Sunday, April 23, 2006

Best American Short Storie (2005), ed. Michael Chabon

Best American Short Stories (2005), ed. Michael Chabon (4/5)

My creative writing teacher once told me that a when a short story ends it should leave the reader with a tuning fork-like resonance. That is, it should continue ringing in your head long after you’ve put the story down. Michael Chabon has compiled a collection of short stories that accomplish exactly that. Long after you have finished the Best American Short Stories of 2005 I guarantee your mind will continually drift back to them. I think the reason for this resonance is because a well crafted short story is, to borrow an analogy from Hemingway, an iceberg. As a reader, we are only shown the small part of the iceberg that’s visible above water, but there still remains the perplexing ninety-percent of the iceberg hiding underwater. The short story teases us with the visible ten percent while our mind continues trying to figure out the remaining ninety percent either consciously or unconsciously. To borrow another phrase from Hemingway (who in turn borrowed it from Gertrude Stein), a great short story is like a moveable feast.

It is to Michael Chabon’s credit that he managed to pick out short stories that contain this resonance when his own short stories lack exactly that. I picked up Werewolves in Their Youth several years ago, and found myself disappointed. While his prose has no peers, I found Chabon’s short stories suffered from an attempt to wrap up epic problems within twenty pages. From my experience, short stories solve nothing within the protagonists’ lives. At most they merely suggest a future resolution. Perhaps the reason is that the short story is too small for Chabon’s panorama epics to hold, and he really needs a novel to stretch out and contain his worlds. However, he recognizes a good short story when he sees it.

Let’s start with two of my least favorites from the collection. First up is “Silence” by Alice Munro. Before I read this story I had heard plenty of praise about Munro and was exited to finally read something by her. Like every story in the collection the prose is well written, but there was just something missing—oh, yeah a believable protagonist in a believable situation.

The story begins as the main character, Juliet, goes to meet her daughter who recently returned from a European trip. She discovers her daughter has joined some kind of cult. What does Juliet do after discovering her daughter has abandoned her? What every mother would do, she continues to live her life, and we get to about her switches careers, her relationship with men, and every once in a while manages to find the time to think about her lost daughter.. Of course, losing a daughter seems secondary to just about everything else in her life. Like anyone, my mother has her faults, but I now find it comforting to know that at the very least she would freak the fuck out if I became some kind of weird recluse cult member. What’s worse is that we never find out why Juliet’s daughter left her. The question is brought up once or twice, and it’s suggested that Juliet was not meeting her daughter’s spiritual needs or that she let her daughter get too close to her and treated her like a friend instead of the vulnerable child she was, but ultimately we’re given no definite answer. This is one of the worst cases of a writer creating a situation she has never encountered before. Sure, a really good writer can make a foreign situation seem real even though they have never truly lived through it. Usually they can find a comparable life experience and draw from that, but Munro does not manage that. Instead, the shortcomings of this story act like a black hole that sucks the rest of the narrative into it.

I didn’t have as much of a problem Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier,” but I did feel it failed to live up to its potential. In the commentary section the author claims he came up with the idea for this short story after going to Afghanistan and observing other journalists who were unaffected by the death surrounding them. The location and scope of his story promises to bring up some interesting questions, but by the end of the story you quickly realize the author’s content with breaking that promise.

The story involves two journalists, one American and one British, covering the American invasion of Afghanistan. The two of them decide to explore the country instead of staying holed up inside the fence of the American troops. The American seems absolutely callus to the events surrounding him. Is this a clever commentary on the effects of journalism or maybe some observations of an American outside of his boarders? No, it’s actually a character study of some guy who became a free lance journalist after his dad died. That’s right, he has become the “Death Defier!” I think I read a similar plot in a comic book, but the comic book was better written.

