Friday, April 30, 2010

Cage Match: Eric Northman vs. David

Well, that was a squeaker. I honestly had no idea which way that last match was going to break, but Damon Salvatore walked away with an 11-9 win. He's on to the quarterfinals.

And that's it for the first round of Bracket A! When we come back this way again, we will see fights between The Master and Spike, and Angel and Damon. But before that can happen, we move on to the preliminary round of Bracket B.

Our first fight here is between Eric Northman of True Blood and David (last name unknown) of everyone's favourite 80s vamp-fest The Lost Boys ... a film which featured not only a very young Kiefer Sutherland in his perennial bad-boy role (really, David is just Ace Merrill from Stand By Me with a worse haircut and fangs), but also both of the Coreys. Not having seen the movie since it was actually in the theatres, I watched about two-thirds of it online last week, and realized three things: (1) Kiefer's voice in that film is unrecognizable—it has no gravel in it whatsoever, (2) it's always a pleasant surprise to see the various parts Edward Herrmann aka Richard Gilmore shows up in, and (3) fashion in the 80s was really just embarrassing. (This last one was really less of a realization than a reaffirmation).

This fight, by the way, is a total hat-tip to Mark of Polivision. His idea for how this should go was too good not to steal.

Eric won the coin toss, so this fight will take place in the Louisiana bayou ... um, pretty far away from where Lestat's and Damon's took place, I am sure.


Eric Northman waits for his opponent on a high bank that slopes away into the swamp's murk. He is alive to the bayou's teeming life, thousands of little thoughts and heartbeats and fears and hungers that are like a hum at the edge of his senses. He smells the cigarette David smokes long before he sees him.

David enters from the dense forest into the clearing, looking around in distaste. Eric smiles.

"You do not care for our setting?" he asks.

"I'm from California," David sneers. "Ocean, beaches, open highway. I don't know how you live here."

"No, I imagine you don't," Eric replies evenly. "You are still young. You have not learned. It is a shame I will have to put an end to you."

"You're confident for a guy with a girl's haircut."

Eric cocks his head, almost quizzically. "I believe the expression is 'glass houses,' my friend."

David is about to respond when a loud, metallic buzzing noise disturbs the heavy air. Eric frowns, patting his hands over his pockets, and retrieving a cell phone.

"I didn't realize I was carrying this," he says, perplexed. "Hello? Um ... what?" He looks across at David. "Yes ... yes, I suppose so." He holds the phone out. "I think it is for you."

David gingerly holds the phone to his ear. "What?"

"Jack, this is Chloë. Listen carefully, I don't—"

"Who the hell is Jack? My name is David, lady."

"Jack, David, whatever. It doesn't matter. I've pulled up this guy Eric's record on—"

"Lady, I don't know who the hell you are or what you want, I don't know who this Jack asshole is, and I'm about to fight someone, so if you don't mind—"

"I know you're about to fight someone, Jack—"


"Whatever! Look, this guy Eric is pretty tough, but I've found out that his weakness is—"

Plop. Glug. Chloë's last words are lost as David pitches the phone into the swamp. Eric watches it sink, his brow furrowed.

"That was my phone!" He pauses. "I think."

"Doesn't matter. You're going to be dead in a few minutes, so don't worry." David advances on Eric.

"No. I think not."

David does not even see Eric move. He feels a massive blow to his chest, and is suddenly flat on his back. He springs up, but Eric is nowhere to be seen.

"As I said," his voice says in David's ear, "you are young."

David spins, swinging his fist into empty air. He sees a blur of motion, and is pinned to the trunk of a massive, bearded tree. Eric holds him by the neck, and the other hand plunges a sharpened stick into David's chest.

He just has time to think that perhaps he should have listened to that Chloë person after all.

Projected Winner: ERIC NORTHMAN

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The ghost of Gertrude Stein is sending me spam

Ever read the more or less random text that appears in those spam emails, which usually precedes an ad for cheap Viagra or something? Sometimes, you could be forgiven for taking it to be a species of avant-garde poetry. This one showed up in my inbox this morning:

it the had as word down in down
motor me person has had in others ten
and in great the after later tact later porter later in down it and and needed person and motor alone clothes very after me slipped as clothes going much as top the motor the dollars also much very on in in ten dollars as and he word school much and great ten top me great the others alone great main on going others the bought in great had dollars in bought the and main much needed and me He needed bought as it purse paid purse great has

You know, I'm pretty sure I've heard very similar stuff at poetry readings. And I know I read stuff like that in my modernist lit class back at York. For example, from Gertrude Stein's poem "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso":

Exactly as as kings.
Feeling full for it.
Exactitude as kings.
So to beseech you as full as for it.
Exactly or as kings.
Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut
and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.

Now, I'm not saying that Gertrude Stein lives on in the digital afterlife and is sending me cryptic messages by email. I'm not saying that at all.

Except that I have a deep suspicion that Gertrude Stein is sending me messages from the digital afterlife. The evidence here is almost ironclad.

Summer of the übermensch(es)

Two nights ago I went to see The Losers, largely on the strength of three things: (1) the trailer was cool, (2) it had Zoe Saldana, whom I am quite happy to watch in any context that doesn't involve her being CGIed into a giant blue Amerindian cat person, and (2) it featured Idris Elba, who for me will always be Stringer Bell from The Wire. The movie is of the Elite Squad action sub-genre, the kind in which you have a team of soldiers, mercenaries or thieves, each of whom has a particular area of expertise, and who over the course of the film carry off several daring / difficult / impossible missions and/or heists.

Let's be clear: The Losers is an extremely bad film, but fortunately bad in very entertaining ways. This is a film that does not embrace the clichés of its genre so much as immerse itself in them as if in a warm bath. Lots of explosions, fire-fights, and the Elite Squad walking toward the camera in slow motion. Good times.

What is more interesting to me however—honestly, this film does not really rate a mention on this blog otherwise—are the trailers that preceded the movie. First was a film called The Expendables, which stars—wait for it—Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Mickey Rourke, and Stone Cold Steve Austin ... and with cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In other words, pretty much all of the major action stars from the previous three decades. And yes—it is an Elite Squad film about, as sums up, "a group of mercenaries hired to infiltrate a South American country and overthrow its ruthless dictator." As a friend of mine observed, whether this film intends it or not, it will be a parody.

The next trailer featured was for Takers (which also, interestingly, stars Idris Elba—so glad he's getting post-Wire work), a film about an elite group of thieves and their plan to make off with a twenty million dollar heist.

At this point, knowing full well what The Losers is about, I'm thinking to myself "Huh ... I kind of don't have to watch this movie now ..."

It strikes me that we seem to have a critical mass of Elite Squad movies hitting theatres this summer. The Stallone film in and of itself cranks this dial up to eleven, but we also have The A-Team coming out soon ... and I'm kind of happy to have seen The Losers, because after that ... honestly, how bad could the film adaptation of my favourite TV show when I was eleven be?

Don't answer that.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cage Match: Lestat vs. Damon Salvatore

Well, Angel won that fight pretty handily by a margin of 22-5. And now to decide whom he will face in the quarterfinals, a showdown between the vampire Lestat of Interview With The Vampire, and Damon Salvatore of the new hit television series The Vampire Diaries.

Lestat won the coin toss, so today's fight will take place in a majestic but mouldering old manor house in the Louisiana bayou.


Lestat awaits his opponent in the house's old parlour, a room that still carries the grandeur of years now long past in spite of its damp and its mouldering old furniture. In the flickering candlelight, the water stains on the walls shiver and dance. Lestat sips thoughtfully from his wineglass, eyes narrowed as the dark form of Damon Salvatore sidles into the doorway.

