Monday, May 30, 2011


I finally got around to reading David Lodge's Changing Places today. I'd been meaning to for some time, and after finding a cheap copy in the used bookstore near me the other day, I could see no reason to put it off any longer. Part of the impetus behind my desire to read the novel came from the fact that it is, by far, the book I'm asked most often if I've read. This mainly has to do with my answer to the dreaded questions "What are you interested in?/What do you study?/What is your research area?" I never quite know how to answer those kinds of questions, so I usually mention that I'm interested in novels about the academy. The next question, almost without fail, is "Have you read Changing Places?"* Now I can say I have.

The novel was as funny and charming as people assured me it would be, and I enjoyed reading it. One particular passage early on in the novel detailing the scholarship (or lack thereof) of Philip Swallow describes a problem I often run into (though nowhere near to the extent of Swallow):

"Philip Swallow was a man with a genuine love of literature in all its diverse forms. He was as happy with Beowulf  as Virginia Woolf,** with Waiting for Godot as with Gammer Gurton's Needle, and in odd moments when nobler examples of the written word were not to hand he read attentively the backs of cornflakes packets, the small print on railway tickets and the advertising matter in books of stamps. This undiscriminating enthusiasm, however, prevented him from settling on a 'field' to cultivate as his own. . . . Seldom, indeed, had he drawn up a preliminary bibliography [for a project] before his attention was distracted by some new or revived interest in something entirely different. He ran hither and thither between the shelves of Eng. Lit. like a child in a toyshop - so reluctant to choose one item to the exclusion of others that he ended up empty-handed" (17).

I think we're to laugh at (along with?) Swallow here, but this seems to me like more of a description of a lively and active mind. As a professor once told me at a department party, "it's nice to be able to talk to people about something other than your own research." I have more or less settled on a field--or at least a time period--but I do genuinely love literature (along with various other cultural texts) and can get distracted rather easily by the next shiny thing that flies past my face. There are too many interesting things and not enough time to read them all, let alone talk about write about them.

Besides, it can be kind of fun to just let one's intellectual wheels spin and explore whatever appears. Rigour, discipline, and focus are important, too, but literary analysis is fun (or at least it is for me). I think anytime one analyzes something it can be useful and beneficial (if only to keep one's "mental muscles" in shape), even if just to serve as a reminder of how fun and pleasurable this can all be. That's what makes a book like Barthes' Mythologies so readable: his pleasure and amusement with his own work is there, transparent on the page. Now, this sense of fun, of pleasure, of (the word cannot be avoided) play, can be infuriating (as Derrida makes all too clear far too often, in my opinion) if it lapses into smugness and self-satisfaction--or if it ends up fostering or encouraging a kind of solipsism--but, by and large, I think it's a good thing. Cultural texts and literary analysis are tremendously powerful and serious things, but they are also bright, shiny toys in a toystore. I think I spend more than enough time working from the former position and not nearly enough working from the latter. I'm going to try, though, in the next year to recapture my sense of play. We'll see how this goes.

*Sometimes they can't remember the title of the book and can only vaguely describe the plot (and I can then guess the book because of other, similarly vague descriptions of the novel's plot), but they're almost always asking me about Changing Places. Occasionally, they'll ask about Richard Russo's Straight Man or Philip Roth's The Human Stain  (both of which I've yet to read), but 90% of the time, they want to know if I've read Lodge.

**If these are my two options, I'll take the back of the Cornflakes box, thanks.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


No, I'm not planning on turning my blog into a series of book reviews, but I'm finding it difficult to simply enjoy the books I'm reading without saying anything about them. I guess grad school has finally won.

