I’ve more been working on the thing-that-argues, and not so much the argument, and you should understand whenever I make a pronouncement like that it’s with an air of selfish mockery: how could what I do ever have any regard for how I say it’s done? —As if such a thing could ever be just what I’ve thought it ought. —Anyway, thus the (relative) silence. I’d point you to some recent quotes mined hither and thither; I’d also (coyly) note that patrons have already received a rough cut off what will be no. 26, and are about to be slipped a mix of a scene that will subsequently never appear—a might-a-been, and you know how I feel about those. —You could avail yourselves, if you like. —And also, on a whim, I decided to try to scare up more readers by dangling some Kindle-bait: thus far, I’m told, four whole Kindle Edition Normalized Pages have been read! —Slowly, surely.
Dragons can be beaten, sure. But the most important thing that fantasy teaches us is there’s this factory, just over the hill, that won’t stop churning out more.
So Benjamin Gabriel, Erin Horáková, Ethan Robinson, and Aishwarya Subramanian got together over at Strange Horizons to chat about Jupiter Ascending and if you’re anything like me, you’re not reading this anymore; you’re over there, reading that. —There’s a lot to love in the giddy watch-me-for-the-changes interplay (friends with wing benefits! every young girl a Skydancer commercial!) but I’m going to focus on those teleological bees, or rather the incoherently ateleological, and Aisha’s neatly apt coinage of “world-furnishing” (as decidedly opposed to the clomping foot of world-building), if only because it dovetails nicely enough if you push it with points I’ve made about grit v. grain, and if I don’t leave it at that I’ll just keep babbling on, so.
We generally speak of the doings and goings-on among the local f--ries as we walk to the bus stop, Taran and I. It’s quite a vibrant little neighborhood, with elderly elm mansions, a great apartment complex in a towering hedge of arborvitæ, and a holly bush bank. (All holly bushes are f--ry banks, I’m told.) (One afternoon, on the way home from the bus stop, we knocked on the doors of f--ry houses and ran away, quickly; they like pranks, I was assured. We both woke up the next morning exhausted and foully tempered from restless dreams.) —Today, she was pointing out the various berries and berry-like fruit growing from this tree or that shrub: they are f--ry pumpkins, a fresh crop grown to get ready for Hallowe’en. (Strawberries, it turns out, are really perfectly sweet little f--ry pumpkins for f--ry pumpkin pies.)
We passed a holly tree, and the berries on it turning from green to red. “See?” said Taran. “More f--ry pumpkins.”
“No,” I said, “those are holly berries. You don’t want to upset the Holly King by calling his berries pumpkins.”
“No, they’re f--ry pumpkins,” said Taran. —She’s heard stories of the Holly King before, and the Oak King. They don’t impress her.
“But he is a f--ry,” I said. (I’m fudging things a bit here, granted, but one does tend to do so when one is in a hurry to catch the bus.)
“No he isn’t,” she said.
“Yes, he is,” I said. (One must be firm once one’s flag is set, you see.)
“Papa,” she said, and she held up her hand. “Look at this text I just got from the f--ries. It says he isn’t. He’s just a legend. Okay?”
Reading the Attebery’s been interesting, and good, most especially the chapters on structure and (most especially) character, but I’m coming up on the last chapter, the one I got into it for, “Recapturing the Modern World for the Imagination,” all so I could start to get at what he had in mind when he coined “indigenous fantasy” which, I mean, well. We’ll see. —I mean, I’ve peeked; of course I peeked: the opening of the second paragraph alone:
Of all the subgenres to emerge within fantasy in recent years, the one that promises to reshape the genre most significantly is as yet unnamed, or rather no name for it has proved adequate.
Written in 1992, five years after I’d already got lost; by 1992, I’d already read Ægypt (The Solitudes, anyway) cover to cover and back again, and oh God Folk of the Air. And since then, but since then, that promise—the promise embodied by this swirling mess of indigenous fantasy (soi disant), this low fantasy, contemporary, postly modernist, magically realist, paranormally romantic, this syncretistic mulch of pulped megatexts, superheroic, supermagical, superscientifictional, these fantasies that “describe settings that seem to be real, familiar, present-day places, except that they contain the magical characters and impossible events of” say it with me now, URBAN FANTASY—what happened? What became of it? Of us? —I mean, we ate the damn world, or what we could find of it, and what good did any of it do?
