Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hamilton, Ontario: Home of GI Joe

So while perusing Shortpacked! this evening, I discovered that the comic's creator, David Willis, is going to be in Hamilton on May 2 for the annual Canadian GI Joe convention. As it turns out, Hamilton hosts the convention every year, which is just plain awesome. I'm tempted to go down myself just to check out what happens at a convention based around a toy that is also a Real American Hero™ in Canada.

"Too bad your ass got sacked!"

"Don't just stand around when your house catches fire. Get the fuck out of there!"

The manuscript for A Small Man's Town was officially completed Sunday night, and it took me a day to get over the weird initial high upon finishing such a large, consuming piece of writing. I've already started doing research and making inquiries as to publishing and getting an agent, but the key element of the job is done.

Also, I've been accepted to present a paper at the International Conference of the Book at University of Edinburgh this October. I was accepted on the basis of an abstract, which means that over the next month, I actually have to write my paper on the problems of peer review as encouraging orthodoxy and marginalizing genuinely revolutionary philosophical work. Even better is the fact that I'll get to visit my friend Ray and his wife/mind-melded life partner Erin while I'm there, and finally see something of a country other than Canada.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"My Hands are Scarred with Papercuts and Stained with Curry Powder"

This was a phrase that occurred to me this morning looking at my own hands. Yesterday, I got one of those mysterious papercuts that appear from nowhere and didn't even hurt at the time. When you try to figure out precisely where it came from, you can get nowhere further than, some piece of paper. The curry stains come from what I cooked for dinner last night.

As I approach the end of the manuscript for A Small Man's Town, which is now the permanent title for the first novel I'm going to try to publish, I'm thinking about future projects and what to do next. But, as is expected, considering the way I do philosophy, I also see common themes and explorations among all my long fiction projects that are percolating in my brain and on my computer. I realize that I've fallen into a kind of mission statement, one I think is very suited for Canada on the Earth of the twenty-first century. All my ideas explore how Westerners can contribute to the world conversation, given that we will be mistrusted and marginalized by the new dominant cultures of the South. We've dominated the Earth for so long that our voices no longer have value. The West will be shut out of global discourse just as Westerners shut out everyone else, and in moralities based on fairness (almost all of them, really), we will deserve this treatment.

Of course, this will not literally happen. Europe and the US remain powerful enough economies that they will have important roles, though more as partners instead of authorities. But culturally, the excitement of the Earth will be in India, South America, East Asia, and eventually Africa. Cultural production will be focussed on those areas that were minor and ignored before. Cultural revolution and transformation will come from there, and it's happening already. Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese films are becoming the most influential on global cinema. The most exciting literature comes from writers like Roberto Bolaño the Latin American, and Orhan Pamuk the Turk.

The suburban narratives of white Western writers – of which I am one ethnically at least – are no longer important. The self-absorbed idiocies of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and John Updike's Rabbit are vanities to be set afire. Quite rightfully, the world should not care about these men dissatisfied with their picture-perfect families and lives that have rarely touched poverty. There are many more important problems in the world than rich white suburbanites having problems with their marriage and trouble communicating with their stuck-up self-absorbed spoiled idiotic children.

This is where my apparent mission statement comes in, what I think the new task of Western literature should be to suit best our new role as partners atoning for crimes of domination. The great Western literature of the twenty-first century will not revolve around the concerns of rich white people as if they were the most important things in the world. It will mock these concerns for their selfishness and stupidity. Bret Easton Ellis is a fine example of this. His greatest books, American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction, are about the emptiness, cruelty, and insularity of white Western life.

I think my own work fits into this as a positive contribution, where Ellis' are negative. The stories I want to tell in my fiction are stories of wealthy (in the global perspective) Westerners (not all of whom are white) who become aware that their own problems are selfish and meaningless, and try to find a new way to live. My characters are searching for a life beyond their insular environments.

A Small Man's Town is about a man, Joseph's encounters with two women. One, after she leaves him, becomes a global activist for free speech and ending poverty. The other, as they get married, is a nationalist Western politician, fighting for Newfoundland as if it were an oppressed, dominated nation. The novel ends as he weighs which life is more worthy.

