Swords and Deviltry, a novel by Fritz Leiber

A reread after many years.  I think it’s the first serious fantasy novel I got seriously invested in after hearing The Hobbit read to me; if I had to guess a year I’d say 1979 (it was a Christmas present) but I’m not certain. It’s one of those books that I was “to young to read” but the parts I didn’t understand pushed me to new places.

One of the mysteries of Leiber is his relative forgottenness. We hear about Asimov, Heinlein, de Camp, Zelazny and so on, heroes of SF's silver age but Leiber never seems to get the mention (apart from Michael Chabon's pastiche version). New generations haven't taken him up and it's worth asking why. 

It’s a book of three linked novellas written between 1957 and 1970. It’s the first in a series and introduces the paired adventurers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, fighters and thieves who will wander through their fantastic world of Nehwon (“no-when”), always returning to their spiritual home, the vast decadent city-state of Lankhmar.

The characters are introduced separately. There’s the story of Fafhrd’s coming of age as a tribesman in the subarctic forests and mountains of Cold Corner. It’s a psychologically fraught moment to say the least; caught in a web of mother- and father-figures, he flees south with a touring actress. The Gray Mouser grows up in a southern forest country as a wizard’s apprentice, revenge-murders the local tyrannical Duke and flees with his daughter. They meet up in Lankhmar and bond when their respective girlfriends are murdered.

On rereading I can still respect it; I’m glad it’s what I got into. It feels - capacious is the word I’m coming up with. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are fledgling heroes but they aren’t innocents, blank slates awaiting the easy tip-in victories of a Hero’s Journey. They’re allowed the space to be terrible people, they have a human and distinctly masculine cruelty and selfishness. In that respect it’s well outside the extruded product of the Campbell-age manufactured blockbuster, which is maybe one clue to its lack of longevity.

Fafhrd flees from his pregnant girlfriend; he lies, he’s confused, lustful, lashes out in ways he doesn’t understand. He wants to leave the place he grew up but half the time he knows it’s stupid. When he walks away from his mother and girlfriend it’s numbing, agonizing and thrilling. When he walks away from his pregnant girlfriend it's not played for tears; his parting shot is, “Yes. You’re mine forever, and I’m yours. Your son is mine. I’ll never have another Snow Clan wife. We’re married.”

And his mother tells him “There is a witchy cold that follow you anywhere in Nehwon. Wherever ice once went, witchery can send it again” and she’s right, he’s getting away but leaving flesh behind and he’s never going to feel entirely okay. It’s not fixable.

The Gray Mouser’s story is a revenge-murder using a sadistic man’s daughter as a sorcerous proxy, weaponizing a family drama against him. It’s really unclear whether he likes her or if she’s a plaything. For me the heart of the story is the girl who sort of half-plays a mouse-innocent but has episodes of controlled violence that she doesn’t really accept as part of herself. But she’s not the made-up girl-murderer of contemporary fashion, it’s more a matter of affect; some people have cold streaks in them that they don’t know what to do about.

And there's the writing, the range of vocabulary and invention that make you aware that Leiber himself had a varied life; he studied as a priest, did graduate work in philosophy, acted in Shakespearean drama, was a chess champion, fenced (the swordplay is lovingly described); had a dad named Jonquil. He can describe idiosyncratic moods, make up convincingly foreign countries; he has a vocabulary and referential knowledge he can flex and an inventiveness that isn’t imitative.

It’s not all good news, I’m bracketing the hell out of the period gender politics, and there’s a winking in-crowd cuteness to the writing of that period (especially around sex we get a childish-icky Piers Anthony vibe), a preciousness to the language, cloistered as it is in a fan culture which is (in the nature of things) rather in love with itself.

Why don't we hear about it now? Maybe because it goes to places people would rather not hear about, and it's never going to get its big-money CG reboot, it's far too risky and distinctly not written as a swing-for-the-fences sales engine, not written for those adult fantasy readers who fancy their own innocence. But is for older kids, ones who want to feel what it's like growing up.

Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick was a hack but an odd sort of hack. People love him and people love Ubik. Filmmakers love him, guys in bars love him, graduate students love him. He has a pulpy genre quality combined with the kind of broad and flat philosophical high concept where you can’t figure out whether it’s profound or not, it’s like a cheap pickup line that someone else finds irresistible so who are we to say? If you looked for a closest cousin you’d find Kurt Vonnegut.

Ubik starts as a hardboiled corporate bust-up between psychics and anti-psychics (“inertials”) in a seedy warped 1992 future of lunar colonies and a cryogenic half-life for the newly dead. A sexy new psychic appears, with the ability to retroactively alter the timeline, and from there the timeline goes sideways then sidways again. Following an assassination attempt, the protagonists flee through a world where objects age, strange messages appear, people waste away and die without warning.

The bite of it isn’t in the corporate gang war. Sex and violence make their cameos but the heart of it is in the perverse care and detail given to the horror of death and dying, languor and decay. The heroes try to make sense of a world that withers away selectively; energy and youth mean life and survival; age and weariness are death. Everything else is trivia.

