Saturday, August 27, 2016

Two Readings: Takapuna & Titirangi

As part of the ongoing celebrations for National Poetry Day, please come and check this out (though it is, admittedly, a few days late):

When: Tuesday 30 August, 6pm - 7.30pm
Where: Takapuna Library, Level 1
Cost: Gold coin/donation

Come and join us as at our annual celebration of poetry with readings from Michael Giacon, Joy MacKenzie, Bronwyn Lloyd, Jack Ross and Stu Bagby as our MC.

Light refreshments will be served from 6pm, with the event starting at 6.30pm.

Booking recommended. Email or phone 890 4903.

Photo: Maggie Hall (Wellington, Dec 2014)

And, assuming you don't have anything better to do on the weekend of the Going West Literary Festival (10-11/9/16):

When: Saturday 10 September, 2pm - 3.45pm
Where: Titirangi Library


Jack Ross has been the managing editor of Poetry New Zealand since 2014. His publications to date include five poetry collections, three novels and three books of short fiction. He works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University's Albany Campus.

Stu Bagby has published both as an anthologist and a poet. His poetry has appeared in several collections and has been included in the Best of the Best New Zealand Poems and Essential New Zealand Poems. He hopes to have a new collection of poems ready for publication later this year.

Followed by a round robin where everyone is invited to read a poem, their own or anyone else's.

MC Piers Davies 5246 927 or for further information.

Photo: Maggie Hall (Wellington, Dec 2014)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: An Interview by Karen Tay

Auckland writer Karen Tay who (according to her bio note) "reads far too much, obsesses about cats, and dreams of someday escaping this Freudian coil we live in," has just published a fascinating piece entitled "Writing the End of the World," about Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, on local arts and culture website The Pantograph Punch.

I guess one reason I enjoyed the piece was because I was one of the people she interviewed for it (together with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes, and visiting Scottish author Louise Welsh). I don't think it's just that, though. It's a genuinely intriguing piece, which I highly recommend. It is, after all, a subject much in our minds at present, as the Trump Apocalypse looms.

Louise Welsh: The Plague Times, 2 (2015)

Karen is herself a very talented writer of fiction. I had the privilege of reading her novel Ice Flowers and assessing it for her Masters degree a few years ago, and wish very much that she'd succeeded in getting it into print so that I could recommend that to you, also. She tells me she's working on a second novel, though, so let's hope that that one gets published at some point in the near future.

Coming back to the article, though, Tay sees the genre as cyclic, conditioned by particular pressures of the time:
Each decade brings a unique set of challenges to humanity, but also another way for authors, the memory-keepers of society, to record our collective fears, anxieties and doubts about the future: to imagine both the destruction of the old, but also the beauty of the new rising out of death.
She does not, however, see it as a particularly pessimistic form in itself: "Hope is the premise of most post-apocalyptic fiction. The clue lies in the prefix ‘post’ itself – the implication that there is something afterwards, other than the dark finality of the tomb."

Just as a taster for her piece, I thought I'd include here my answers to Karen's original questionnaire:

Anna Smaill: The Chimes (2015)

  • When do you think eschatological fiction, or more specifically, post-apocalyptic fiction, started becoming popular? Why?
    I suppose that the obvious point of origin is the atomic bomb blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: after that, the Apocalypse could not but seem only too imminent. One can certainly point to earlier examples: Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Wagner's Götterdämmerung - but from the late 40s on various types of apocalypse began to dominate Sci-Fi, in particular (John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, George Stewart's Earth Abides, and so on and so forth).