"Please, come in," Lestat gestures to the overstuffed armchair across from him. A second wine glass sits on the small table between them. "Have a drink."

Damon doesn't move at first, his eyes taking in the details of the room around him. "Nice house," he says.

Lestat laughs. "Yes, I have a girl come in once a century to tidy up."

Damon enters finally, and sits. "Ah. Vampire humour."

"Won't you drink?"

He looks at the glass suspiciously. "Wine?"

Lestat frowns, swirling the viscous red around his glass. "Of course not." He gestures to a dark, moaning heap in the room's corner. "A gift from a willing and generous donor." He sips.

Damon snatches the glass out of Lestat's hand. "I think I will drink. From your glass. No offense, but we are meant to fight to the death here."

Lestat shrugs, and picks the other glass off the small table. "No offense taken. I just thought it might be nice to have a chat before getting down to business. We might find we have more in common than we think."

Damon eyes him shrewdly. "What are you suggesting?"

"It has been some time since I have met a vampire of a similar mind to me. I've heard about you ... and about your brother."

Damon snorts. "Don't talk about that idiot to me."

"A tortured, brooding, self-hating vampire who refuses to drink human blood."

"That's Stefan. Your point?"

Lestat leans forward. "Sounds an awful lot like an old friend of mine. My point is that there are a distressing number of these pathetic weaklings clinging to their 'humanity,' and here we are being asked to kill one another when we are the ones who should be leading."

Damon leans forward as well, his face close to Lestat's. "I'm listening."

"Why go along with this inane idea?" Lestat whispers, his eyes sliding over the contours of Damon's face. "Why not be the ones left standing when all these others have destroyed themselves?"

Damon places his mouth next to Lestat's ear and breathes, "I like the way you think."

Lestat gives a start, and leans back in his seat, looking down at the wooden stake protruding from his chest. "Hmm. Nicely played. One problem, though ..." he jerks the stake out. "My kind of vampire can't be killed by staking. You really should do your research."

All at once, Lestat and Damon are on their feet, facing each other down. "It might have been nice to have a partner again," sighed Lestat.

Damon shrugs. "It would never last. As you say, we're too similar."

"Right. Shall we do this?"

Projected Winner: TOO CLOSE TO CALL

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

This week in historical revisionism

Several days ago, the Republican candidate for the New York 19th district and apparent Ann Coulter-wannabe Kristia Cavere wrote a column for the Record-Review, an upstate New York newspaper, in which she argued that every "advancement of freedom" in American history has been carried out by Republicans.

Unfortunately, the Record-Review does not publish an online version—which is a shame, because I would really love to see the justification for her suggestion that "The Republicans are the ones who liberated Europe in World War II."

Catch that? Let me repeat it, just for the double-take factor: "The Republicans are the ones who liberated Europe in World War II."

So, who's got two thumbs and thinks Kristia Cavere is a political hack who needs to retake remedial American history? This guy:

In an observation I wish I had made but will have to settle for just quoting, Attaturk at says that, since the larger portion of Europe was actually liberated by the Red Army, if we pull out our Glenn Beck ChalkboardTM, we can thus demonstrate that Republicans are Stalinists.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cage Match: Angel vs. Santanico Pandemonium

Well, that certainly didn't go well for Edward—Spike mopped the floor with him by a margin of 30-4 (the fact that Edward got four votes would appear to be evidence that this blog gets the occasional teenage girl audience).

On to the next fight!

We have a slight schedule change. I've been watching The Vampire Diaries to get a sense of how the Damon-Lestat fight would go, and I'm almost there ... almost. I don't quite have the shape of it yet—this one might be too close for me to call. It was, I must say, serendipitous to have these two draw their fight together. Such delightful assholes, both of them. Don King would bill the fight as "The Battle of the Bastards" or "Skirmish of the Scumbags."

Anyway, while I figure out how to write that fight, I'm moving up the next showdown. This one was fun: today's match is between Angel, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Santanico Pandemonium of From Dusk Till Dawn—the exotic dancer vampire who has the distinction of effectively launching Salma Hayek's career.

Santanico won the coin toss, so the fight will take place in the bar with the subtle and tactful name The Titty Twister, just over the Mexican border.


Angel sits uncomfortably at his table near the stage, looking around the filthy bar at the bikers and banditos who comprise its clientele. Latin music throbs in the air and topless dancers in harlequin masks writhe in the many alcoves. Not really my scene, he reflects. Spike would love this. Too bad he didn't draw this fight. He notices that he is getting a lot of dark looks from the club's patrons. Angelus would have loved this place too.

He looks to his right, and realizes that most of the hostile curiosity is actually focused on Wesley, who is very conspicuously absorbed in a massive leather-bound tome.

"Fascinating!" Wesley exclaims suddenly. "This ... bar ... "

"You can't say the name, can you Wes?"

He squirms. "Of course I can. I just choose not to."

A papery voice whispers from beneath them. "Titty Twister."

Angel starts, and looks down. "What ... Fred? What are you doing under the table?"

"Hiding," she says. "A man at the bar offered me a ride on his hog. I calculated that the odds are thirty to one he wasn't being euphemistic."

"Um, OK ... fair enough. So ... what does your book say, Wes?"

"That this ... bar ... is built on an ancient Aztec temple, and is a beacon of mystic energy. Vampires are drawn here. It's sort of like a Hellmouth."

"Like a Hellmouth?"

"OK, it is a Hellmouth." Wesley runs his finger down a line of the crabbed text. "Your opponent, this Santanico Pandemonium, is a princess of sorts, revered by the vampire community here."

"Huh. So what you're saying is that if I kill her in this fight, there'll be a lot of pissed-off Aztec vampires wanting revenge?"

"In a nutshell."

"Well, good thing I brought the troops." Angel looks around. "Speaking of which, where are the troops?"

"Well, Gunn is chatting with that ... ah ... lady over there. Last I saw Lorne, he was trying to instruct the bartender on how to mix a proper Manhattan, Fred is hiding under the table, and Cordy refused to come when she heard this bar was named ... the, um, name it has."

"And Spike is in the Pacific Northwest fighting a vampire idolized not by Mexican biker undead but teenage girls. How did I pull this gig again?"

Before Wesley can answer, the lights in the bar dim and the improbably-muscled bartender climbs onto the stage.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" he bellows into his mike. "For your viewing pleasure this evening we bring you a battle to the death! In this corner, I give you the Mistress of the Macabre! The Sanguinary Seductress, the Madam of Mayhem! Bow down before the glory that is ... SANTANICO PANDEMONIUM!"

Underneath the thunderous applause, Angel hears Wesley murmur appreciatively, "Oh. My."

Santanico sways forward into the spotlight, wearing a traditional Aztec headdress and not much else.

"Uh ..." Angel leans over to Wesley. "I don't know how good I'm going to be fighting a woman in a bikini, Wes."

"A little after midnight," Wesley responds distractedly, his eyes not leaving the stage.

"AND IN THIS CORNER ... the Brooding Byronic Bachelor of the City of Angels! Helper of the Helpless, the Vampire With a Soul, I give you—" the bartender does a double take at the note in his hand, and leans over to exchange some words with someone near the stage. "Seriously? That's his name? Seriously. Well, OK ... Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you ... 'Angel'," he finishes, his voice dripping scorn and sarcasm.

Raucous laughter and wolf-whistles accompany Angel as he vaults onto the stage. Santanico stands hipshot, her eyes raking over him. "Well," she purrs, "you're an awful lot prettier than most of the men I see in here. It will be a shame to ruin those babylike looks."

