Monday, July 27, 2015

#99: The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) is one of those names I've always heard mentioned but never got around to reading.  A prolific popular/literary writer from Canada, The Cunning Man (1994)is the last finished work of a career spanning five decades.  It takes the form of a case-book turned memoir of the elderly Doctor Jonathan Hullah, a Toronto transplant originally from the small town of Sioux Lookout, as he is spurred to recollection by a journalist doing a series on the Toronto of yesteryear.  The main event, the event that spurs the journalist's questions and is returned to again and again throughout the novel, is the death of Ninian Hobbes, the beloved Anglican priest who died in the middle of service, just after taking communion.

Hobbes's rector was Charlie Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's two best friends growing up.  Their childhood friendship makes up a big part of the novel, as does the peculiarities of Dr. Hullah's practice, in which he typically treats the patients that other doctors just can't stand anymore. Davies uses both of these to illustrate the growth of Canadian identity and Toronto particularly.  Of seeing how Charlie's parents interacted with them, Hullah remarks "I assumed that this was the English manner of upbringing.  Maturity and individual judgement were expected and encouraged.  It was not the Canadian way.  Certainly not as I knew it." (120).  And of the cold practicality of the medical students, he notices that "The genteel tradition was on its last legs in Canada; its legs had never been particularly strong..." (140)  The issue of faith is dealt with frequently, Hullah finding his equal and opposite in Charlie, as well as lengthy discussions of art and philosophy with other characters.  Davies manages not to let this be boring, which is a very real danger when you have characters sitting around and expostulating.

The novel spans about seventy years, from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.  Hullah serves as an army doctor in WWII, mainly treating victims of friendly fire.  Always interested in the literary (Hullah frequently quotes poetry throughout the novel), he involves himself in the art community when he returns to Toronto to set up his practice, although the city isn't always interested in art.  "The imperceptive, unselfconscious city prospered under its soggy blanket of shallow middle-class morality and accepted prosperity as evidence of God's approval." (143)

I really liked The Cunning Man, although the continuity seemed a bit off, but that may be due to the form.  It's often hard to accept that Davies was writing this in the 1990s, because his diction seems to come straight from the 1920s, though it works with the character. As a pseudo-memoir, there are some avenues that should have been delved deeper into, and I think the non-chronological formation of the text (e.g. parts being written at different times) ends up getting convoluted.  But despite these issues, the novel works, the characters are complex and interesting, the story is usually captivating.

Just the stats:

Published: 1994
Nationality: Canadian
469 Pages (Penguin Trade Paperback Edition)
Other Appearances on ML list: Davies' Fifth Business is #40 on the readers' choice list.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: The Call of Cthulhu

The Text:

H.P Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu was first published in the Weird Tales magazine in 1928.  It is one of his best known stories, and a central part of the Cthulhu mythos, the grouping of stories by Lovecraft (and others) dealing with the old ones generally and often Cthulhu particularly.  The story is told by Francis Thurston, whose grand-uncle's papers have led him to a horrifying discovery.  Between the disturbing dreams of a decadent Bostonian artist, the investigation of a Louisiana detective, and the memoir of a Norwegian sailor, Thurston has gained knowledge of an ancient cult and their dread elder gods. And while "dead Cthulhu waits dreaming," it must be remembered that "That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die."

The story may have lost a bit of its punch over the last 90 years, but only because Lovecraft's influence on the horror genre has been so widespread as to make his style, as well as the cosmic horror subgenre, seem almost commonplace.  Yet it remains a classic for a reason.

The Movies:

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Director: Andrew Leman
Runtime: 45 minutes

The Call of Cthulhu (2005) is the lovechild of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a fan/research/live-action-roleplay group based in Glendale, California.  Living up to the "Historic" in their name, they created a silent film, with set design, makeup, and music done in the style of 1920s cinema, and it works pretty well.  There are some cases where the background is clearly more modern, but the budget was presumably quite small, but often impressive.

I'm still not sure how well the movie would work for someone who hasn't already read the story, though.