  • John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids (1951/ 1962)

  • From the late 1950s/early 1960s to about the late 1980s in particular, nuclear holocaust speculative fiction was an extremely popular subgenre. Why do you think this was?
    Well, the Cold War is the simple answer. I remember one of my classmates at school telling me solemnly that there was simply no other subject to think about except nuclear disarmament - so likely did it seem to us, that we were almost literally counting down the days. You have to remember that it was the limited extent of the disaster at Chernobyl, rather than the event itself, that surprised us in those days.
  • In nearly every piece of popular early (pre-2000s) post-apocalyptic/apocalyptic fiction, the hero/heroine turns out to be white. Any "coloured" characters often revert to stereotype - for example, the "wise old coloured woman" cliche like Mother Abagail in Stephen King's The Stand. What do you think about this "whitewashing" says about the genre? Do you think this has changed?
    I think one might say that this was fairly typical of SF in general at that time. Even African American authors such as Samuel R. Delaney tended to soft-pedal the issue in his earlier fiction: sexuality was a more open subject for him than race. Delaney did write a classic essay in which he speculates that the hero of Heinlein's Starship Troopers is meant to be black, however. Careful examination of the text would leave that an open question for me, but Delaney does wonderful things with the mere possibility. (Paul Verhoeven's movie, of course, ignores the issue entirely in favour of his own preoccupations with Nazi aesthetics).
  • A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is in the form of Young Adult or New Adult fiction e.g The Hunger Games, Z for Zachariah, Tomorrow When the War Began, the Maze Runner series. Why do you think this is? Is there something about youth that predisposes them towards a fascination for death and destruction?
    Yes, I think there is. Youthful readers are extremists, by definition. They want something grand and overarching, and are ready to be radical in their opinions. They lack the protective cushioning and inertia of older readers. That's one reason why genuinely revolutionary texts, such as Huckleberry Finn, say, or Catcher in the Rye, are so often aimed directly at a childish or adolescent audience.
  • Cli-fi, or climate change fiction is another growing sub-genre of literature, for obvious reasons (climate change and global warming are very confronting realities that current and future generations of humanity are and will have to face). The most popular contemporary example is probably Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake series. Do you think this is a reflection of the times? If so, does this follow a historical pattern?
    I edited a book of short stories by NZ writers called Myth of the 21st Century in which I and my co-editor, Tina Shaw, invited contributors to speculate what would be the dominant myths, or themes, or memes of the coming century. I expected a lot about climate change (both Tina and I wrote stories dominated by the notion), but it was interesting to me how little it figured in the other writers' visions. There's a wonderful early short story by Arthur C. Clarke in which the glaciers are returning to crush our cities, but for the most part there was a residual optimism in 20th Century SF writers which led them to postulate escape into the cosmos as the answer to climate change. Now, in our more down-beat times, we can no longer really believe such things. Hence movies such as The Day after Tomorrow and Snowpiercer and (the less successful) 2012. Whether there's a great deal of interest to say about it is another question: Waterworld is another example that springs to mind.

  • Kevin Reynolds, dir.: Waterworld (1995)

  • As a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, many of my favourite novels and stories have at the heart of the tale, the struggle between good and evil, with love often winning in the day. Do you think post-apocalyptic fiction is merely another vehicle for moral fables? OR is it something else?
    I think it's fundamentally an optimistic genre, in that it presupposes both the survival of the author (long enough to pen his or her screed, that is) and an audience - even if it's an alien one, such as the monkey couple who read the message in a bottle that constitutes Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet (filmed as Planet of the Apes). I don't think there's anything wrong with moral fables, myself. What else do we have, after all, but attempts at mutual understanding? Whether that takes place in space, or in a nuclear wasteland, or in a busy city doesn't alter the fact that (as the song puts it) "the fundamental facts apply" ("As Time Goes By").
  • Why are you drawn to the genre yourself?
    I guess it's always exciting to think about starting again: rebuilding things from the ground up in such a way as to avoid at least some of the problems of the past. It's sad that we have to wipe everything out first to see a way of doing that, but that's just the way things are. Hawthorne's classic tale "Earth's Holocaust" puts it as neatly as anyone ever could, I think.
  • What is your favourite a) short story, b) poem, c) novel? Why?
    I think probably it would have to be Philip K. Dick's Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb. The title was imposed on him, as a (then topical) pun on Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, but the book itself is a very complex meditation on what might and might not survive such a cataclysm, complete with the typical Dick compassion for anyone who's different, and intense enthusiasm for small businesses rising among the ruins. There's a great bit of dialogue where a cart-driver is extolling the virtues of his pet rat, and trying to tell the protagonist about a series of "heroic deeds done by rats" (the chapter ends with a horse being eaten alive where it stands, by the jetty of a ferry). But there are so many! I'm very fond of the works of those Englishmen John Wyndham and John Christopher, too: The Kraken Wakes is another favourite, as is Pendulum. And don't even get me going on J. G. Ballard and all his wonderful contributions to the field, early and late: The Drowned World, "The Voices of Time", The Drought ...

