Two Novels

Thursday 31 December 2009, 11:09 pm   ////  

This year I read, years after their publication in English, two truly awesome novels.

The Great Fire of LondonThe Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, by Jacques Roubaud (trans. Dominic Di Bernardi) is an incredible project. The interesting formal structure contributed less to the profound effect of the book than I had expected, perhaps because so much else is accomplished in so many other ways. Roubaud describes writing as destructive of memory, not in the sense that Plato’s Thales sees writing as leading to an atrophy of one’s capability to remember. Rather, writing about something we remember is an act that burns away our memory, leaving us only the text and the memory of writing. The project of the book was occasioned by a dream in which Roubaud realized that he had to write a novel called The Great Fire of London. He waited seventeen years, turning over the memory of this dream, before beginning to write this book, which, among other things, describes his inability to write that novel; states the author’s preferences for walking over running and his conception of himself as a walker and swimmer; describes some of his life with and his dealing with the death of his wife, Alix; and affirms that one can write in order to live. The book is transfixing, and unlike anything I have read up to the point. Roubaud, since he completed this book (it was published in 1989), has gone on to write five more volumes. The second of these is now available in English as The Loop.

The Savage Detectives The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (trans. Natasha Wimmer) is quite different: about literary dynamics on a country-wide scale and beyond, and more about social interactions than memory, individual loss, and identity. The book traces the lives of some poets associated with the fictional literary movement “visceral realism.” The fairly short first and last sections of the book are narrated (and purportedly written, as diary entries) by an often surprised, often pedantic, often very sexually occupied poet, García Madero. The middle section provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives on literary and ordinary moments in life throughout the world, in an amazing change ringing of voices. The breadth of the book is incredible, as are the different experiences and viewpoints it offers:

Luis Sebastián Rosado, Mexico City DF, July 1976: The question burst from me as if of its own accord: have you slept with María? His reply (my god, what a sad, beautiful profile Luscious Skin had) was devastating. He said: I’ve slept with every poet in Mexico.
Amadeo Salvatierra, Mexico City DF, January 1976: And then one of them opened the bottle and poured forth some of the nectar of the gods into our respective glasses, the same ones we’d been drinking before, which some consider a sign of slovenliness and others the ultimate refinement, since when the glass is, shall we say, glazed with mezcal, the tequila is more at ease, like a naked woman in a fur coat.
Barbara Patterson, San Diego, California, October 1982: Then we would be quiet with the TV on, each of us absorbed in our own scrambled eggs, our pieces of lettuce, our tomato slices, and I would think what life lessons are you talking about, you poor bastard, you poor jerk, what poor lessons did you ever learn, you pathetic leech, you pathetic loser, you fucking asshole, if it weren’t for me you’d be sleeping under a bridge. But I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him, and that was all.

The final part reveals what happened immediately after the first, in which some characters flee north into the desert of Sonora. It is even more horrible that I had imagined, and is a suitable finish for a book that, as its title declares, is about scrutinizing the worst that the world has to offer.

Babyfucker

Tuesday 20 October 2009, 8:36 pm   /////  
Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, trans. Peter Smith, biligual edition, Les Figues Press, 2010

Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, trans. Peter Smith, biligual edition, Les Figues Press, 2010

“… mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men.” —Borges

Babyfucker is far more disturbing than the title suggests. The book, written by a Swiss author, spawned a controversy in Germany in 1991. It begins unabashedly with the sentence “I fuck babies,” which the narrator declares to be his sentence. It is the reader’s sentence, too. However, there are no detailed representations of infant pedophilia. There is terse, detached description of an impossible garret, filled with baskets of babies, supplied with a spigot and drain for morphine-laced milk; trepidation at humanity and new life; a man who sees himself in the mirror as a baby — then as made up, limb by limb, of babies. If there are specific sexual visions here, they must belong mainly to the reader, not the text. Among other unsettling things, the volume (which is yellow and pink, tiny, and cute) shows the reader’s involvement in literary atrocities, in any violation committed by shared imagination.

Comics Are Great when Your Life Sucks

Tuesday 8 September 2009, 12:55 am   ///  

Comics are written by people whose lives suck, for people whose lives suck. Obviously, that’s not entirely true. Alternative comics do seem to be highly in touch with the lameness of life, though, whether they’re chronicling lynchings in the American South, exploring the emotional suffering of outcasts, or taking us through people’s decisions and indecision.