I finished Brian Aldiss' The Long Afternoon of Earth (1962) this afternoon (one that I would describe as long). It didn't reach the heights of A Case of Conscience, and overall I found it disappointing. But first, the good: it has an awesome title and the novel's setting (an Earth that has become a murderous jungle, much like standard SF depictions of Venus before people found out what it was really like there) is fantastic. The ecology of that setting is worked out in such detail and complexity that it rivals (though it doesn't quite surpass) Herbert's Dune. Seriously, Aldiss does a great job of painting the world his characters inhabit. You can practically see vines and branches start to emerge from the pages of the novel.* The section of the novel that takes place in Nomansland is both terrifying and exhilarating, mainly because of the sheer variety and inventiveness of the plants that Aldiss comes up with. Of particular interest is the character of morel, an intelligent fungus with plans for world domination. The speculative or fantastic elements are entirely biological, which is a welcome respite from hard, glittering worlds of computers, spaceships, and cities. The emphasis on living things, on the ways life adapts to changing environments makes the whole novel throb and hum. There's a kind of sexiness to its focus on the violent struggle of life (a sexiness that, unfortunately, is entirely lacking in the novel's sex scenes) that is a rarity in SF. The old masters--Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein--are many things, but they aren't sexy. There is some nice and surprisingly subtle social commentary and philosophical speculation on the question of slavery and what it means to be human, as well.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems that (for me, at least) sink what is otherwise an engaging novel. It reads like a stitch up (the practice of turning independent short stories into a novel) even if it isn't one. The novel was originally serialized in five parts, but only three parts are labelled in the novel itself. The break between the second and third parts is particularly arbitrary (it would make more sense at least one chapter later than when it occurs). Similarly, the first part of the novel spends most of its time laying out details and putting in a motion a plot that--while it is finally resolved in the closing pages of the novel--acts for over two-thirds of the novel as an an annoying question mark because of its apparent disconnect from the main thrust of the story.

Indeed, not one, not two, but
three (arguably four) sets of characters are introduced, only two sets of which belong to narratives that are resolved. The vast majority of the characters seem to exist only to be killed off in elaborate set pieces that show off the danger and mystery of the world Aldiss has created. The characters the reader spends the most time with are not very compelling (the “hero” of the novel, Gren, is particularly unpleasant), and the minor characters are irritating to the point of distraction. The fate of the second set of characters--they literally walk out of view--is never resolved, or even mentioned by any other characters, though Gren is initially part of this second cast. The novel's treatment of its female character manages to be both atypical (they are not the descendants of dime novel stereotypes and film noir femme fatales that inhabit so much SF) and wildly misogynistic at the same time. Much of the energy and momentum the first half of the novel gains from its unique setting is squandered by too much time spent simply following the characters from one setting to the next in the second half (each less unique and interesting than the one before it). The ending reneges on many of the promises set up earlier in the novel in favour of a fairly conventional closing that seems to negate the character development Aldiss takes care to repeatedly emphasize leading up to the final chapters.

All in all, I have to say that I was disappointed with The Long Afternoon of Earth. It can be suitably imaginative (the first half is a minor masterpiece), but too many balls are left in the air for too long and too many questions go either unanswered or are lamely explained away for it to sustain the energy of that first half. The Long Afternoon of Earth reminds me in many ways of William Tenn's masterful Of Men and Monsters, but it lacks the black humour of that novel to pick up the slack when the action wanes, and Aldiss' Gren is less interesting than Tenn's Eric. If pressed, I would probably recommend Tenn's book over Aldiss', though it is a joy to experience the care and craft Aldiss puts into imagining his jungle earth.

*This made for an uncomfortably tense experience this afternoon as I ran along a trail in a nearby park. After several hours with Aldiss' forest, I never expected to make it back to my apartment alive.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


I just finished James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958), which I picked up in a used bookstore today based on its reputation as a classic piece of SF. After reading it, I can definitely see why the novel has achieved its status: it's a well-written piece of SF that's more concerned with moral and philosophical problems--the case of conscience of its title--than with gadgets and technology (though those get their play as well). The second half of the novel, set on an Earth that exists almost entirely underground in “shelters,” is reminiscent of Asimov's The Caves of Steel (though more pessimistic) and the overall tone and feel (along with the personality of the main character, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, SJ) recalls (or, more accurately in terms of chronology, points to) Silverberg's novels of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly Tower of Glass and The Masks of Time.

While Ruiz-Sanchez and the other major characters--the scientists Liu Meid and Michelis and the alien Egtverchi--are not quite as memorable as Lije Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw, they are fairly compelling. If at times Blish uses them more as mouthpieces for philosophical and ethical positions than as actual human beings, it is justified given the fascinating nature of what they discuss: the nature of matter, the question of evil, and the existence of God and the Devil. Ruiz-Sanchez in particular is a masterful portrait of grief and doubt, a man confronted by a startling revelation that both undermines and confirms his deepest belief.