The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009)

Director: Henry Saine
Runtime: 78 minutes

Jeff (Kyle Davis) and Charlie (Devin McGinn, who also wrote the script) are two best friends working an unexciting desk job, when one day an old man shows up at their apartment to give Jeff a relic of Cthulhu.  It turns out that Jeff is the last blood relative of H. P. Lovecraft, and this may give him some resistance to the maddening effects of the elder gods and their ilk.  But Star Spawn and other worshippers of Cthulhu are quick on their heels, so they turn to Paul (Barak Hardley), a weird nerd who lives with his grandma that Jeff was mean to in high school.  Together, they must go on a quest to stop the rise of Cthulhu and the end of life on earth as we know it!

This movie actually had a couple cameos worth mentioning.  Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks, Party Down, Silicon Valley) appears as Paul's nerdy friend, and Richard Riehle, who has had small parts in everything from Office Space, to Glory, to Casino, to Free Willy, to The Man from Earth to Bridesmaids, to the upcoming masterpiece Helen Keller vs. the Nightwolves.

This guy

The monster make-up is also pretty good, though sometimes very B-movie-ish.

The humor is too often aimed at the 12-15 crowd, and the Jeff, the protagonist, can't ever seem to give a single shit about what's going on.  Even when he's screaming, he does so with remarkable apathy.

Call Girl of Cthulhu (2014)

Director: Chris LaMartina
Runtime: 92 minutes

This is a sexploitation horror/comedy film following an young twenty something artist named Carter Wilcox (David Carollo) who falls in love with a call girl named Riley (Melissa O'Brien).

Carter and Riley

His friend and roommate Erica is an avant-garde musician (which is a nice way of saying she mixes grating industrial noises together), who's dating a jerk dj named Rick "The Dick" Pickman. Meanwhile, Professor Curwen and a few grad students are trying to track down the cult of Cthulhu, only to luck out and capture a copy of the Necronomicon.  It seems the cult is looking for a prostitute with a very particular bookmark (spoiler: It's Riley).  Curwen tasks Carter with making a copy of the Necronomicon, while trying to hunt down Riley herself,  But it's too late, Riley has started her transformation into something obscene and grotesque, and has begun to infect others.

This is actually unrelated to the last sentence

Whereas a lot of the budget for The Last Lovecraft went to monster design, Call Girl put a lot into a large cast scantily clad women (cf. sexploitation).

The Best Adaptation:

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

This is a no-brainer.  It's as literal an adaptation as could be had, accounting for the change in media.  This is the work of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, after all; historical accuracy is kind of their thing.

The Best Film:

Call Girl of Cthulhu (2014)

There is a big caveat to this, and I'll get to it in a moment.

But first I want to point out something I noticed about these three films, and that' that they represent three different aspects of Lovecraft's legacy.  The first looks at Lovecraft as a historical/literary figure.  The second considers Lovecraft's influence on science-fiction and horror comics, and therefore on nerd culture.  The third is the result his influence on horror (think something like the Reanimator (1985)) and counter-culture.

I'd be more likely to recommend the first movie to people, because it has a much broader appeal.  Honestly, much of Call Girl of Cthulhu didn't appeal to me at all.  The reason I chose this as the best is because of one scene that I think stands out above the rest, one scene that I will remember, not for being bloody or gross, but simply very good.  Carter and Riley are on a date at a restaurant, and the waiter turns out to be one of Riley's clients, a sad late middle aged man who we know left his family and lost his career because he's in love with Riley.  This bit part is given a lot of power, and the entire restaurant scene, including a series of funny and weird glimpses of Riley's other clients, is a scene I'm going to remember, even after the rest of this film sinks into the miasma of pop culture floating in my subconscious.  As for the rest of the movie, if you don't mind B-Horror sexploitation flicks, it's pretty solid.

Things are going to stay spooky, as next time we'll be looking at Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (1845) and three films:

The Raven (1935): A Universal Studios horror film starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

The Raven (1963): A Roger Corman film starring Karloff (again) and Vincent Price

The Raven (2012): A mystery/thriller starring Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 13, 2015

#100: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I knew of The Satanic Verses by reputation only.  I knew nothing about the characters, the plot, the genre, just that this was the book that led the Ayatollah to issue a fatwa against (and place a bounty on) Salman Rushdie.  Rushdie spent years in hiding under an assumed name, his book was (and I believe is still) banned in many parts of the world, and some translator's of the book have been the victims of not always unsuccessful assassination attempts.  How offensive could is this book?

