Friday, January 30, 2015

The Man in the High Castle (2015)

(Requested by reader Mon-Sewer Paul Regret.)

USA, 60 minutes, TV pilot

The single most interesting point for me of Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle is the premise—in brief, an alternate history in which the Axis powers defeated the Allies in World War II, resulting in a world where North America has been divided into spheres of influence the way Eurasia was divided in our own, with Germany and Japan subsequently conducting their own versions of a Cold War. Early indications from the pilot of a new television miniseries (produced by Amazon) based on one of Dick's signature achievements show that vision preserved well, with deft use of iconography to get the point across. Unlike Dick, however, the latter-day TV adaptors already seem prone to indulging an all too familiar partiality for the delicious, delicious evils of Nazism. Thus, while Dick's novel never strayed over into scenes of German America (occupying the East Coast to approximately the Rocky Mountains, which serve as a buffering "neutral zone" between German and Japanese America), the television series actually opens there, and lovingly observes typical cool television versions of Nazi atrocities. Oh, they are bad—so bad. I have complaints about Dick's narrative myself, about the general obscurity and impulse to include what would become his trademark preoccupations (alternate time streams and parallel realities accessed via drugs and/or mental illness). None of that works for me as well as the singular premise, which in the early '60s (and since) offered a nigh perfect way in to understanding the hideous logic and intractable insanity of the Cold War. It looks so chillingly possible, particularly in those reconstructed maps of North America, very nicely done in the TV pilot. But how to make a story work in the context just might be a universal problem. The series appears to be departing from Dick's own attempts, but I'm dubious they have struck on anything better (or, it must be said, worse). At first I was unimpressed with the true believers in the TV pilot, characters so vividly moved and fascinated by the idea of an alternate history in which the Allies won the war. But then I remembered my own wistful fantasies about undoing Republican control in the US for the past several decades. I would probably be similarly moved and fascinated by film footage of Ronald Reagan not winning those '80s elections. The blankness in Dick's writing, combined with his unusual and evocative ideas, somehow makes it easy for filmmakers and script writers to put their own stamp on his material—think about Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall. I suspect that's what I see happening in this new television series. Already, with a Big Reveal at the end of the pilot, it is trading in the usual tricks, the beats and rhythms, of present-day television entertainment, with multiple story arcs established and moved along down their early pathways, climaxes every 12 minutes, touching sentimental (and thus easily manipulated) notes of family and patriotism, "freedom and liberty," and with moments of gorgeous human kindness, plus a swelling pop soundtrack ("Edelweiss" as theme song is pretty nifty here). I'm not saying this is bad—one thing about television series these days is they really have unlocked the keys into capturing and controlling their nichy audiences. They can make you cry on command and send you to rousing heights. But it's just not nearly as original as Dick. I would expect more of what we like from television in this version of The Man in the High Castle, but not much more. Certainly, from the pilot, I don't feel compelled to see every episode as soon as I possibly can, but then I don't feel compelled in that direction for Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, or The Wire either, all of which I have been plodding along through for years.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1963)

Fun facts to know and tell: The publication date for Dr. Bloodmoney is 1965, the subtitle is "or How We Got Along After the Bomb," and the scenario is a post-apocalypse Earth wrecked by nuclear war. Yet Philip K. Dick's novel was actually written prior to the release of Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the first test screening for which, as an entirely gratuitous aside, was November 22, 1963), Thus, the tie-in is more likely the inspiration of an editor with an eye cocked on the market, as reported in Wikipedia. Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano called Dr. Bloodmoney a masterpiece, but I'm not so sure. Certainly it has many of the wholly unexpected and wonderfully weird hallmarks of Dick: a pair of emotionally symbiotic twins, one living inside the other ... an astronaut stuck in orbit reading Of Human Bondage to the survivors below ... mutant strains of animals and humans from the radiation ... and not one but two devastating nuclear events. Mental illness once again tends to reflect deeper understanding. And all of it is related in straightforward, unadorned fashion. I'm just not sure it altogether works. There is a fairly startling lack of any sense of trauma and/or dread among the survivors. They worry about a lot of weird little things, but the basic situation is so calmly accepted by one and all, less than 10 years after ruinous nuclear incidents, that it becomes hard to believe and a little dull for that. Even Dr. Strangelove, a comedy, strikes notes that put its events into perspective. On the other hand, Dr. Bloodmoney, which doesn't seem to me particularly comic in its intent, can be funny. Reading Of Human Bondage aloud from space, for example. One of Dick's canniest strategies always is the simplicity of his language, which can set the strange ideas into evocative context, but here it more often felt banal. There was not a single character I cared much of anything about—and in general there are way too many of them, with no obvious purpose except to square up narrative circles. I suppose there's something useful suggested by the banality, and even the smallest of Dick's ideas can open up wide. But this feels so emotionally disconnected from its own realities as to approach a kind of disassociativeness in its own right, which I appreciate. But to what end? Compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example, this too often feels like a kindergarten make-believe to me.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Agnes Grey (1847)