Since this blog is about digital media sorts of things as well as “other stuff [I] like,” I thought I’d note and briefly comment on a few graphic novels that I’ve read recently, even if nothing here feeds directly into computer conversations.

At Henry Jenkins’s recommendation, I read volume one of Jeremy Love’s Bayou, a comic about a girl whose father is a sharecropper and who faces a series of violent and historically apt horrors. This comic, in color, blends in a dreamworld of fabular elements to interesting effect, although the “truth” side of the story ends up being more terrifying and compelling than the “fiction.” For this reason, I think I enjoyed and learned from Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro even more. This black-and-white comic tells of a black reporter who can pass as white and who goes to the South to document lynchings. Both comics show the strength of family ties and feature a sheriff who is, compared to the lynch mob, a somewhat good guy. Bayou‘s play with fantasy and folklore is nice, but I think Incognegro does even better, incorporating an incredible plot twist and keeping the action within a historical world.

The most dark, bitter, depressing, and hopeless sequential thing I’ve seen recently was Josh Simmons’s House. Three people meet up and explore a huge dilapidated ruin of a house. Guess what happens. Yep, except it’s even worse than you imagine.

I liked Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson a lot. It’s the story of a high school student in Hawaii, a good student who ends up getting involved with drugs and then with despairing criminals for what seems like no particular reason – there’s not much else to do, though. Miss Lasko-Gross has a more amusing tale of school days in Escape from “Special,” which chronicles a younger student’s educational, social, and religious difficulties.

I really liked Dupuy and Berberian’s Maybe Later, a collaboratively written and drawn journal of the duo’s experiences writing and drawing Mr. Jean comics. I’m now reading some of those comics, translated and collected as Get a Life. Dupuy and Berberian don’t divide up the writing and drawing, but actually collaborate at each stage of the comic-creation process, from conception through to execution, much as I’ve collaborated as a writer with Scott Rettberg (Implementation) and William Gillespie (2002, The Ed Report).

Finally, David Mazzucchello’s Asterios Polyp is brilliant, with incredible writing and art. It’s well worth the price and the effort of carrying the hefty book home. The book’s form recalls that of an architecture book and is perfectly apt for this tale of a architecture professor who is a jerk, flawed, and incomplete – who loses the most important thing in his life, loses everything else, and decides to live, to listen and watch life, and to keep searching.

Web Comics Touched by the Brush

Tuesday 28 July 2009, 12:46 am   /////  

The Moon Fell on Me is an infrequent, gemlike Web comic by the itinerant Franklin Einspruch, who happened to come to my recent interactive fiction talk at AXIOM. He told me he was trying to do something different with this Web project. Visit his site even briefly and you’ll see that he has done it. No pen was used in the creation of this Web comic. The panels are not organized to lead toward jokes. The lines of images are clearly based on personal experience, but they reach out beyond an individual or subculture. Instead of the occasionally hilarious, forward-a-link, forget-in-moment frames of the typical Web comic – however incisive that comic might be about geeks or life or both – The Moon Fell on Me offers sequential art that is worth looking at again and again, that resonates with its moment and seems worth contemplating beyond it.

Poemland

Friday 5 June 2009, 12:39 pm   /////  
Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009

Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009

Minnis, confronting poetry, hurls a fruit salad. The pages of the eleven sections of this book have only a few lines each, most ending in ellipses. The images (“getting hit with a folding chair / And being held by your braids…”) accumulate and converse (“I’ll chop your head off! / And I’ll carry it around by the hair…”), commenting on various vague situations and on poetry (“It’s like trying to drink a bottle of champagne in a roadside bathroom…”) You might imagine that it’s boring to hear poets yammer about writing poems and being poets (“If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream…”). Not so. Via references to fashion and offbeat interpersonal statements, the lines of Poemland connect the concerns of our poetry subculture (poverty, recognition, originality, connection to the past, authenticity) to culture more broadly. The book is fun to read from line to line, too (“With this book I have made a very expensive joke…”) and is beautifully and aptly designed.