There are some flaws with the novel--certain plot threads are not satisfactorily resolved, and several major developments are simply a little too convenient (there is no adequate explanation for the destruction of the Message Tree, for example, other than to quell obvious objections to the novel's resolution: “Why didn't they just call them?”)--but they generally do not detract from the experience of reading the novel. Indeed, given that the novel was first published over fifty years ago, it has aged surprisingly well. Certainly it is less cringe-worthy than some of Heinlein's efforts from the same period. It is a great example of SF that is more sociological than technological, and really pushes the limits of what the genre can do without resorting to the (occasionally gimmicky) shock tactics of some of the New Wave SF writers of the 1960s and 1970s.

One interesting point: I was surprised to find a preface from the author defending himself against criticism for suggesting that in the almost century difference between the publication of the novel and its setting (2050) there would be certain changes in Catholic doctrine. Just last week I would have dismissed such a preface as unnecessary and distracting, but after hearing the theology students in the German class I am taking go at it over (what seem to me at any rate) mundane and rather obvious problems (such as whether or not it is acceptable to use gluten-free communion wafers), I can see why Blish felt the need to make clear his reasoning behind the proposed doctrinal changes.

Anyway, I recommend A Case of Conscience to any SF fan (and to all readers, really). Any SF novel that can make its central plot concern the consequences of an heretical opinion (Manichӕanism) by a Jesuit priest regarding whether or not to open a planet for settlement by humans is worth a look. The political and social commentary the novel makes and its treatment of the problem of evil are also fascinating (indeed, I would like to say more about this when I've had time to digest the novel). This novel proved to be well worth the one dollar it cost me (ah, cheap old SF paperbacks. Is there anything better?).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I had something of a minor existential crisis over the weekend. While this is not that rare of an occurrence, I'm usually pretty good at getting over any such crises and moving on to more productive things (usually this means the reading or grading I've been busy putting off). This one was more persistent than my standard-issue existential crisis, though, and what is worse, it was just silly. It ruined what was otherwise a nice weeked: sun to enjoy, movies to watch, and books to read.* Unfortunately, I spent more hours than I'd like to admit to feeling sorry for myself in ways that I thought I'd left behind with my teenage years (in all honesty, I'm pretty sure even my teenaged self would have made fun of my moping and pouting). 

Some background to the crisis: I had been feeling a little bit of concern/anxiety (though not a great amount, because it required me to think about the future beyond immediate tasks at hand, which I generally refuse to do) about the fact that the end of my first year of PhD coursework was rapidly approaching and I had yet to produce any piece of writing that anyone had deemed worth working on further and trying to publish. Why was this, I wondered. Did I not have any good ideas? Was my writing not good enough? Was I somehow missing a really important point about the things I write about? I couldn't answer any of these questions. I also didn't feel comfortable talking about them. They come across (at least to me) as so ridiculously self-absorbed and whiny that the idea of discussing them with anyone causes me (even now, in the comfort and privacy of my bedroom) to blush and shake my head.

While browsing through some journals, I came across a call for papers that seemed to fit a paper I was writing for class. Thinking that this might be the best chance I ever get to dip my toe into the bizarre and confidence-destroying world of academic publications, I resolved to revise said paper and send it off for consideration. At about the same time, I received word through the grapevine (read: the social networking websites of which I am a member) of a friend of a friend of a friend who was enjoying quite the streak of academic success lately. I generally am not a jealous and competitive person,** but this streak struck a nerve. I don't know the person in question very well (we've never gone to school together and my experience is limited to mainly social encounters). I've never been impressed by descriptions of the work this person does, though.*** Coupled with the already present anxieties described above, this news caused me to feel just a bit frantic. Now I definitely needed to get something sent out.

I was still convinced that the paper I was in the process of writing was my best bet in terms of producing something that could eventually be sent out. Once I'd turned it in, I waited for the paper to reappear in my mailbox so I could get to work on revising it. The paper never appeared, though, and--as any feedback I can get at this point will be helpful--I sent an e-mail to the professor asking for my paper. I also mentioned that I was hoping to use any comments I received on the paper to revise towards submission for publication. When the response came the next day, I managed to misread the professor's comment ("I made some recommendations about that on the paper for you," essentially) as a pretty firm dismissal of the idea of my pursuing publication of any form of this paper.

