Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mira Corpora

Mira CorporaMira Corpora by Jeff Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is what Scott Bradfield tried, and failed to do with his novel A History of Luminous Motion. But, whereas Bradfield's exquisite prose and young narrator were a conflicting mismatch of form and figure, Jackson hits the right tone at the right time for the narrator as he grows from age six to eighteen and beyond.

The book starts with short, terse paragraphs, memories-as-vignettes with the staccato lurching of fragmented memories, in a similar style as Ben Marcus' early works. As the narrator ages, the writings and the situations become more complex (though never too complex) until we reach the drug-addled chapter "My Life in Exile", in which all direction is lost and the narrator's voice becomes as confused as the circumstances being reflected upon, though they are never so blinding that one completely loses the thread. That's not to say that the reader doesn't occasionally "wake up" alongside the narrator in the same state of confusion and blackout-memory-loss about what preceded the present and where exactly one was or is at that moment. At times, the thread is so bare that the narrator and, hence, the reader, questions if he is the same person as the one who related/read the previous chapter. There's no doubt that the narrator has lost his mind, but the question is: "How much was lost"?

The author's caveat at the beginning of the book: "Sometimes it's been difficult to tell my memories from my fantasies" does not help to clarify matters. And, perhaps that's what gives the book some of its power: Though a work of fiction, there is enough verisimilitude to believe that perhaps some of the work is not fiction, but autobiography. Then again, is autobiography ever anything other than fiction, really?

One thing that is clear is Jackson's ability to invoke heartbreak and emotional confusion. Though the book has some surreal situations - a colony of runaways living in the woods, an amusement park inhabited by feral monkeys, an enslavement to drugs and the very real enslavement to another human being - the mental dissonance caused in the mind by these dark, strange scenes never seems to overpower the angst of broken-heartedness that the narrator himself suffers from, but of which he seems nearly unaware. This is a descent into emotional numbness, and it hurts going down. Here, the hero doesn't write the quest, the anti-quest writes the anti-hero.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Thor: God of Thunder, Vol. 1: The God Butcher

Thor: God of Thunder, Vol. 1: The God ButcherThor: God of Thunder, Vol. 1: The God Butcher by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a kid, I made mine Marvel. As I grew up, however, Marvel comics held less and less attraction for me. Maybe it was the fact that I was used to the gritty old '70s versions of all the favorites and the '80s brought in a bit of a more "slick" aesthetic. There were also some very cool indy comics coming out at that time that took a bit of my gritty enthusiasm away. Of course, other interests took over, as well (most notably D&D and other tabletop role-playing games . . . oh, and girls). In time, I fell out of love with Marvel.

Fast forward to the Marvel movie era. I admit: I'm impressed. Though I am anticipating the upcoming Doctor Strange movie the most out of the franchise, I've been pretty happy with what's been produced . . . I'm talking the non-Fox movies here. I don't know if I'll ever forgive the butchering Fox has given Silver Surfer and Galactus. Ugh. Anyway, in the true Marvel movies, I've been rather taken with Chris Hemsworth's Thor. Thor was a favorite of mine back in the '70s. Probably because of that cool winged helmet, the condensed orange juice can lids on his chest and those boots . . . those boots . . . It's probably a good thing I was not a cosplayer, or I might have made the deadly mistake of wearing a pair of those boots to school one day and had the living crap beat out of me.

Of course, then I could be just like Thor. At least Thor in this graphic novel because, make no mistake about it, he spends a good chunk of his time getting powned by the God Butcher. He's not in a good way most of the time and, believe it or not, I sincerely wondered what the resolution might be to this story, if it might turn into a very non-Marvel ending.

Only problem is, there is no resolution. This is the first in a series, and we're left with quite the cliffhanger at the end. I don't mind cliffhangers as long as the writer gives me something to hang on, but I wasn't even given that common courtesy. What are the motives of the God Butcher? Can you at least give me a HINT?!?

Hence my dropping of the fifth star.

Besides that one glaring omission (on purpose, I know - gotta sell the next volume, but at least give us a hint) this was fantastic. I have toyed myself with the meaning of death to one who is immortal in my own writing. So I can genuflect, show some respect, get down on one knee when another writer handles the proposition well. And Aaron handles it well; quite well. The potential problem with this sort of tale about the gods is that it engages in so much hyperbole that the death of a god becomes a sort of pastiche, that it loses its pain and loss and becomes a sort of ritual sacrament, all holy and hush-hush, anesthetized from human feeling. Aaron avoids this and presents a Thor full of pathos, a Thor connected to humanity, to his people, and to the universe. So when he is threatened, and oh-boy is he threatened, so are the rest of our universe, his people, and humanity. I am eager to see what happens in volume 2. I feel like I have a vested interest in this story.