I have two other stories which I might pursue, depending on circumstances. One is a subversion of cyberpunk motifs, about an ordinary suburban woman who slowly recovers from amnesia and rediscovers her old life as a government assassin. The setting is in a cyberpunk-ish suburbia. This story is of a woman who discovers the emptiness and cruelty of her capitalist society. I'd prefer to tell this story in a more visual medium than the novel, which will require collaborators, and possibly capital.

The other, which I've called Undesirables, is about a man who is persecuted in his quiet suburban community because when he was a young man, he committed an assault on a woman for which he feels immense regret and remorse. But because he's on the state list of sex offenders, the neighbourhood watch, led by a frumpy middle-aged woman with secrets of her own, tries to run him out of town. The protagonist, or maybe narrator, is a woman who becomes the persecuted former criminal's new partner, a young art gallery worker. She and his partner's persecutor both have the same first name, Jennifer. There is a side plot of an Arab family mistrusted in the community because of their race. This story is of a community that believes so strongly in its morality that it refuses to forgive any transgression.

Perhaps these stories are more negative than I initially thought of them. Aanyway, here, Orhan Pamuk talks about literature, culture, and life.

Despite the horribly antique opening graphics, this was actually filmed in 2008.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

More Proust, and An Astonishing Regret

Regarding my Proust reading schedule (I know this phrase is amazingly pretentious, but see the previous posts on Proust as to why it's unavoidable), I've decided to make a couple of changes. For one thing, 1300 pages of Marcel Proust is getting a little heavy, and I find myself in need of a change of style in what I read before I continue with this project. I found this semi-autobiography of Federico Fellini in a bookshop in Windsor last month, and when I finish Within a Budding Grove / In the Shadow of Young Flowering Girls in the next few days, I'll start on that instead of The Guermantes Way. The next volume of In Search of Lost time will follow the Fellini book, and I think I'll read the series like that over the next year, alternating between Proust and some other, shorter book. I picked up some cheap Faulkners in that Windsor bookshop along with the Fellini, and since I've never read any Faulkner before, I'll have to add them to my list.

I suppose that in a book this long and this psychologically complex, any reader is bound to find at some point a passage that strikes painfully close to one's own life. I found one such passage the other day. The narrator has made friends with a middle aged painter, Elstir, who lives in the resort community where he's spending the summer in volume two. Around page 600, he discovers that this wise painter was, as a young man, the arrogant prick painter who was barely talented, and who slept with Swann's girlfriend Odette. Elstir admits it freely, and does not try to justify himself, but simply explains.

"There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man – so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise – unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. . . . We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world."

I think everyone has done some pretty terrible stuff, for the context of their environment, at some point in their lives. And if you don't think you've done terrible things to people in your past, that's a sign that you're still doing it. When you're first beginning to make your own decisions in life, a lot of those decisions are made for selfish motivations. In itself, selfishness isn't so bad, but selfishness is often articulated with callousness. It's from that callous attitude that emotional suffering can be inflicted on people. It's only when we're forced to perceive the suffering we've created that we can develop the wisdom that Proust is talking about there. Of course, once we understand that suffering, it's still possible to accept it just as much as renounce it. But I think the point of this kind of wisdom is to be aware of the power of your actions, so that you can keep their effects in control. What you decide to do with your knowledge of your power is still up to you.

Thoughts on the latest Doctor Who tv movie, Planet of the Dead, will come later this week. Or so I think.
As a reward to myself for finishing my term's work without stressing out like a beast – despite some aggressive backs and forths with my philosophy of mind professor – I picked up the Fever Ray record. I've been a fan of The Knife since they dropped Silent Shout in 2006, and this is the solo record by that band's singer, Karin Dreijer Andersson. Strongly recommended by the Pitchfork set, and they once again steered me right. Not quite the pop record that Silent Shout was, but definitely high quality, haunting material.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reading Update: Bloody Proust

So here is the deal with me and Marcel Proust. I've worked out that it's impossible to discuss anything about him without seeming incredibly pretentious. I have a suspicion that the reputation of the French people, their philosophers and writers in particular, as effete, snobbish, pretentious, self-absorbed twits is based on the reputation of Marcel Proust. I actually find the books themselves quite engaging, even if his attention to detail is so meticulous as to become obsessive compulsive.