But in all this, welling up out of all of this, there’s a specific refusal? rejection? repudiation? that I struggle to apprehend, much less articulate, when I turn from this model I’m building to argue with, yell at, kick against, to take up the thing that kicks, that yells, that argues? sermonizes? —There’s an abjunct, between that all-of-this, and the very specific feeling of tuning a sentence just so, of overdubbing detail, of rigging or tripping over structural rhymes, the very peculiar shiver that can obtain with just the simple repetition of a cocked and loaded phrase—map and territory, theory and praxis, forest and trees, I know, I know, but still: I’m either wrong there, or wrong here, and I know where I’d rather not be right.
—Anyway, permit me some links: just about a quarter of the next volume of praxis has appeared since June; I’m hoping the larger cycles have begun to hove into view, and you can see the shape I think it makes, might yet end up making, and that I can keep this discordant bolus soaring, not crashing in a mutter of nothing-or-other:
Not only has SF lost some of its power, it has lost its innocence in a world in which the products of science include horrifying war machines and seas of waste. SF has always had both optimistic and pessimistic strains, both A Modern Utopia and The Time Machine, but the difference has been largely a matter of one’s view of human nature, not of the capability and fitness of science itself. Now, however, some writers seem to have lost faith in the scientific imagination, looking outside the scientific megatext for other ways of seeing and judging. Yet there are very few alternative megatexts sufficiently powerful, comprehensive, and familiar to act as a commentary on science. Even religion lacks the authority it once had for many readers, because it cannot match the material payoffs provided by science.
The discourse of fantasy can challenge SF, partly because it pays its own tribute to science. Impossibility itself, one of the elements of fantasy, is defined largely through reference to the current scientific worldview, especially where that coincides with common sense. Because it is the current view of reality that is violated in a fantasy, inventions that were once fantastic may be no longer, or vice versa. The transmutation of metals might serve as an example of both sorts of change: once part of science, then impossible, and now achieved. Nonetheless, we can tell whether the transmutation is to be viewed as possible or not by the discourse that surrounds it. If an alchemist’s description of the philosopher’s stone were inserted verbatim into a modern fantasy, it would cease to testify to the existence of such a miraculous substance and become part of the rhetoric of the unreal. The same description within a science fiction text might be used to represent exploded myth or to highlight the mysterious properties of transuranic metals.
If fantasy were only the denial of science, however, there would be no contest between them. But in affirming impossibility, fantasy opens the door to mythology, which is the name we give to cast-off megatexts. Gods, fairies, ancestor spirits, charms, spells: a whole host of motifs no longer convey belief and yet retain their narrative momentum and—and here is one of the great differences between science fiction and fantasy—their congruence with the ways we wish we saw the world. They are emotionally and psychologically, if not scientifically, valid, and therefore most potent where science fiction is traditionally weakest.
I still rarely put in an appearance in my own sex fantasies. I remember being startled and a bit alarmed when I learned that other people—so-called normal people—did: the person squirming under the hail of blows, or lecturing sternly as their arm rises and falls, is the avatar of the dreamer herself. That seemed to me, when I first heard about it, like only half a fantasy. It still does.
What I love about my two-faced fantasies is that I get to body-surf. Sometimes I’m the spanker, strict and loving, doling out punishment and affection, slowly chivvying my charge back into the world of acceptable behavior. Sometimes I’m the spankee, nervous and filled with dread, embarrassed as I drop my pants and bend over, fighting to remain stoical and then losing the fight, collapsing in tears and remorse.
If I’m by myself or nobody is watching, I might even whisper the dialogue to myself, complete with the appropriate facial expressions (indulgent smile, disapproving frown, quivering lip, tearful grimace).
I keep expecting to outgrow these fantasies and mature into something more appropriate, but I turned sixty last birthday, and the fantasies have stayed about the same, changing only in a 21st century update to the casting (Captain Picard spanking Q, Spike spanking Giles—you get the general idea).
So it should come as no surprise that in my kinky life, I am a switch, someone who enjoys both ends of the paddle or strap or cane. Nor should it be all that startling to learn that my sexual persona is male, and that I expect my partners to treat me as such.
But that’s in the bedroom, or the dungeon. What about at the writing desk?
One imagines that one can escape a category by collapsing it, but if one tries to collapse the category, the roof falls on one’s head. There a person is, then, having not escaped the category, but having only changed its architecture. Once it was a category with a roof, now it is a category in which everyone is buried in the rubble made of what once was a roof over their heads.