Though I'm not quit ready to "make mine Marvel" to the exclusion of others, they've definitely opened the door for me again, and I think I'll have a little look around. It's been a while.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Fatale, Vol. 5: Curse the Demon

Fatale, Vol. 5: Curse the DemonFatale, Vol. 5: Curse the Demon by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As many of you know, I'm a huge Wisconsin Badgers fan, no matter the sport. I'm an alumnus, one of my kids attends UW, and I live in Madison, where we've raised our kids in the shadow of Camp Randall, the Kohl Center, and the rest of campus - Okay, a five minute drive away, but you get what I mean. The University is really an integral part of our life.

Madison is routinely rated among the best college sports towns in America. But it wasn't always that way. Before I arrived in '96, the nation was stunned by the sudden emergence of the Badger football program from the shadows (many a veteran mentions "the Morton era" with a wince). And while the basketball team was always good, it's only since I arrived that it's been truly great. Of course, I can attribute that to my arrival . . . no, not really.

In any case, last year was a special year for Bo Ryan's basketball team. Those of us who watch closely knew it was coming. I recall watching Sam Dekker singlehandedly win the Wisconsin state high school basketball championship and thinking: "Hey, wait - this kid is special!" Then, all of a sudden, a few others emerge: Frank Kaminsky, Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig - watching them, you knew this, the 2014-15 squad, was the proverbial "team of destiny". THIS was the team Badger fans had been waiting for. They tore through opponents with a combination of steady discipline, stalwart defense, better-than-average outside shooting, and a bit of luck. Yes, they lost a few, most notably, they suffered their first loss at the hand of perennial powerhouse, Duke. They had a few unexplainable hiccups against inferior opponents, but they entered the NCAA tournament strong, beating Michigan State for the outright Big Ten title.

They had been to the Final Four the previous year, but this year, they went into the tournament even stronger. They were not a young team dazzled by the lights, this was a group of grizzled veterans who trudged through some difficult games, beating one after another, maybe not comfortably, but convincingly. Then, in the Final Four, they faced the always-dangerous Kentucky - and utterly dominated them. They won 71-64, then turned to play in the National Championship game against . . . uh-oh . . . the Duke Blue Devils . . . again! Duke is like herpes. You just can't get rid of them! And though the Badgers fought tooth and nail, they ultimately lost to the very young, very talented Duke.

It was a disappointment to all of us Badger fans. We knew that this was our best shot - we had never assembled such talent that played so well together as a team! When one person was down or injured, two others stepped up their game to compensate, all the while getting stronger and stronger as they pushed toward that ultimate finish.

But it just wasn't enough. No matter how hard they tried, it just wasn't enough. They found, in the end, that they were out of gas.

Still, it was a good ride. Nothing to be ashamed of, by any means. But the thought continues to haunt fans and players alike - what could have beeen? What . . . should have been . . .? How could the story have ended? And what of those dreams of final glory? Where did they disappear to? Yes the 2014-15 season will always be remembered with fondness as something special. But they didn't quite make it over the top.

We were almost there. So close. So incredibly close. But . . . not.

This book, the final in the series, is a lot like that.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Museum of Lost Wonder

Museum of Lost WonderMuseum of Lost Wonder by Jeff Hoke
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jeff: Hey, Forrest, whattup?

Forrest: Jeff. Good to meet you. I've heard a lot about . . .

J: Wanna see something funny?

F: Yyyyeah . . . sure . . .

J: I've got this really funny joke about sex.

F: There are kids around.

J: Where did they come from.

F: You drove up in an ice cream truck. Of course they're going to flock around you.

J: Okay, okay. So there's this penis that . . .

F: Dude! Children! (points to the kiddies)

J: What?

F: Audience, man. You've got an audience. You shouldn't be telling jokes like that to kids.

J: But why are the kids here?

F: I already explained this. (then, trying to change the subject) Say, I heard you have a degree in, what, philosophy?

J: Esoteric studies. You know: a little philosophy, religion, mysticism, alchemy and such.

F: That's pretty cool. So what is your favorite subject in esoteric studies?

J: Well, stories about creation are cool. And the different temperaments. You know: Sanguine, Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Choleric. Or maybe astrology. No, wait, science, hard science, big bang, quantum mechanics . . . oh, I don't know. Does it matter? It's all good. Except for religion. Religion's just dumb . . . if it's Christian or Jewish . . .