New Media Art

Saturday 16 May 2009, 7:37 pm   //////  
New Media Art, Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, Taschen, 2006

New Media Art, Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, Taschen, 2006

Here’s a nice slice of recent digital art – online, in performance, and installed – expertly introduced. The book is well-illustrated (no surprise from this publisher) and has a welcome emphasis on the computational. Sure, some of the purest pieces of software art (Galloway’s fork bomb, obfuscated code, and the like) aren’t mentioned, but port scanning, packet sniffing, and the glitchy transformation of HTML are all represented. As with all Basic Genre Series books, there’s an introduction followed by page spreads, each on a single work. The format has its pros and cons, but the results, in this case, certainly offer a nice adjunct to Christiane Paul’s similarly introductory book, Digital Art. The engagement of artists with social issues, the critique of technology, video gaming, and free software are particularly evident in New Media Art. And, how great that Super Mario Clouds and the work of Jodi now sit on the shelf beside books on abstract expressionism, Greek art, and the still life.

Miss America

Friday 15 May 2009, 6:04 pm   /////  
Miss America, Catherine Wagner, Fence Books, 2001.

Miss America, Catherine Wagner, Fence Books, 2001.

If I was President, NONSTOP LICKY I’m afraid I can’t think without licky White man wrote almost every book in that shelf.

Wagner takes an exquisite sledgehammer to language and America in this book. The Magazine Poems (for Nature, Time, Social Text, etc.) and the White Man Poems (the second of which supplies the lines above) are particularly effective projects, often scatologically smeared, with phrases turned until they are permanently damaged or become protolinguistic babble. The voices nevertheless seem spot-on as they speak to intimate as well as cultural matters. The five-line poem for Cosmo ends “Horrif, horrif, she howled – Horrif.” Seems like Mistah Kurtz – he is so dead. “A Poem for Good Housekeeping (after Wittgenstein)” is in a rather different vein, rising into a biting, cool abstraction and living up to the outrageousness of its title. The concluding Fraction Anthems, procedurally pulverized further in notes to each, have fine moments as well.

Cheating

Thursday 14 May 2009, 4:16 pm   ///////  
Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007

Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007.

Two main methodologies are used in Cheating to understand how and why people cheat at video games. The first is the analysis of how print publications and devices surrounding games (Nintendo Power, strategy guides, the Game Genie, and the like) help to shape our concept of these games, providing the axes along which they can be evaluated and how they should be played. Next, Consalvo interviews gamers and explores an MMO to find out what players consider cheating and what boundaries they draw as they play. What results is some real insight into single-player and multiplayer cheating and into various corporate, industrial, and legal perspectives as well as those of individual players. The book does not work toward a single definition of cheating; rather, it shows how players and game-makers are actively negotiating what’s fair and what isn’t, working to allow the enjoyment of the game, to map or adapt “real-life” ethics into the magic circle, and to build the gaming equivalent of cultural capital.

Children of Arcadia

Wednesday 13 May 2009, 9:25 pm   /////  
Lala

Children of Arcadia, Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking, CAC Gallery, April 24-May 15 2009. Part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival.

In Cambridge’s City Hall Annex, Children of Arcadia provides a wide vista onto a virtual world as well as a station for interacting. A visitor can guide a female character to different parts of the landscape. The pastoral scene, with the ruins of Wall Street buildings scattered about, features weather and other atmospheric effects that are keyed to current financial conditions. Plummeting stock prices seem to manifest themselves in darkness, rain, and billowing columns of smoke. Bullish markets would lead to sun and clear skies. Steering an avatar through this world could be more enjoyable. It seems that the character can’t affect anything or interact with other wanderers. Still, the view of the landscape and the connection to real-time data makes for a powerful, relevant image and works well in the installation context. The economic crisis is found “in arcadia” here, where the helplessness of the steerable characters is at least appropriate.

Violet

Wednesday 13 May 2009, 1:43 am   //////  

At long last, this is a discussion – a review, of sorts – of Violet, an interactive fiction piece by Jeremy Freese. It isn’t the sort of review that tells you whether or not you should go play the game. Violet is an excellent game, and if you’ve been waiting on my recommendation, spongemuffin, you’ve been silly. It won the 2008 IF Comp along with four XYZZY awards, including Best Game. Go play it if you haven’t. If you have, read on for my mildly spoilery but hopefully incisive comments.