With these two exceptions the rest of the collection is an absolute joy. One of my favorites is “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face.” This story involves a beer and sports kind of dad who must deal with having a homosexual son. He doesn’t deal well, and when the story opens he is living alone after he’s decked his son and his family naturally moved out. I loathe to reveal anymore, except that most of the tale concerns the protagonist acting as an umpire for a little league game. These things seem awfully disparate, but connect in some odd bit of logic. By the time I finished the story I was stretching my mind to reconcile the themes with what happened in the story. It took me some time, but it all sort of clicked together like an erector set. What is the meaning behind Happy Chang’s smile?

My second favorite (I should say my current second favorite because it will almost certainly change) is Alix Ohlin’s “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student.” Besides having a catchy title, there are some prose gems hidden in Ohlin’s work. The story revolves around a misfit kid who begins piano lessons. The way this kid is described I imagine the smelly kid in the back of the classroom who the other misfits won’t even hang out with. I mentioned earlier that I don’t believe short stories should have easy solutions at the end. Well, this story one ups me, and the world seems to be in even more disarray by the end of the story. It all falls apart, like your big brother kicking over your Lincoln logs.

Several themes pop up a in The Best American Short Stories – cousins and piano lessons spring to mind – but the theme that seems most prevalent is immigrants and the diversity of America. This seems particularly relevant at this juncture in our history when streets are filling with immigrants protesting for their citizenship. Best American feels like a kaleidoscope of images representing a country that’s a patchwork of immigrants. I doubt this was a conscious choice on the part of Chabon, but for me this reoccurrence only enhanced an already fine collection.

Some other stories that are still ringing in my head: Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” – a ghost story about a family that’s falling apart, Joyce Carol Oates “The Cousins” – a series of letter correspondences between two lost second generation Jewish immigrants, and Thomas McGuane’s “Old Friends” – a former best friend moves in with the yuppie protagonist who can’t stand his former acquaintance.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mogwai - Mr. Beast

Mogwai – Mr. Beast (4/5)

Mogwai is not a band that’s ready to rest on its laurels. After the ethereal Happy Songs for Happy People, these Scots have returned like William Wallace with his mace. Mr. Beast has a harder edge than the last album, stripping these ten songs of the electronic garnish and playing up their guitars. From this new direction they’ve brought us “Glosgow Mega-Snake.” This is the kind of epic rock Muse wishes they could play. For three and a half minutes they feed us guitar fuzz, and when they’re done serve us “Acid Food” for dessert. “Acid Food” is a rare delicacy on Mr. Beast, because the electronic percussion sounds the closest to the preceding album.

The songs on Mr. Beast don’t involve the whisper that can build to a scream, like previous Mogwai albums. Instead, each song rides out a soft instrumental or an “amps go to eleven” rock out. For every hard number Mogwai delivers a delicate palate cleanser. Naturally, the song length has shortened as the band has sharpened their focus. While not quite as effective as Young Team or Happy Songs, it is nevertheless encouraging to see Mogwai change their recipe and succeed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling strangely hungry.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" v. "A Study in Scarlet"

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" v. "A Study in Scarlet"

After reading the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, "A Study in Scarlet," I decided to go back and reread "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) forty-six years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes novel (1887). I wanted to know the difference between a detective story that took place during the first half of the 19th century compared to a detective story that took place at the end of the 19th century, I wanted to know if Doyle was able to perfect the genre Poe had created, and I wanted to know if Sherlock Holmes could kick C. Auguste Dupin's ass. If this were the one-hundred years war and the two met on a battlefield would the tall and lanky Holmes decapitate Dupin's Frenchified noggin, or would Dupin deduce his sword all the way into Holmes's gut? Right here and right now I'm going settle the centuries of war between the English and the French based on two short stories: one written by a Brit and the other by an American. Well, maybe not quite, but I am going to determine which story is better based on five categories: each author's biographical low point, the writing style, the sidekick, the greatest moment of deduction, and, finally, the detective itself.

