Friday, January 31, 2014

RASL, Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, whose sable brushes brought us Bone, has a new collected epic to burden your bookshelf with: RASL.

Smith’s work is a genuine labour of love. A self-publisher from the very beginning, he crafts the sorts of stories he’d like to see — something recognizable if not immediately familiar, but also recognizably different, and pleasantly so. His characters are easily identifiable “types” — heroes, antiheroes, put-upon secondary cast members, etc. — he invests with subtle call-and-response flourishes rarely seen in the comics industry. Those of us who retrieved the Bone books off our kids’ bedroom floors were astonished to see the sensibilities of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly merging seamlessly within a Lord Of The Rings epic cycle.*

Bone: all this, and "Good Girl" art, too!

RASL is similarly cracked: “a gritty, hard-boiled tale of an inter-dimensional art thief caught between dark government forces and the mysterious powers of the universe itself,” according to Smith’s own press kit. I’m not sure “gritty” applies — other than Will Eisner, whose depiction of NYC’s litter-strewn alleys evoked genuine stink, you’d have to go deep Underground to find “gritty” — but “hard-boiled” seems about right.

During the early chapters of RASL I was reminded of my first reading of Frank Miller’s original “Marvin” storyline in what became the Sin City franchise. Dark Horse publishers had clearly given Miller the go-ahead to do whatever he wanted, and what followed was a parade of, “You mean I can do this?” followed by, “And how about this?” and guttural guffawing ever after. Smith seems similarly energized, giving himself, for example, the freedom to explore the female form and the desire it elicits.

Unlike Miller, Smith is disinclined to settle for a surface exploration of noir tropes, but instead uses them to launch into some physical and even metaphysical questions with unusual depth.

I’ll get into some of that in my next post — but forewarning, there will be spoilers. Nothing I say would have ruined my read of the book, had I known about them in advance. But to each their own. Proceed at your own discretion, when posted.

RASL is an advancement of ability for Smith, and a recommended read. My only caveat: holy cow, what a (physical) monster. I do not have room for that on my shelves (I gratefully borrowed a copy from the local library), and look forward to a day when I can purchase the digital edition.

More anon. Smith offers a RASL preview, here.

*The first six volumes of Bone still astonish, with their artful juxtaposition of slapstick and yearning, menace and subversion of expectations. The final three, however, settle into an apocalyptic rut—entertaining enough, but no real surprises.

Monday, January 27, 2014

How To Clear The Room Of Adolescents In 2014

Last night my wife and I cued up The Spy Who Loved Me for some cheesy retro-bliss. Roger Moore at 50 was the very definition of “Suave” when we were adolescents in the ‘70s. He was also a fairly well-behaved chap on-set, apparently. My favourite Roger Moore anecdote comes courtesy of Cathereine Seipp, who writes:

Many years ago I read a story about how Roger Moore (a non-screamer) took a younger actor aside and suggested he stop attacking everyone on the set. “I’m not in this business to win a popularity contest,” the screamer fumed. “I just want to be a good actor.” 

“Well you’ve failed at being a good actor,” Moore replied reasonably. “Why not try for the popularity contest?”*

Roger Moore: winning popularity contests since forever.

The Roger Moore Bond films certainly do take their audience for granted, however. They’re a great way to clear the room of adolescents in the ‘10s. Ours now had motivation to head for bed. As we settled in, I said to my wife, “If things go as they should, in 20 years or so our grandchildren will be rolling their eyes at Daniel Craig.”

*Hm. Someone might want to forward this bit to Aaron Eckhart.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Last Time I Saw Carol Shields

The proximity to prominence — Hey, isn’t that Uma Thurman over there? Look out, Lagerfield just walked in — and the baroque d├ęcor helped to compensate for the poor pay, the short lunch breaks, and the occasional verbal abuse from those we served. 

Jon Michaud’s recollection of working at Manhattan’s Rizzoli Books in the ‘90s could just as easily pass for my own experience, working at Toronto’s Albert Britnell Book Shop during the self-same era.* **

The business that currently resides in the old bookstore.

I never served Bowie, but I did point Jack Palance toward an office supplies store just to the north of us, where he was more likely to find an unlined journal for his sketching.