Oh, e-Books Downloads dot net, you irrepressible publishing disruptor, you! I’m chuffed at the numbers you’ve already racked up—858 downloads for The Dazzle of Day? 570 for “Wake up…”? 85 people so far have read the omnibus edition? (And how do you count the reads, anyway?) —It’s adorable, how the copyright complaint form on your website actually bothers to tell me that it fails every time I hit send; it’s hilarious that I can’t point and laugh at this over on Twitter, since apparently they think your whole domain is spammy, for some reason. (I’m highly recommending to my readers that they clear cookies and caches if they do click any of your links, by the way.) —But hey! Thanks for spreading the word!
“And maybe—here’s where I really stick my neck out; you’re welcome—you’re tangled up, too. Maybe you did think they talked like that, or that you should be able to say that word, or that rape is just a gross thing that happens pretty rarely outside of crime procedurals. I mean, I’m white and straight, and I can’t even forgive you on behalf of all the other white straight ladies, but speaking purely for myself: That could be okay. If you weren’t a woman yourself, you could easily be a good person and just not know certain things. Adam Horovitz didn’t. People don’t know things, until they do. Education was invented for the sole purpose of addressing this well-known human problem. So yeah, you turned the wrong corner, took the wrong train, thought rape was rare: You turned back around once you realized the mistake, right? As long as you get to the right place, we can hang out. If you take the wrong turn and stick to it out of pride until you eventually walk into the ocean, then I worry.” —Sady Doyle
This goes a long way toward explaining why I love her work so much, I think; often it fixates—again I think the word is accurate—specifically on the question, what makes this work different from any other? what makes it “fantasy” (or, more rarely with her, “science fiction”) rather than otherwise? and answers: one is allowed neither the luxury nor the irresponsibility of taking anything for granted.
When I was very young that sort of thing was frightening because it represented a breakdown of the logic of the world. A worldbuilding incompatibility that cast doubt on the author’s grasp of the narrative, as it were. Eventually I grew up and saw the invisible world as a rhetorical device to avoid ever talking about violence, cruelty, and responsibility, and that didn’t make it any better. That’s just another way that the world breaks down.
And some time ago, John M. Ford went and said:
Fantasy doesn’t make different stories possible, but sometimes it makes different outcomes possible, through the literalization of metaphor that is one of the key things fantasy does. Moral strength can change the real world—and a good thing, too—but in a fantastic story it can make dramatic, transformative, immediate changes. The idea that such transformations always have a price is what keeps fantasy from being morally empty—magic may save time and reduce staff requirements, but it offers no discounts.
I should probably also note, for whatever passes for the record around here, that I remain perplexed by the esteem in which the Mixon Report is held, greatly disappointed by the quarters from which praise for it has issued, and frankly appalled that it managed to win a Hugo.
This has generally been a puppy-free zone—you’re welcome—but I did want to highlight the highly, importantly, most terribly salient point—the ur-point, one might say, of any further disagreement—that Jim Henley, with great charity, manages to extract from Burnside’s elegy.
I’m always on the lookout for groups or schools or clubs that might, if they knew of me, have me as a member, so that I might Marxily walk away before they think to ask; so when the Millions teased the heralding of a New Modernist age (with a parenthetical invocation of Josipovici), well—I had to go take a peek.
More recently—say, in the last 20 years or so—numerous so-called postmodern novels have contained this distinctly non-postmodern quality—not that the characters feel so much as the reader. The cumulative effect isn’t necessarily a fully fleshed-out character but a fully emotional experience. Think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s strong sentiments in the face of the Holocaust and 9/11; think of the alligator-wrestling family at the heart of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; think of the way Ali Smith works her linguistic magic in order to convey the complexities of love and relationships; or the heart-breaking wallop of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary; think of Reif Larsen’s I am Radar, of Zadie Smith’s NW, of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Can these books truly be considered postmodern when the most prevalent aspect is emotion rather than thought?
Consider the way even genre fiction has been infiltrated by humanity and feeling. Science fiction is no longer merely speculative, adventurous and pure fabulism. Now we have Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and myriad others. Fantasy is no longer characterized simply by lengthily described worlds and political intrigue; now we have Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles and almost everything David Mitchell has written. These so-called genre books now aspire to human heights.
So, well, yes—careful with that cricket bat, Eugene—not so much of a there there. —I drew what amusement I might from the idea of a return to modernism’s warm emotional core, a repudiation of the chilly formal games of postmodernism, but it’s weak tea at best, and then there’s the evocation of Franzen. (Turns out postmodern tropes are like thermal curtains: not as embarrassing as one first thought.) —I mean, I did then pick up the Attebery I’m leafing through, for reasons, turned the page, and laughed at the juxtaposition of the previous with this paragraph—
John Barth has described the reductio ad absurdum of the Modernist movement in his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”: “Somebody-or-other’s unbound, unpaginated, randomly assembled novel in a box.” According to Barth, Modernism’s program of “disjunction, simultaneity, irrationalism, anti-illusionism, self-reflexiveness, medium-as-message, political olympianism, and a moral pluralism approaching moral entropy” was accomplished by the middle of this [past] century. Readers had been educated, had grown wary of literary illusion, could no longer take narrative or narrator for granted. Nothing remained for Modernist writers to exercise their irony upon, and so Modernist fiction had nothing more to say.