Philip K. Dick: Dr Bloodmoney (1965)

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

To Room 237

Rodney Ascher, dir.: Room 237 (2012)

"There is no truth, only points of view"

(variously attrib. - among others, to Edith Sitwell)

I hear this one a lot in my job. When you're suggesting a particular reading of a literary text to a class of stroppy students, it's definitely a point you have to consider. So, is truth entirely a matter of interpretation, of the historical and political circumstances of the observer? There are certainly many reasons for suspecting as much.

“Nietzsche said that truth was the most profound lie. Canguilhem ... would say perhaps that on the enormous calendar of life, it is the most recent error ...”

(Michel Foucault, Introduction to Georges Canquilhem's The Normal and the Pathological).

Presumably what Foucault meant here was to denounce the idea of "truth" as a blazing beacon of certitude: a kind of immanent category which transcends all others. It's not quite the same thing as the statement above, therefore.

The way I prefer to approach the word "truth" is by means of a question: Do you recognise the existence of error? In other words, is a misreading a possibility for you? For instance, if you were to read out a passage in a foreign language unknown to you, and then make guesses at the meaning of some of the words, would this be a legitimate "interpretation" of the passage - or simply a manifestation of ignorance?

I remember once reading a library book which contained a number of quotations in Italian. A previous reader had gone through these painstakingly translating them word by word. In almost every case he or she had got them quite wrong. The idiomatic significance of phrases in Italian is not easily deducible from the individual words which make them up. Having studied the language for a few years, I was able to see that.

Take, for instance, an English colloquialism such as "we stuffed up." "We" is easy enough to understand. The verb "to stuff" is a bit more problematic, but at least the past perfect ending "ed" tells us that it is a verb. Nor is the preposition "up" unusual. And yet a literal translation of these three words would get you nowhere near the meaning of the phrase for the people using it.

I emphasise those last words because they are crucial: the "interpretative community" for the phrase (to borrow a term from lit crit) consists of - people familiar with English slang.

To be sure, a more advanced student of English would know of the existence of phrasal verbs: verbs which take on a particular meaning when a preposition is added to them. In this case, then, "stuff up" means something different from "stuff around" or "stuff about," and something different again from "stuff it."

But would such a student know that this is not a "nice" thing to say: that it would be unwise to use such a phrase in a formal context? Probably not. Whereas saying "it knocked the stuffing out of me" is much more innocuous. Why? Who can say? it's something you have to learn, painstakingly, if you want to understand - let alone speak - a foreign language.

Of course, there's nothing to stop you adopting a Humpty-Dumpty attitude, and simply ordering words to do what you tell them. In that case you can say whatever you please, however you want to. You'll probably sound a bit like that whether you want to or not when you first start to try to communicate in the new language you've been studying. Claiming that your Italian (or Chinese, or French) is every bit as valid as that of people who can function in that society, though, is pretty fatuous.

There's a gag I read once in a British magazine about literary receptions abroad, the ones where someone comes up to you and says, "Hello, I your English translator am!" So, no, I'm unable to concur with the view that all truths are relative, and all interpretations equal.