Ubik itself is a crux. The word appears as a brand name in satirical advertisements at the head of each chapter, 1950s-era jingles. But when it appears in the text - there, it’s a sparkling life-giving elixir in an aerosol can, administered by an angelic presence. So what is Ubik? Consumerist fluff or authentic life force? 

From what the text gives us, maybe they’re the same? The living fight and have sex and betray; the dead watch and consume; and meanwhile beauty is beauty and desire is desire and they’re on the side of life.

Fire Walk With Me, written and directed by David Lynch, starring Sheryl Lee

I went into this movie with no expectations except for how the critics described it, as an unfortunate lapse, a shapeless orgy of violence. “It’s not the worst movie ever made, it just seems to be.” The critics are wrong; this is a brilliant film that complements and redeems the unevenness of the two-season television show. Anyone who expected comic mystery hijinks deserved the confusion they endured.

I had never watched Twin Peaks until a few weeks ago; I only knew it from the fans of its quirky details - the Log Lady, pie, etc ec. The quirk and whimsy and stylized performances that sat exactly where it needed to in the early 1990s. It’s a different series than I thought it was. It shocked from its opening moments, the intrusion of one dead and one battered teenager into the quiet Pacific Northwest logging town. 

The half-comic stiffness bothered me until the meaning sank in. When horror goes unacknowledged, we are living in a world that is not quite real. If you’re going to pretend you live in a world without hidden violence you might as well talk to a log for all the sense it makes.

Fire Walk With Me is the prequel and it has an R rating which allows us to walk through the membrane. We follow Laura Palmer through the real life people winked and hinted at on television. Confused sex, drugs, terror, incest, and rape. Sheryl Lee’s performance is edge-of-seat daring and unforgettable; she knows what’s happening to her, she’s fascinated by it and terrified; she's a person all too recognizably daring herself forward and downward. Her friend Donna wants to share the contagion and Laura almost lets her and then panics when she sees the reality. In the end we see her walk to her fate.

It’s a film with the supernatural in it but there are almost no special effects. We see people appear and disappear and behave in odd and terrifying ways. Which, for anyone paying attention, is not supernatural at all.

"Wildest Dreams," a song performed by Taylor Swift, co-written with Max Martin and Shellback

Taylor Swift’s best song and best (if problematic) video. Why?

A story of a film actress shooting a film in Africa and caught up in a love affair. She fell in love on the shoot, he moved on.  It sits naturally next to her public posture, the misty lack of distinction between a pose and a social self. She’s always as much of an actress as a singer and there’s little fuss made about a distinction or any postmodern implications following therefrom. They dyed her hair black. 

What succeeds? The vulnerability of the acting. The articulate direction, hitting impressions moment to moment but no slush and weirdly without cliche. The tiny character bits - the hapless director, the camera woman. It’s a perfect miniature. The warm summery color, the then the blue-orange of New York. 

The direction is pretty much perfect It’s all a sequence of shots, five seconds at the most - visual tweets. She’s always been rather extraordinary as an actress at that length - a glance, a snarl, a tantrum, punctuated moments where context would be beside the point. The aesthetic is pinup - it’s almost one Vargas after another.

Part of it is the songwriting, the theme repeated at first tentatively then, chorus by chorus, swells to an avalanche of feeling sweeping you away, if you want to give yourself up to it. There’s the repeated hiccup in the writing - “standing in a nice dress” - which to me is a poignant lack of imagination in the speaker. She can’t think of anything better to task for.

Why do people hate it as much as they do? Because they really do hate it. There’s the race thing - it’s an Africa without Africans which even for a 1940s film shoot is a bit much. It’s a flaw, a missed opportunity and a signal failure of representation.

And there’s Swift’s bland barbie-doll planetary ideal physique which is almost too obvious to mention. And her egotism - she doesn’t sing about anyone but herself. I just don’t see a huge meanness in that - she’s the show, and it would be forgiven in a man. And yes she’s the willowy blonde sexpot icon. She just seems too boring to be that mean or significant. Her self-enclosure seems to say, “invest in me if you want, I’m available for that or not.” 

She doesn’t really have positions and I suppose that’s a failing too. But that’s not the same as not standing for something. She stands, functionally, for the right to feel and for the lyric “I,” for self-assertion, for voice. For those who choose it, there if you need it.

Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel by Jean Rhys

The project is obviously compelling - a great unwritten story about colonialism and race, the dirty money underneath the fairy tale everyone loves. “Reader, I married him” but what else did she marry?

It was mostly from the point of view of Antoinette (“Bertha”), mixed-race daughter of a run-down West Indies plantation owner, who becomes rich when her mother makes an advantageous second marriage. When their estate is burned by a vengeful black populace they flee to her step-father’s estate where she’s set up to marry the youthful Rochester, who narrates portions of the book. He gets her money, but then learns about her past - that her mother went mad and she’ll go the same way. Rochester dithers and generally disgraces himself; she poisons him with a love potion. She’s taken to England confined, barely coherent, and finally sets the fatal fires.