In the mid-90s, Roger Ebert dropped by between TIFF showings. I was too overwhelmed to say anything sentient; he left, and I cursed my cowardice. He was kind enough to return a year later, when I’d finally accumulated a little experience around prominent types. I’m sure the little chat that followed was utterly forgettable to him, but he was generous, and it’s a lovely memory for me.

James Spader flummoxed me by asking whether I could recommend “any fiction that’s not depressing.” I stared blankly at the shelves, wracking my brains for an answer. Just a few years earlier, I’d asked my high school English teacher, Mr. Knelsen, the same question. Taking Mr. K’s generous lead I went ahead and introduced Spader to Robertson Davies.

Literary celebs made appearances too, of course, but I’ll be damned if I can remember any of them without some residual trace of anxiety. “Do you have my book?” was the dreaded, inevitable question, to which there was no satisfactory answer. “Yes,” led to, “Why so few/so many copies?” “No,” led to, “Why not?” The best answer to an empty shelf was, “It’s selling so well, we’re having a terrible time keeping it in stock.” Wise authors refrained from asking just how many copies we’d sold.

I didn’t encounter too many wise authors.

In that environment, Margaret Atwood proved to be an exception. She asked no questions, autographed what we had (hardcovers only), and bought what she wanted. Then she and her posse went on their way. She was confident of her place in the firmament, I suppose — and why not?

Robert Stone was similarly gracious, and Farley Mowat did a meet-and-greet that must have been the limit, though you’d never have known from his demeanour.

But otherwise? Please. Spare the bookstore a visit from the author.

I had no such anxieties when I saw Carol Shields walk in, with her husband Don. I smiled and greeted them, and let them browse while I dusted shelves at a discreet distance. After an appropriate interval, I approached, congratulated her on her Pulitzer, and asked if there was anything she was looking for. “Not really,” she said. “But is there any chance you have . . . ?”

We had a few dozen copies of The Stone Diaries, of course, but she was asking after a play*** she’d co-written with a daughter. We’d had two copies, sold one and sent the other back to the publishers after a few months of it languishing on our shelves. She said she understood, and gamely autographed the books she’d authored.

“You know,” I said, “I was a student at the University of Winnipeg back when you were a Writer in Residence. I passed along a couple of short stories I’d written, and your editorial remarks were the best I’d had up to that point. You even encouraged me to enter a story into the University’s fiction competition.”

“How’d you do?” asked her husband.

“I won,” I said, feeling as surprised as I had back in the day.

Everyone seemed to be glowing, and that is where I’d like to leave this anecdote, but I simply cannot, because after this, something happened — Carol made a request, and I responded, and when I told my boss of it some weeks later, she (quite rightly) shrieked, “You what?!” (followed by, “Oh, Darrell . . .  ”) But in fairness to myself, it had only been a week or two since we’d all sat down for a staff meeting and been told we hadn’t the insurance, so whatever you do, etc. etc.

“You won,” said Carol. “How wonderful!

The three of us stood, smiling.

Carol said . . .

“Would it be alright if I used your bathroom?”

Go ahead and judge me — it’s been almost twenty years, and the flames of Hell would be a mercy.

All I can say is, the washrooms at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library (two doors north of the office supplies store where Jack Palance bought three hardbound, unlined journals) were fastidiously kept. So much so, that I used them myself, from time to time.

When I explained, and suggested the alternative, Carol Shields said, “Oh, of course. That’s a good suggestion.” Then she and Don thanked me, and left — still smiling.

I wish I’d made that memory a little differently, of course, but so it goes. As it is, it exists as an ever-present reminder that stoicism, graciousness and good cheer are qualities that needn’t be exclusive of each other, no matter how accomplished and celebrated one is in one’s chosen field.

*We had an hour for lunch, though, and were paid slightly more than was the norm in bookstore circles — not that that kept us exactly flush with funds.

**Mr. Michaud comforts himself with ``the migration of book selling to Brooklyn, uptown, and Jersey City.`` There seems to be some evidence of a slight flourishing in the US indie bookstore scene. But at present Toronto is experiencing no such migration. Bookstores are slipping into the tar-pits, and disappearing. 

***Fashion, Power, Guilt And The Charity Of Families, with Catherine Shields.

Monday, January 20, 2014

No Matter How You Parse It, Bioshock Infinite Is A Horrible, Horrible Game

I make it a policy to pay no more than $20 for a video game. It’s a good policy (highly recommended): it’s kept me from experiencing more than twenty dollars’ worth of disappointment — until now.