Annoyed, Angel puts on his game face, feeling his brows contract and teeth jut into his vampiric rictus. "I'm not that pretty."

Santanico laughs derisively, and her face similarly transforms into a grotesque, snakelike mask.

"Huh," says Angel. "How about that." He glances down at Wesley. "Looks like that bikini thing isn't going to be an issue after all."

Hissing, Santanico launches herself at Angel, her hands outstretched. She's fast, Angel has time to think before instinct kicks in and he catches her by the wrists, wrenching her arms apart. She uses the movement to force her head forward, her teeth bared and aiming for his neck. Angel falls backward, putting a foot on her midriff, launching her over top of him to fall on a group of tables clustered together. The bikers sitting there scatter as she crashes into their midst.

Angel pauses for just an instant as Santanico crashes down, his fingers at his throat. Weird ... why would she ...? And then Santanico is on her feet again, and Angel leaps from the stage. She comes at him, hands again outstretched. He knocks her arms apart and kicks straight out. The blow catches her by surprise, but she recovers quickly. Now she is warier, circling Angel with her hands raised as claws. The bar has gone quiet. All eyes watch the two combatants. They are shocked, Angel suddenly realizes. They did not expect anyone to give their princess a run for her money. He lunges forward, landing two, three blows on Santanico's snakelike head while she vainly tries to block his attack. His last punch sends her flying backward. Again, she is on her feet quickly, but her face is back to normal, her expression baffled and hurt.

"How ...?" she asks.

Angel passes a pool table as he strides toward her, snatching up a cue and spinning it about theatrically in his hands.

"You don't know how to fight vampires," he tells her. He looks around at the bar, his words taking all of them in. "None of you do. You have lived here so long, preying on the humans that cross your path, taking the easy pickings that wander into your bar for liquor and sex. But fighting vamps? It's pretty much what I do for a living."

He crosses the short distance to Santanico, lunging with the pool cue as if it was a fencing foil. She stands, shocked, as fire spreads from the wound and she disappears into flame and ash. Angel stands still for a moment as silence reigns in the bar.

"Uh .... Angel?"

He straightens, and turns to see that Gunn, Lorne, Fred and Wesley have all clustered near him, weapons in hand. All around them, the faces of the bar patrons have transformed into fierce vampire masks. Angel nods.

"All right, then. Now the fun part."

Projected Winner: ANGEL

Sunday, April 25, 2010

This is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

... actually, no. I did not eat the plums that were in the icebox. But when I wrote out this blog post title, that lovely little W.C. Williams poem came rather naturally into my head.

This is, in fact, just to say that I have posted every day for the past two weeks, which hasn't happened since I first started this blog. At first I thought April 2010 set a new personal record for most blog posts in a month, and then I realized that August 2005 had thirty-three. That was my first month in St. John's, and indeed the first full month of this blog. One day I will look at the prolific stretches this blog has had and compare them to the empty stretches and try and remember what was going on in my life at the time, and see if I can't figure out what combination of factors leads me to blog or not.

Further to the poetry above, I may as well give this post some substance and make it, in part, a celebration of vividly brief poetry—something at which William Carlos Williams was a master. His most famous, of course, is:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

As much as I generally loathe the poetry of Ezra Pound (which, I will admit, gets complicated with my loathing of Pound the person), he had a couple of gems, usually when he was keeping things brief. He loved haiku—and for a time advocated that kind of short, vivid, imagistic poetry ... an advocacy he sadly abandoned later in his career when he wrote his voluminous and opaque Cantos. But he gets it right with this two-line poem titled "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

These three poems will always be linked in my mind, because of something I saw while I taking a course on modernist literature in my first year at York. Williams and Pound were both on the reading list, and we studied all three of these poems and many, many more. There was construction at the time being done in the field across the way from Winters College, and on the temporary fence erected around the site, someone—someone, I like to think, taking the same class as me—spraypainted:

this is just to say
so much depends upon
the apparition of these faces in the crowd

I love the memory of that as much as I loved seeing it at the time. Modernism mash-up!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cage match: Spike vs. Edward Cullen

Well, Miriam put up a pretty good fight, but in the end succumbed to The Master by a margin of 17-10. The Master moves on to the quarterfinals.

And now, a fight I'm sure many are anticipating, between Spike, the peroxided king of mayhem from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Edward Cullen, the brooding sparkly guy from the Twilight series.

Edward won the coin toss, so the fight will take place in an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.


It is late afternoon, the dusk light fading into ... well, twilight. Spike lounges against one of the massive redwoods, smoking a cigarette and peering up into the gloom. Constantly overcast, he thinks. No direct sunlight during the day. Bloke could get used to this. He wipes moisture off his face with the sleeve of his leather coat. Except for the bloody wet.

He looks down from the leaden sky to see his appointed adversary enter the clearing, a mousy brown-haired girl trailing apprehensively behind him. Spike looks his opponent over with mounting disgust. "'Kin' hell," he mutters, pitching away his fag-end. "Brooding pretty boy who went tragic with the hair gel. What, do these twats follow me?" Peering more closely, he exclaims to himself, "Is he sparkling?" He raises his voice. "Hey, nancy. Who's the bird?" When Edward looks skyward in confusion, Spike clarifies, "The girl, nimrod. Who is she, and what's she doing here?"

"She is my great love," Edward intones sententiously, and Bella favours him with a look so slavish Spike feels the whiskey he downed an hour ago fighting to come up.

"Oh, lovely. Let me guess: you're a hundred-and-something year old vampire with a tortured soul and a thing for jailbait. And it's all very agonizing and poetic and chaste because you're afraid if you actually go in for the rumpy-pumpy you'll go all savage and bestial on her?"

Startled, Edward nods. "Yes. How did you know?"

"Old story, mate. Chap I know had the same problem. Except, his girl at least had some spunk." He winks. "I know. Did her myself."

Edward steps in closer. "Well ... she's kind of got a thing for werewolves," he says conspiratorially.

Spike laughs. "Oh, you don't want a piece of that, mate. Last bird I knew dallied with a werewolf, totally lost the taste for the meat-and-veg. If you follow me."

Edward furrows his sparkly brow. "I don't, actually."

"Colour me shocked," Spike sighs. "All right. Shall we do this?"

Without hesitation, Edward launches himself backward, kicking himself off a redwood and flying over Spike's head to land immediately behind him. Almost casually, Spike turns, driving the stake he had under his coat into Edward's chest.

"Sorry, mate," Spike says conversationally. "Trick a friend taught me. This is Mr. Pointy."

Edward explodes into a cloud of sparkly dust.

Projected Winner: SPIKE

Friday, April 23, 2010

A hatful of HBO

There are many times when I love my job, and right now is one of them. Why? Because this evening I start re-watching The Wire. As research.

As mentioned a few posts ago, I have begun my research term, and believe me when I say I have my work cut out for me, considering I come up for tenure and promotion in September. My writing habits tend to be stress-inducing at times like these, as I tend to jump from project to project, advancing them all more or less in parallel towards completion, rather than working on them serially and knocking them off one by one (as sane people tend to do, or so I am told). As a result, I have a cluster of papers all close to being done and I need to sit down with them over the next month and get 'em finished.

Always Be Closing. That will be my motto for the next four weeks.

Why one month? Well, mainly because at the end of May I am yet again packing myself into my trusty car and trundling off to London, ON to spend the balance of the summer with Kristen. Once there, I want to have the pesky uncompleted articles off my plate so I can focus on putting together a proposal for a book on HBO, and the preliminary writing thereof.

