyond this naturalism, the conversation is also very funny, in Baker's piquant way. Much of the humor comes from the unusual premise, and is about as dark as it gets. But even if hearing the president called a "penisfucker" doesn't arouse a chuckle there are plenty of less partisan comic touches. At one point, the two men are discussing Wal-Mart. Jay rails against it, but Ben is more lenient on the corporate giant:

BEN: I'll tell you, my son has always loved going to Wal-Mart. On our last trip there I bought a DVD of the Andy Griffith Show. It cost five dollars and fifty cents. We got a delicious pretzel on the way out. And there were friendly chatty women in the crafts and sewing area.
JAY: What were they chatting about?
BEN: Who was going to go on break first.
JAY: Anyway, it's pretty dang ugly.
BEN: I'll concede that.

But convincing dialogue and irreverent humor don't necessarily add up to a good novel. In fact, for many critics it's this irreverence that's one of the novel's biggest flaws. Charles Taylor, in a review for Salon.com, condemned Checkpoint for lacking "moral seriousness." Along similar lines, many others have accused Baker of spouting forth the same old liberal arguments, and therefore "pander[ing] to [his] readers' crudest beliefs," in the words of Slate's Noah. Even those critics who appreciate the anti-Bush, anti-war sentiments of the characters have expressed disappointment that those sentiments are so familiar, and that Baker seems to offer no supportable solutions to the current state of our country's foreign relations.

One hastens to remind such critics that Checkpoint is a work of dramatic fiction, and that it's the characters who are advancing the "same old arguments," not Baker. In fact, Baker seems to have gone to great lengths to thoroughly remove any semblance of an authoritative voice from the novel. The text (or so we are led to believe) is pure artifact, the unedited transcript of a conversation. Such a format should encourage readings that carefully distinguish between the characters' opinions and the author's. Even though this distinction has generally been glossed over in the popular discourse on Checkpoint, the array of responses to the characters' views is telling, providing a kind of Rorschach test for readers' positions on Bush and Iraq. Those who support the war in Iraq see Jay and Ben as unthinking Bush bashers. Some have even read the novel as a parody of anti-Bush rhetoric. Those who do not support the war in Iraq praise the novel for advancing opinions similar to their own. If there is parody, they fail to see it.

Such different responses testify to the ambiguity of the novel's message, and indicate that Baker's position—that is, the position of the book, rather than the characters—may lie somewhere in between the two extremes.

What about the charges that the novel offers no solutions? This is a valid concern: Checkpoint may be an accurate document of one side of current popular political opinion ("another discouraging document of this age of wild talk" according to the New York Times's Wieseltier), but because, despite all of its humor, it poses such serious ethical questions, it is reasonable to expect it should suggest some equally serious answers. I would argue that in fact, it does—not about what the Bush administration should do about the war in Iraq, but what the average American citizen can do in the face of this action.

This line of thinking is advanced by Ben, who essentially suggests that it's best not to think too much about current events. "You want to keep focused, keep to a small canvas," he tells Jay. Accordingly, he spends his work hours researching obscure historical curiosities, such as the possibility that American military strategists specializing in "passive defense" are partially responsible for urban sprawl. He advises his students who are upset about the war to copy out a book they like word for word. And his main hobby is snapping photographs of trees with his expensive camera—an activity he encourages Jay to take up as an antidote to worrying about the war. Late in the book, Ben describes the immense satisfaction of photographing a leafless catalpa tree in his neighborhood. "So who cares then about George W.?" he concludes. "He's irrelevant. He's irrelevant. You see?"

Ben's answer to the war, in itself, is probably not satisfactory. But Baker's earlier work, obsessed as it is with apparently meaningless minutiae, makes it easy to conclude that Baker himself supports Ben's position from a more general perspective. Baker has always written about the peripheral—things we're embarrassed to admit we think about (like disrobing a coworker, as in The Fermata), or things that we don't think much about but that hover on the edges of our consciousness (like shoelaces and straws, as in The Mezzanine). Most Americans these days are not actually thinking about assassinating George W. Bush, but it's safe to say that many of us, as Jay suggests, would have ambivalent feelings upon hearing the news of his assassination. It's this shadowy area of morality that Baker explores in Checkpoint.