I don’t get why it’s told the way it is. Antoinette is a childlike often disoriented narrator which gives the story a sparse dreamlike incomprehension of world narrated in simplicity that jumps from impression to impression but doesn’t seem to build a view of the world. It’s the disjointed narration of a disjointed person which is fine but feels like someone’s imagined version of that disjointedness - it feels like written convention and flirts with a kind of imperialist idea of a native’s childlike perspective. I’ll grant that Jean Rhys is from the West Indies and speaks with an authority I don’t have. But I’m reading something that reminds us of an untold story but feels over-familiar in the ways it imagines that story. It feels stronger in treating Rochester’s naivete, craft, and ruthlnessness. It feels closest to recognizably being let in on a secret.

The Master and Margarita, a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov.

This is avowedly my mother’s favorite book novel; also that of a surprising number of people on dating sites. “Surprising” because it’s a hard book to grapple with. It’s written in an unfamiliar context, which is the literary scene of Soviet Moscow in the 1930’s (the novel burned, rewritten, gradually released in less censored versions in the 1960s and 70s). It reads with overtones of satire but without the appropriate referent, we’re lost. Are specific people being mocked, specific works? 

It doesn’t give you much of a sense of how to read it. It opens in Moscow where two literary chaps encounter someone who probably is the devil. But then he disappears, then we’re in biblical times - the court of Pontius Pilate - then we’re back in Moscow and some other devilish persons are around. Then we swap around following different characters around Moscow as they are variously murdered, harassed and pranked by supernatural beings. Some people are skewered for vanity, greed, hypocrisy; others seemingly just because they make for good sport. We don’t even meet the so-called Master until well past a hundred pages in.

The point is that it works. Something coheres. The sense of humor; the devil’s methods; the consistent greed, cravenness, haplessness of the literary mortals under scrutiny. The unflagging invention of the demonic visitors, we can’t entirely hate because the meanness of their tricks are only an extension of the system the mortals inflict on themselves - they could never work without it.

And it’s unpredictable. Halfway through Margarita becomes a witch, soars above Moscow, viciously punishes the critic who panned her beloved’s book, hosts the devil’s midnight ball. All of which is gloried but somehow neither endorsed nor condemned. Like the devils themselves - their humor and offhanded aggression.

There’s something about the descriptions of magic that work uncommonly well - the concreteness of it, the specificity, the daring. 

'Purely for fun, I promise you, messire,' Koroviev assured him, hand on heart. He suddenly straightened up, seemed to stretch as though he were made of rubber, waved the fingers of his right hand, wound himself up like a spring and then, suddenly uncoiling, he whistled.

Margarita did not hear this whistle, but she felt it, as she and her horse were picked up and thrown twenty yards sideways. Beside her the bark was ripped off an oak tree and cracks opened in the ground as far as the river. The water in it boiled and heaved and a river steamer, with all its passengers unharmed, was grounded on the far bank by the blast. A jackdaw, killed by Fagot's whistle, fell at the feet of Margarita's snorting horse.

And it builds to something. Liberation, a kind of nobility. We’ve spent so much time in the encyclopedic cataloguing of fallen Moscow’s failings that when we’re lifted above it we see it anew; somehow it’s forgiven. As Pontius Pilate is when we finally meet him again. The farther from Earth we get, the more we realize we’ve seen a map of it, like the Sistine Chapel a view of everything’s rise and fall. 

“Attack of the Crab Monsters” a poem by Lawrence Raab

So this poem came from somewhere. Seven stanzas of six lines each. Appeared in the Collector of Cold Weather in 1976, but I found it paging through the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, which I remember as a big block of paper with a blue cover which I dragged around with me after turning fourteen or so. I opened it and turned the thin crisp pages looking mostly for poems that started with the word “I.”  

Of course I stopped on “Attack of the Crab Monsters” - it had action and science fiction in it. The title reached out to the Saturday afternoon monster movies I watched often feeling there was more to them than I understood, that I was supposed to know who these scientists and beasts were and the history that connected them.

The poem referenced idiom and language with an assurance and humor; it had an urgent but rueful voice, of a scientist and misunderstood lover. It seemed to give me something of that, a logic to why people would watch stories seemed confused and violent, that they chronicled a buried part of human history that wasn’t otherwise evident - a place of anger and longing and badly transformed feelings I would come to know well later in my life.

Later I was a little obsessed with Raab, with his second collection, The Collector of Cold Weather, which I discovered at Oberlin during the very cold early winter of 1989; I photocopied almost the entire thing and tried to give it to my brother as a Christmas present; I don’t think he found much of interest there.

It’s not the greatest poem - he’s written better. The opening lines are a little hard to grasp; I’ve tried reading it aloud but never gotten great effect. But it does its job and at fifteen I loved it - after the first stanza gains momentum and leaps ahead, the enjambments giving it a kind of breathless staggered rhythm (“I’ve lost/My voice.”) into the voice’s culmination. It’s smart and playful and wistful. It turns something like nothing, like trash into something that walks and feels, and when you feel you yourself are trash you appreciate the trick. I wrote in imitation of Raab; I still do.