Needless to say, I was crushed (this was on Friday afternoon). My anxieties suddenly loomed large. I began to wonder what I was doing in a PhD program if I couldn't produce work that anyone thought was worth publishing. I was angry and disappointed with myself: I knew the paper was good (I'd received an "A" in the class), so the only possible scenario seemed to be that I'd produced yet another paper that was good coming from a student but wasn't the kind of work an actual scholar produced. I wondered if I'd ever be able to be anything other than a good student. I spent Friday night, Saturday, and most of Sunday consumed with disappointment, frustration, and self-loathing. I sulked and pouted. It was all melodramatic to the extreme. I've pined for girls in less embarrassing ways.

I knew my paper was going to be dropped off in my mailbox at some point today, so I came to campus early (I didn't have class until 5, but I got to the office at around 11) in the hopes of catching the professor and explaining why I thought the paper was worth working on further and sending out for consideration. I did not manage to do this: despite sitting in the office all day, the paper appeared when I wasn't looking and without the professor ever materializing. Once I had the paper, I looked at the comments. I will quote the second sentence of the comments, as I think it most accurately explains both how terribly I misread the e-mail I received from the professor and what a waste of time my existential crisis was:

"I highly recommend you submit some iteration of this work for publication."

Whoops. I guess I called that one wrong. I went back to reread the e-mail I'd received on Friday. What had seemed like a dismissal now was revealed to be a simple note about the content of the comments: the professor wanted me to know I was not alone in thinking this paper had merit and should be pursued further.

Anyway, I feel slightly ridiculous now about wasting my weekend over all this. Life as a graduate student is already full of crushing blows to one's self-confidence without manufacturing further crises. I still feel incredibly anxious re: the whole publication issue when I let myself think about it (which I try to avoid doing as much as possible), but at least now I know I can produce stuff that I could conceivably send out.

*I finally finished The King in the Tree by Steven Milhauser this weekend. All three novellas in that book are excellent. More on this later.

**At least with my friends and academic work. I like helping my friends, and I enjoy celebrating with them when they reap the rewards their hard work deserves. I am, however, extremely competitive in other areas, especially the board game Risk. While playing Risk, I once managed to cause a former girlfriend to say she hated me (on my birthday, no less) because of my cutthroat approach to the game.

***I should probably come out and admit that I have a less than charitable view of this person's scholarly abilities based on the conversations we've had. Yes, I am a bad person. I am trying to rectify this.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Please do not take this for anything more than it is: some gentle ribbing about living in (and through) the end times.

A One-Act Play by bourgeoiseaux

Dramatis Personae
Person Expecting Rapture: Thin, with a fervent, earnest look about him.
Jesus: Just your everyday chill son of an omniscient and omnipotent divine being.

Outside a convenience store in a nondescript suburb of a North American metropolis.


