Archive for fiction

Octavia Butler Tribute

Via Tstop’s Film Shack, a video tribute to the novelist Octavia Butler. I didn’t write about Butler when she passed away earlier this year, but her novel, Kindred is one of my favorite books. I’ve taught the novel twice, once at Illinois and once at Purdue, and on both occasions, it provoked thoughtful and passionate discussion, which I read as testimony to her skill as a novelist. The short tribute appears to have been filmed at a book signing for Fledgling, which I’ve heard is a great book.

Update: Tstop also offers this Spike Lee interview from German television.

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Narrating the War on Terror

In the comments to my entry on Frank Miller’s planned Batman-Al Qaeda narrative, G. Zombie mentioned a New York Times article on other graphic novels and comics series that plan to feature war on terror plots. The Marvel “Civil War” series seems particularly compelling:

Along the way, Marvel will unveil its version of Guantánamo Bay, enemy combatants, embedded reporters and more. The question at the heart of the series is a fundamental one: “Would you give up your civil liberties to feel safer in the world?”

Of course comics have a long history of dealing with real-world issues, as the many World War II comics that demonized Nazis illustrate, so I’ll be interested to see how this series plays out.

I’ve also found myself intrigued by the recent discussion of Robert Ferrigno’s Prayers for the Assassin, an alternate-reality thriller set in the year 2040 that has been promoted or reviewed relatively widely on some prominent political blogs. The basic premise:

THE YEAR IS 2040. New York and Washington are nuclear wastelands. The nation is divided between an Islamic Republic across the north and the Christian Bible Belt in the old South. The shift was precipitated by simultaneous, suitcase-nuke detonations in New York City, Washington, and Mecca, a sneak attack blamed on Israel, and known as the Zionist Betrayal. Now alcohol is outlawed, replaced by Jihad Cola, and mosques dot the skyline. Veiled women hurry through the streets. Freedom is controlled by the state, paranoia rules, and rebels plot to regain free will…

In this tense society beautiful young historian Sarah Dougan uncovers shocking evidence that the Zionist Betrayal was actually a plot carried out by a radical Muslim now poised to overtake the entire nation. Sarah’s research threatens to expose him, and soon she and her lover, Rakkin Epps, an elite Muslim warrior, find themselves hunted by Darwin, a brilliant psychopathic killer. Rakkin must become Darwin’s assassin—a most forbidding challenge. The bloody chase takes them from the outlaw territories of the Pacific Northwest to the anything-goes glitter of Las Vegas—and culminates dramatically as Rakkim and Sarah battle to reveal the truth to the entire world.

While Tom Tomorrow compares Prayers to Robert Harris’ Fatherland, the first association I have is Philip K. Dick, especially his underrated Man in the High Castle. I’m very curious to read Prayers, though it will probably have to wait for several weeks (I do have a long flight to and from Seattle for SCMS in a few days, so maybe then), but both Tbogg and Tomorrow’s comments about the novel’s politics are intriguing. While the book has sometimes been presented as “anti-Muslim warblogger porn,” in part because of Ferrigno’s blog, both Tbogg and Tomorrow see something more complicated going on politically.

I have to run to campus and meet with some students, but I’ve noticed that I’m writing about/thinking about this topic a lot lately. Maybe there’s a conference paper or article in this issue?

Update: Here’s a CNN article about Prayers. Interesting to note that Ferrigno came from a fundamentalist Christian background that he left as a teenager. The CNN article also points to this mock news website set in a world not unlike that described in Ferrigno’s novel.

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Airborne Toxic Events Coming to a Theater Near You

If you’re one of my readers who teaches in a literature department, you may want to skip this entry. I just found out that there are plans to make a film version of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Apparently the film has been planned for at least a year, which makes me (want to) believe that it may not be happening, especially given the track records of the director Barry (Wild Wild West and Men in Black II) Sonnenfeld.

I’m not someone who believes that literary adaptations are necessarily a bad idea or that the novel (or whatever “original” source) is always superior to the film, but as Aaron pointed out a long time ago, Sonnenfeld’s stylistic flourishes don’t seem to fit the spirit of DeLillo’s novel. Right now, I’m trying to operate under the assumption that this film will never happen.

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Television, A Novel

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television, a Novel features a thiry-something Parisian academic who, while spending a year in Berlin on sabbatical to conduct research on Titian, concludes that he watches too much TV and that it’s preventing him from completing his work. The novel begins with the anonymous narrator confiding, “I quit watching television. I gave it up cold turkey, once and for all, never to watch another show, not even sports.” He acknowledges, of course, that he waited until after the Tour de France to make this decision, and like many of us, speaks coyly about the depths of his addiction: “On average, I watched maybe two hours a day (maybe less, but I’d rather err on the side of generosity, and not try to puff myself up with a virtuously low estimate).”

The narrator’s decision provokes an entertaining, humorous, satirical meditation on TV’s role in our daily lives (Warren Motte aptly describes Toussaint’s work as “an epic of the trivial”). Mark Holcomb, in his Village Voice review, notes that Toussaint is “in DeLillo territory,” and that description seems especially apt when the narrator speaks about the endless streams of programs that play non-stop, whether the TV is running or not: “everywhere it was the same undifferentiated images, without margins or titles, without explanation, raw, incomprehensible, noisy and bright, ugly, sad, aggressive and jovial, syncopated, all equivalent.” Thus, for the narrator, TV prevents the quiet contemplation needed to engage in his scholarly work, as Joy Press points out in her New York Times review. Of course the narrator consistently finds ways around his self-imposed TV boycott, concluding that it doesn’t apply when he is visiting other people’s homes, ultimately justifying more frequent visits to a neighboring apartment where he is supposed to be caring for their plants (though he does a humourously poor job of fulfilling this rather simple task).