I'm just over halfway through the second volume, the embarrassingly titled Within a Budding Grove. I think it was titled that way to avoid the more sexual connotations of the French title, À l'Ombre de Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, or In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Throughout this book, the teenaged narrator periodically lusts after a variety of women his age, most notably Swann's daughter Gilberte, and Albertine, though I haven't gotten to the Albertine sections of the book yet.

However, the incredible detail of description and slow pace of the story doesn't detract from how I've become involved with these characters, smug, self-centred, and idiotic that they are. So many of these characters, protagonists included, are thoroughly absorbed in their own bullshit, whether it's about how intelligent, genteel, or noble they are, or their constant frettings and nervousness about trivialities. Watching the insanely drawn out process of the narrator breaking up with Gilberte Swann for no reason other than that she seems to take him for granted saw me yelling at the book as I read it. This man was torturing himself over his relationship, and it would have all come to an end if he had the guts to speak his mind instead of playing games of visiting her house only when he knew she wasn't there, writing her passive-aggressive letters, and hanging out with her mom Odette more often than Gilberte herself.

Overall, it's a positive experience, though. I certainly consider myself intimately connected with these characters. In a book so detailed in its prose, it's easy to write so densely that one completely loses sight of the characters. It's to the credit of this massive narrative that the protagonists never disappear into their own voluminous descriptions. Its long, winding sentences exhibit a hypnotism that can draw an attentive reader in for hours. Of course, at its size, hours spent reading still only chip slowly through the whole work.

I think I've taken the longest break in terms of writing my own novel since I started. I've been marking papers for my first year course, finishing my courses for the term, in particular the painful editing of a philosophy of mind paper such that all of what I thought were the best ideas were excised. And season three of The Venture Bros arrived last week, so I've been working through those episodes, and the commentary, which is always delightfully self-deprecating and absurd.

I want to finish A Small Man's Town this month. Really, I think I have to. There is only one scene left, and its introduction, where the protagonist Joseph arrives in Toronto for the first time, has been written. But this scene is a reunion of Joseph and the woman he hasn't seen in almost five years, the woman he used to love and who has become a successful human rights activist. The very next sentence, which I haven't written yet, is when he sees her walking into the room, and if I get this reunion and their conversation wrong, then I've pretty much wasted the last 17 months of my writing.

The scale of my project has also dawned on me. I have never spent this long working on a single project in my life. I have done other things while this is ongoing, but even my MA thesis didn't take quite this long. The basic idea for the book, or at least the basic idea that's turned into this book, I worked out in late 2005. It was another two years before I actually started writing, and now I'm on the verge of finishing it. Next will come the job, even harder in this economy, of getting the thing published and selling in a moderately successful number.

I don't think I've ever been this uncertain about my career, because this is the first time in my life that a writing career is actually staring me in the face. It's going to be hard enough getting a job in philosophy, because academic philosophy doesn't want the innovative ideas I try to craft in my work. Academic philosophy wants people who argue according to the established debates; not people who want to shake up the scene and spark people into thinking about traditional problems differently. I'm pretty sure now that no industry actually wants creative people at all, that we're an aberration, a weird presence, what no one normal knows how to handle.

It was very easy to dream about shaking up the world of philosophy and writing when I was 22 years old and finishing my undergraduate degree. It's much harder to hold onto your ambitions when you depend for your livelihood on whether an editor, an agent, or a reviewer looks at your work, sees that it's out of the ordinary, and rejects it because he doesn't understand it. In fact, I'm getting used to the idea that no matter how hard I work, I'll never be successful, because I simply cannot write or live like a normal person. And I doubt I can continually be lucky enough to stumble onto an agent or a patron who sees genuine innovation and not a crackpot. While I'm pretty sure I'll be a failure financially and that no one will read or find my work, I know I'll never stop doing the work I want to do. It's more painful to me to write like a normal person than to have my attempted innovations rejected.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sometimes, Facebooking Requires Explanation

So there's been a new application drifting around facebook over the past few weeks where you make top five lists of stuff. Normally, I'm not a fan of lists, or of liberally adding applications. Most of them are fronts for data mining, which I have nothing against per se, but can be a pain in the ass when it happens with insane frequency. But I was intrigued by the idea of listing the five albums, not that I thought were the best quality music ever, but that had the most impact on me as a person - because the internet is exclusively for telling people how awesome you are. And for porn. But that's for another time. I just put the list in my status, because I felt like it. These are albums that introduced me to sounds that I didn't think were possible before, music that expanded what I thought could be done.