Hence The Wire re-watch. This will be an evening pursuit while I spend my days grinding my current crop of articles to completion. And then Deadwood. And then The Sopranos.

Did I mention that I love my job?

All this is by way of giving fair notice that you'll likely be seeing posts about all this over the next while. This blog has become, among other things, a place for me to think out loud, as it were—as evidenced in the zombies post and the one on Richard K. Morgan that attracted the attention of the man himself. And I've just started drafting something on The Wire and the logic of counterinsurgency.

You have been warned.

Weekly Wisdom

"I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal."
—Jane Austen

Thursday, April 22, 2010

End of term

Well, I'm pleased to see that the Master/Blaylock fight has received a decent response, with Miriam putting up a better fight than was expected. At the time of this posting, she is still only at half the Master's votes, but could still stage a comeback ...

Also, I reiterate my offer (plea!) to have guest-bloggers write fight accounts for upcoming battles. Specifically, if there are any Vampire Diaries fans out there who have an idea for how the Damon-Lestat fight should go, please let me know. As I have mentioned, I have never watched The Vampire Diaries, and included Damon because of the requests I received to do so. Even if you just want to give me the bullet points, I'm happy to do the actual writing. Email me here if you have any ideas. Failing that, I might have to bump up the Angel-Santanico fight to give myself time to watch a few episodes ...

Anyway, on non-vampire wars related subjects, my semester is done. DONE. Yesterday I submitted my final grades and am now looking at my summer research term with a relief and anticipation that makes the whole PhD worthwhile.

And as an upshot, I find myself at the office with nothing to do. Well, that's not true—I have at least a dozen things to do, but since none of them involve the immediacy of grading, class prep, lecturing, or administrative work, it's hard to make myself feel any sort of immediacy. So I had breakfast downtown this morning to celebrate the end of term, and then wandered out to Chapters to buy some books for the research term that really have nothing to do with any of my ongoing research.

Considering that the term just ended yesterday, I suppose I should feel justified in taking the day off. Why am I even at the office? This is one of those elements of the academic life that never really goes away. If Jews and Catholics have cornered the market on guilt, academics from grad school onward have at the very least a controlling share. It starts with the sense of always feeling you should be working on papers, but really only becomes pervasive with the writing of the dissertation: with term papers, you can at least time things so that you have breathing space at the end of a semester, but the thesis becomes an all-encompassing thing that is constantly whispering "you really ought to be working." For a glorious week after my defense, I would hear that voice, feel that nagging guilt, and realize that that thing I should be working on? Finished!

Of course, about a week is all you get—if that—before that voice comes back in force, this time coming at you from various directions, whispering publications—postdoc applications—job applications—conferences. And even once a full-time gig gets landed, it sort of goes full bore publish—publish—publish.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not complaining. I love this life, and I am myself pretty well equipped when it comes to strategically telling that voice to take a flying fuck at the moon. But I find it funny that force of habit brings me to the office when, at least for today, there is no earthly reason I need to be here. Aside from posting to my blog, of course.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cage Match: The Master vs. Miriam Blaylock

So here with are with Fighte the Firste, between the first boss of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the ancient vampire known only as The Master; and Miriam Blaylock, the über-fashionable and sexy immortal from The Hunger who inspired at least two generations of vampire-obsessed Goths.

And thanks to everyone who made their predictions in the comments section yesterday, but the first fight takes place in the poll button immediately to your right.

These fights, just as a side note, will not actually take place in a cage, but on one of the two vampires' home turfs. Miriam won this coin toss, and waits in her lavish New York townhouse for her opponent.


As the light fades, Miriam walks through her sumptuous rooms lighting candles to set the mood. She knows little of her assigned opponent, only that he goes by the name "The Master." Men, she thinks, so hubristic ... such febrile egos to grant themselves such titles. And gauche at that, she reflects—could he not have had at least a touch of subtlety in selecting his moniker? I shall use that. She reclines on her divan, artfully allowing the shadows to fall across her face.

She does not wait long. The door opens, and a figure steps into the parlour. She cannot see his face in the shadows, but he is dressed simply, in what looks like a plain black suit.

"Miriam Blaylock?" the voice is a file drawn across a rusty chain.

"Indeed." She uncrosses and crosses her legs. "And you are 'The Master'?"

He makes a sound that may be a laugh, may be a snort of derision. "Yes. You would do well not to put my name in scare quotes, madam."

He steps forward, and the light of a cluster of candles illuminates his face. In their flickering light, the deep ridges of his cheeks and brow stand out in stark relief like canyons. His eyes burn red. He smiles, bearing his teeth, as he hears Miriam's sharp intake of breath.

This is all wrong, she thinks. He isn't ... human. The immortals with whom she has crossed paths over her long life have been elegant, sometimes somewhat wasted and gaunt, but always with the insouciance that came with lives spent preying on willing, even slavish men and women. This one ... He radiates menace and cruelty, she thinks, her mind working fast.

Miriam forces herself to stand, to step forward and reach out a graceful manicured hand to touch The Master's cheek. The other fingers the ankh around her neck, ready to draw the hidden knife when she sees her moment.

"My dear," she purrs, "I see now that I am truly matched against a master. Perhaps this is wrong—let us not fight. Let me help you, and together we can do undreamt-of things."

She does not see his hand move. Suddenly he has her wrist in his crushing grip, and his other hand is around her throat,

"No," he says in an oddly resigned tone. "I no longer employ minions. They only disappoint. I work alone now."

Desperately, she draws the tiny blade from the ankh and plunges it unto his chest.

"Oh my dear, no. No, no, no." He chuckles, shaking his head. "You see, there are a lot of people in this tournament, worthy opponents, that I look forward to facing. And scores to settle, I might add. You're in my way. I'd say I was sorry I had to do this, but ... well, I'm really not."

And with that, he squeezes. Hard.

Projected Winner: THE MASTER

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Vampire cage matches — round one

So after careful consideration, consultation with experts and a little bit of guesswork, I have arrived at a final list of competitors and ranked them (I hope) appropriately.

Here's how things will go: matches will occur every three or four days, depending on how the voting goes. So, please vote! And please tell your friends to vote! I don't want these bouts decided 5-3 or anything pathetic like that. So if you've got a blog, post a link; tell your friends on Facebook to check it out; email those not on Facebook; and if you're really desperate, talk to people in person and tell them to come and weigh in. (I realize this last suggestion is a bit radical, but we want a good turnout).

Here are the scheduled matches:


The Master (Buffy) (1) vs.
Miriam Blaylock (The Hunger) (16)

Spike (Buffy, Angel) (5) vs.
Edward Cullen (Twilight) (12)

Lestat (Interview with the Vampire) (7) vs.
Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries) (10)

Angel (Buffy, Angel) (4) vs.
Santanico Pandemonium (From Dusk Till Dawn) (13)


Eric Northman (True Blood) (3) vs.
David (The Lost Boys) (14)

Marlow (Thirty Days of Night) (8) vs.
Drusilla (Buffy, Angel) (9)

Selene (Underworld) (6) vs.
Bill Compton (True Blood) (11)

Blade (Blade) (2) vs.
Max Schreck (Shadow of the Vampire) (15)

The fights will unfold in exactly this order, and I will post the first tomorrow.