At this late date it's not much surprise that Anne Bronte's first novel is the least of the three she and her elder sisters published in 1847 (with Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights). It's not nearly as expansive nor as capable of achieving the heights they do. But it's still engaging and charming, the story of a governess of middle-class origins and her various adventures and sorties. The upper class is skewered as neatly and devastatingly as anything else I know, with detailed scenes of hypocrisy and deplorable behavior. Governess indeed is a particularly inspired vantage—part servant, part master, it's a position that only worked in the presence of good will all around (children excepted for the obvious reasons). It offers many interesting insights into 19th-century education, not yet taken as a state responsibility, simply by the clarity of her narrative. A year with one family and two with another supply the bulk of the action—I appreciated the panorama. Also, as I say, the unflinching reportage of the upper class, shockingly barbaric at times. One boy is mad at work continually torturing and killing small animals, which, it comes out, is the influence of a sadistic uncle who beats all his animals and loves to hunt. No one bats an eye—well, except our governess heroine, the Agnes Grey of the title—and the parents are willfully blind to much of what's going on. Thus the landed gentry. At the same time that's just one thread. There are some very nice character studies here and as usual much hope is invested in the existence of the good and noble, etc. It has a bit of a fairy tale arc, but it's also a short book. Her more ambitious The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would follow the next year and then her own death at the age of 29, the youngest of them in every way. All the Bronte sister writers died so young (Emily at 30, Charlotte at 38) it's almost sad to contemplate how good the work is that they managed to get done. There are better examples of social realism (going on naturalism) and sitting-room manners and fairy tales, but they are blended in Agnes Grey so skillfully and often so penetratingly that even with all its flaws I think it's eminently worth a look.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Between the Buttons (1967)

(Requested by reader S.S.)

Between the Buttons falls in that trough of Rolling Stones albums between the original focus on rhythm and blues covers and the later turn as world's greatest rock 'n' roll band, from their most obvious period of aping Beatles moves, also known as "psychedelia." Generally I prefer Aftermath and on some days even Their Satanic Majesties Request. But it was good to revisit Buttons again and find something that sounds a lot to me now like Mick Jagger's first solo album—and a pretty good one too, full of inconsequential little songs about yesterday's papers, my obsession, my connections, who's been sleeping here, something happened to me yesterday, etc. Jagger's most foppish persona tends to be front and center, with the bluesy guitar impulses of Brian Jones and Keith Richards often retired well to the background. No covers either—all Jagger/Richards originals. Interestingly, Jagger claims now to still like only "Back Street Girl." But the album still sounds like a Jagger solo to me, with the student of economics way that it calculates and checks off, throwing high signs to the Beatles, Kinks, Who, drugs, preening fashion, and other usual suspects. Jones, perhaps at the beginning of his long slow fade, has traded in for vibraphone, recorder, saxophone, electric dulcimer, and oscillator, among other sounds he contributed. Busy busy. The main difference between the UK and US versions is the inclusion of a couple of big hits for the States album: "Ruby Tuesday" and "Let's Spend [the Night / Some Time, the latter at the famous special request of Ed Sullivan] Together." One of my favorites on Buttons, perhaps because it's relatively strange and fresh to me, was not on the US version: "Please Go Home," which revs up a real nice head. It's altogether tempting to dismiss Between the Buttons as a badly aging sellout, but that's a little silly. From 1965 to maybe 1968 (before going on to deathless editions of classic rock), Jagger and Richards turned out to be first-rate masters of pop songcraft, among the very best, and Between the Buttons is basically a collection of experiments, with varying results and no US hits on the Brit version. As I said I'm more for Aftermath, not least for the one-on-one between signature long album side closers: "Goin' Home" (a brief obsession I still adore when I think to play it) vs. "Something Happened to Me Yesterday," which sounds vain, coy, smug, with (uncredited) brass section—of a piece indeed with Bob Dylan's bawdy "Rainy Day Women," another song I don't like nearly as much as I think I should. It's not really psychedelic, for one thing. I might have benefited from knowing "Something Happened" when I first got into psychedelics. But I didn't, so it's "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Itchycoo Park" that still sound the better and more mysteriously meaningful to me that way. Between the Buttons is essential, of course, because it's the Stones of the period, but it's ultimately in the minor key in every way.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Silas Marner (1861)

