Monday, April 12, 2010

Richard K. Morgan, parte the seconde

So this is a first for me—I posted last Wednesday a critique and discussion of Richard Morgan's novel Black Man, and for several days when I checked back there had been no commenters. No comments has been de rigeur on this blog for a while, alas—that's what happens, I suppose, when you don't post on a fairly regular basis. But for the last while I've had a resurgence of people offering comments, sometimes because I not-so-subtly prod friends by cross-posting on Facebook, and sometimes because friends with a much larger blog readership cite a post (thanks Jen!).

ANYWAY ... I didn't get any comments on the Morgan post for a while. And then on Sunday I look in to see there has been a comment left ... by FREAKIN' RICHARD MORGAN.

OK, first, how cool is that? At first I was wary that someone was taking the piss, but I'm reasonably certain that the comment was left by the man himself. And considering that my post was fairly critical of aspects of his writing I have some difficulty with, it was sort of like the experience of ragging on someone you actually quite like, only to have him overhear you. Except that you never imagined he would overhear you because you assume he's far away in, say, France. Among other things, this is a great object lesson reminding me that, however small the readership of this blog might be, the internet is PUBLIC SPACE.

I've been mulling over how to respond. I liked that the comment was lengthy and measured (especially considering I took at least one cheap shot—I'm regretting that Penthouse letters line now), so I feel compelled to respond in kind. However, I'm also struggling to contain the instinctive fanboy impulse; whatever criticisms I may have offered, I really like Morgan's novels. Since the idea for the article took root, I've been all excited because it means I get to justify buying the two novels of his I haven't read yet (Broken Angels and Market Forces) as research material—and been frustrated because both and Amazon seem to only have the audiobooks in stock. Grr. Again, whatever occasional issues I have, I really appreciate well-written and above all deeply intelligent SF.

There's also the fact of my awe at Morgan's output: since publishing Altered Carbon in 2002, he has published five novels, with a sixth due out this year. Considering the glacial nature of my own writing, this level of writerly production quite literally blows my mind. He's a Variant Thirteen of the laptop keyboard.

OK, there's my fanboy squee-ing done. Hopefully that wasn't too embarrassing. Now, my response ...

Morgan (Richard? Mr. Morgan? I'm uncertain of the naming etiquette here) writes in his comment, apropos of my contention that he writes bad sex scenes:

Look, I'm not really sure how to frame this without it sounding like some kind of chest-beating, but the fact is that by and large (eliding the odd dose of biotech or VR, obviously), the sex I write is the sex I've had. There's an inevitable stylistic veneer on it, sure, a touching of high points for dramatic effect, but that's the same for the violence and the wise-cracking repartee as well. In my humble opinion, this is something that comes with the territory; you can't really deploy a layer of hyperkinetic hardboiled in the violence and dialogue of a novel, and then switch abruptly to tawdry McEwanesque kitchen sink for the sex - what would be the rationale for such a switch?

First of all, I will cop to the fact that this might entirely be subjective squeamishness on my part. There is however, to my mind, something of an intractable problem with sex scenes in prose narratives generally. I'm wracking my brains right now to try and remember a really good article that addresses this issue—something I read about a year ago that made the point that the more lyrical sex is in a novel, the more necessarily euphemistic and hence dishonest it tends to become, whereas the more explicit it is the cruder it tends to come across. I think a good example of a distinction to be made here in reference to a specific author is between the explicit sex described in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and the more earnest depictions in later novels like The Human Stain or The Dying Animal (in an analogy I will always make recourse to, a female student of mine once complained that reading Roth is like "being teabagged in the forehead"). The difference I am pointing to here is that Portnoy's Complaint is satirical and hence palatable (to me ... again, this is a subjective reading), while the more earnest sequences tend to be laboured and awkward.