Led Zeppelin II.

I never actually paid much attention to rock music until I was 14. I can't quite remember why, as most of my memories before that age have completely disappeared, phenomenally speaking. But I was an anti-social, snobbish nerd who thought he was better than everyone else around him. Puberty's first affects were not so kind to my personality. But one of those Columbia House catalogues came to my mailbox one day, and out of a random flash of curiosity, I ordered some Zeppelin. I can't even remember which Zeppelin, but I ended up ordering them all. And II was the best example of what I came to love at the time, big loud bluesy guitars that I had actually never heard before in my life. Rock wasn't just the pap that I heard on the radio in 1997; it was stirring and visceral. I had never thought of music as having this raw power before.

Unknown Pleasures

So when I was 16, I bought a mediocre book about "Alternative Rock," which was where I first learned about bands like The Velvet Underground, The Clash, The Cure, and rediscovered Nirvana. I was a little young for Nirvana when they were active. They were faces on magazines I saw in the supermarket. But of those bands whose biographies I found so intriguing, Joy Division entranced me more than any other. When I found a copy of Unknown Pleasures in a Musicworld in Montréal, I bought it, and listened to it without moving from my seat, my jaw dropped open for 45 minutes in awe at what I was hearing. I had to listen a huge number of times before I even understood what was going on. I felt like I was hearing a suicide's confession, not just in the words, but in the sounds themselves. I knew music could rock and roll, but I never knew it could terrify until now.

Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes

Even though I listed their first complete album, I linked one of my favourite songs from their latest, Dear Science. TV on the Radio, with every song I hear, make sounds the likes of which I have never been able to conceive. When I worked at the Muse, my buddy Anshuman brought in the Young Liars EP, which blew me away in a minor fashion. Then when I bought their first album, Desperate Youth Bloodthirsty Babes, I felt a blitzkrieg running through my brain. Whenever someone asks me to describe TV on the Radio's music, I call it electro-clash-doowop-rock, not because they sought to make this weird hybrid, but because that's the closest I've managed to approximate their otherworldly sounds with the English language. And I speak English very well. TV on the Radio regularly takes me to other planets and planes of existence with their music alone. It does not fit most people's understandings of the universe as a rational, ordered existence that such a band exists. I'm glad they regularly take me to theirs.

Highway 61 Revisited

Probably the most important seminal event in my discovery of rock music was when my mother took me to see Bob Dylan play St John's 2000 seat Memorial Stadium on the Time Out of Mind tour in Spring 1998. I had just turned 15, and was amazed to see what I knew to be a legend in front of me in a shiny gold jacket playing "Mr Tambourine Man." They had festival seating at the time, so I got pretty close to the stage. It was also my first significant bonding moment with Jenn Martin, who is now my oldest friend. Over the past couple of years, Bob Dylan has emerged again as an important role in my writing life, as I've actually started a writing life. His words and his images are a guide for excellence and inventiveness in my own work. There are always new ways to articulate emotions, characters, life, and Dylan shows me that whenever I listen to him.

Everything Must Go

The Manic Street Preachers should not work. They are radical, occasionally cross-dressing, socialists whose songs are visceral poems written without rhythm or rhyme about radical politics, mass murder, suicide, peppered with the occasional cover of Clash songs or "Last Xmas" by Wham!. And yet they do, utter chaos that blends one of the best singing voices of the human race, a consistently rocking guitar, and that same viscerality that first enfolded me into rock music when I was 14. I discovered the Manics when I reviewed their greatest hits collection for The Muse, just after a time when I purposely made myself a cruel, manipulative jerk solely for my personal advancement within the newspaper and in the wider university community. For the sake of my ego, I had made myself into exactly the kind of person I thought was most repugnant. And working my way through their catalogue made for an excellent dialogue partner as I spent my twentieth year re-inventing and re-considering who I was and what I wanted to be. They helped me understand that I should never stop inventing myself.