ALSO: Anyone wishing to be a guest commentator/fight predictor is more than welcome. If there is a particular fight listed here you would like to write the blurb for, please let me know. I've already got the first two written, but everything else is open season. You can email me here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hoping for a slow news day

It's April 19th, and in the latest of a string of Tea Party-style demonstrations, today will feature an "armed march" on Washington D.C., in which gun fanatics—I'm sorry, Second Amendment advocates—will march on the Capitol with firearms proudly displayed in a symbolic gesture asserting their constitutional right to bear arms.

I wrote a much lengthier post on this subject, and on the paranoia infecting anti-government groups and their media cheerleaders on Saturday afternoon while invigilating an exam. I'm shelving that one for now, as it was turning into a much broader commentary on the paranoid style. I'll satisfy myself today with just observing that the criticism of the broader Tea Party movement as irrational, paranoid, hysterical, and racist has been broadly accused of cherry-picking the fringe elements and tarring the entire movement with that brush.

I have no doubt that, to a certain extent, this charge is true. I also have no doubt that a great many people flocking to the many, many various protests over the last few weeks and months are genuinely angry, and concerned over government spending. There are many points of valid argument to have here.

But when a protest involving weapons is scheduled on the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City? At that point it becomes difficult not to do a whole bunch of tarring with a rather big brush.

A few interesting articles:

I hope everyone joins me in wishing our American brethren a monumentally uneventful April 19th.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Vampire cage matches

I have a hefty stack of exams to grade sitting on my dining room table downstairs, so naturally I am playing with Blogger and investigating all the fun little gadgets and template upgrades I have been blissfully ignorant of until now. I have discovered that I can add a poll application, which will allow you, my lovely readers, to vote on whatever question I choose to put to you.

No voting today—just an idea. I follow the blog of George R. R. Martin, partly to look for indications that his next Ice & Fire novel will be finished soon, but also because he's a funny and engaging blogger in his own right. In the last few weeks, the SF/Fantasy news blog Suvudu has done a March Madness series of fantasy cage matches, in which they have pitted characters from fantasy novels (including Gandalf, Aragorn, Dumbledore, Roland from Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Drizzt Do'Urden from R.A. Salvatore's the Forgotten Realms series, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu, Aslan, Eragon, and Jaime Lannister from Ice & Fire—hence Martin's interest) against each other in fights to the death. The blog writers provided little sketches of how they imagined the fights would go, and suggested a projected winner, but the results were ultimately left up to fan voting—often with surprising results. You can review the results in the left masthead of the Suvudu site—I won't spoil the fun by offering spoilers.

It was, to borrow a recently coined term, enough to give one a geekgasm.

After my first exam yesterday, I took my students down to the Duke of Duckworth for a drink, and at one point the conversation drifted into an extended riff on the general crappiness of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. I of course brought up the brilliant t-shirt, modeled beautifully by Nikki Stafford here, that says "... and then Buffy staked Edward. The End." And as will often happen in such conversations, there was much speculation on just how badly Edward Cullen would get his ass handed to him if he were to encounter Buffy, or Angel, or Blade, or Spike, or really any other vampire / vampire killer out there.

Which brings me to my funky blogger polling app. I propose a series of vampire cage matches, modeled on (or stolen from, if you prefer) the Suvudu model. I will take sixteen vamps (the full thirty-two would just be unwieldy), arrive at a ranking, and pair them off appropriately. I will write a blurb suggesting how the fight will go, project a winner, and open the match up to voting. Sound good?

I've arrived at a first draft list of vamps, but would like reader input. If you think I've missed someone important or included someone who shouldn't be there, let me know. I will take all suggestions under consideration. Here are the rules:

  1. This is exclusively a film and television tournament. The vampires must have a specific incarnation on the big or small screen, and in the event that a character appears in different forms (e.g. Lestat in Interview vs. Queen of the Damned), one must be specified.
  2. NO DRACULAS. Two reasons: first, it hardly seems fair to the others. Second, there are so damn many versions out there, we could have a tournament simply among his various film incarnations. An idea for the future perhaps, but let's leave the daddy of all vamps on the sidelines for this one, OK?

Um, OK. That's it. Just those two rules.

Here's my draft list, which is totally open to suggestions for change. And if it seems heavy on the Buffy/Angel characters, that's only because Joss Whedon is a god. Not THE god. But certainly A god.

Selene (Underworld)
Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)
Lestat (Interview with the Vampire)
Miriam Blaylock (The Hunger)
Blade (Blade)
Darla (Buffy, Angel)
David (The Lost Boys—you know, the Jack Bauer vamp)
Akasha (Queen of the Damned)
Bill Compton (True Blood)
Edward Cullen (Twilight)
Spike (Buffy, Angel)
Marlow (Thirty Days of Night)
Charles Bromley (Daybreakers)
Max Schreck (Shadow of the Vampire)
The Master (Buffy)
Santanico Pandemonium (From Dusk Till Dawn)

OK, let's hear everyone's thoughts—and the way they should be ranked, too.

Sigh. And now, back to grading exams ...

Saturday, April 17, 2010


I realized yesterday that I have posted every single day this week—something that quite possibly hasn't happened ever, and certainly not since the heady early days of this humble blog.

Well, not one to want to break a streak, but not having anything burning that I need to share, here's some cute filler in the form of my cat. I haven't posted any Clarence pics in a while, so I figure I'm due. Here's my guy "helping" me grade essays:

On a sort of related note, I went to see How To Train Your Dragon last week, which is a film I heartily recommend for adults and children alike. The story is kind of straightforward and typical: set in a Viking village that has been at war with dragons for generations, the awkward misfit son of the chief, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, who is everywhere these days), befriends a dragon and learns to fly it; in the process, he realizes that the enmity between Vikings and dragons is entirely wrong-headed. More stuff happens, he and his dragon (whom he named "Toothless") save the day, etc. etc. It is charming and beautiful to watch, and inherently comical because the film made the aesthetic decision to give Vikings Scottish accents, and to cast Craig Ferguson as one of the voice actors besides.

I think my favourite aspect of the film however came in the certainty, when the dragon Toothless first appears, that whoever animated him owns a cat. This, for example, is pure feline pissed-offedness:

There is one scene in particular when Hiccup, still in the early stages of befriending the dragon, is looking for Toothless. We see the dragon before he does, hiding crouched behind a rock with only his narrowed eyes and folded ears showing. That gave me a little frisson—how many times have I looked up to see Clarence in exactly that pose, ready to pounce on my head?

And then of course there is the look I'm used to getting first thing in the morning, when I'm still groggy with sleep but my cat is awake and perched on my chest and wanting food and/or entertainment:

Ah, good times. This August I will have had Clarence for ten years.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lockett’s first law of internet-based research

My tendency for the last few years has been to take a hard line on students doing research for their papers on the internet. In fact, for first- and second-year courses, the rule very simply is: DON'T. If in your works cited I see a web address, the paper will receive an automatic fail.

Obviously I will make exceptions in certain classes, and I relax this rule entirely for fourth-year seminars and graduate courses, but for the most part I have become a tyrant about this sort of thing. I have a number of reasons for this.