At any rate, Morgan continues to say "Sex in my novels tends to serve the characters as a refuge from the world and an affirmation of reachable humanity." This, I think, is a really interesting observation, and puts a finger on an aspect of Black Man I found quite readable and compelling—namely, the relationship between the thirteen Carl Marsalis and the female investigator Sevgi Ertekin. Marsalis' attraction to Sevgi, but more significantly his affection for her, humanizes Marsalis in a way that the other thirteens in the novel are not. The sexual tension between them, initially, fairly throbs off the page, and once they do inevitably hook up the relationship is wonderfully nuanced and fraught. It's a shame that the first sexual contact they have—a breathless, hurried exchange of oral sex in a dark alleyway—does tend to detract from the subtlety with which the rest of their relationship is dealt.

The other point Morgan raises is the discomfort I express at the text's infatuation with alpha males. He writes:

The problem here is genetics, which is of course why it's front and centre in Black Man - we are all enamoured of alpha males. If you're genetically male yourself, chances are you want at heart to be one; if you're genetically female, chances are you want to have one. And of course the truth of the latter, in true phenotypical fashion, simply reinforces the former. This is a (very uncomfortable) human truth which echoes down the boulevards of contemporary fiction - think about the executives in Rollerball who dream of being Jonathan E and "smashing faces", the delirious uniform/power fetish failings of Frenesi Gates in Pynchon's Vineland, and latterly the human panther commodification of Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond (coming full circle of course back to a similar dynamic with Sean Connery in the sixties).

All I find I can really say to this is: well argued. I should know better than to fall into the trap of projecting back on a text the insecurities it raises in me when I read (especially since I pretty gleefully played that game with my students when I introduced them to Lolita last fall). I'm going to have to think about this particular issue at greater length—my thoughts in my last post were still sort of embryonic. Nothing like having the actual author politely prod you into thinking more carefully.

Also: I should add a mea culpa to my more sweeping comments about Morgan's fiction, and admit that I was conveniently not mentioning his most recent novel. He is, apparently, taking a three-book break from SF. In 2008 he published The Steel Remains, the first novel of a fantasy trilogy. I discovered it earlier this term and read it in about a day and a half. Many of the set-pieces I discussed in my last post are present: the three main characters are all warriors who fought in a bloody war some years previously and who now find that peacetime is an uncomfortable fit for them. In a genuinely innovative move (for the genre), Morgan makes one of the three main characters a master swordsman and gimlet-eyed killer who also happens to be gay. This simple but genre-busting shift throws the usual warrior-and-wench equation fantasy employs ad nauseum totally on its head. It also complicates some of the generalizations I was making about Morgan's work as a whole, as it throws something of a monkey wrench into the conventions of hard-boiled masculinity (and yes, The Steel Remains is, remarkably, a pretty hard-boiled fantasy novel).

I did a public lecture for the Philosophy Department last term titled "Harry Potter and the Banality of Magic," which was an exploratory stab at talking about the politics of fantasy; in a genre that is frequently hidebound and regressive (as much as I love it), there are a handful of authors who have been doing some truly innovative stuff—based on The Steel Remains, if I ever get around to working up some articles on this, Richard Morgan will play a role there as well. The next instalment, The Dark Commands, comes out later this year.

Think I'll be getting that one in hardcover.


SOS said...

I told you people were reading.
That is pretty cool. I'm going to read those books now. All because of these posts.

MLBurt said...

I had actually seen a copy of Black Man about... a year ago, I think, in a bookstore and was fairly interested, but I never did pick it up. Seeing a post about it on your blog was intriguing enough, but when I saw a response from the author himself, I was kind of flabbergasted. I think that's fate's way of saying that I have to buy the thing.

Also, I think I might know why the author found your page: your blog post is on the second page of the google search "Richard Morgan Black Man". Somehow. I suspect you are capable of some kind of google wizardry.

Anyway, yeah. I was going to comment on the first post, but after the author himself posted I felt like I might seem a mite less composed.

(Also, a friend of mine picked up The Steel Remains literally yesterday. Complete coincidence)

Matthew said...

As you are try and contrast an early Rothian novel in Portnoy's Complaint to later Kepesh and Zuckerman novels in The Dying Animal and The Human Stain, what would you say about, arguably, Roth's most sexually explicit novel -- a relatively "later" Roth novel at that -- in Sabbath's Theater?

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