Not very.

The novel starts with the two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, falling from a plane that exploded over the English channel.  We get into the magical realism and metafiction right away, as the narrator breaks the fourth wall and the two men access some greater power to survive the fall.  But this is not without its consequences.  Gibreel is a Bollywood superstar, a big budget hero who can do no wrong, and has bridged national tensions by playing deities across religions.  From a poor upbringing amid the streets of urban India, he became a symbol of Indian culture.  Saladin Chamcha, the son of a wealthy Indian businessman, left for London as soon as he could and made a concerted effort to become part of proper London society.  Saladin changes into a manifestation of shaitan (i.e. Satan), horned, hoofed, furry and large, while Gibreel becomes angelic, with a literal halo (think renaissance art of a circle of light emanating behind the head, not a ring floating above the crown).  Gibreel also finds himself becoming, in his dreams at least, the archangel Gibreel. In Muslim traditional lore (I think apocrypha, it's hard to find unbiased information; in any regard, this is not int he Quran itself), Muhammad included a set of verses allowing for prayers to three Meccan goddesses, later redacting the verses with a claim that they were not given him by Gibreel but by Shaitan.   Within the context of the novel, Muhammad received both the verses and their repudiation from Gibreel.  However Gibreel discovers that the information that he passes on to those who seek his intercession comes not from him, but largely from the person who believes he/she is receiving the information.

While faith is a big part of the novel (and I'll get back to it), the main story is about the relationship of Indians and Great Britain.  If we must dive into taxonomy, we're looking at a great work of post-colonial literature, one that dives into the what it means to be an Indian and a Brit.  Much of Saladin's character is rooted in this identity crisis, his constant attempts to become proper English, his resentment of Gibreel's acceptance in England, etc.  Even moreso than his metamorphosis, Saladin Chamcha's major concern is his personal status and cultural identity.  As much of the book deals with the role of British residents from across the empire as with the religious faith of the protagonists.

But to get back to the faith issue, Rushdie actually provides a complex and often ambiguous approach to the religion of his birth.  At different times, religious faith is condemned or vindicated; miracles occur, of the malevolent and beneficent kind.  Perhaps the only religious attitude that is universally admonished is violent extremism.  But what of blasphemy?  There are characters that would certainly be considered blasphemous, most notably the characters who were directly opposed to Muhammad himself, and the brothel whose whores took the names of the Muhammad's wives to draw up custom.  But, of course, what constitutes blasphemy in Iran or other fundamentalist societies is very wide-reaching.

The Satanic Verses has been brought into the battle of freedom of expression as the flag carried the standard-bearer.  It's a great book that investigates ambiguous and contentious social issues in a manner that is, well, ambiguous and contentious (but in a good way).

Speaking of ambiguous, I'm trying to figure out exactly what this review series will really be about.  With the previous series, I went into each post asking how and why that book became the bestseller of a particular year.  Now?  I'm not sure yet.  Maybe I'll get a bit more free-form, see where my thoughts take me with each entry.

Just the Stats:

Published: 1988
Page Count: 547 (Viking Hardcover US Edition)
Awards: Booker Finalist; Whitbread (now called Costa) Book Award winner
Other appearances on ML list: Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) appears as #90 on Modern Library's official top 100 list.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Before and After Quiz #9

Sorry for the hiatus!  As always, answers at the bottom:

#1. An account of the lives of numerous residents of the English Midlands in the early-mid 19th century as they deal with a changing society and the plight of migratory Antarctic birds.  (Narrated by Morgan Freeman)

#2.  John Grimes, a young black boy from Harlem, disenchanted with the role of family and religion in his community, sets off to Antarctica only to find the horrifying remnants of an alien society.

#3.  A friendly talking mouse finds a not-so-friendly talking flytrap.

#4.  All is well in Eden, until the serpent tricks Adam and Eve into eating the apple of knowledge, making them aware of good, evil, and the inherent falsity of fiction (all of which is summed up in a carnival metaphor).