—but that smacks entirely too much of pulling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a fern, and anyway, a page earlier Attebery was summing up Edmund Wilson’s take on modernism as “essentially mimetic reporting striving to turn into lyric poetry,” and would you look at that? I’ve been a modernist all this time.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too unkind—charity, and resounding gongs, if nothing else. It’s understandable that modernism and postmodernism are so easily confused: postmodernism’s merely what modernism gets up to in our bedroom after the war, and you know me: I’m a partisan of that small country, mindful of death, disinclined to long journeys, ever since the war and all, you know. —Which may not explain to you why I eagerly clicked on the link to an article titled, “For the future struggle: what is science fiction?” but trust me, I was eager to read something with a tagline that read, “The science fiction that is most important is that which situates itself at a point of struggle.” (—I want to be wrong. —Doesn’t everyone?)
I was eager, but I read it with a deepening frown, a weightening sigh. It isn’t so much a paean or a how-to or even a why-we-must on revolutionary SF; it’s just a minor jeremiad against utopia, which, I mean—
The originating Utopia of Thomas Moore’s 16th century novel was founded by King Utopos, who cut off the peninsula from the mainland, making it into an island. Utopias are, like their primary ancestor, closed systems, functioning perfectly without class, oppression or struggle. As islands, cauterized from the world, proper utopias are resided in by unchanging, eternal societies, a conception which is both absurd and bordering on fascism in its undemocratic and unquestioning existence.
Utopias then are in fact antithetical to science fiction. They are more like a blueprint of a future society, instructions and pictures of a post-revolutionary world rather than stories set in those worlds. Narrative relies on change, process and struggle, all things that cannot happen within a utopia in which struggle, need and desire have been banished.
—sure, if you define it like that. —Utopia is when our lives matter, dammit, and if you can’t make that storyable, God help you. —Inept utopias are bad, to be sure, but these future worlds the mode demands as backdrops for its narratives and struggles—when the action pauses for a moment, and you take a breath, and look around, and see just how it’s different, the then and there, from the here and now, that such difference is imaginable, possible, that it’s amazing, frightening, thought-sparking, utterly uncanny, the home you never knew you could have—this is what breaks hearts, cracks heads, keeps Plato up at night. (It’s also what can bring on the abjunct, yes. I mean, I know I’m wrong. It’s impossible. Look around you.)
So maybe we wouldn’t disagree, Stupart and Dillon and me, ends and means, broadly speaking and all that, it’s just how we marshal our arguments, but still, details matter, I mean theirs or to again be charitable the constraint of wordcounts or something leads to a tendentious misreading of Delany’s Triton: Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part One—
On this heterotopia on Neptune’s moon, Triton, the lead character Bron attempts to live in a post capitalist world where anyone can change gender and sexuality at will and structural oppression appears to no longer exist. However, despite living in a world ruled by individual freedoms, religious mania, the threat of war and violent subjectivities still exist, as typified in the main character themself.
—by way of demonstrating that Triton is one of the good ones, the not-a-utopias, see? Struggle! —But Triton is a utopia, where all our stupid petty bullshit misunderstood and -standing lives matter. —The war, the very real and not at all threatened war, comes from outside Triton, from way back down on Old damned Earth, and maybe I cling to this because these days when I think of the book it isn’t Bron’s shaggy-dog of a story that sticks, or the New York City I can see in it now that I’ve lived there (once, and long ago), or even the game of vlet; what looms over everything else in the book now comes at the very end, Appendix B: Ashima Slade and the Harbin-Y Lectures: Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part Two, the part that begins:
Just over a year ago, at Lux on Iapetus, five million people died. To single out one death among that five million as more tragic than another would be monumental presumption.
One of the many, many to die, when gravity and atmosphere were stripped away from the city by Earth Intelligence sabotage, was the philosopher and mathematician Ashima Slade.
And, I mean—
So there’s about a week left in the Future Fire‘s Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for another ten years; go, look, pledge. —I mention this not only because it’s a great little ’zine, but also because they bought a story of mine: “The Tuner,” published some little time ago. —So there’s that.