My Italian may be better than that of the anonymous annotator of that book, but it's still not very good. I've never lived in the country, and struggling through a novel or two in the language is a lot easier than conducting a coherent conversation.

So what the heck and the hey has all this got to do with Room 237? What is Room 237, anyway? Well, it's a 2012 documentary which strings together four fairly complex readings of Stanley Kubrick's classic 1980 horror film The Shining (based on the equally famous 1977 Stephen King novel).

And why is this of interest? Well, for a start it reveals the existence of a whole subculture of obsessives who examine films frame by frame for their "inner" meanings, and in the process reveal at least as many interesting things about themselves as about their ostensible subject matter: in this case the "Master," Kubrick himself.

The most famous of these readings is probably the one that reveals the film to be an extensive confession to SK's role in faking the moon landings. The child Danny wears a knitted jumper with the word "Apollo" on it, together with a picture of a rocket, and there a number of other significant clues to Kubrick's manifest guilt about this monstrous assault on truth.

That one's quite fun. But then there's another reading which reveals the film to be about the massacre of Native Americans (lots of "Indian" artefacts and imagery throughout the film). And then there's another one which reveals the film to be about the Holocaust (a subject which greatly interested Kubrick, and which he did apparently plan to make a feature film about). The important detail here is the Adler typewriter Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) is writing his play on, and also the "disappearance" of various items from the room from shot to shot.

There's also an interesting reading which hinges on Jack Torrance as the Minotaur and the Overlook hotel as a labyrinth, which includes a fascinating analysis of the illogical placing of the rooms on each floor, and the impossibility of constructing a consistent floorplan from the information given.

This is a very bald summary of some richly particular readings, but I think it gives you some idea of a very few of the many, many interpretations this film has given rise to over the years (but particularly since the advent of DVD, which has enabled researchers to dwell on particular details for unlimited periods of time).

Why? What is about this film which so obsesses people? Could the same process be enacted with any film? No doubt it could be: with any "auteurist" film, at any rate. None of the interpreters go beyond a basic position of authorial intention in their readings of the collaborative artefact that is a contemporary feature film. All four of them take for granted that Kubrick's notorious perfectionism and obsessive attention to detail justify their own minute analyses of the mise en scène of particular scenes.

Nor do any of these readings really overlap with the others. Each makes a global claim for the correctness of their hypothesis. They don't claim to detect subtexts or subsidiary themes, but rather - in each case - the overall significance of the film. If one interpretation were ever to be proved "correct" - for example if a diary entry were to be found where Kubrick confessed to faking the moon landings, or for filling his film with Holocaust imagery - then the others would automatically fall by the wayside.

Stephen King: The Shining (1977)

So what does Big Steve think?

Well, in his 2014 piece entitled "Why Stephen King Is Utterly Wrong About 'Room 237'," Sam Adams quotes the following passage from an interview with the Master:
Did you see that new documentary Room "237" about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining"?

Yeah. Well, let me put it this way – I watched about half of it and got sort of impatient with it and turned it off.


These guys were reaching. I’ve never had much patience for academic bullshit. It’s like Dylan says, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.” And that was what was going on in that movie.

This is very much in accord with the view expressed by King in his 1981 book on the Horror genre, Danse Macabre: “I shy away from the aroma of grad school analysis like a horse sensing alkali in bad water." Who can argue with that?

Well, Sam Adams can, for one. He points out that:
What’s frustrating about King’s remarks is that he walks right up to the edge of understanding before storming up in a huff. His Dylan paraphrase about knives and forks is on the money: "Room 237" is indeed about the indiscriminate application of analytical tools, which is what happens when film criticism is practiced without self-criticism.
He goes on to say: "In discussing what "Room 237" is really about, one runs the risk, of course, of sounding perilously like one of the movie’s subjects, but that’s just one more way in which it functions, brilliantly, as a kind of recursive Rorschach test." A test revealing what? Why, the degree of "madness" in each critic's own reading:
In poring over still images, like the purported picture of a minotaur or the Dopey sticker on Danny’s door, they effectively thwart the film’s forward motion, ignoring its obsessively crafted text to construct their own, often unrelated meanings.
Like Balzac's Chef d'oeuvre inconnu, then, Adams sees Room 237 as a fable for critics, a valuable corrective to their own tendency to stack the evidence in favour of their own hypotheses, without applying the acid test of falsifiability (in Karl Popper's terms, as in his 1959 classic The Logic of Scientific Discovery).