#5. After a successful and convoluted casino heist, the gang has to beat the world's greatest thief on a race through time to secure a sample of the virus that will decimate human civilization.

Answers below!

1. Middlemarch of the Penguins

2. Go Tell It on the Mountains of Madness

3. Stuart Little Shop of Horrors

4. Paradise Lost in the Funhouse

5. Ocean's 12 Monkeys

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

Besides finishing Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), of which I'll write on Monday:

I've been getting through Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791), which is excellent but slow-going.  

My cousin, visiting from Arkansas, dumped a ton of comics onto my hard drive, including Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2007-2011).  Yeah, apparently Whedon and Dark Horse Comics revived the show in comic form, and it's now on Season 10.  I'm ambivalent about some of the story choices, but there's clearly a lot that the comic was able to do that the tv show couldn't, due to special effects budgets if nothing else.

Between family visiting, a weekend in Vegas, and moving house, these last couple weeks have been very busy, leaving little time for this whole 'literary pursuit' thing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Tuesday Links

I think, from now on, if I don't have any specific link/video/comic I want to show you, I'll do something more along the lines of the Paris Reviews blog, and briefly synopsize some interesting links.

While I think it overstates it's case in a couple places, The Guardian's look at the social and historical background for Frank Herbert's Dune is worth checking out.  "[The Fremen] are the moral centre of the book, not an ignorant mass to be civilised. Paul does not transform them in his image, but participates in their culture and is himself transformed into the prophet Muad’Dib."

The film adaptation of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself hits theaters on July 31st.  The movie is called The End of the Tour and you can watch the trailer here.  It stars Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace.  While the film has been getting good reviews, the Vulture has an good article about what this means for how we think of Wallace now.  "But before his suicide he compared his own fame only to that of a high-profile classical musician. It’s just since the Kenyon speech became the sort of chain email your dotty uncle forwards you that Wallace has been transformed into an idol of quasi-moral veneration, the bard of ironic self-loathing transformed into a beacon of earnest self-help. "

Not exactly lit-related, but The Paris Review has a brief travel/photo essay on the opening of Cuba to American tourists.

Winston Rowntree's Subnormality is probably the best webcomic around.  If you go through the archives, it takes a while for him to find his voice, but it's worth it.  If you want to read a stand-alone post, try Message 652.

And finally, in the realm of self-promotion, I have a poem published in the Paper Plane Pilots 4th Issue of their in-flight magazine.

Monday, July 6, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: The Razor's Edge

The Book:

The Razor's Edge is a 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  The first chapter is like that of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), where the author explains his purpose in writing the novel, and in this case declares it a roman a clef.  Maugham himself makes frequent appearances in the book, as he pops in and out of the lives of Larry Darrel and those who know him.  Larry has just returned to Chicago from serving as a fighter pilot in WWI, and decides not to go into business with his friend Gray Maturin at Gray's father's investment house.  His fiancĂ©e, Isabel, decides to give him some time find himself, and her uncle, a good-hearted snob par-excellence named Elliott Templeton.  Meanwhile, their lower-middle class friends Sophie and Bob are madly in love, get married, and have a kid.

Well, after spending some time in Paris, Larry decides that he still doesn't want to be a stockbroker, and Isabel leaves him, eventually marrying Gray and having his children, despite still being in love with Larry.  Sophie's husband and child die in a car crash, sending her into pattern of self-destructive behavior meanwhile Larry has gone to India and finds a path towards enlightenment there.  He comes back only to find that Sophie and Gray are living with Uncle Elliott in Paris, after the stock market crash of 1929 ruined Gray's family's firm.  Here they run into Sophie, who has become an alcoholic opium-addict and likely possibly prostitute  Larry makes it his mission to help Sophie, and she achieves sobriety.  Larry eventually decides to marry her, which devastates Isabel.  Isabel tempts Sophie into drinking again, which leads to her reentering the low-life and her eventual murder.  Larry decides to head back to the US, to share what he has learned with the salt of the earth.  According to Maugham at the novel's close:  "...I had written nothing more or less than a success story.  For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted.  Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job with an office to go to from nine till six every day; ...Sophie death; and Larry happiness."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bernard Shaw's (Bizarre) Theory of Evolution