PERSON EXPECTING RAPTURE: Dude, what happened? You made us all look like assholes!
JESUS: [Looking sheepish] Oh, uh, yeah. Sorry about that.
P.E.R.: I mean, did you even take anyone up to heaven?
JESUS: Well, you know, it kind of just ended up being a chill day. Like, I watched a movie and some friends came over, and time got away from me. [Sighs]
P.E.R.: [Mouth slightly agape] . . .
JESUS: Plus, I've been having this back thing lately. I don't know, I think I should see a doctor about it or something. Maybe go to the chiropractor, you know?
P.E.R.: [Glowers] . . .
JESUS: [Half smiles] . . .
P.E.R.: What. The. FUCK?!
JESUS: [Coughs a little] Yeah, so, sorry to bail on you and stuff, but we can totally do stuff next weekend maybe. Or like, I don't know, get together during the week for a drink or something. If you've got time. If you're not too busy, you know, uh, talking up the whole “Rapture” thing.
P.E.R.: Dude, this is so not cool. Are you saying you're not into the Rapture? Because before you were saying . . .
JESUS: Well, I mean, “House of Jealous Lovers” was pretty great, but their album didn't really do it for me [Cymbal crash]. Hah, I'm just messin' with ya: I didn't actually like “House of Jealous Lovers” all that much, either.
P.E.R.: [Stares] . . .
JESUS: [Small chuckle] Seriously, though, you didn't need to, like, go on CNN and talk to newspapers or anything like that.
P.E.R.: But, Jesus, you said . . .
JESUS: [Sighs] It's like in some crappy 80s movie where they try and throw a house party because someone's parents are out of town and somebody makes like a poster or something and photocopies a bunch of them and puts them up all over town. And then there are all these people trying to come to your party, but you didn't really want to throw one in the first place. Like, maybe you were just hoping to veg a little bit with your parents out of town. You know, watch TV without your dad yelling at you to mow the lawn or something. Or your mom telling you to do your laundry or whatever.
P.E.R.: I don't think that's really what this is like. This was supposed to be the end of the world. The Final Judgement. You know?
JESUS: [Runs hand through hair] Look, we all say some things sometimes about wanting to see people more and hang out and maybe to be polite I said some stuff about carrying people off to heaven and whatnot.
P.E.R.: [Mouth fully agape] . . .
JESUS: OK, and I mean, yeah, looking back, it was maybe kind of shitty of me to say all that in the first place, but I didn't want to make a scene or anything. And if I'd known you were going to get so hung up on it all. I wouldn't have . . . I mean, I thought we were just kind of talking. So I'm sorry but, like, if you could just chill and be cool about all this that would be super.
P.E.R.: [Stares] . . .
JESUS: Can you do that for me? Can you be cool? [Makes “thumbs up” gesture]
P.E.R.: [Continues staring] . . .
JESUS: Sweet. Look, I'll give you a call soon, but right now I've got some people coming over. [Looks over shoulder] So, I'm gonna . . . I'm gonna go. You know. Hang out with them. But I'll call. I promise. I mean, not promise, but I'll do my best to call real soon.
P.E.R.: [Puts hand on Jesus' arm to stop him from leaving] But wait. Look, I just want to get this clear. So, you're not going to carry us off to heaven and damn all the nonbelievers for all eternity?
JESUS: [Shakes off P.E.R.'s grip. Looks embarrassed] Uh, not right now? Look, can we talk about this later? I just sort of left to get some coke and, like, pretzels or something for when people come over.
P.E.R.: No, Jesus. I'd really like to get this straightened out right now, please. [Folds arms across chest]
JESUS: [Nodding throughout and making gestures meant to convey contrition] I know, broseph, I know. That's totally understandable. And I appreciate how reasonable you're being about all this. I really do. You have no idea. It's just that now is not a particularly good time to talk about this. But listen, like I said, I'll totally call you and we'll figure this out. The world has plenty of time to end, right? I mean, hell, we've still got like over a year to show up the Mayans and their whole thing. Only, right now, I really need to get home. So let's just say it was my bad on the whole no Rapture thing and chalk that one up to poor communication. OK?
P.E.R.: . . .
JESUS: Cool. Alright. Take it easy, buddy. I'll see you around. Remember, drinks next weekend or during the week. [Holds out fist for fist bump]
P.E.R.: [Looks angry] . . .
JESUS: [Drops fist. Takes a step back] . . .
P.E.R.: . . . yeah. Cool. [Shakes head]
JESUS: Sweet. Peace out, bro.
[Exit JESUS]
P.E.R.: Fuck. Man, this made me look like such an asshole. And did he say he was having people over? Damn it. [Mutters and walks away]
[Exit P.E.R.]


Friday, May 13, 2011


It seems as good a time as any to do another one of these.

Laetitia Sadier - One Million Year Trip

I am a huge Stereolab fan, and Laetitia Sadier's voice is (was) obviously a large part of that band's appeal. I'm going to be honest, I would not just listen to, but pay to listen to her reading the phone book. When Stereolab announced their hiatus, I was disappointed. No more chances to listen to that lovely voice? C'est une catastrophe! Thankfully, Sadier released a solo album last year (which, along with the "outtakes" album, Not Music, that Stereolab released, made for a bunch of new material featuring her). I was initially not very impressed by Sadier's album, The Trip. It felt too subtle somehow, a kind of muted Stereolab-lite that I couldn't imagine actually wanting to listen to. The album has grown on me since then, and--although I'm still more likely to reach for Sound-Dust or Mars Audiac Quintet (my two favourite releases by the Groop)--I appreciate the craft and intimacy of Sadier's solo album.