F: Okay, then. Hey, it looks like the kids are wandering off. Did you want to tell a joke?

J: Um, no. Because we've started talking about serious stuff now.

F: But I thought . . .

J: Okay, I can joke about creation myths just about any time. So who was the first business person?

F: I don't know, who?

J: Eve.

F: Okay?

J: Because she made Adam's banana stand!

F: *groan*

J: Ha ha! I'm funny, huh? That was a funny joke, wasn't it? It was funny because it means two things at the same time because "Adam's Banana Stand" could be a business, but it also could be a euphemism because Eve made Adams . . .

F: Yeah. I get it.

J: Ha! Yeah, pretty funny, huh?

F: Um. Yeah. Hilarious.

J: Okay, so let me tell you another joke. So, this one's funny because it uses irony to make fun of the victim of . . .

F: Hold on. Stop! You don't tell someone *why* a joke is funny. You just tell the joke and wait for the reaction.

J: You do? But, it's funny . . . (in a deflated voice)

F: Okay. Okay. Looks like the kids are back now. Must have been your laughing.

J: Can I tell the joke now?

F: What's it about?

J: Suicide! It's hilarious!

F: Whoa, dude. No! Suicide is not funny. And, your audience . . .

J: (looks at the children, makes a sad face) Oh yeah.

F: Suicide is never funny, Jeff.

J: Oh.

(Awkward silence intervenes)

J: But, dude, check out my tattoos!

F: Wha? What does that have to do with anything?

J: Dude . . . my tats . . . they're totally cool!

F: (Examines totally cool tattoos which are, indeed, totally cool) Yeah. They are cool. I'll give you that.

J: So can I tell . . .

F: No! Alright, Jeff. Nice meeting you. I really gotta go. By the way, it looks like some kids are making their way into the ice cream truck.

J: Well, I hope they like Victoria's Secret catalogs, 'cuz . . .

F: (Shakes head, wondering if he shouldn't help herd children out of the ice cream truck, then throws his hands up and walks away when he sees that the kids' parents are already on it)

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Monday, September 7, 2015

Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy

Irrational Man: A Study in Existential PhilosophyIrrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am not adequate to the task. I look at this . . . monument to Existential philosophy, and I face a void of thought yawning wide in the dark depths beneath my skull. How could I ever capture the thoughts and feelings I experienced while immersed in this sea of emotional and intellectual self-realization? This book is a startling revelation, and I am no prophet. Still, I will try to relate the unrelatable.

Barrett starts with a section entitled "The Present Age," relating the present-history of the Existential movement as it existed in the late 1950s to early 1960s. I have little to say about that, except to point you to an excellent treatment of Chapter 3, on "The Testimony of Modern Art," by the sagacious Glenn Russell. It was, in fact, Glenn's review that pointed me to this profound book.

Section 2, "The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition" is where things really started coming together for me. Here is where one finds the clearest statement about how existentialism differs from all the philosophy (grounded in Plato, more or less) before it:

Plato's is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of a philosophy which we may now call essentialism, which holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existentialism, by contrast, is the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence.

In other words, we are not dealing here with metaphysics. That doesn't mean that existentialism and belief in a higher being are incompatible - Kierkegaard belies this - but regardless of belief system, the existentialist sees that there is an inevitable end to existence as we know it. In Pascal's words:

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frighted, and am astonished being here rather than there, why now rather than then.

But please be clear that this is not nihilism we are talking about here. Utter hopelessness is not necessarily the end result of existentialism (though Nietzsche's philosophy prophesied future nihilism, as will be noted later). In fact, it is the realization of the inevitable end that provides us with an appreciation for life. In describing a scene from Dostoevski's The Idiot, Barrett notes that the feelings expressed by Myshkin likely reflect those of Dostoevski himself:

In this story, which describes Dostoevski's own reprieve after he had been condemned to be executed by a firing squad, is the ultimate affirmation: in the face of death life has an absolute value. The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.

In section three, Barrett provides an overview of the four pillar-figures of existentialism: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartres. Besides having the most difficult set of philosophic last names to pronounce, these four thinkers put forth complex, nuanced views on being (or, in the case of Heidegger, "Being") that comprise the canon of existentialist thought. Having no desire to rewrite Barrett's book in the for of a book review, I will just note a few items that I found thought-provoking and/or essential to the understanding of what existentialism is or what it is composed of, a 30,000 foot thought map, blurred by the high speed at which I pass overhead.

