Friday, July 29, 2011

Dangerous Ideas 2 - Psychotic satire

For all it's unforgiveable faults, reading Atlas Shrugged has enriched my life in a number of ways. I now feel that I am wiser about the dangers of self-interest. I feel that I better understand the thought processes and logic behind capitalist-corporate behaviour. I feel I have looked inside the head of someone I couldn't be more distant from, and been introduced to ideas I had not given much thought to before. And most importantly, it made me laugh. 

I couldn't laugh at the book itself. It's a truly humourless piece of writing, depressingly po-faced. The world of Atlas Shrugged is the sort of world where people "laughed without humour", and "smiled, but without emotion". No, the thing that made me laugh about it was that I finally realised what the joke was about in American Psycho.

As far as I am aware, Bret Easton Ellis has never said as much, it is purely my own speculation. But the first couple of chapters of Atlas Shrugged, followed by a few pages of American Psycho should be proof enough for any person.

I was working at Sainsbury's at the time I read American Psycho. After about 50 pages of it I still couldn't see why something so repetitive and eye-wateringly boring had garnered so much praise calling it a tour-de-force. So I was treating it as an opportunity to practice skim-reading. I remember flicking through the pages faster than anyone else in the smoking room was reading, determined to get to the end of this tedium, when the first murder ripped past my eyes. If it hadn't been so visceral I might have just passed it off as a dream, and I had to go back to re-read it.

"Whatcha readin'?" Barbara said from the other side of the table, Sovereign burning between two fingers beside her face.

I showed her the cover and her face twisted the other direction into a grimace. "Whatcha readin' that for?" she asked.

The problem with American Psycho is that it is so easy to take it at face value. Almost anything of meaning  in it is in the meta-reading, otherwise it is just a very, very boring portrait of a very, very uninteresting person, seasoned lightly (to mix my metaphors) with acts of violence so horrific that the only way to read them is to put the book down and do something else for a while.

But what if you didn't get it? Like this guy:
"You can interpret anything intellectually and give reasons why works should be considered as being of great worth in any artistic sense. This book can sit amongst the very worst examples of art in my opinion.
I loved the film American Psycho & so bought the book. I am a huge William S Burroughs & Ballard fan and am not easily shocked. This book is never able to justify the disgusting imagery it produces. If you find this book humorous then I truly believe that you are mentally unhinged. The film was funny - perhaps due to it's absurdity, this book is over the top in my opinion.
You really just have to ask yourself - "Is this book in all it's gore & horror worth reading for a few mere chuckles?". Ask yourself this - "Should I read a book that ties brutality & rape to humor so very vividly?". It must really damage the morality of the reader to reduce such horrific scenes to a laugh.
I think this work is a good book for pseudo-intellectuals to cling to. I can't see any merit in reading this book at all. All books I'm finished with due to over-reading or dislike are given to the local charity shop to sell. This book was so bad I ripped it in half & put it in the bin. I wouldn't want to curse anyone else with this book even if it meant money going to charity."
I must be mentally unhinged.

And what if you were pro-Objectivism? Or a misogynist? There's plenty here to support both

The amazon reviews are somewhat revealing, that 56 people got the joke, and appreciated it, and the numbers go down with the star rating as people exponentially appreciate it less. And then, there is a sudden jump at one star ratings. My first assumption is that these are people who most certainly either did not get it, or did not appreciate the graphic medium.

The satire, the mundanity, and the horror beyond excess were all sadly glossed over for the mainstream in  the movie. It got right the general sense of elitism and pedantry (see video below for the most hilarious scene) which rules the lives of people who earn too much and work too much with money, and the deeply ingrained misogyny. My problem with this, and I still don't understand if it is a misunderstanding on the film-makers part, or a fault of the shift between mediums, is that the bathos of the book requires the tedium to enhance the shock value of each murder, and this in turn trivializes the boring, consumer/corporate pages that compose most of the novel. Each scene in the film is cleverly realised, and neatly pieced together, but it just isn't nearly boring enough, and sadly, boredom is an integral part of the story. The book and film are two very different monsters and don't increase the appreciation of the other.

But, let's address some of these issues: you can interpret anything intellectually, including this book, but why would you want to do it to this book?

First and foremost, I don't think there's anything to be lost in interpreting anything intellectually, except maybe a little bit of time and the potential for losing face as you describe the metaphysical and social merits of something as trite as Angels and Demons.

American Psycho on the other hand has clearly been written with the intention of being analysed. For a start. nothing is spelled out. It is asking to be thought over. You may come out of it thinking it's a cheap trick or an allusive product of genius. But give it a thought if it wants to be thought about and you may find yourself asking some interesting questions about yourself.