  1. I belong to that endearingly obsolete group of people who believe that going into the actual library is an invaluable learning experience, and that doing research from books fires important parts of the brain that otherwise atrophy when a simple word search finds students the convenient line or phrase they can quote. Call it a character-building exercise if you like, but knowledge is contextual, and working through the stuff that surrounds the conveniently quotable line or phrase—even if you're just skimming—expands your understanding of the subject. More often than not, it also leads to the discovery of material even more relevant or valuable than what you'd been specifically searching for.
  2. Many students will grasp what qualifies as an authoritative source; many will not. As a case in point: the very first time I TA'd a course, on the very first essay, a student cited two online essays he had found. Now, the student in question wrote a solid paper, a B that with a few tweaks could have been a B+ or even an A. The essays he cited were also first-year English compositions (posted to the web by their professor for reasons passing understanding), neither of which I would have given a grade above a C. So in this instance I had a student quoting as authorities essays by students dumber than him.
  3. The likelihood of students citing poor sources increases in direct proportion to their haste and/or laziness. As a case in point: a friend of mine, when teaching a course on Holocaust literature, received a final essay that quoted from and—white supremacist websites with pages dedicated to Holocaust denial. My friend said that it was obvious from the way the student quoted these sites, he was not himself a Neo-Nazi—he just didn't actually bother to read what he was quoting, or really to pay attention to the proudly displayed images of fascist symbology. The entire paper read, my friend continued, as a totally night-before rush job.
  4. The most commonly-used web resource—Wikipedia—is the antithesis of scholarly authority. One day if I find myself teaching a basic composition course, I will give my students an object lesson in why this is the case. I will assign a crash assignment, to be completed and submitted within forty-eight hours. I will make up a bogus topic—say, the Albanian Wheat Riots of 1875—and instruct them that I want five hundred words detailing the key issues involved. I will then walk from class to my office and write a lengthy and detailed entry on Wikipedia about the Albanian Wheat Riots of 1875, and see just how many of my students quote my fictional history back to me.

All that being said, it's really reason #1 that most drives this Luddite impulse—I do firmly believe that discovering the library and wading through the stacks is one of the most valuable learning experiences for students in the liberal arts ... and the more thorough a familiarity they have with traditional research, the better equipped they are to distinguish between genuinely useful web resources and, oh, I dunno ... someone's blog rants, for example.

Which is not to suggest that I bear absolute antipathy to resources like Wikipedia—on the contrary, it is a fabulously useful starting point when approaching a topic you have absolutely no familiarity with, or a tool to use to remind yourself of pesky details that have slipped your memory. Plus, the theory behind open-source software is really cool, and actually realizes some of the democratic potential touted back when the Web was in its infancy (oh, days of innocence).

Then there are the times Wikipedia is utterly reliable. This occurred to me when I did my zombie post a few days ago—in looking up all the zombie films made in the last eighty years, I had no qualms about Wikipedia's numbers. Why? Because this was a topic I was quite confident would have been combed over my many eyes. Why? Because of the very popularity of zombie films, and the quasi-obsessiveness of their many fans. The geek mindset, en masse, will ultimately arrive at a thoroughly and exhaustively vetted catalogue.

This realisation led me to formulate what will hopefully become a series of laws regarding internet-based research. Lockett's First Law of Internet-Based Research is thus as follows:


By way of explanation: we've probably all come across those oddly lengthy and exhaustive Wikipedia entries on random topics like, say, the Southern Spotted Corn Snake. And you just know that that entry was probably written by a biology grad student whose entire research corpus has been on the Southern Spotted Corn Snake. Which, ironically, makes it authoritative from a scholarly perspective, but not an open-source perspective—lacking, as it does, dozens of other people to comb through it and fix whatever points, minor or major, the author got wrong.

Conversely, when approaching a topic with a huge and obsessive number of interested people—Star Trek, let's say—we can be pretty close to absolutely certain that every item entered on the variety of wiki-pages dedicated to it will have been subjected to the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of hairy eyeballs, who will correct (probably in high dudgeon) the spelling of Deforest Kelly to DeForest Kelley and point out that Sulu fenced with an epée and not a foil (that may be incorrect).

This does, however, lead us to the corollary rule that the more reliable a Wikipedia entry, the greater the likelihood of that topic's essential triviality. Ah, well ...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Zombies, cont’d: the extinction of the liberal intelligentsia

Well, the zombie paper post certainly excited more conversation than this blog has seen in some time. In fact, my usually vacant comment sections have seen more traffic of late, mainly because I seem to have hit a trifecta: (1) post about terrorism, (2) post about zombies, and (3) post about an author and have that author respond. Well, in the interests of keeping up momentum, here's another z-post.

One of the phenomena associated with zombies in popular culture I didn't touch on is the subculture of enthusiasts who share contingency plans for zombie outbreaks and the imminent zombie apocalypse. Facebook is rife with them, from the close-to-home (M.A.Z.E., or the "MUN Association of Zombie Experts") to the humorously named "The Hardest Part of a Zombie Apocalypse Will be Pretending I'm Not Excited," which has in the neighbourhood of 150,000 members. Similarly, try plugging "how to survive a zombie attack" into YouTube and see how many homemade film shorts offering step-by-step instructions pop up. There are a lot of people out there who have devoted a great deal of time and effort to planning their contingency plans (the apex of which is Max Brooks' bestseller The Zombie Survival Guide), which is fair enough—after all, the numerous films featuring a small, embattled group of people trying to survive does tend to inspire you to imagine how you might fare in a comparable situation.

It did occur to me yesterday however, while chatting with a student about the zombie post, that the most likely demographic to survive the zombie apocalypse is a cause for distress and despair for milquetoast liberal intellectuals like myself. But only briefly, because we'd be the first to get eaten.

No, the people who survived would be total Tea Party types—gun enthusiasts, militias, Christian end-timers, the kind of people most likely to live in barricaded compounds well-stocked with canned food and ammunition. Unarmed urban types? Zombie fodder. Plus, we have bigger and tastier brains, so we'd attract the first waves.

On the other hand, there's the lovely irony that the Taliban and al-Qaeda would probably also fare pretty well, what with their mountainous hideaways and comparable weapons stock. The post-zombie world would be an interesting one.

There are a few story ideas here, I think. Imagine a scenario in which a liberal university professor rents a cabin in the Michigan wilderness, and falls in with a Christian militia when the zombie outbreak occurs. Oh, the psychological drama!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Heaven on their minds

This is fun. By way of Andrew Sullivan's blog at The Atlantic online, I found this review of After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, a history of the evolution of the nature and shape of those afterlives. Having finished this term teaching Paradise Lost, in the course of which I always do a riff on the geography of Heaven and Hell as imagined by Milton—in contrast, most specifically, to Dante—this is a book I think I need to add to my summer reading. I was asked by a student when we started imagining Heaven as being a giant cloud inhabited by bewinged, harp-playing angels, and I had no answer. Aside from those asinine Philly Cheese commercials, I honestly couldn't tell you.

This is my favourite part of the review:

Many writers on heaven, from Philo of Alexandria onwards, are inclined to stress the intellectual delights of heaven. Philo seems to think that all the saved will be able to indulge in philosophy seminars, making heaven a kind of Oxford graduate college, like All Souls. My own favourite is the image of some medieval rabbis, who saw heaven as a vast, quiet, peaceful library, where books jumped down from the shelves when you nodded to them, and soft-footed librarians dispersed cooling mint drinks.

That sounds pretty good to me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I haz seen teh zombiez, and dey is us

Today's main task is to compose my paper proposal for this year's Canadian Association of American Studies (CAAS) conference. When the conference theme was announced as "Health/Care/Nation," my first thought was "Oh, I am TOTALLY writing a paper on zombies."

I've been working at the basic outline of what I want to write, which is going to be a reading of the zombie as embodying the "nightmare of excess" (working title: "The Triumph of Death: Zombies and the Nightmare of Excess"). My thought is that zombies have functioned as ideal ciphers in horror films: they always stand in for something else, be it creeping conformity, communist collectivity, rapacious mindless consumerism, viral pandemics, or stoned slackerdom.