I was struck, again and again, by the simplicity of argument put forward by everyone except Sartres. Kierkegaard seems to be very much "of the earth" and balks between the lines at the academics, particularly the academic philosophers, who had gone before him. I don't have time to outline all the reasons for his feeling this way, but suffice it to say that his upbringing had much to do with it, as well as the broken heart he suffered when he gave up the opportunity of marriage to a woman named Regina. This choice that he had made comprised his existential crisis. He had given up love . . . for what? Philosophy?

Philosophers before Kierkegaard had speculated about the proposition "I exist," but it was he who observed the crucial fact they had forgotten: namely, that my own existence is not at all a matter of speculation to me, but a reality in which I am personally and passionately involved. I do not find this existence reflected in the mirror of the mind, I encounter it in life; it is my life, a current flowing invisibly around all my mental mirrors. But if existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, where then do we really come to grips with it? For Kierkegaard this decisive encounter with the Self lies in the Either/Or choice. When he gave up Regina, thus forever giving up the solaces of ordinary life for which he longed, Kierkegaard was encountering his own existence as a reality more potent and drastic than any concept. And so any man who chooses or is forced to choose decisively - for a lifetime, and therefore for eternity since only one life is given us - experiences his own existence as something beyond the mirror of thought. He encounters the Self that he is not in the detachment of thought, but in the involvement and pathos of choice.

Now, where Kierkegaard was a lover, Nietzsche was a fighter. Perhaps it was the progressive madness that slowly took hold of his mind toward the end of his life, but Nietzsche's thought was not simply that life should be examined through the existentialist lens, but that power, as expressed in his work Will to Power was something to be pursued in the face of the loss of God and the values reinforced by institutions that claim to worship God. In this way, Nietzsche becomes a prophet, in a way, for our day, predicting that future history (that which would come after Nietzsche) would be an ongoing struggle for the new value: Power. The end result of this struggle must inevitably end in hopelessness, which we can term "nihilism":

Power as the pursuit of more power inevitably founders in the void that lies beyond itself. The Will to Power begets the problem of nihilism. Here again Nietzsche stands as the philosopher of the period, for he prophesied remarkably that nihilism would be the shadow, in many guises and forms, that would haunt the twentieth century. Supposing man does not blow himself and his earth to bits, and that he really becomes the master of this planet. What then? He pushes off into interstellar space. And then? Power for power's sake, no matter how far the power is extended, leaves always the dread of the void beyond. The attempt to stand face to face with that void is the problem of nihilism.

Heidegger's existentialism proves to be much less fatalistic. In fact, one might propose that there is such a thing as existential optimism and, if so, Heidegger is its champion. At the least, one must view Heidegger as having a less-stark view of Being than Nietzsche. Rather than viewing the self as a "thing," Heidegger focuses on what it is to "be". This can be a difficult concept, but it is central to Heidegger's philosophy: We must not view our isolated ego as a thing that is within us, which is set up in contrast to the rest of the things in the world. Rather, we should think of ourselves as Being (I am using the verb-as-noun here, not simply the verb and not simply the noun) "spread over a field or region, which is the world of its care or concern." This Being, however, does not negate the self. In fact, Being our actual, true Self is the ultimate goal of anyone faced with the limits of their own mortality. Unfortunately, most of society chooses to bury itself in television, surrogate celebrity life, thrill-seeking, substance abuse, and any other sort of distraction that will numb the Self to the fear of facing its own inevitable annihilation:

Because it is less fearful to be "the One" than to be a Self, the modern world has wonderfully multiplied all the devices of self-evasion.

But, paradoxically, to gain one's Self, one must lose oneself. In this way, the true Self can become connected with Being:

To lose oneself in walking down a country lane is, literally, to lose the self that is split off from nature: to enter the region of Being where subject and object no longer confront each other in murderous division.

This is not to say that the experience of Being an existential person is something that comes on soft clouds on a comfortable spring day. No, it is quite the opposite. It is the prospect of death, the most stark and intimate of ends for each and every person, that opens the door to Being:

Only by taking my death into myself, according to Heidegger, does an authentic existence become possible for me. Touched by this interior angel of death, I cease to be the impersonal and social. One among many, as Ivan Ilyich was, and I am free to become myself. Though terrifying, the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating: it frees us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf our daily life and thereby opens us to the essential projects by which we can make our lives personally and significantly our own. Heidegger calls this the condition of "freedom-toward-death" or "resoluteness".