Author Low Points

Not much is known about Edgar Allen Poe's life, and much of the myth is actually a series of lies told by his former publisher. Perhaps the low point of poor Poe's life are the circumstances surrounding his death. After having several drinks at a friend's birthday party he disappeared for three days and later winds up dead in a gutter. Probably not the most noble death but it does combine his preternaturally strong love of alcohol and gutters.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a standup British gentleman who famously defended Great Britain's involvement in both the South African War and World War I (talk about having your head up the Queen's arse in order to get knighted). Unfortunately, Doyle did not share Holmes's deductive skills. Doyle was later duped into believing the stories of the famed Cottingley Fairies thanks to some photographic trickery. The culprits of this hoax: two sisters, one aged ten and the other sixteen. D'oh! Doyle even claimed that Houdini was magical even though the escape artist himself claimed otherwise.

Author with the lowest low: Sir Author Conan Doyle (which makes him the loser in this category). A ten-year old and a sixteen-year old! Moriarty could have figured this mystery out. Check out the pictures and see what you think: Pretty crafty for a couple of girls who would soon be taught to "lay still and think of England," don't you think? Besides, Poe's death is almost cool. It's kind of John Bonham before John Bonham.

The Writing

Edgar Allen Poe's prose is masterful as always. It has this wonderfully archaic quality to it that can never be reclaimed. Absolutely gorgeous. It is interesting to note that a good deal of the story is in the form of Dupin discussing his deduction of the crime. This theme of a story within a story appears several other times within Poe's work. You can also find it in "The Oval Portrait."

Doyle isn't quite as masterful with words as Poe, and perhaps this is why he isn't the canonical God that Poe has become. In fact, Doyle drops a couple of real clunkers when he writes. At one point he describes a group of Mormons as traversing "every impediment which Nature could place in the way, with Anglo-Saxon tenacity." Wow, that's bad writing. Maybe it sounded good before WWII, but it's the kind of line that ages worst than Ed Wood's special effects. Nowadays Doyle's sentiments strike the tone of being more than a little racist and awkward.

Best overall writing: no contest, Poe wins. Doyle can write an entertaining yarn, and knows how to create suspense, but his prose is nowhere near the level as Poe's.

The Sidekick

In both works the sidekick is the narrator of the story, and while we are given a sizable introduction to Moriarty, the unnamed sidekick in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is not given a name. Poe does not tell us much about the sidekick except what is important for the story. He seems to possess some wealth, is staying in Paris for enough time to gain residence there, and encountered Dupin while looking for the exact same book at a library. The two talk about their situation and decide to rent out a place together, and, in typical Poe, they get a mansion that's rumored to be haunted.

Moriarty, on the other hand, is a physician who is returning from the Afghanistan war after sustaining some wounds. He calls himself a lazy man and decides to seek out a roommate after he realizes that he's been living beyond his means. Moriarty is a great means of introducing us Sherlock Holmes and his deductive techniques.

Best sidekick: Moriarty wins. We really don't get to know Poe's sidekick all that well, and Moriarty just works as a better foil to Sherlock Holmes. I have to look up to anyone who describes himself as lazy. It is odd, however, that both sidekicks decide to be roommates with the famed detectives (as we speak several Brokeback Baker St. and Murders at the Brokeback Morgue parodies have suddenly been posted online).

Greatest Moment of Deduction

Both of the most impressive moments of deduction occur as we're first introduced to the respective detectives. The moment Moriarty and Holmes meet the detective comments that Moriarty must have recently come from Afghanistan. A chapter later, he explains how he came to this conclusion: "The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.'" Impressive, impressive.

As the narrator and Dupin stroll down a Paris street without talking for fifteen minutes Dupin responds to the narrator's thoughts, "He is a very little fellow,varieties true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes." After the narrator unwittingly responds he does a double take (well, it doesn't say he does a double take, but he must have done a double take, and a spit take too) and inquires how Dupin knew what he was thinking about. The narrator was in fact thinking about a wannabe actor by the name of Chantilly who was attempting to play the role of Xerxes. Dupin reveals that he noticed a fruiterer bump into the narrator causing him to trip on some lose stones, and in turn forced him to examine the causeway more carefully. Soon the two of them came upon a road paved in a manner called "stereotomy" which the narrator noticeably muttered. Dupin deduced from stereotomy that the narrator would have to think of the Greek theory of atomies which lead to Epicurus. When the narrator looked towards the Orion constellation Dupin was certain he was on the right track. Knowing that there was a reference to Orion in a review of Chantilly's latest performance Dupin surmised that the narrator's thoughts must have finally fallen on this final topic, and responded to his thoughts. Once again, this is rather impressive.