Spoilers
As you know if you’re reading the text in this box, Violet is a game in which you try to defeat distraction and work on your dissertation. The things that happen in the simulated world are narrated to you by the (imaginary) voice of your Australian girlfriend, Violet. While Violet won the XYZZY award for Best NPC, she isn’t an NPC, at least, any more than Lord Flathead is an NPC in Zork. She’s a narrator, and her narration is both lively for its own sake (filled with hilarious and diverse pet names) and suggestive of a relationship that is meaningful and interestingly textured. For a game with no NPCs at all (in the simulation itself), there is a lot of information being provided about other characters: The PC’s ex, Julia, and the “dork” she is talking to, the zombie horde visible through the window, the former occupant of the office, and of course our erstwhile narrator, Violet. The game shows how other characters can meaningfully manifest themselves even when they don’t do anything in terms of picking up objects, manipulating the state of the world, or serving as an explicit opponent (as the Thief did in Zork) or helper (as Floyd does in Planetfall). This delights me; Violet is the second IF Comp winner in a row that features very unusual and effective narration. The whole point of my in-development IF system, Curveship, is allow for even more radical and general types of wacky narration. Violet shows that you can do something powerful already, just as hypertext allows you to model and manipulate space, with effort. If there were facilities for narrating provided – the way that there are facilities in IF for modeling objects, containers, action, and so on – it seems to me that significantly more could be done along these lines. Violet demonstrates that it’s more interesting if the game’s replies vary and have some texture, as one would expect when reading a novel or poem. Even if the difference is just in a pet name, it’s a lot better than nothing, and provides some pleasure to the player. Of course, there’s much more in Violet that amuses: The tone of polite refusals to do certain actions and the recollections of a pleasant relationship and a brilliant personality, all mentioned at suitable moments during the course of ordinary actions. The characters (again, none of which are simulated) are certainly great elements of Violet. The overall situation is also an interesting one: The PC has to get rid of, rather than acquire, objects, and shut out distraction to focus on a task. There’s the trial that the PC go though, the degradation that goes along with that, and the fitting ending in which the day’s accomplishment reveals a different course of life. The narrative as well as the narration works well. If there’s anything that’s a bit awkward in Violet, it’s the puzzles themselves. Manipulating objects reveals things about the main relationship in the story, which is nice, but it doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme of the world as powerfully as quotidian actions do in Shade, for instance. There’s a lot of trial and error and mechanical manipulation (of projectiles, of one’s head) that is required. In the end, it’s neither an indication that a profound riddle has been solved or a powerful, revelatory gesture – it’s just showing you the extreme, absurd ends that you shouldn’t be going to. That’s a minor criticism, though, particularly given the good hint system that is included in the game. And it doesn’t stop the the narrated characters, the overarching situation of the day, and the concluding twist from having their effect. Most of all, Violet shows that brilliant narration can be done in a comp game and can be done in a very different way than Lost Pig did it, and that, in a different way, the joys of reading can work together with those of game playing.

Robot Jams

Sunday 10 May 2009, 8:41 pm   /////  

I heard Ensemble Robot last night at AXIOM. It was a suitably outrageous performance and a nice final event for the 2009 Boston Cyberarts Festival, which officially ends today. Ensemble Robot has robot musicians who play alone and with human performers. Two of them, a robot glockenspiel and a one-string robot instrument/performer, were at AXIOM last night. They played several pieces, including Belle Labs. The final number involved using one of the robots as an instrument, controlled by a MIDI guitar. It was a nice finale that sounded fittingly extreme, but I have to admit that “slaving” this former silicon-based collaborator to a person in this way disturbed me a bit. I also wish that there had been time for questions and discussion, so that I would have a better idea of how autonomous the robots were, if they were listening to the other performers, and so on. In any case, if you have a chance to hear this unusual group, I highly recommend it.

The performance, which included people playing on hacked-together non-electronic instruments, reminded me of the amazing sort of things that used to happen at MITRES, the MIT Electronics Research Society, back when they had their open mic/show and tell nights. I noticed that Ensemble Robot artistic director Christine Southworth is an MIT and Brown alumnus; perhaps the coincidence runs deeper.

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