The Fall, okay, but did anything ever actually fall? Did the story ever scale vertiginous, dizzying heights, only then to plunge? Or the characters, or a character? An action? —Not as such, no. —Mostly I’m left with a lingering confusion with Tarsem Singh’s spectacular 2006 film whenever I try to talk about it, which is annoying, but mostly to me. —Oh, this: I wrote this a few months back, as part of a conversation with Lili Loofbourow about why I’d liked it, and she hadn’t, and why I’d ended up coming rather forcefully around to her side of the matter; she’s the “you” in what’s below, and this piece in particular is what it’s responding to—treat this post, if you like, as an off-brand badly xeroxed fanfic installment of Dear Television, or something, with parenthetical interruptions from the show itself as it was being written about. —Anyway; enough prologue: with the announcement of season three, and with the occasional bits of praise I’ve been seeing from others (who really ought to know better), here’s the matter as it began the beguine back when:
The Fall, okay, but nothing ever fell, as it were. Except, y’know, the bad guy, I guess, at the end? —And oh for God’s sake Milton? —I’m typing this as the last episode is playing on the other screen, so there’s another piece of evidence to add to the snack-grabbing and beard-shaving you noted.
But first maybe why I liked it, or was liking it, or was thinking it was something I was liking. (Gibson’s one technique is to play on, or instruct others to play on, the desires of her subjects, and welp, here’s Spector looking right at the camera in the interview room and calling our attention to precisely how clever this is.) —Sorry. —The first season was appointment television for us, in the sense that Jenn and I made appointments to sit down and watch an episode or two together, when we got a chance, between day jobs, childcare, and creative enterprises. (And now Gibson’s proxy with Katie, the handsome young detective she requested before she knew she’d need a handsome young detective, has just made a mess of getting any actual information from Katie, and made a hash of treating Katie in any sort of a humane fashion, but has of these two mistakes made what was supposed to be a dramatically satisfying moment.) —Other appointments were made for Hannibal, and Top of the Lake, and (in theory) The Good Wife, and Orange is the New Black, but: appointments are hard to keep, and it’s easy to watch television while you’re doing something else, like coloring comics, or running maintenance routines on a database, which is why she’s watched all of Orange herself, and I’m caught up on Good Wife, and we never did finish Top of the Lake, which I’m tempted to go and take up again now, and feel a little guilty about that.
(The mannequin in the trunk. I admit I’ve completely lost track of where that was supposed to’ve come from.)
But! The Fall! Gillian Anderson rocking her cool, severe British accent! Rainy grey cinematography! (Oh, and here’s the daughter’s interview, to remind me where that damn mannequin came from, though damned if I can actually remember it myself. And Gibson, tearing up, telling her proxy precisely why she’s tearing up, thanks.) —What’s not to like, really. (Oh for God’s sake the miscarriage.) —Sorry. That first season of The Fall we did finish, is the basic point, I guess, and there’s a there there: the aforementioned, plus a slow, steady, controlling hand in the direction, a keen eye for place, and a fascination with the minutiae of process—as opposed to the sterile gestures of the procedural, which I should mention as another media-consumption data point: the fucking procedural, the Castle and the Bones and the House and the Elementary and the Person of Interest and the Psych and the Leverage and yes also the Miss Fisher’s and that dam’ Good Wife, each with its rhythms, its shorthands, its conventions, and though they may play with them, some better or at least with more evident joy than others, or mutate them over the course of their run or even once or twice upend them utterly, they’re still there, implacable skeletons that mean you can queue one up on the one window of your computer set-up and go about your business in the other and surface three or four hours later having watched four or five episodes without ever really seeing one, you know? —So when there’s a show that doesn’t immediately tip its hand, that takes its time, that buries the lede, I suppose, I tend to sit up and take notice, but also to cut it some slack.
(And here we are, the confrontation we’ve been slow-burning our way to through ten previous episodes: Gibson v. Spector, cara a cara! —I paused the playback to put some additional fillips on clauses, here and there.)