Now while the name "Sartres" is that which is most closely associated with existentialism in the eyes of popular culture, I would argue that Sartres was the great pretender. Read his work carefully, and you will see that most of it, at its root, is mimetic: an echo of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and even Heidegger. I say "even" because, while Sartres does echo the notion of self posited by Heidegger, he pulls the concept of Being back into the camp of Cartesian dualism from which Heidegger hoped to banish it. Sartres divides being into two kinds: Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself. Being-in-itself re-introduces "thingness" (my own, inadequate term) to the existentialist discussion. Barrett uses the example of a stone: "A stone is a stone; it is what it is; and in being just what it is, no more and no less, the being of the thing always coincides with itself." Being-for-itself is conceptualized as consciousness of being beyond oneself, spatially, temporally, and in the realm of possibilities and potentials.

This notion of the For-itself may seem obscure, but we encounter it on the most ordinary occasions. I have been to a party; I come away, and with a momentary pang of sadness I say, "I am not myself." It is necessary to take this proposition quite literally as something that only man can have the feeling of coming to myself after having lost or estranged me from myself. This is the first and immediate level on which the term yields its meaning. But the next and deeper level of meaning occurs when the feeling of sadness leads me to think in a spirit of self-reproach that I am not myself in a still more fundamental sense: I have not realized so many of the plans or projects that make up my being; I am not myself because I do not measure up to myself. Beneath this level too there is still another and deeper meaning, rooted in the very nature of my being: I am not myself, and I can never be myself, because y being stretching out beyond itself at any given moment exceeds itself. I am always simultaneously more and less than I am.

This passage shows the way in which Barrett has taken some complex ideas and boiled them down to their simple essence existence (!) and made them more easily digestible to the untrained armchair philosopher (I am looking at myself my Self). Barrett's synthesis of the preceding work takes place in his essay "The Place of the Furies," which, outside of some less-accessible appendices, wraps up the book. He notes that while some balk at the idea of irrationality as a viable philosophy, putting the idea of rationality up on an indestructible pedestal to be worshiped as some kind of god, that "despite the increase in the rational ordering of life in modern times, men have not become the least bit more reasonable in the human sense of the word. A perfect rationality might not even be incompatible with psychosis; it might in fact, even lead to the latter." But he does not negate the need for rationality, only that it should be put in its proper place alongside the irrational, both of them acknowledged as necessary to life. But he does warn that, without the irrational, as symbolized by the Greek Furies, humanity will lose the edge necessary to achieve full satisfaction of being.

The Furies are really to be revered and not simply bought off; in fact, they cannot be bought off (not even by our modern tranquilizers and sleeping pills) but are to be placated only through being given their just and due respect. They are the darker side of life, but in their own way as holy as the rest. Indeed, without the there would be no experience of the holy at all. Without the shudder of fear or the trembling of dread man would never be brought to stand face to face with himself or his life; he would only drift aimlessly off into the insubstantial realm of Laputa.

And, in order to remind myself of what I have learned here, I will return to this book again, perhaps many times. This one, while not a life changer per se (thought it would have been, had I read and understood it as a teenager), it is definitely a life informer. I can't fully express the rush of synaptical connections and emotional response that I felt while reading, no, studying this book.

Again, I am totally inadequate to the task.

I am Me!

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The Tenant

The TenantThe Tenant by Roland Topor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roland's The Tenant is a sort of ragged Mobius Strip of a tale whose structural boundaries are loosely marked by Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and the Twilight Zone.

At its heart, the work reflects the difficulty of coping with social pressures brought on by modernity and the situation of living in close quarters with others in an urban environment. Trelkovsky, the main focus of the novel, moves from his studio apartment to another apartment, which was once occupied by a Simone Choule, but had been vacated with her suicide. Trelkovsky begins the tale as a well-adjusted, responsible young man whose only care was leaving his old place. But this seemingly innocent departure signaled the beginning of darker days to come:

He had lived so many years in this room that he could still not quite grasp the idea that now it was finished. He would never again see this place which had been the very centre of his life. Others would come into it, destroy the order of things that existed now, transform these four walls into something he would not even recognize, and kill off forever any lingering assumption that a certain Monsieur Trelkovsky had lived here before. Unceremoniously, from one day to the next, he would have vanished.

This existential crisis, however, is only the beginning of a mad, downward spiral into sociopathic misanthropy brought on by the pressure of intolerant neighbors, a landlord who obeys the law when it suits him, and the haunting presence left by Simone Choule's suicide. To say much more about the plot itself would be to give too much away, so, suffice it to say that Trelkovsky's moment of crisis leads, in the end, to a transgressive, transformative episode that leaves him with serious questions about his authentic-self. This might be salved by the company of good friends or a lover or even a neighbor who might commiserate against the other neighbors. Alas, Trelkovsky's paranoia does not help matters in this regard. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

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