And justifying the graphic imagery in terms of intellectualism? There are certain parts that they could surely make the victims of ingested poison read. But for me, visceral as they are, are not the most graphic parts. I would like to say the excessive description of business suits in place of individual personality is the most graphic, being the bulk of the material, but I skimmed over most of it. In my opinion, the coldly analytical descriptions of musicians and their branding is more graphic. Chauvinism and misogyny are common character indicators in fiction (not normally as horrific as here however), but someone so graphically misunderstanding consumerist constructions is not. To me, that is more disturbing than the sort of torture porn that graces our cinema screens so often.

The rapes and murders constitute less than 50 pages, and yet it is what people come away remembering most. 

And then you find yourself accused of finding humour in the novel. Why does it make me laugh? Like I said before I didn't laugh when I read it. It's a slow burning joke, like Holmes and Watson on a camping trip, and it's only when you think retrospectively about the ideas that the laughter can come.

Thankfully, almost everyone who has made it to the end of this book is generally someone who has realised what it is they are reading. SATIRE!!!! Even if they didn't class it as enjoyable satire, in the way that 1984 is very readable.

Satire is often misunderstood. In fact, some would even say that it is not satire unless it has been misunderstood. I think this is a meta-approach to a form of entertainment that is already meta, and is said to justify the fact that satire needs to be understood. The most obvious way to prove that you have understood a piece of art is to laugh at someone who did not. A joke is only a joke if someone or something loses.

This always makes me think of that scene in Black Adder:
"Baldrick, do you know what irony is?"
"Yes, Sir, it's like goldy and bronzy, but made of iron."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two Hobbit or not two Hobbit?

I'm dreading the two part film version of 'The Hobbit'. For a start, it's in two parts, and 'The Hobbit' is definitely a one part book. It's episodic, sure, but there's a very natural flow of episodes.

Maybe it's the news that a lot of extra characters have been crammed in to satisfy fans. I'm not much of a purist; if you aim to tell someone else's story in a different medium, do what you must to make it work. But, this is the book of a man who got upset when purposefully misspelled words were corrected by an editor, and didn't even want a film-adaptation of his works.

Maybe I'm nervous that this is a product being forced by people who saw the LOTR's success reap in more money than a small country.

But most of all, it worries me because...

...Well, because Peter Jackson really is not a very good film-maker.

There we go, I said it.

I should clarify that statement before it angers too many people; he's alright, he's not terrible, but he's no Almoldovar. What I meant by saying he's not very good, is that he is first and foremost a man of production. All of his films have a beautiful gloss. If his films were ornamants, you'd have them on the mantlepiece because they look so good.

What Jackson is not is a natural story-teller. He has a remarkable, envious array of tools before him, but he uses them as if he were making a flimsy model home. All spectacle, just a little too big, and lacking a geniune human touch.

Harsh criticism. Sorry.

My criticism is not based on the fact that the books are better, just that the films cannot hope to achieve even a fragment of the emotion that is charged in the book, and yet they still try.

'Lord of the Rings' was an amazing movie, a true cinematic spectacle, rammed with all the story and emotion of a hundred Bollywood films, and styled to western tastes. But how much of that was Jackson?

The worst parts of all three movies were the parts that Jackson and his writing team shoe-horned into the scripts: the death of Saruman, the romance between the true-king of scraggly hair and lady lips, Viggo's descent down a cliff-face that seems to serve no other purpose than to make him ride 5 minutes behind the rest of the plot. Or the patchy moments when a lot of book text has been shoe-horned out or condensed, such as the army of ghosts washing through the city like a green fog from the mind of John Carpenter.

Epic, sweeping shots of miniatures in combination with James Newton Howard are one of the most impressive aspects. I look forward to them in The Hobbit. And moments of subtlety, like Frodo's first encounter with a ring wraith; hopefully the tact of that entire sequence can be repeated with Bilbo's encounter with the trolls.

And yet I know that I despair for the the fact that the relatively brief battle at the end of the Hobbit (book) will take up most of the second The Hobbit movie. Has no one watched the last Harry Potter movie? Epic battle does not make for satisfactory conclusion.

I treasured The Hobbit as a kid. The story stuck with me for a very long time, until I discovered the joys of alcohol as a teenager mostly. And there are still images, and snatches of story that haunt me. I don't want Jackson to gobble them up and crap them out the same way he did with Return of the King.

Rant over.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dangerous Ideas 1 - What if Atlas Shrugged?

My experience of Ayn Rand until this year had always been that she was an author widely disliked, a radical thinker, generally shunned by the literary world. A jibe from South Park here, a sneer from someone there. Perhaps with good reason -- I had no idea and was not particularly intrigued to find out.