I can't say I know George Eliot well—I have attempted Middlemarch with no success yet—but when I connected this title with her I thought I might take a chance. I read it first way back in 7th grade for extra credit and was awfully proud of myself for getting through it. As well I should have been—the language strikes me still as too often cramped, awkward and delicate, full of long sentences, monolithic paragraphs, and dialect (it appears, for example, that people once said "I doubt" when they meant "I don't doubt," among other grievous annoying misdemeanors). Still, it's a wonderful story, with a villain, a few saints, and lots of people between. Silas Marner, our hero, is deeply sad and deeply likable. I was rereading it in a week when everything in my life seemed to be going wrong and my heart went out for him with every setback he suffers and every piece of good fortune too. There is an overall very satisfying movement and growth to so many of the characters, and much transition from dark to light. It's also well plotted—there's a twist that fooled me nearly up to the moment it's revealed, and looking back it's clear Eliot mastered the magician's trick of misdirection. But more than that it's a fascinating character study across a man's life. Descriptions of him often focus on his protuberant eyes, which somehow made him vivid to me. The trajectory of his entire life is given by pieces. We witness the second and third acts and are told of the first. Marner suffers, and we feel it, but it is ultimately heartening in all the best ways. The deadening passages were what I expected, so the surprise was when it slipped into being engaging and compelling. I think I came away from it originally, at 12 going on 13, with something wrong about misers. Silas Marner is more directly about loneliness, alienation, and isolation. It is also about integrity, and about powerlessness, and it is all quite affecting. Yes, there is some resort to convenient coincidence in how it's put together. But I can look the other way because there are just so many very good points about it. The characters are so many of them so interesting. There is a convincing scene with an opium addict. There is a crime that makes one groan with pain. And there are many shades of good people here too. Glad I wandered back to this one.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The American (1877)

It was a treat for me finally getting to this Henry James staple, which I somehow missed in spite of all the American literature courses I took in college. It's made to order for them, and indeed often taught, with its virtually diagrammatic exposition that pits raw New World vigor against effete Old World sophistication. The American of the title is one Christopher Newman—yes, I said Christopher Newman, a thundering point made more complicated for me in the present day by my association of "Newman" with Seinfeld and Wayne Knight—Christopher Newman, who has made his fortune at the age of 36 and arrived in Europe to seek a wife. Never mind that it's not exactly the life course of the average American, even then, even for a white man of Anglo-Saxon extraction. Ultimately, I don't know how much The American has to say about either Europe or America, though the contrasts as adduced remain mostly interesting. I actually engaged more with the story of the suitor and his beloved, and found that it paid off with satisfying emotional charges. Newman is a bit of a stuck-up prig, yet more open-minded in many other ways than the Europeans he meets and consorts with. It works well as a novel of manners, with many interesting and complex sideline characters and scenes. The villains, for villains there are, are very villainous, and I was caught up and deeply in thrall. Now and then it becomes too ludicrously dated, reminiscent of the horrors George Bailey suffers in the movie It's a Wonderful Life when he discovers that his wife's alternative future is to be an unmarried librarian. Occasionally, also, one wishes for the expedient of people simply declaring openly what they want and mean. At the same time, Henry James can be very good at closing off these avenues in the situations he develops. The characters are often vivid, their situations often truly impossible. In the end it turned out to be a real page-turner as at some point I realized I could not guess what would happen next, and cared very much about these people and wanted to know. It's no simple and tidy finish. Excellent.

"interlocutor" count = 5/431 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

New Year memo

Happy new year, everyone. Hope you are all well and doing fine. As you may have noticed, my blog productivity output is starting to show signs of the downward-sloping curve of so many before me. Blogging is cruel. After a few years of 200+ posts I have struggled to break 150 the past couple of years. This year I might not even make 100—that's the good news and the bad news (or vice versa). With another significant project in the offing, the only thing I'm willing to commit to are weekly book reviews on Sundays, not least because I have a sizable backlog of them and good habits these days about writing things up as I read them.

On the other hand, I think I might want to try requests, if anyone is so inclined. I believe I found one Facebook comment I can interpret as a request for an album review. And maybe some other comment somewhere for a movie? I'll see how they go. If there is any song, album, movie, book, or general topic you want to see me write about, don't hesitate to say in the comments here or any other way you have of contacting me (I'm on Facebook, I'm on Twitter, I subscribe to many newsletters, etc.). Your wish is my command, subject to my approval. To be realistic—well, to be realistic, I don't expect to be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of requests here—but to set expectations, I can likely get to songs and albums more quickly than movies, and books could take a real long time. General topics are totally unpredictable—who requests those anyway? It's all totally unpredictable. It's an experiment!

All best to everyone in the coming year. Thanks for reading my blog. You know who you are and it is appreciated. Drop a line once in awhile.