1/27/16

The Priority of Atmosphere in A Wizard of Earthsea

I just re-read Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). Such a wonderful novel. What distinguishes it, I think, is the nuanced intensity with which Le Guin renders her secondary fantasy setting and fictional cultures. Earthsea is just as important a character as the protagonist, the transgressing magician, Ged. I propose that the world, the atmosphere of Earthsea, subordinates the characters and the narrative. This is a dangerous aesthetic experiment, I think, and risks frustrating the expectations of some enthusiasts of popular fantasy fiction who come to her work because of comparisons between it and J.R.R. Tolkien. Such readers, to generalize, are just as invested in good stories, engaging narrative events, conflicts, and resolutions as compelling secondary fantasy worlds and fictional cultures. There are times when Le Guin's narrative pace slows, but her atmospherics are always engaging. The strangeness and beauty of her fictional world is a satisfying payoff for me, and I find, as I read her work, that I am o.k. with lingering over specific scenes, such as Ged having tea in a hut with his former master, Ogion.

12/9/15

Aesthetically Engineered Confusion and Gene Wolfe

I just finished the second novella in Gene Wolfe's collection of three novellas, The Fifth Head of Cerebus. It is called, "'A Story' by John V. Marsch." I have no idea what to make of this tale. It is filled with ambiguities. Attempting to paraphrase the plot seems trite, a disservice to the narrative technique and style, which I would described as "aesthetically engineered confusion." Let me try: the novella seems to treat the spirit quest of a pre-technological humanoid named Sandwalker and his struggle to become a friend of the Shadow Children, a mysterious race who exists on multiple dimensions. Although it is frustrating, I recommend the story and its worth your effort. I was constantly in a state of confusion, but not the confusion of a story badly told but an invigorating and challenging confusion that always seemed just about to evaporate (although it never does). Although Wolfe is a science fiction writer, I think his novella is comparable to a proto-modernist work like Henry James The Turn of the Screw. Both tales cannot be easily interpreted.

12/8/15

Mapping Final Fantasy

I beat the NES game Final Fantasy I (1987) yesterday. The final boss is an entity named "Chaos," a horrible monster and a long boss battle. I had never beat Final Fantasy before. My first video game RPG was Final Fantasy II (the U.S. version), and I didn't play that until 1992, when I was nine. I had to borrow Final Fantasy II from my friend, and I never had enough time to beat it (he always wanted it back). By the time I finally got Final Fantasy I, it seemed antique to me. It was during the late 16-bit era when I purchased FF1 from a toy store in 1995. They were clearance selling their 8-bit video game stock. The version of FF1 purchased was a re-release and it included this awesome strategy guide, a full map of the world, and some other material, I think a poster. I couldn't get into the game then. There were subtle differences to the gameplay that my impatient twelve-year-old mind couldn't handle. For example, if you chose to have one of your warriors attack a monster, and that monster died before your warrior had a chance to attack, then your warrior would attack empty air and you would get an "ineffective" message. This was the source of so much frustration for me then. Of all the elements associated with that game that I remember, the thing I recall most clearly was the print map that came with the game. It's beautiful. At the very top of the map are these suggestive lines: "Here is the map of the entire Final Fantasy overworld. Surrounding the map is a list of most of the places you will journey to."

12/6/15

Embracing Abstraction

I have been trying to write poetry. This is rare. I consider myself more of a fiction writer, memoirist, and literary critic. Nevertheless, I have been writing poetry lately. After I shared a first attempt with my wife, she introduced me to a poem, "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," by James Wright. You should read it. Such a wonderful poem. My wife shared it with me because she thinks it demonstrates an important use of the concrete image, irrespective of genre: fiction, poetry, memoir. Wright's poem is a series of stark, beautiful images. For the majority of the poem, it "shows" rather than "tells." However, it completely changes strategy in the last line, which is "I have wasted my life," an abstraction. This is the idea of the poem that the images outline. Sometimes I get frustrated with too concrete literary aesthetics. Current wisdom in creative writing pedagogy is avoid abstraction at all costs. But with this poem, the abstraction is fully embraced. What an interesting move.

12/5/15

How Do You Choose Your Form?

I recently listened to a song by Joanna Newsom, titled, "Divers." Such a beautiful and haunting song. Check out the official video. There were a couple of lines that gripped me. First,

"In an infinite regress: / Tell me, why is the pain of birth / lighter borne than the pain of death?"

The second,

"But how do you choose your form? / How do you choose your name? How do you choose your life / How do you choose the time you must exhale, / and kick, and rise?"

From my perspective, this song is thinking about being before and after death. It is imagining a situation before we are animated matter. In this way, it draws a compelling parallel between our lack of experience before the time we can remember and the time after we are no longer experiencing time, i.e. after we have passed.

Newsom's harping contributes to the antique quality of this song.