Until I saw an interview with her about her personal philosophy. She was fascinating, and I found myself hypnotised by her; the unexpected accent, the distracted flicking of the eyes, her verbosity in explaining such dangerously radical ideas.

I had to know more. Not because she spoke to me on a personal level, but for the same reasons I'd explore an abandoned building.

When I said I was going to read Atlas Shrugged I was warned away by many friends that had already read it. "She's the queen of deeply unlikable characters," one said. Another tried, "Read The Fountainhead, it's not as bad -- or perhaps one of her shorter novels."
Absolutely no one encouraged the idea. Which, I have to say even encouraged me further.

Having gone down that path, I feel obliged to share my criticisms, but I will only say directly one thing about her literary techniques, because that is the ground she is most easily attacked on, and actually the least scary aspect: her techniques are very limited for a book of such length and the view they provide too narrow for her attempts at such philosophical depth.

So, general criticisms aside, what is so wrong about Ayn Rand's ideas?

Well, plenty, to be honest, if you take her seriously. She posits a world inhabited by fickle, shallow people. Her heroes are characters with no understanding of selflessness, nor empathy. If Mark Haddon had written about her heroes everyone would assume they suffered from Aspergers and feel sorry for them. But he didn't, and in Rand's hands they just seem socially incompetent and detestably self-involved. Those characters with altruistic feelings, who are never heroes, are misguided and deeply unsatisfied, and are often simply characters to confound the heroes' progressions. Anyone who is not a hero is a cipher character.

Almost every scene in this novel is composed of one or two characters astonished (or, completely un-astonished, Rand only writes in extremes) by something they can't quite understand in someone else's expression, while the plot trudges along slowly, irregardless of whether the characters can 'grasp' the situation or not. Quasi-philosophical conversations abound, but not often enough to ever truly explore the ideas, as if Rand is trying to prove that nobody, unless a hero, is capable of using their own reason sensibly.

I can accept that some readers might not see this as too wrong in itself, maybe just a bit nasty, and short-sighted. Everyone sees the world from different perspectives. But that, too, is short-sighted, and surprisingly against Rand's own (misguided) 'ideal' of a world governed purely by reason.

She has said herself that she doesn't write her characters as people, but as embodiments of ideas, or ideals. Whether this is intentional, or merely a practical view of a poor writing style is entirely up to you to decide (I go with the latter, simply because I can imagine her egotism blinding her view of her own prose). But it is a dangerous writing style because it completely dehumanizes the characters. Abstracting philosophical ideas to view them unbounded is one thing. Doing this gave us maths, and science and pointed out the many limitations of language as a exploratory tool. But to philosophise about social sciences with so little concern for other people, to generate a single-minded fantasy world populated by personified ideas removes the humanity from philosophy, and that is dangerous.

None of the characters go about this almost clueless meandering with more intensity than the protagonist, Dagny Taggart. At first, it seems easy to estimate Dagny as Rand's attempt at a feminist character. She's strong minded, strong willed, willing to work her way to success in what is clearly a patriarchal society. What could be wrong in that. How can someone clearly of the view that a woman's place in society is equal to man's begin to approach the realms of misogyny?

Oh, there we go, I've spoiled the surprise.

Dagny Taggart requires a man. It's not immediately obvious at first. The first man she falls in love with is cold and horrible, like all the other characters, and Dagny inexplicably admiring him is no surprise given the circumstances of being in a Randian fantasy. But when she falls in love with her next man it becomes clear that Rand believes a woman should suit a man, and make herself suitable, pliable to her man.

The first time they have sex is brutal (in that same tedious tone in which all the other action wades by); he is trying to prove his sexual urges are something separate from love, and she is determined to be his animate sex doll. She keeps this up, her willingness to do anything and everything to satisfy him. "Hank," she said, "I'd give up anything I've ever had in my life except my being a luxury object of your amusement."

At first I thought this was Rand embarking on a bit of Foucauldian sexual dynamics, and I had to read elsewhere to check up on this. But no, she does indeed believe that a woman's place in a relationship is to hero worship.

This problem with Rand's philosophising pops up all over the book, and perhaps highlights best the most dangerous thing about her thinking. Despite adamantly propounding the power of reason as the only guiding force a human being could need, so much of her own reason is founded on personal feelings that she does not take the time to question. It's a horribly strong, and paradoxical foundation to build a logical structure on: "You're reasoning is wrong." / "But I can't be wrong, because selfish reasoning is infallible." Like a child sticking her fingers in her ears and screaming, "I can't hear you!"