One of the procedurals I was watching in and around the same time was Criminal Minds, which, ick. —I watched some of it in small part because of Mandy Patinkin, but mostly because there’s a webserial by a group of genre writers, some of whom I’ve been a fan of since high school, such as Emma Bull and Steven Brust and the infamous Will Shetterly, who was once more firmly on the rails (“It is utterly compelling, compulsive,” is not the language of someone speaking about a thing they’ve experienced themselves, but of someone attempting to describe what they’ve seen someone else experience, which—oh, never mind)—Criminal Minds, yes. The webserial’s a game of procedurals—it’s called Shadow Unit; the authors take turns writing short stories which are (sort of) thought of as episodes of a television show, sort of horror, sort of urban fantastic, about a semi-occult task force in the FBI—I had something of a professional interest, as well as enjoying the stories, and seeing what the writers were getting up to with something of a new-media experiment. —Anyway: they’d talk about enjoying this program, Criminal Minds, which they’d based Shadow Unit on, so I finally got around to watching some episodes, and wanted to take a long hot shower after: Bones is full of deeply unpleasant, self-absorbed people, and Castle’s awfully blasé about death and civil rights violations, and House is just plain mean, but Criminal Minds is the foulest moral pornography, a terrifically ugly example of reveling in what you pretend to condemn, ideology they don’t even bother to rinse off much less gussy up, which is why, I’m sure, it’s on its tenth season or whatever over on CBS.
I mention (all) this because what was compelling, what was compulsive about the first season of The Fall, for me, was how it handled Spector. Unlike a procedural’s monsters-of-the-week, he’s very much a part of the world: he has a job, he has appointments, he has a family, and a family has him, and this humanized him—in a very frail, limiting, deflating way, deftly making the point that Gibson rather stentoriously makes to Burns just before this climactic interview: he’s just a man, a person, a human being. No monster, not in any sense of the word. Not empowered; not invincible. Arrested.
The attention paid to the logistics of his activities, the lack of attention that seemed to be shown for any attempts at patly explaining or reasoning through the why of what he was doing—it’s not, of course, that this has never been done before, but it was such a welcome change of pace from the Criminal Minds approach that, well, I mean. If you’re going to watch shows about serial murders and rapes and such.
And none of this is to take away from Gillian Anderson and her Gibson, about whom so much ink has been spilled—though dear Lord, to insist she doesn’t pursue self-destructive sexual relationships? Every single one we see either risks or damaged, long ago, some aspect of her professional life, which is the only life we see. —But I digress. I was talking about Dornan’s blithely pathetic Spector.
(“The people who like to read and watch programs about people like you,” says Gibson, and fuck you, show; you just blew the last of my good will right out the window with that direct punch on the nose.)
—There’s two moments, in the first season, that jolted like electric shocks, and fixed it in the plus column for me. —There once were, I should say. —The first was when Spector crept into his sleeping daughter’s bedroom, climbed up on her bed, pushed away the bit of ceiling and tucked his book away in the attic: brute force, perhaps, but still: the mean logistics of his evil, how it had to be folded into and worked around the quotidian, how—and I’m gonna digress for a moment, but: I did a lot of babysitting, in high school? And one thing I discovered, after making sure the kids were asleep, when I went snooping about the houses, as one does when one babysits, one thing I discovered was almost every single house had a stash of pornography, and sometimes it was under the bed, and sometimes it was in a nightstand, and quite often it was on a shelf high up in the closet; anyway. This little depth charge of someone else’s desires, squirreled away. —The moment had resonance. There was a shivery horror to it that stuck.
The second moment was that first phone call between Spector and Gibson. It’s the first time he gets to perform as the monster he’s supposed to be; it’s the first time we’re privy to any attempt to explain why he does what he does, and, well, as with any of these shows or stories, it’s bullshit, utter adolescent cod-Nietzsche bullshit. But: the show knows it’s bullshit. And astonishingly, electrifyingly, for that one moment Spector gets to know it’s bullshit. He falters, he hesitates, there’s a look in his eye—that feeling, when you’ve been living with an idea, holding it in your head, telling it to yourself, and you finally get a chance to say it out loud to someone, and you hear yourself, the words coming out of your mouth, and you realize it’s all crap, the magic’s gone, it was never really there in the first place—to have that basic interaction applied to serial-killer nonsense was beyond refreshing. It felt revelatory. The weirdly anticlimactic structure of the first season, with no actual confrontation as such, with him getting away, as it seemed—it felt deliberate, as if the show wanted to say forget catharsis, forget quote-justice-unquote, this, here, this moment, this is the important thing to take away: he’s pathetic, he’s feeble, he’s destroyed real people and that makes him contemptible, he’s just a person himself, and there’s no deep insight into rage or fantasy or desire here. Go home.
So, y’know. I liked it.
(And yes, of course, Rose is alive! God, what a weirdly desultory bit of plot that was. I will say that a show that has become this fetishistic about process and detail is nonetheless and of course terribly squeamish about what and how a person might excrete, trapped in a trunk for was it three episodes? Or four?)