Stanley Kubrick, dir.: The Shining (1980)

I have to admit, Adams has a point. The Shining is, after all, a magnificent movie, one which continues to reveal fresh subtleties each time it's watched (one thing that interested me about the four interpretations included in Room 237 is that not one of them paid the slightest attention to the condition of the artefact: not just the considerations of lighting and aperture which so obsessed Kubrick, as the fact that the film exists in two versions. The "international cut" is approximately half an hour shorter than the American cut, an anomaly which Kubrick made no attempt to correct. Having watched both of them, I can say that beyond a scene where Wendy and Danny are watching a TV set which does not appear to be plugged in, there's little to preoccupy the casual viewer in the longer version, but how allegedly serious critics can continue to overlook such questions continues to stagger me).

I"m not sure that Big Steve isn't right, too, though. One of the great things about the DVD version of Room 237 is the extras, including a fascinating debate between (among others) the documentary director and one of Kubrick's production assistants. The latter is, admittedly, a little too prone to attribute any and all strangenesses in the film to "Stanley's way of working" - but it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to discount such information sight unseen: almost the equivalent, in fact, as trying to translate from a language without learning it first.

We learn, for example, of Stanley's concern for arranging his scenes as stills - visually meaningful glimpses, rather than internally consistent layouts. Where Roberto Rossellini, for instance, would put period clothes in the (unopened) drawers of the furniture in his lovingly constructed sets, Kubrick was all about moment by moment effects. He may have spent months agonising over the precise doorknob to use in a scene lasting a microsecond, but that was because of how it looked, not what it stood for symbolically.

Such statements are in themselves (of course) interpretative. The experience of a production assistant would not be that of a script collaborator, or, for that matter, an actor - but it's interesting data, nevertheless. It acknowledges the existence of a complex outside world endlessly interfering - or helping - with that work of art we, as critics, work so hard to isolate, as if in a vacuum sealed room.

It is impossible to master a foreign language to such an degree to make you indistinguishable from a native speaker of that language. There are cases, admittedly - Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov - where a "foreigner's" command of English is greatly superior to almost any native speaker one cares to name. It's not quite the same, though, nevertheless.

For that matter, no two people's command of their own language is precisely equivalent, let alone "complete." We all get things wrong, tangle up our syntax, forget the meanings of words. In this sense, then, the search for an absolute truth is a little like the attempt to express yourself in some transcendent language seamless with reality: to speak of things exactly as they are. Obviously, it can't be done.

But that's not to say that absolute ignorance of both grammar and vocabulary can ever be an acceptable preparation for attempting to express yourself in a particular tongue.

I wouldn't accuse the theorists of Room 237 of absolute ignorance. Each of them is roughly acquainted with basic facts of Stanley Kubrick's biography, and many seem to wish to extend their theorising to some of his other films, also. When it comes to basic difficulties with the concept of "authorial intention" - let alone the technicalities of critiquing a collaborative text such as a studio-released feature film - they reveal such simplistic attitudes, however, that it's hard to take any of their contentions seriously.

A fable for critics then, yes, definitely. Anyone who watches Room 237 and thinks that "there's a lot in it," or that one or two of them come pretty close to proving their point, has clearly not gone very far in their study of the grammar of interpretation.

But Big Steve is right, too. You don't need a chemical analysis of its structure to know that alkali is not a good thing to find in water.