Zombies, in my reading, exert the fascination they do because they are the ultimate embodiment of what theorist Julia Kristeva figures as "abjection"—the abject, she says, is that "which is not-I," something inescapably Other, that which is excess to us. A key example of what she means is our squeamish relation to our own bodily fluids: blood, mucus, excrement, pus, saliva, etc. As long as these are out of sight and contained, we are fine with them; revulsion is however our principal reaction when they become exterior to us, a reaction ramped up even further when they happen to belong to other people. We try to maintain an out-of-sight, out-of-mind relationship to such detritus at all times, and are discomfited when presented with the reality of our own excess—be that our own excrescences or the waste we produce simply as a matter of consumption. Kristeva makes the argument that the ultimate expression of abjection is the corpse, and the more obviously dead (i.e. mutilated or decayed), the greater our fear and revulsion.

Thus, the zombie exemplifies the abjection of excess—and given that excess is the product of consumption, the zombie's mindless drive to eat the living is the ultimate act of consumption designed to transform us into more excess. With this in mind, I have to wonder if zombies have ultimately come to be less ciphers for other fears than simply being the thing themselves. By which I mean they are what my fellow Americanist David Evans at Dalhousie (speaking of trash) calls a "stubbornly senseless singularity"—what Slavoj Zizek terms the "indivisible remainder" and Lacan would probably figure in some terms of a horrifying and inescapable Real (Lacanians, help me out on this one).

This isn't to suggest that they don't also represent all that other stuff I mentioned, but the very profusion of zombies in popular culture recently—an excess of excess, if you like—itself makes this reading rather more convincing. In the last eight years or so, we have reached a critical mass of the zombie genre: the Resident Evil franchise, 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, George Romero's own recent contributions Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, and of course comical takes like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. On television, BBC produced a remarkably good miniseries titled Dead Set, in which the sole survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the contestants on the set of Big Brother. There have also been such films as I am Legend, Quarantine, Carriers, and The Crazies, which may not be strictly zombie films but certainly employ the standard z-film tropes; and of course there have been the hugely popular Max Brooks books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (with the latter currently in film development).

And these are just the mainstream examples. Out of curiosity, and to make sure I wasn't making a claim that simply wasn't true, I found a list of zombie films made since White Zombie premiered in 1932. Keeping in mind that this is a Wikipedia list and thus not ironclad, the numbers are nevertheless staggering. Between 1932-2001, there were 216 zombie films produced, which averages out to about three a year; from 2002-2009 there were 317. Three hundred and frakkin' seventeen! Which means, to put it in perspective, that in those eight years, fifty percent more zombie films were produced than in the sixty-nine years previously—an average of forty per year.

Several things leap out at me here. First and foremost is the timing: when I break down the 2002-2009 by year, I find that 2002 had a paltry eight films, which is of a piece with 2001 (eleven), 2000 (nine) and 1999 (six), while 2003 jumps to twenty-six (with numbers more or less climbing every year to the sixty-four that came out in 2009). Taking into account the time it takes to get a film into production, film it, and release it, this makes the zombie explosion pretty emphatically a post-9/11 phenomenon. As discussed in my previous post about terrorism on the large vs. small screen, Hollywood has largely eschewed representations of terrorism, instead sublimating such spectacles into films like Transformers and War of the Worlds. Do we also now lump zombie films into the morass of post-9/11 anxiety?

It seems an unavoidable thing. The question is, and what I throw out to my loyal readers, is this: what is it about post-9/11 fear and anxiety that inspires this "nightmare of excess"?

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.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Masculinity and violence and Richard K. Morgan

I recently finished reading Richard K. Morgan's novel Black Man. Morgan is a very interesting writer; he fuses extrapolative SF and cyberpunk with the hard-boiled sensibility of a Dashiel Hammett or Mickey Spillane. I was first turned on to his work when I acted as the external examiner for an MA thesis about the interfaces between human and machine. I read two of his novels, Altered Carbon and Woken Furies in quick succession; and when I saw Black Man for sale at a secondhand book sale a few weeks ago at MUN, I snapped it up.

Besides being able to tell a good yarn, Morgan immediately interested me from an academic angle as well. His books are thought-provoking but also frequently infuriating. He is thematically preoccupied with the relationship between certain incarnations of masculinity and violence; his protagonists in the three novels I have read are genetically, chemically or technologically enhanced übermensch, so tailored for the purpose of carrying out military actions impossible for unmodified humans. When we encounter Morgan's warrior-men (Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon and Woken Furies, Carl Marsalis in Black Man), their military service is in the past and they exist as (effectively) soldiers of fortune shunned and feared by the authorities on whose behalf they had committed atrocities.

Hence, one of the broader dialogues in Morgan's work is between civilization and its other, between the platitudes of enlightened society and the blood and violence that made it possible. Kovacs and Marsalis are out of place because they are the uncomfortable reminder of this otherwise disavowed reality. While the Kovacs novels leave this more or less implicit (glaringly obvious but ultimately unremarked), Black Man makes it a central point of discussion, to the point at times of being pedantic.

Black Man is a somewhat more ambitious novel in terms of its philosophical and sociological themes, and also rather more immediate to the present moment. Where Altered Carbon and Woken Furies take place in a more distant future (some five or six centuries down the line, if memory serves), Black Man is more rigorously extrapolative, taking place a little more than a hundred years from today, and envisioning a future rooted in our current geopolitical realities. China is the principal world power, balanced by a more active and engaged United Nations. The United States has been partitioned into three: the Rim States, a coalition of west-coast states that most closely resembles William Gibson's freewheeling technological free markets; the Confederated Republic, a Nativist, Christian and reactionary entity comprising the Midwest and the South, and disparagingly nicknamed "Jesusland"; and the Union, the east-coast states more inclined to throw their fortunes in with the U.N. The other major global power broker is a massive corporation responsible for the colonization of Mars, named The Colony Initiative, or simply COLIN.

Central to the narrative are a race of genetically enhanced males that go by the label Variant Thirteen. The "thirteens," one of the characters informs us in one of the novel's lengthy and didactic expositions, were developed to fight wars that Western democracies could no longer fight—the reason being that aggression, the need for dominance and the willingness to do violence had effectively been bred out of the "feminised" West. Meanwhile, they were fighting and losing in a series of ongoing wars because "we're up against enemies who eat, sleep and breathe hatred for everything we represent, who don't care if they die screaming so long as they take a few of us with them." Morgan's twenty-first century is one in which the current war on terrorism seems to have spread into an endemic, constant state of hostility, one in which the west's liberal and democratic sensibilities prove to be its Achilles' heel. After several failed initiatives, the variant thirteen is created: "Pre-civilised humans," they are described as, "Everything we used to be, everything we've been walking away from since we planted our first crops and made our first laws and built our first cities." The thirteens, in addition to various chemical enhancements, were regressed to a pre-agrarian sensibility, to what is essentially a primeval masculinity.

At this point in reading (around page 100 in a 600-page novel), it occurred to me that Black Man would be an interesting novel to put in conversation with Fight Club—another novel that idealizes a pre-modern, hunter-gatherer (with the emphasis on hunter) masculinity. A key passage has Tyler Durden imagining life after his Project Mayhem has destroyed civilization:

"Imagine," Tyler said, "stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you'll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you'll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles."

Fight Club was very much of a piece with the so-called "crisis of masculinity" in the 1990s, which featured such elements as Robert Bly's Iron John, the Promise Keepers Christian movement, and the "Menz Movement" with its nature retreats in which men regressed themselves to drum-banging, loincloth-wearing simulacra of Primitive Man. What set Fight Club apart was its preoccupation with violence as somehow intrinsic to "authentic" masculinity. (In this respect, at least, Chuck Palahniuk did not sanitize the nostalgia for pre-civilized man as simply being about getting back to nature.)