The winner of the greatest moment of deduction: Dupin. Sure, Holmes is smart, but Dupin deduced someone's very own thoughts. That's pretty fucking cool. What's interesting about Poe's idea of deduction is that even though he attempts to give us a definition of the deductive faculties, it ends up seeming more like a supernatural power. The deductions that Dupin can make are often impossible. Holmes, on the other hand, was a character created in the thick of the industrial revolution when science was leaping forward, and therefore all of his deductions are merely improbable. Poe has the luxury of outpacing science while Doyle is shackled to reason. Holmes calls Dupin's act of deduction jealous and superficial,'" but we all know that he's really just jelouse.

The Detective

There are a couple of surprises in store for anyone who has never actually read a Sherlock Holmes story. One of the most surprising things about Sherlock Holmes is how prissy he is. When Moriarty gives Holmes a compliment, he describes Holmes as responding with some sort of giddy pride. Who would have guessed that an Englishman could be more feminine than a Frenchman? Another surprising characteristic is that outside of knowledge needed for deduction Holmes is a complete dunce. He had absolutely no idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. He explains to Moriarty that if he were to fill his head with too much that essential knowledge might fall out.

Much like his sidekick, we don't learn much about Dupin. The narrator tells us that he comes from aristocratic roots, but that his family wealth has been all but squandered. That's about it. Unlike Holmes, Dupin knows just about everything and possesses an almost supernatural intellect. However, he does lack any giddy pride.

The winner of the greatest detective: Holmes. Sure, he can be really annoying sometimes, but someone who has fatal flaws is far more interesting than someone who is flawless. I can't speak about Dupin's further adventures (perhaps he becomes more interesting as Poe refines his character), but as far as the first adventure goes Holmes is the more fully fleshed out and interesting character.

However, this only gives "A Study in Scarlet" two points and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" three. Poe seems to have bested Doyle in this round, but just like the adversaries in their stories, I feel they will return to face each other once again.
"A Study in Scarlet": 2 "Murders in the Rue Morgue": 3.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Why Pitchforkmedia is bad writing.

Have you ever noticed that is filled with worthless adverbs and adjectives? I have, and must admit that it gets on my nerves. Or, should I say that I begrudgingly admit it gets on my shattered nerves. Even when I agree with Pitchforkmedia's reviews, their poor writing really bothers me. Don't they realize that adverbs, more often than not, weaken the verb itself? The same is true of the adjective. Anything they write falls into limp academia cliche of throwing words from the thesaurus at the reader. Take a few examples from their recent review of DFA's release: "decadent anthems," "corporeal latticework," "personable charisma," and "lavishly unveiled." This is only in the first paragraph. Do these writers live in a world where the literary restraint of the Modernists doesn't exist? Why Pitchfork writers are so stylisticly awful I can't explain; however, I can emplore them to take a goddamn writing class.

Is my writing any better? Well, as you can tell I don't edit anything I write. Hell, about one person a month actually reads my site, so I don't really have a reason to, but when you have thousands visiting a day, you would think that you would try and put up something decent.

Ahh, Pitchfork. Some critics write reviews that are works of art themselves. Indeed, they write companions to art that makes the reader delve deeper into the author's idea. In the hands of a great critic art gains dimensions not yet fathomed by the reader. Pitchforkmedia is capable of just such criticism, but too often they substitute an attempt at style for any true substance. When they're good they're very, very good, but when they're bad they're awful.

I can't be too hard on Pitchfork because despite their failures they're informative and fun. Their biggest falure is that they come accross as critics and not fans, but when you're covering five albums a day that's excusable. If they happen to run accross my article then I hope they take the criticism to heart, but also remember that I've just had eight beers tonight. Take that for what it's worth.