Superficially, the previous Baker novel that Checkpoint most resembles is Vox (the phone-sex novel): both take the form of an extended dialogue, and both are about subjects that are not normally broached in conversation. And Checkpoint has much in common with The Fermata, also about a man of questionable morality. But in at least one important respect, Checkpoint is more similar to Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, and his second-most recent novel, A Box of Matches: each of these books is about, at least implicitly, how to deal with certain familiar aspects of contemporary America. In The Mezzanine, the setting is the corporate world, in A Box of Matches it's a middle class household, and in Checkpoint it's the entire country under the shadow of the war in Iraq. Each setting comes with its unique set of problems—the dehumanization of corporate employees, the numbing effects of daily routine, and the ethical responsibility of facing up to a war initiated by the president your country has elected. But Baker's implicit solution is the same in each of the three novels: slow down, pay attention to the little things. In The Mezzanine this means giving deeper thought to ordinary objects, thereby revealing their underlying interestingness. In A Box of Matches this means taking the time each day to appreciate what is unique about your life (despite its superficial resemblance to so many other lives).

What it means in Checkpoint is slightly more complicated. Ben's advice (which could be the moral of most of Baker's books), to "keep to a small canvas," is certainly part of it—but here it's only a starting point. Ben's enthusiasm for photography is a reminder that life exists outside the realm of politics. Unlike Jay, for whom "everything's political," Ben is able to distinguish between politics and ethics, and to recognize the necessity of relegating politics to its proper level of importance. Politics is a means to an end, an end which for Ben consists at least partly in photographing trees.

Escaping into the minutiae of one's personal life is not necessarily the whole answer, though. Baker suggests as much in his portrayal of Ben's unwillingness to talk about squirmy issues like abortion. Jay, against abortion, argues that it's hypocritical for a person to be both anti-war and pro-choice. Ben's responses reveal a moral skittishness that may be disarmingly familiar to many readers (and reads suspiciously like a self-reproval on Baker's part): "I really don't want to debate this with you," he says. "It was better when we were talking about assassination, honestly."

The answer, then—the "solution" critics have searched for—apparently falls somewhere between Jay's moral outrage and Ben's outbursts of willful apathy. It involves striking a balance between the personal and the political. It also involves recognizing that political decisions ultimately affect people on a personal level, and moreover, that what we call politics is itself primarily a collection of people. The first point is implicit in Jay's empathy for the victims of the war in Iraq, but it's the second point that helps Ben to convince Jay not to go ahead with his plan to assassinate Bush:

BEN: [Bush is] a human being.
JAY: No he's not, he's forfeited that status.
BEN: He really hasn't. He's got that sudden smile that he makes when he's answering a question. Have you seen it? It looks like he's not sure how he's going to finish a sentence, and there's a second of panic, his brow furrows, and then—ah!—he thinks of a word that he can plug in there. A big presidential word. He says it, and he flashes that childish smile of relief. It's a little moment of pride—"I made it, guys."

Checkpoint's message could be thought of as an inversion of the adage "The personal is the political." That Baker offers this message in an irreverently insightful, consistently funny, brave-as-nails little book is a testament to the happy sneakiness of his literary project—which has always been of the utmost seriousness.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004


Buy this book from Amazon.comSusanna Clarke
Bloomsbury Books ($27.95)

by Kelly Everding

It all begins with a simple question—"Why was there no more magic done in England?" —and a fantastic and witty history explodes with a Big Bang. In her first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke reinvents an England seeped in magic that lies just below the surface, neglected and unpracticed. The "theoretical magicians" of 1806 were used to doing nothing more than writing dull papers on "magic which was done long ago" until two of their number decide to contact a reputed hermit who "passed his days and nights studying rare magical texts in his wonderful library." Mr. Norrell, as if waiting for the catalytic appearance of these two men, makes a stunning statement that he is a practicing magician, and proves it with a horrific display of power—much to the chagrin of the York magicians, who are forced to disband and give up their studies of magic, per the agreement Norrell has coerced them to sign.