The one exception to everything I just wrote is the semi-title track of the album, "One Million Year Trip." Written in response to the death of Sadier's younger sister, the poignant meditation on grief in the lyrics would be enough to sell the song even without the performance that Sadier gives. Gone are the restrained melodies of Stereolab. Here, she lets her voice go up and up forever, the melody ascending like it has no end, and, to make an obvious and cliche point, it is heavenly. I cannot describe the pleasure I get from hearing Sadier work through her entire range and she absolutely demands attention as soon as she opens her mouth. She never slips into the background. There is no pleasant la-la-ing and doo-doo-ing her way through a song and riding a groove. Now, don't get me wrong, she does those things better than almost anyone, but for a singer with such a phenomenal voice, it always seems a bit of a waste. She opens up on this song, and it is devestatingly good. When the song cools off for its final minute or so, her wordless vocals still feel more active than they would have in a Stereolab song. Indeed, listening to this song and then listening to the lead-off track from Not Music, it starts to seem like she'd outgrown whatever she could do within the context of Stereolab.

However, it's not just a vocal extravaganza (though it is that, too). The music is great. While it bears more than a passing similarity with Stereolab (natch), the similarities are to a Stereolab that hasn't really been heard from since pre-Dots and Loops. This is, for all the production bells and whistles (and the weird synths that twist around behind Sadier's voice are awesome and beg to be used more), a fairly simple and driving rock song. It's got a beat that's a little funkier than straight motorik, a bouncing bassline, a synth line and some guitar. That's it. (There are some heartbreakingly adorable versions on YouTube of Sadier playing this song and ba-ba-ing the bassline herself). With all that space, Sadier can put her voice to good use. The cool down at the end of the song reminds me in a weird way of the end of Four Tet's "Love Cry." The entire song is gorgeous and celebratory and transforms the quite-obvious grief Sadier feels into one of the most direct and emotional statements of her career. What a way to kick off a solo album.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


So, I mentioned in my last post the difficulty I would have in picking my five favourite Philip K. Dick short stories. Ever since I wrote those words I've been mulling the possibilities over in my mind, and I think I've reached something like a list (although I have to admit I cheated slightly). Now, there are many things to criticize in PKD's writing: his dialogue is often stilted and rarely sounds anything like actual conversation or speech, his characters are rarely more than types (in the worst sense of that term), his plot structures verge on the formulaic (if you've read one of his stories, you have a pretty good idea how all of his other stories will unfold), and his character names and settings are shamelessly recycled from one story to another.

With that being said, reading PKD is, in my opinion, like reading no other writer. His ideas often appear extremely banal (“What happens if a man is late leaving for work?” to take the premise of one story), but he finds in these moments incredibly complex and difficult ways to grapple with reality and our experience of it. There are surreal and absurd elements to his fiction, but normally these things develop out of the metaphysical questions he asks in the story. The floor often drops out from under you while you read, but it's okay, because you find out there's nowhere to go: the floor and whatever is underneath it never existed in the first place. To borrow a phrase from Simon Reynolds (one that I've mentioned before on this blog), reading PKD is like having your brain set on fire, and for much the same reason as with reading theory: his work exposes and critiques many of our conceptions of modern life, existence, time, and the physical world.

On a more personal note, discovering PKD was just a really amazing moment in my life. For a kid from the suburbs who had already consumed most of his local library's science fiction section--but who had no grounding in philosophy or in any literature beyond Shakespeare, the Romantics, and uber-canonical stuff like The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye--reading A Maze of Death (the first thing I checked out from the library by PKD) was a genuinely shocking and exhilarating experience. I'd read Robert Silverberg, and I liked the grittiness and sex in his stories and novels, but PKD was even edgier. I felt like I should be hiding it from my parents (not that they ever attempted to censor anything I read). This was nothing like Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke: it was more philosophical than Asimov, less creepily right-wing than Heinlein, and way more fun to read than Clarke. What is more, PKD did stuff with the suburbs that I'd never read, seen, or heard anyone do before: he didn't just say that the suburbs were shallow or a cultural void, he asked what would happen if suburbs became the model of human civilization and traced out all the implications of that scenario. It was electrifying stuff for my teenage brain (and still is today).