So, we have a book that comes across as a teenage steam-punk sci-fi by an egotist author who doesn't seem to have had any other human to bounce ideas off. She's capitalist, corporate, selfish, misogynist and believes in acceptable discrimination. Absolutely nothing dangerous about that, is there? What on Earth made me think this could be a dangerous book.

Actually, it was this book, an exploration of real-world Randian heroes, that made me think Atlas Shrugged could be bad for humanity. If Randian 'philosophy' is about hero-worship, then Randian philosophers hero-worship her. What's scary about this book is the number of important, incredibly influential names that submit to the ideals of Objectivism: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, John Allison, Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. Here are some of the most influential and richest (interchangeable terms after a certain degree of wealth is achieved) openly believing in a personal philosophy of selfishness. Is this what wealth does to you, forces you to adopt a narrow minded, Randian view of other people in order to justify your own incredible degree of wealth (read 'influence')?

Even though it took me so long to bother to find out anything about Ayn Rand, the title, Atlas Shrugged, has been drifting about in my awareness of popular culture for ages. The idea of Atlas, a person with the infinitely exhausting task of holding the world aloft on his own, is a powerful image. More so, the idea of him shrugging. Apparently, Rand called the book The Strike (because of it's plot of all the 'creative' minds going on strike) until the eleventh hour when she changed it to Atlas Shrugged. And for good reason. It's a revolutionary image, perfectly capturing the idea of place and caste being overthrown. It's just such a pity that Rand had to make his reasons selfish.

Again, this is only dangerous if you bother to take her seriously...

If Ayn Rand shrugged and nobody saw, would her ideas be of any significance?

As a counterpoint to my melodrama, try reading this bubbling reaction.

Dangerous Ideas 2 - here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Missed post

Sorry, I seem to have missed my post last week. Here's something that made me giggle to make up for it.

Dying for fiction

Wirrten for the Foyles blog.

I'm dying to read the final installment of A Song Of Fire and Ice. But I have to admit, for a long-time reader of fantasy fiction, I only started to read it after the success of the HBO series brought it to my attention. So, I'm still only halfway through the first book, Games of Thrones.

I can barely put it down though. Very few authors have the genius to produce a consistently engaging page turner, and at roughly a thousand pages per book, that's no mean feat for Mr. Martin (I assume from reviews that he continues this style throughout the series). There is something in his writing that is fascinating. Perhaps it is the casual way in which the dark aspects of humanity are used for character and as plot devices to propel you towards the end.

The setting is a fantasy world where the fantasy has been driven away, leaving a medieval system of squabbling noble families. Squabbling sounds flippant, but that is just what they do, only with knives and swords ornamenting the use of raised voices and fists. Our hopeful heroes make as many mistakes as their enemies, and their enemies are able to transform into our hopeful heroes.

I can't wait to get to the end and find out what happens, how it all resolves.

At the same time, I want it to last forever. This really is a conflict of emotions. It can't possibly last forever, not at the speed with which Mr. Martin kills off characters. I fear that the characters I am reading for might not be around in fifty pages, let alone the 5000 pages of the series.

Right at the beginning of Game of Thrones one of the most instantly loveable, and hugely significant  characters in thrown to his death, and that's what first pulled me to the edge of my seat. Mr. Martin had so carefully made me feel strongly for this character, only to make me feel the deathly impact more when it hits. That's when I realized that this author has no qualms playing my heart strings.

But that's what we expect from our fantasy authors, right? We expect a world that shares the same emotional depth as our own.

As with the Middle-Earth of Tolkein, another master of the good literary death. Middle Earth and Martin's Seven Kingdoms share many of the same high-fantasy tropes, but Tolkein goes to such lengths to paint a picture of his world that it can take a long time to realise that a lot of the first book bares little relevance on the central plot other than to make you fall in love with the characters. It is not until the ultimate of father-figures has plunged to his death that you realize Tolkein is not just being earnest with his story, he's being deadly serious.

J.K. Rowling was not satisfied to pluck your heart strings just once with the death of Sirius, but to do it again with Dumbledore at the same time in the next book. That's two, two!, of the best characters from the series. There was no doubt in the last book that she's perfectly able to echo Conan Doyle and have the fall of the evil Voldemort only be possible in the fall of the good Harry.

It's the most powerful thing you could do to a character, and, done right, it's the most dreadful thing you could do to your reader. And yet, we love it. If someone dies in the right way we'll stick around for more.

Fantasy books are horrible. They really are.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"All art is useless."

Thoreau - Guy Laramie

The Spider's Book - Evy Jokhova

Health and Longevity - Brian Dettmer

Spread of Influence - Donna Ruff

Book cut - Thomas Allen