The novel is also an amusing satire of the solitary academic writer and the ways in which the narrator finds ways to avoid writing. Soon, a daily trip to the swimming pool becomes justified as work precisely because it is not writing, explaining to himself that he must let his ideas “gestate” before trying to put them on the page while they are still incomplete. There’s also a humorously uncomfortable scene in the novel when the narrator runs into the professor who awarded him the grant while sunning himself naked in a public park.

Throughout the novel, the narrator becomes acutely aware of television’s ubiquity, its overwhelming presence in daily life. In this regard, the novel seemed almost a fictional companion to Anna McCarthy’s Ambient Television, with Toussaint’s playful descriptions of surveillance monitors in a museum, apartment buildings lit entirely with the dull blue light of TV screens (all of which are tuned to Baywatch of course), an electronics stor that resembles a Nam June Paik sculpture, and the narrator’s own continued reading of TV listings. Despite the narrator’s renunciation of TV, however, Toussaint treats our TV “addiction” sympathetically, acknowledging its seductive pleasures while also noting its ubiquity in our daily lives.

But the strength of the novel, which can best be described as a picaresque of the everyday, is its episodic structure, with the narrative consisting of a series of disconnected fragments, just like…yes, you’ve guessed it, just like TV.

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Off the Bookshelf

During my mini-vacation last week, I finally had the chance to read a couple of novels that had nothing to do with research. Before my trip, I picked up Max Barry’s Jennifer Government on a friend’s recommendation. The novel is a near-future satire in which all of the characters take on the name of their employer as their surname, hence the main character’s name. Jennifer’s main nemesis throughout the novel is John Nike, who decides to kill several people who purchase a certain model of Nike shoes as a form of promotion (this happens in the first few pages–I’m not giving much away). It’s a fun satire of economic globalization in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut with an Adbusters twist.

While in Champaign, I borrowed Jim’s copy of Blankets, a graphic novel by Craig Thompson, about growing up fundamentailst in the 1980s and early 1990s. Because of my fundamentalist Christian youth, Jim has been recommending this “illustrated novel” for a long time, and so far I’ve found it pretty compelling. Thompson captures the language and logic of that world very effectively, and his renderings of a church youth camp are completely familiar to me, even though my experiences were slightly different. I’m nowhere near finishing, but I think that actually speaks to the depth and pleasure of the novel itself–in a sense, I don’t want it to end. Reading Blankets has allowed me to revisit a major part of my past, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in the next few days.

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Searching for the Great Brain

When I was a kid, I loved John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books (this one was my favorite). I read all of the books in the series several times. Fitzgerald’s stories were based on the adventures of his older brother, Tom, and were set in the fictional community of Adenville, Utah, at the end of the 19th century. The books were beautifully illustrated by Mercer Mayer, who went on to author several books himself.

As a kid, I wanted to go out and learn more about the characters from these stories, and now someone else has gone searching. Via Metafilter, I came across “Searching for the Great Brain,” a site designed by Robert A. Reiser and Learning Family, in which they travel to what they believe to be some of the novels’ prominent locations. Of course, they’re guessing about many of these locations, but it’s still an interesting site, perhaps even more interesting because of the speculative tone (it turns out that someone from the Utah State Historical Society was able to piece together some more factual information).

The site brings back a lot of memories of my early reading experiences. I still remember my excitement when I’d find a new-to-me book from the series at a bookstore, and looking back, I’m pretty convinced these books contributed to my desire to become a writer, simply because they had such a powerul effect on me as a reader. My parents have been cleaning their basement lately, and now I’m really glad my mom made such an effort to look for my copies and to make sure they don’t get thrown away.

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Fear and Loathing in Globalization

It’s officially “Short Attention Span Day” at the home office of the chutry experiment. So while I’m taking a break from grading, I’ll add one more link to my external memory file. Fredric Jameson has a review of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (which I still haven’t read) in a recent issue of The New Left Review (via Dr. B’s blog).

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Spineless Books

Just had one of those “small world” moments. Via Nick Monfort of Grand Text Auto, I was happily reminded of the fantastic work being done by William Gillespie in his “Spineless Books.”

I once met William through a mutual friend and enjoyed the opportunity to discover what he was doing with online publishing. Especially enjoyable for me was revisiting William’s Newspoetry, some of which I had the opportunity to hear on his show, Eclectic Seizure, on WEFT, Champaign-Urbana’s amazing community radio station, a fantastic example of local grassroots radio.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife

Just because my last entry was a bit melancholic, I wanted to quickly add that I came across this new novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, the other day. Instead of focusing on the first-person account of a time traveler, we get the observations of his wife. In this scenario, the Traveler has no control over his movements in time, while his eventual wife moves in “normal” chronological, linear time (which of course implies that she doesn’t really control her temporal movements either). It sounds like an interesting experiment, one that I often thought would be interesting to read when I was writing my dissertation. Too bad I never thought to actually write it. Word on the street (or at least in Entertainment Weekly) is that the book will soon be made into a film, with Brad Pitt slated to produce and star.

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