Thus, within 40 pages of this 782-page tome, Clarke beautifully demonstrates the calculating behavior of one of her titular protagonists. Although considered "the dullest man in Yorkshire," Mr. Norrell proves to be quite the Dickensian character—a somewhat cowardly, covetous, and conservative gentleman stubbornly stuck in his ways. Yes, he wants to bring magic back to England, but he wants to keep it all to himself; at one point, someone describes him as "a fishmonger who hopes to persuade people that the sea does not exist." Mr. Norrell hordes magical texts—for the good and safety of England, of course—and establishes himself as the great magician of England, working with Parliament to fight Napoleon Buonaparte's advancing army.

Norrell's foil is Jonathan Strange, a gentleman of large inheritance who, with nothing much better to do, decides to become a magician—largely due to the fact that a vagabond recites to him a prophesy that he will become one. Strange finds he is a natural at magic and does quite well with the limited resources he has, until he finally meets up with Mr. Norrell and becomes his pupil. Norrell ekes out a few books at a time to Strange, which causes some tension: "He told me to apply myself," says Strange. "I was very near asking him what I was supposed to read when he has all the books." Indeed, books seem to propel this story forward: Mr. Norrell's voracious collecting and hording of them, Clarke's references and footnotes to the plethora of magical texts of centuries past, and the one book Mr. Norrell is unable to acquire because of "book-murder." The result of this grows ever more astounding as we learn how the magical book eventually takes form and proves to be the prime mover of the whole novel. Clarke also has fun lampooning the novelists of the day; when Norrell is called upon to give Napoleon nightmares and fails due to his spectacular lack of imagination, one Minister tried to persuade the other Ministers that they should commission Mr. Beckford, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe to create dreams of vivid horror that Mr. Norrell could then pop into Buonoparte's head. But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing; novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is thus not only about magic but about books—about what is written in them and how we use that knowledge. Clarke pits Norrell's conservative censorship against Strange's liberal abandon, showing that neither philosophy quite works alone. Perhaps that is why, despite their differences and conflicts, Strange and Norrell are compelled to be together. Magic and books are the glue of their relationship. Eventually magic escapes Norrell's grasp and becomes written in nature: in a bird's flight, in the tree's dance, and in the water's laughter.

Part of the charm of this tale is how Clarke unspools an elaborate history for England, going back hundreds of years to the reign of the Raven King, a magician who divided the kingdom of England and ruled the north. The Raven King was human, but raised by fairies—a notoriously unreliable race of people who enjoy mischief and kidnapping humans to serve them in the magical/alternate underworld they inhabit. Many of Clarke's footnotes provide the background of the stormy relationship between humans and fairies, showing how English magicians often summoned fairies and bound them to serve their own purposes. As a book-learned magician, Mr. Norrell tries to squelch the past and disown the Raven King, but his foolhardy desire to control magic backfires on him, and he commits the type of crime against English magic he rails against throughout the entire book: he summons a fairy to perform a grisly, unnatural task just to gain favor with the English government. By summoning this fairy, this "man with the thistle-down hair," Norrell unleashes a surreal and alien magic upon a few poor, unsuspecting, and undeserving people—including Stephen Black, a statuesque ex-slave and servant whom the fairy decides should replace mad George as King of England, and Strange's own wife.

Clarke does a spectacular job of writing a 19th-century novel in the 21st century, replete with wry wit, quaint British spellings (ancle, surprize), wonderful characterizations, catty conversations that reveal the barriers of class at that time, riveting and often funny footnotes (one runs four pages long) in which she furthers our education of magicians and books, as well as ironic asides catching characters in contradictions and lies, and the very subtle way in which she interjects herself as the narrator—omniscient yet personal—privy to every detailed and intimate conversation. This is the kind of book you do not want to end—ever—and if our luck holds out, Clarke will provide another book much like it, one that will explore the magic of England through the eyes and experiences of the "lower classes," the servants and street magicians who play a vital yet somewhat tangential role in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For now, however, the enchantment of Clarke's writing should make anyone believe that magic has indeed returned to England.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004

Postcard from Paris: Frank

by Linda Lappin

It's a rainy day in Paris as I step off the chilly street into a bright cafe near the Duroc metro station. I have come here to chat with David Applefield, an American expatriate who has lived in Paris for 20 years. He is the publisher of Frank, the longest-running Anglophone literary magazine in Paris. This journal of contemporary art, literature, and culture offers a vibrant mix of perspectives from the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Frank's long survival is almost a miracle, given the magazine's independent status. Unaffiliated with any institution, receiving no regular funding, it keeps afloat through the ingenuity of its publisher, a man who came to Paris with a dream.