There were a number of ways the show could’ve carried on into a second season; what I’d thought—Stella Gibson moves on to another
(—oh for FUCK’s sake extrajudicial execution ex machina—)
where was I? —How it could’ve carried on, yes. The continuing adventures of Stella Gibson as she moves on to another town where she’s had an inappropriate relationship with someone in the police hierarchy that might compromise yet another investigation of a sadly all-too-human fuck-up drunk on patriarchal power, haunted every now and then by the one that got away, in Belfast—that wasn’t going to happen. Spector retreating, doubling down on his bullshit in isolation, resurfacing to try and make another go of it, okay, there’s possibilities there, and the fact that he does find someone he can articulate his bullshit to, who’ll validate it and egg it on, and it’s a teenager, there’s potential there, too, dicey, but. (Oh, Katie! I really hope you end up in a Kelly Link short, so you can finally become the whacked-out Nancy Drew you so desperately want to be.) —Anyway. Second season, I was still on Team “Aw, I liked it” through the first episode and into the second. I’m a sucker for brooding on ferries, what can I say.
But! That third episode. Two moments, again: first, there was the dizzying bewilderment that came when, almost immediately after Gibson gives a distraught-for-her tirade about how it’s the task force’s fault that Rose was taken by Spector, Archie Panjabi’s M.E. (I nip over to another tab to Google—her name was Reed Smith? What?) rather firmly informs Gibson that it’s highly likely Spector found Rose because of the task force, and Gibson nods, considering, yes, this is likely true. It was like two scenes from two alternate takes on the story slapped into the same show without anyone realizing the causality breach, and while I’m as big a fan of kicking over the traces of story-logic as the next fellow, they don’t need to be so carelessly Brechtian. —So that was the first moment I sat up and said, wait, show, what?
The second comes at the end of the interminable sequence in Gibson’s hotel room, after the bit in the bar, and the wildly, desperately obvious fanservice-kiss and flirtation. —We get Spector’s infiltration of the hotel, which is insultingly contrived: the waiter’s just put down a tray right by the service entrance! He’s left a master key-card on the tray! Spector knows what a master key-card looks like, and can do! Look, room-service orders, hanging on the wall right there! And that one, right there, it’s from Stella Gibson! See, how cleverly he hacks the script? I mean, the hotel? —And all of it done in one shot, too. I’d‘ve found it far more “realistic,” far less noticeable and off-putting, if the show had just made it clear he’d broken into her room somehow, who cares, let’s not bend over backwards to justify how. —So there’s that. There’s Burns, dropping by to whinge drunkenly about the B-plot of the first season, and since there’s no further fallout from this the only reason he does so is to get punched, which, okay, good moment there, and then he gets cleaned up, and more discussion of this or that explicative point, and then we shifted somewhere else I think? Long enough for Stella to change out of her suit into a robe just like the one she was wearing in the dream sequence, huh, and then she boots up her computer to see what Spector’s done to her desktop, and—she leaps for her gun!
Which is an impulse I can totally understand, if one were used to guns, and had one at one’s disposal. But in the flow of the episode, the tonal shifts, the way everything intervening had been strung out to such lengths, how we’d already had the one confrontation in that hotel room just minutes before, it felt wildly out of place. I laughed, when I should’ve jumped. A definite stumble.
And then things start to snowball, and where I might’ve cut some slack before, I now shook my head. Spector’s wrestling with logistics becomes instead superhumanly smooth urban-ranger skillz, to the extent that he seemed to be colluding with the writers to get away with stuff. The minutiæ of process becomes fetishistic, calling attention to precisely how much labor and money was being poured into this task force that can’t seize actual evidence from a house they’re destroying to surveil. (Though I did initially like the murmuring Greek chorus effect of the surveillors all checking in with dispatch, it got numbingly repetitive after a bit.) —You mentioned the slow-motion shots of his being hauled into the police station; I found the sullen gotcha! of his arrest to be, well, arresting: let him go from the scene of the officer-involved shooting, as if he’s not a person of interest in any other matter, let him walk half a block away, look about, and then let someone else march up out of nowhere to arrest him for Rose’s abduction—why? What on earth was the point of that?
I’d like to think the show itself was aware, just for a moment, of just how far it had fallen when the abusive husband got the phone call from his mate, oh, hey, I just saw your wife, the one you’ve been looking for. —But I can’t be certain.