During the first two hours or so of Bioshock Infinite I was experiencing a rekindling of the love I had for the first two Bioshock games. Infinite’s “Columbia” — like “Rapture” — is a beguiling, immersive environment that pulls me in faster than do the environments of most other games. But as the game wore on, I noticed a growing torpor that I normally do not associate with Bioshock. I was getting bored. The action for all three games is moored to a rail, but this time the characters themselves seemed fixed (and utterly without interest). How was this possible — especially with a game that received a Metacritic rating of “94”?

Mike Barthel explores the disconnect I experienced, as do Leigh Alexander and Tevis Thompsontwo reviews that are delicious reads (criticism at its finest, really). They all argue, persuasively, that Infinite’s failures don’t just make for a poor gaming experience, they in fact actually qualify it as a Bad Game (Thompson: “Not just the worst game of the year. It’s the worst game I’ve played this generation”).

Meaningless mayhem: sometimes that's a bad thing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Tim Parks, For The (Momentary) Win

Tim Parks’ Writing To Win (over at the NYRB) is making the rounds as a link-of-the-day. In the space of a few paragraphs, Parks pinpoints some of the wilder absurdities that enmesh the lives of those aspiring to, and occasionally reaching, the Olympus of Pro-Writin’.

Lots to interact with, here: Salman Rushdie as indefatigable self-aggrandizing blowhard, the general public’s patronizing/pitying attitude toward aspiring artists, the hoi polloi’s (mostly) uncritical approval of those who “make it,” etc. This is the bit that won me:

Every year, I teach creative writing to just a couple of students. These are people in their mid-twenties in a British post-graduate course who come to me in Italy as part of an exchange program. The prospect of publication, the urgent need, as they see it, to publish as soon as possible, colors everything they do. Often they will drop an interesting line of exploration, something they have been working on, because they feel compelled to produce something that looks more 'publishable,' which is to say, commercial. It will be hard for those who have never suffered this obsession to appreciate how all-conditioning and all-consuming it can be. These ambitious young people set deadlines for themselves. When the deadlines aren’t met their self-esteem plummets; a growing bitterness with the crassness of modern culture and the mercenary nature, as they perceive it, of publishers and editors barely disguises a crushing sense of personal failure.”

That’s a fairly apt description of my mid-twenties, when I took my shot at Pro Writin’. As my pursuit dragged on, I found that the stuff getting accepted or commissioned was increasingly of less interest to me than the stuff getting rejected — an ill omen for someone dreaming he might one day live off what he wrote. Better, then, to find another line of work that paid the bills, and devote a segment of my free time to the writin’ I enjoyed.

There is a temptation to wave Parks’ screed as a “sour grapes” manifesto for giving up The Dream (witlessly aligning myself with Alice Munro’s legion of subdued losers). But I remain chiefly struck by Parks’ opening gambit: “One of the great mysteries of the writer’s life is the transformation that occurs when he or she passes from being an unpublished to a published novelist.”

I suspect Parks’ observation is truer in the larger markets — particularly among those writers who have a shot at international renown. In my experience, most of the published Canadian novelists I’ve interacted with are receptive and encouraging, rarely hesitating to lend their imprimatur to a wannabe’s maiden effort.

There are reasons for this. The CanFic scene remains a small pond, abundantly stocked with schools of small publishers. And even those novelists who score contracts with Random Penguin, or Harper, are rarely in a position to quit their day jobs. If you want to be read by anybody in this country, you’d better be nice to everybody in this country.* **

I doubt anyone was nicer to everyone in this country — or any country, really, because she went “international” — than the late Carol Shields. Having encountered her first in 1986 and again, some years after she’d won her Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, I was left with the deep impression that this woman hadn’t been much changed by either publication, or critical recognition, or fame. A remarkable writer, and a remarkable person — of which, more anon.

*Cue the chorus of upstarts demanding a more critical national culture.

**It’s a rare Canuck novelist who reaches such lofty heights as to afford a prickly demeanor. Margaret Atwood inevitably springs to mind, though I suspect her bitchy reputation is somewhat overblown.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Wisdom Mischief, 1

While in Winnipeg for the holidays, I made the usual stop(s) at McNally-Robinson's bookstore. I can't help but notice my book-browsing is subtly changing as I advance in years. For at least three decades, my pattern of interest ran on a rail: start with comic books, move to science fiction, then fiction, then branch out from there. As I flail through the closing days of my fifth decade, I don't give those shelves more than a cursory glance.