I don't read PKD as much as I used to, but I can't imagine being interested in a lot of the stuff I'm interested in now without him. By the time I got to reading postmodern fiction, a lot of it seemed positively tame by comparison and didn't frustrate me nearly as much as it did some of my classmates. Similarly, I think I like magical realism so much because it feels the same to me as PKD in a lot of ways. Without further adieu, then, my five favourite PKD short stories:

  1. “Stand-by”/”What'll We Do With Ragland Park?” - Yes, I'm cheating right off the bat; these stories go together, though. They share characters (and this time it's not just Dick recycling character names; they really are the same characters) and a plot. I can't really say why I love these stories so much, other than that, in typical PKD fashion, they touch on a dozen topics only tangentially related to the plot, but entirely related to his two big concerns (as he himself admitted): 1) What is real? and 2) What does it mean to be human?
  2. “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” - What I love most about this story is the feeling that it is slowly losing control of itself. The reader knows the entire time that an elaborate fabrication is taking place, but the more detailed the lie becomes, the longer it goes on, the less real anything else seems to become. The world is untethered from the past, and the lie becomes necessary in order to create a history that will allow the present to keep existing. The title statement comes to be less a hypothetical statement than a desperate situation that must be prevented from occurring at all costs.
  3. “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” - Love, regret, childhood trauma, this story has it all. It is also one of the saddest stories PKD ever wrote. I think what's so poignant is the desire on the part of one character (Martine) to make herself real to another (Victor). Like most of the characters in PKD's fiction, she's up against a lot: reality is always failing to manifest itself, always failing to be there, even when it takes the form of the people we love.
  4. “The Days of Perky Pat” - I wonder if Baudrillard ever read this story, because it seems like he would have a field day with it. I can think of no better way to explain the order of simulacra and the idea of the hyperreal than through the Perky Pat boards the adults play with in this story. The world does not need to exist--it can in fact be a post-apocalyptic wasteland--because we will spend endless hours recreating it in our fantasies and will make it more real than it ever was before it disappeared. The world as it exists is actually in the way of it being as real as it could be.
  5. “Precious Artifact” - This story might be the archetypal example of PKD's favourite plot structure: 1) establish the setting of the story; 2) reveal that setting to be an illusion and present a new setting; 3) indicate that both the revelation of the first setting as an illusion and the establishment of the second setting are equally illusory; 4) catalogue the characters' responses to this chain of events and their attempts to determine what is real. What raises this above just a gimmick is the way Dick uses these revelations as a way to comment on the relationship between perception and reality. In this case, even though the main character understands that things are not as they seem, he accepts (though he must unconsciously know it is false) an equally spurious conception of the world because he does not want to actually know what is real, he just wants to find a more acceptable illusion in which to live than the one he currently inhabits. Again, this describes a ton of PKD's fiction. I like this particular story, though, because it is a chance to see him in full command of his powers and his unique vision: it's not quite as far out as his later novels (there's none of the heavily religious/mystical content), but it's more intellectually engaging than his early action-oriented stories. If you like “Precious Artifact,” there's a good chance you will enjoy PKD.

Honourable mentions, or, my next five favourites in no particular order: “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Autofac,” “Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked,” “The Day Mr. Computer Fell Out of the Tree,” and “Retreat Syndrome.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I should preface this by saying none of what I discuss in this post is an issue right now (or, it is an issue for an entirely different reason...) given that my landlord decided that 6 am on a Saturday morning was a good time to continue the renovations he's been doing for TWO FULL WEEKS now. Today's task involved using a power drill on the other side of the wall against which my bed rests. Sleep? Who needs that? Certainly not the boy who loves sleep more than almost anything else and who is "enjoying" the last days of his one week of summer. Anyway, on to more important matters: a new blog post finally (I haven't had much to say or much time to say it recently. At least this is a nice long post).