Looking however briefly into the production history it’s easy to take what I think I know of the making of these things and run some diagnostics: the first five shows were ordered in one batch, and proved so popular a second batch were ordered, and not everyone could come back for them, including the director of the first batch, so the writer directed the second run, and voila! And now there’s going to be a third. —But this reading is awfully generous to my own half-considered initial impressions of the show, a decent-enough first outing run into the ground by a thoughtlessly extended second, so I distrust it, because what the hell do I know. —I’m left with a point Sady Doyle made about Agent Carter, about how feminism is just a button to be pushed now by multinational corporations, a niche to be pandered to, and that’s kind of what this feels like: hey, that misandry’s pretty popular with some folks, let’s see if we can make a splash. —But that’s uncharitable, and I do try to have some charity, so I’ll walk that back; it’s not worth it as a punchline.
So. Anyway. —Thoughts! I had some.
“ERE, within his narrative persona, cannot help but identify himself with the great bearded sculptures of the Assyrians. ERE wore a mustache through most of his adult life. During a trip to Iceland in 1926, he grew a beard, and on his return, his wife, Winifred, and his daughter, Jean, pleaded with him to shave it. To their relief he razored the beard, but, not wanting to relinquish completely his ornament of manhood, he retained the mustache for the rest of his days. (Ms. Eng. Misc., c. 456, Bodleian)” —Paul Edmund Thomas
“And maybe this was useful for Moonie. Maybe it was therapeutic for all of us, to sit with our problems in a tauntaun-adjacent space. It was hard, though, not to feel that something had gone awry with the basic promise of imaginative escapism. No one’s fantasy of Star Wars ever involved hearing a depressed fiftysomething complain about his stepson, or eavesdropping on herds of leetspeak-bros debating the pluses of different skill trees. But that was the world Star Wars Galaxies gave you. It implied two lessons, neither unique to fantasy fandom but both still useful when thinking about it in 2015. Nothing ruins tourist destinations like tourists. And you can run to Dantooine, but your wife is still going to smell the cigarette smoke.” —Brian Phillips
I figured it out on the way there, the intro, which I had to mostly scrap because when I timed out what I was going to read it took eight minutes when I’d thought it was only going to be five and we only had ten, each. But if I just jumped right into it, which I did, when I first moved to Portland, twenty years ago, the first article I read in the Sunday Oregonian was a Randy Gragg column about the Moonday T-Hows, does anyone remember the Moonday T-Hows? And it’s a young crowd, so I don’t have much hope, though it is a ’zine crowd, so maybe, and there, at the back, a nod, a yes, okay. —This amazing space, built out of scrap lumber and windfall and like eighty-five dollars’ worth of supplies [ed. note: it was $65] that hosted parties and get-togethers and just hanging out being in a place stuff, community stuff, that came together and tore itself apart all in one summer and was gone before I even got here. It, seized my imagination, and when I started to write City of Roses, it couldn’t help but work its way into a story about magic in Portland, this fantasy—
And I’d like to blame it on a certain blogospheric kerfluffle, I would, the deprecating shove I gave that word, “fantasy,” the irony with which I larded it, but that would be wholly unfair; I would’ve done it anyway. It’s a ’zine crowd, and of all the worlds I flit about, gadfly-fashion, comics and genre, fandom and criticism, politics and self-publishing, it’s the ’zinesters where I feel the least at home? —For all that I, y’know, make ’zines, pretty much the only necessary and sufficient condition for being considered as such—certainly far more than I do comics or fandom or criticism or anything else. —Oh but there’s more to it than that; there’s all the myriad unspoken ways and means, and beyond the staples and the xeroxing, well. —I always feel off-kilter, doggedly serious where light-fingered irony is called for; digging for sarcasm when the mood’s gone earnest, and off-kilter makes me defensive. I lard. I shove.
—this fantasy, I said—
And the thing was, this was the transition in the introduction, shifting deftly from the personal history of the thing to how it’s situated in the story, the excerpt I was going to read, which is about Luke, and Jessie, and the ghost of a memory of a teahouse, but leaning on that word, defending what it might leave open, betraying it to reach out to the audience, hey, we both know what’s what, right?
This would be why preparation and ritual are essential to any proper working, and also why you don’t whip up a bit of untested oratory half an hour before you go on.
—I botched the transition, is the thing. Got tangled up in Luke and Lake, Thursdays and Mondays, continuity hobgoblins, what-happened-last-week-on, losing the feel of it in the handful of all the facts, and tripping over my feet, as it were, in my haste to get on with it. —The reading itself went well enough; it’s got some swing to it, the excerpt I read, builds a head of steam under an adolescent tantrum, and I do all right with something like that. But I’d lost them, with the shove, and the stumble. The applause was polite.