I now find myself drawn to the less-savoury side of the bookstore. Science. Religion. Even Self-Help.

I think my curiosity in those earlier fields has been mostly satisfied. There continue to be items of interest in comics — now more than ever, really. But if it's not available in a digital format, I'll borrow it from the library. And if it's not there, forget it. My house isn't large enough to accommodate comic books.

As for the sci-fi bookshelf, that's something of a perverse curiosity these days, isn't it? Our best and brightest spec-fic writers are gazing with greater intensity at the rear-view mirror than they are at any “forward” projection. I certainly don't begrudge them this — I'm in the same boat. If there's any persistent cause for embarrassment in my 10 years of blogging, it's noting just how far behind the trailing edge my observations on technological innovation reside.*

And fiction, well . . . I've fallen so far behind on catching up with The Greats that my interest in the young and innovative is sputtering on fumes. If I ever finish 2666 I'll maybe pick up Murukami. Or maybe I'll finally tackle War & Peace instead.

Anyway, the store devoted a small table to a new translation of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which caught my eye and stirred my curiosity. It's been about 20 years since I last tried reading it — maybe a new translation would help me finish the job this time. Also, I figure I'm closer to my particular End Point than I've ever been (assuming my intuition of time is correct), so my interest in the topic is certainly more acute.

I leafed through it. The visions and exhortations remained as inscrutable to me as they were in the older translation. Then I thought, Why would I entertain another culture's Wisdom Tradition when I have my own cultural Wisdom Tradition?

Which is what, exactly?

Mennonites have been a “thing” for nearly half-a-millennium, but good luck trying to articulate a consistent body of wisdom to usher you out of this mortal coil. My superficial observation of the Mennonite life-cycle might be expressed as: you work until you can't; you attend to the needs and health of your family, then your community; you worship on Sunday morning, and participate in a Bible study on a weeknight; when your health fails, your pastor will help you and your family in prayer, and meditations on the Psalms; someone will probably be beside you when you breath your last.

Well . . . a superficial summary deserves a superficial retort. Ms. Peggy Lee:

A (slightly) less superficial retort might be, It may not look like much, but it works.

Still, I'm haunted by a bemused kvetch I overheard from a Catholic priest: “My most affluent parishioners are inevitably the ones who call me from their deathbeds, requesting a 36-hour crash course in the work they should have been devoting their lives to.”

The good Father did not elaborate on this (within my hearing range, anyway). But God knows we Mennonites — on this continent, at least — are an affluent bunch. Protestant Reformation is all (or mostly, or in some aspects markedly) well and good, but what sort of “work” might we — out of laziness or hubris, or some combination thereof — be avoiding?

*I see here that I was underwhelmed by the introduction of the Xbox 360. Now that I finally understand its appeal, Microsoft has gone and replaced it with a platform that utterly baffles me. Who in their right mind wants a camera in their living roomIn five years or so I'll probably change my tune — just in time to be baffled by the Xbox One's replacement.

Friday, January 03, 2014

'14 (or "10 and Counting")

I spent New Year’s Eve at a funeral — the mother of a friend. Seemed appropriate, perhaps moreso than the usual hoo-ha with bubbly and celery sticks. I sat near the back, taking note of the rows of white hair before me. It felt distinctly like a queue — an illusory and self-entitled POV, I realize. “This is all an elaborate hoax,” wrote Roger Ebert. The final words of the dying are almost inevitably ciphers, but given the right conditions I can appreciate a good hoax, even when the last laugh is on me.

I’m whistling past the graveyard, of course. “Glib” is as unattractive as either “smarm” or “snark,” and I’m not particularly gifted at it. “Attention must be paid,” and that’s what I hope to do — to keep doing — with greater resolve in the new year.

I’ve not yet decided what changes I’ll apply to the blog in this my 11th year of blogging, but a template shift is overdue. Not the “dynamic” mode that dazzled me a year ago, but one that at least acknowledges our growing struggle with on-screen text by gently shepherding the beleaguered reader’s focus toward a more civilized and manageable column.

But in the meantime, Excelsior! to you who read and write and watch and listen: I salute you.