I've been re-reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? over the past couple days. I think it's a great novel (though slightly overrated within PKD's body of work*) and it features some wonderfully evocative passages. I'm particularly struck by the descriptions of empty buildings and empty apartments (I have something of a minor obsession with both of these things. That obsession, coupled with my obsession with nuclear disasters, makes the Kidd of Speed website--hoax or not--like fetish porn for me). I generally don't consider myself despairing or lonely--I try and avoid both of those feelings as a rule--but I have to admit I don't know the city I live in that well and I don't know that many people in the city, so there are times (especially when I've spent a few days in a row in my apartment doing work and not speaking to anyone) when I feel both despair and loneliness. The passage I've been giving a lot of thought to recently is J. R. Isidore's description of the silence in his apartment:

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-speckled ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it--the silence--meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came, it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.
The switch from silence-as-aural-experience to silence-as-aural-and-visual-experience is dead on. So too is the idea of silence as a living force that actively encroaches upon you. It gets to the point where I can see the quiet in the air. I seem to leave a trail in it when I walk from my bedroom to my kitchen and back. There are times I'm very sympathetic to the idea of bored housewives in the 1950s slowly going crazy in response to being trapped within a silent house for hours on end (and really, PKD is one of the underacknowledged masters of depicting suburban ennui. It is perpetually the 1950s in his fiction, even when the story is set hundreds of years in the future, and his characters are rarely happy). I suppose this is why some people have a TV, to be able to have another voice, another presence (even if only virtual) to combat the silence.** My mother has the radio on all the time. In fact, one of the things that's most likely to trigger an intense wave of nostalgia and longing for home in me is the theme music to CBC's As It Happens. I think this is one of the reason I like clocks. The steady tick of the second hand is at least one more noise--a noise I find comfortingly domestic--and it definitely helps at night.

The passage from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reminds me of a similar one from DFW's essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” (from the essay collection of the same name). In his discussion of a young man who had committed suicide on a cruise ship just before DFW had embarked on his own cruise, he touches on what the word “despair” means (and its relationship to the experience of taking a Caribbean cruise):
There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir--especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased--I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture--a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard.***
I wouldn't say that my own experience of a silent apartment is quite this extreme, but I think sometimes--say when I've had a particularly bad day and I'm just not up to facing a night of quiet solitude, when even my bookshelves are no comfort--I understand a little bit of what both DFW and PKD are saying here. It has less to do with impending death, I think, than with that sense of smallness and futility as they become intertwined with silence (or maybe it has everything to do with a sense of impending death). I don't ever want to jump overboard, but I do sometimes have a desire to talk and talk, to never stop talking, so the silence never has a chance to come back.****

Maybe this is the source of my occasional resistance to poststructuralism: I can't stand the idea of my words leaving me and going to some nebulous world of text rather than to another human being. How would that ever be able to combat silence? It's one of the reasons that I like Stanley Fish's idea that the author provides “readers the opportunity to make meanings (and texts) by inviting them to put into execution a set of strategies.” Inviting someone to participate in an attempt at communication seems so nice, so essential, so human, somehow.

Anyway, enough gloomy thoughts. All in all, I can't really complain about anything right now (other than those renovations. I cannot complain enough about those). I just wanted to share/celebrate what I think is some great, truthful writing.

*I am a bigger fan of his short stories than his novels. One of my favourite stories by him (that would be a challenge, picking my top five PKD stories), “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” features one of the most beautiful conversations about love and regret I've ever read. A relevant passage: 
"Sit down," Martine said.
"Okay." Victor seated himself on the bed, beside her, but not too close to her.
"Won't you sit closer to me?" she said.
"It makes me too sad," he said. "Remembering you. I really loved you. I wish this was real."
Martine said, "I will sit with you until it is real for you."
**There's something to do with Baudrillard in here, I think. Silence as some kind of manifestation of the Real that must be evaded or contained by the imposition of the virtual (television) overtop of it in order to mask the horror we experience in the Real's presence. The idea of an action or event for which there are no words might be some kind of marker of an experience of the Real, an encounter with something that goes beyond what the Symbolic is capable of understanding and rendering into language (to switch over to Lacan). Baudrillard's discussion of terrorism would be interesting to think about in this sense.

***Even though several people have pointed out the folly of re-reading DFW's work as an extended suicide note following his death, it's hard not to read that paragraph as, in his words, unbearably sad. Indeed, the second-to-last sentence in that paragraph seems to me to be everything that his writing fought to overcome. The business of being a “fucking human being,” what he tried to figure out in his work, might be knowing that you are “small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die” and somehow turning that into a positive. Hence his emphasis (especially in “This is Water” and
The Pale King) on paying attention to your thoughts at all times and choosing to think your way out of that despair. The existentialist gambit as it manifests itself in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century United States or something.

****This can at times lead to horrifying and depressing moments. It can also be quite embarrassing.