George Bernard Shaw is a fantastic playwright and social critic, but he is not a scientist.  This fact did not, however, stop him from writing a 60+ page manifesto refuting both natural selection and intelligent design, positing what he defined as a neo-Lamarckian approach, called "Creative Evolution," as the preface to his cycle of plays, Back to Methuselah (1921).  Of eyeless cave fish, intelligent design would say "god made them like this because the caves are dark," natural selection would say, "eyes require more energy than no-eyes, and are more subject to disease and injury than the lack of eyes, therefore those with a mutation for no eyes were better adapted to live in an environment where sight offered no advantage," while Lamarck's theory of use and disuse would say, "they don't use the eyes, so they lose them."  What Shaw does is take Lamarck's theory and give it a method of action.  So while natural selection operates through genetics, creative evolution operates through the will to change.  If this sounds very silly, don't worry.  It's much sillier.

    "If you like eating the tender tops of trees enough to make you concentrate all your energies on the stretching of your neck, you will finally get a long neck, like the giraffe." (19)*

And it just gets weirder from there.  In response to Weismann's experiments in the heredity of acquired traits, in which Weismann cut off the tails of several generations of mice to prove that this would not result in a lack of tails in the offspring, Shaw provides an alternate method of experiment:  

"First, he should have secured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion  He should then have hypnotized them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque world depended on the disappearance of its tail...  Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail.  These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and sexual selection." (41)

Don't worry, it gets weirder.

According to Shaw, evolving is a lot like riding a bicycle.  No, seriously, he uses learning to ride a bicycle (and painting, and playing chess, etc) as an example.  When you start to learn something, you make a gain in each lesson, but by the time your next lesson comes around, you've backslid.  Eventually, though, you'll learn it so well that it will become an automatic process.  Whether it's riding a bike, painting, or something as simple as walking, this holds true.  Shaw then argues that, in this applies on an expanded scale between generations. He then argues that, all of evolution is the result of this, and that human gestation is literally the condensation of all the evolution that led up to mankind.  This is one of the central tenets of Creative Evolution.   That, over the course of countless generations, if it is willed enough, the time which it takes for a trait will be condensed drastically.  After all, it took millions of years to learn to walk upright and develop language, and now most people can walk and talk before they're two years old.  "The time may come when the same force that compressed the development of millions of years into nine months may pack many more millions into even a shorter space; so that Raphaels may be born painters as they are now born breathers and blood circulators." (21)    

But the great discovery and claim of Creative Evolution lies in the fact that all traits are a matter of will, and will alone.  To Shaw, there is no difference between the development of language, the possession of two legs, and immortality.  That's right, if we just want it enough, we can live forever!  This aspect of Creative Evolution, which forms the basis for the plays that make up Back to Methuselah, is explained thus:  

"Among other matters apparently changeable at will is the duration of individual life... Weismann, a very clever and suggestive biologist... pointed out that death is not an eternal condition of life, but an expedient introduced to provide for continual renewal without overcrowding.  Now Circumstantial Selection [Shaw's term for Natural Selection] does not account for natural death:  it accounts only for the survival of species in which the individuals have sense enough to decay and die on purpose... If on opportunist grounds Man now fixes the term of his llife at three score and ten years, he can equally fix it at three hundred, or three thousand, or even at the genuine Circumstantial Selection limit, which would be until a sooner-or-later-inevitable fatal accident makes an end of the individual." (15)

Shaw's Creative Evolution did not catch on, in science, pedagogy, religion, or much of anywhere else really.  The root cause of his theory seems lie in the fact that Shaw could not conceive of an existential universe that is not nihilistic, which says more about Shaw than the validity of natural selection.  As Shaw Natural Selection:  
"There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure.  To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter..." (33)   

It is against this perceived "hideous fatalism" that Shaw is reacting, and is the root of the convoluted logic fundamental to this treatise.  Despite his wishes, the universe will not conform to no man's will, not even Shaw's.

* Penguin Books, 1961