It was novelist Lawrence Durrell who first encouraged Applefield to start his own press. As an aspiring young writer in Boston, Applefield sent a manuscript to Durrell, asking for advice. Durrell's reply might have daunted a less persistent writer. "I get a lot of letters like yours," Durrell informed him, and then painted a dismal picture of the state of publishing in the '70s. "Why not buy a printing press and print your own work?" Durrell suggested. Ten years later, Applefield founded Frank in Paris, and created his own imprint for fiction and non-fiction by expatriate writers.

Applefield defines himself as a guerilla publisher, meaning he actively seeks alternative routes to get writers into print. Speaking to the Geneva Writer's Conference in February this year, he cited a study of the American publishing industry according to which only one in 29,000 manuscripts submitted to the New York slush piles ever manages to break into print. Applefield believes that writers today can't and shouldn't wait too long for recognition, and encourages them, at all phases of their careers, to find ways to "do it themselves." Writers can pool resources, start their own magazines and publishing houses, experiment with print-on-demand. Still, to do this it takes dedication and effort, and of course, financial resources.

To finance Frank Applefield followed the example of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of the Little Review, who transplanted their magazine to Paris in the '20s. He not only campaigned for subscribers in arty bookshops and cafes, but succeeded in convincing businessmen that investing in quality culture brings benefits to a community in the long run. From issue to issue he also seeks sponsorship for specific projects. Issue 18, featuring a large group of Swiss writers in translation, was partly sponsored by the Pro Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland.

In addition to the large selection of Swiss writing, issue 18 focused on fiction in America, with a "literary conference call" between American novelists Duff Brenna (based in California) and Tom Kennedy (in Copenhagen), who interviewed each other by phone on the state of American fiction. The issue also included fiction by both Brenna and Kennedy; an interview with Alpha Oumar Konare, former president of Mali, concerning freedom of the press in African countries, unpublished correspondence of James Baldwin; and poems and prose by writers from Russia, France, Turkey, Germany, Bosnia, Hungary, Poland, Spain, Italy, and the US. The range of languages and realities represented made this a multicultural mosaic.

Issue 19, produced jointly with the Literary Review, zeroes in on American writers living abroad and their post-September 11 perspectives on their own culture and on their culture of adoption in a particularly delicate moment of our history. The writers in this issue report from Malaysia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East, addressing the question of their role as Americans abroad at a time when both our world view and economic strategies are being called into question all over the globe.

Negotiating with neighbors in an unfamiliar language, sharing a taxi with a Sikh in a Malaysian downpour, or marching in a peace demonstration against the invasion of Iraq, these writers test the limits of their cultural identity. In environments at once welcoming, alien, rich and dense with impressions, they explore "courage, conscience, and the sources and meaning of being a writer," as poet and essayist Wallis Wilde-Menozzi writes in her essay published in this issue, "Grafting on Italian Roots," and often discovering, like Susan Tiberghien, also featured in issue 19, "Home is Where You Are."

Expatriate writers everywhere have looked to little magazines to make themselves heard; many of the great modernist works we admire today were first printed on private presses in someone's basement in a country of exile. The function of small presses has always been to unearth new writers and works too risky for larger houses to take on, and create a public for them until the time is ripe for a greater audience. True to this intent, Applefield's latest project will be to publish French-American writer Jean Lamore's challenging novel AKA, which has been compared to James Joyce's Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Richly sensuous, witty and phantasmagoric, Lamore's novel, set in "the remote present," is a rambunctious, mythic voyage through the chaos of Paris, Africa, and contemporary America.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004