Black Man is a great deal more nuanced and complex than Fight Club (though that's a pretty low bar): while exhibiting the same relationship between the alpha male and violence, it is a lot more ambivalent about it. In a variety of ways, Black Man is pretty glaringly a post-9/11 novel; the above description of the west's "enemies" that the thirteens were created to combat echoes a prevalent anxiety arising following the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon. As Susan Faludi observes in her remarkable book The Terror Dream, "post-9/11 commentaries were riddled with apprehensions that America was lacking in masculine fortitude, that the masses of weak-chinned BlackBerry clutchers had left the nation wide open to attack and wouldn't have the cojones for the confrontations ahead." Faludi carefully chronicles the series of articles and op-ed pieces following the attacks slamming the "feminised" American male, lamenting the passing of the John Wayne sensibility from the nation, or characterising feminism as a veritable fifth column holding a knife to America's heart (and other body parts). In Morgan's imagined future, the war on terror has expanded and is kicking the west's ass, necessitating the resurrection of Primal Man.

The description quoted above of "enemies who eat, sleep and breathe hatred for everything we represent" reminded me rather vividly of Michael Scheuer's characterization of in his book Imperial Hubris. Scheuer was a high-ranking CIA operative who had headed up the bin Laden unit in the late 1990s, and published Imperial Hubris anonymously in 2004 as a scathing attack on the Bush Administration's prosecution of the War on Terror. Those in the administration, like Rumsfeld, who imagined the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan would be a cakewalk, suffered from a complete misunderstanding of their foes. In what was to become an understandably controversial analogy, Scheuer likened Al-Qaeda to Robert E. Lee's confederate army: "Like Lee's boys, the mujahideen are often dirty, unkempt, bearded, armed with a variety of weapons, rarely paid, and haphazardly supplied. And like Lee's boys, they are aflame with courage, audaciousness, commitment to their cause, optimism, and religious zeal."

I'm not suggesting that Morgan cribbed from Scheuer, but the tone of grudging (or not so grudging) admiration for the enemy in Imperial Hubris is comparable to Morgan's own depiction of über-masculinity in Black Man and the Kovacs novels. Though he does introduce notes of ambivalence into his narratives, and offers a character in Black Man who makes the interesting observation that "we index how civilised a nation is by the level of female participation it enjoys"—and indeed does effectively posit such "feminised" cultures as desirable societal evolution—there is an extent to which the text is as enamoured of its alpha males as the various female characters who succumb to their masculine appeal, violence and all. And it is in these moments of seduction—which are really moments of succumbing, more than anything else—that Morgan's narrative voice and prose are at their weakest. Morgan is one of those otherwise accomplished authors who write really bad sex scenes. Otherwise, he writes in a hard-edged prose reminiscent of Chandler and Hammett, with some lovely lyrical moments; when the inevitable sex scenes occur, they read like Penthouse letters written by someone with an English degree.

These are the scenes which leave the sourest taste, for besides being cringe-inducing, they serve to confirm how taken the text is with the very species of masculinity it seeks to critique.

That being said, there is enough ambivalence and ambiguity, and indeed sheer intelligence, present in Morgan's writing to mitigate most of his bad habits and tendencies. I do recommend his novels for this reason, but be prepared at times to want to slam it down on the table (it is for this reason that I am unlikely to ever buy a Kindle—it's harder to act out when a novel pisses you off when doing so means breaking a $400 device).

At any rate, sorry for the overly lengthy post, and if you made it to the end, thanks for reading. This is me thinking out loud (blogging out loud?) on a topic that might find its way into article form. So comments or criticism are more than welcome.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter thoughts

Some time ago I was asked by a philosophy professor with whom I was friends what my religion was. The question was asked diffidently, politely, with the caveat that I didn't have to answer if I didn't want to. I said not to worry, that I was a lapsed Catholic—in response to which, my questioner smiled and said "Oh, excellent. Those are the best kind!" His reasoning for this response was interesting: he said that every person should be raised in the ritual and theatre of the Catholic church, with all its concomitant elements of guilt and anxiety, of scriptural exegesis and catechism ... and then at a certain point, make a break. What this does, he suggested, was to give one an innate understanding of symbol and metaphor and grand mythology, of the potential grandeur of spirituality, while leaving room for a principled rejection of the church's hidebound doctrine and quasi-medieval dogma. An apprenticeship for the imagination, he said, and the groundwork for an ethical intellect.

I always remember that conversation fondly, as it put into words something that I had felt for some time. For all of Catholicism's doctrinal fetishes, its capacity for instilling wonder and an appreciation for the role played by symbolism and metaphor in everyday life is pretty spectacular. I wouldn't say that growing up Catholic trained me for a career in literary criticism, but it certainly didn't hurt. And in terms of intellectual rigor as regards textual interpretation, the Jesuits are matched only by Talmudic scholars. Plato and Aristotle might have been the first literary critics, but they were concerned with the social role of poetry; St. Augustine was the first to really tell us about the levels of meaning in a text, and he scoffed at anyone who read scripture as literal truth. To read the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth, he commented, would give one "no end of laughter." Creationists and fundamentalists take note!

I can laugh about being a lapsed Catholic and be grateful for the lessons I learned in my religious upbringing, but it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the ironic distance to the church afforded the lapsed with each new revelation of abuse. At what point, I find myself wondering, do we reach critical mass? It has been apparent to objective observers for some time that such abuse has been endemic, but church officials and apologists have been somewhat able to maintain that previous revelations were isolated incidents perpetrated by disturbed individuals (they have been less able to account for the consistent cover-ups). But the latest slew of revelations from Germany, Ireland, Wisconsin, and within the Vatican itself—as well as widening scandals in Brazil, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—make it next to impossible to see the abuse of children by Catholic clergy as anything less than pervasive and endemic.

That does not of course prevent the church's apologists for trying. Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope's personal preacher, wins the dubious award for the most egregious statement, in which he compared the attacks on the church to the Holocaust. Professional angry person Bill Donohue claims that because most of the abuse cases involved adolescents, it was not a question of pedophilia but homosexuality, and through a logical turn understood only to him thus claims that the fault lies not with the church but "the gays."

Ross Douthat characterizes the cases of abuse as historically specific to the last twenty to thirty years and caused, in part, by the eras of sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s. Seriously. He writes, "The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the '70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era's overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.)" Now, I'm just guessing here, but I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the priests who committed outrages against aboriginal students in residential schools in northern Ontario, or against the orphans of Mount Cashel here in Newfoundland, were not unduly influenced by Woodstock and Erica Jong. I'll go one further and suggest that it was the "permissive" culture of the last thirty or forty years that finally created a cultural climate allowing victims of abuse to step forward and testify to the crimes committed against them, and that if we had the means to do so we would discover that clerical abuse of children and adolescents has been common for centuries.

There has of course been much hand-wringing over the issue of enforced celibacy for priests, but that misses what I think is the most crucial point—that sexual abuse, like rape, is not about sex but power. The abuse itself is horrifying, but the consistent refusal of the church to clean house, to defrock offenders, and indeed their tendency to cover up and paper over incidents is as much a demonstration of this basic principle as anything else we have seen happen. Power, especially political power, invariably seeks to hide the evidence of its own failings. The massive, byzantine, secretive entity that is the Catholic church is living proof of the old adage that what begins in ritual ends in politics.