Author Archives: JMP

Review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian

Prime Meridian‘s fictional universe reminded me of the world of Blade Runner. Not the replicants, action set pieces, and squalid neon environment, but a world that is adjacent to ours, a near future where space exploration and planetary settlement are a reality but are lurking at the peripheries of the narrative. In Blade Runner (both movies in fact) we are told that humanity is spread throughout space, and characters make reference to other worlds but, like the majority of people residing within this fiction, we never see these worlds. Moreover, by the time of Blade Runner 2049 the imaginary of this series became an alternate future history due to the fact that the first film’s setting of 2019 was no longer believable in 2017. Atari and PanAm were still major corporations; the cold war still persisted in some form. Similarly, Prime Meridian seems to be set in an alternate future history where the Soviet Union still persists: it is only several years ahead of our own world, and the development of its social networking technology is believable, but it also possesses a slightly altered past (with different films and filmmakers slotted into its adjacent 1930s) and the fact that there is an established outpost on Mars.

Of course Prime Meridian is not Blade Runner. Or rather, if it is, then it is a Blade Runner told from the perspective of those who comprise the populations through which the latter’s main characters navigate. Anonymous everyday people whose struggles are “common”, represented by extras.

More accurately, the comparison to Blade Runner is mainly relevant if we need to locate a Science Fiction precedent for Prime Meridian. For just as its history is adjacent to our own, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novella is adjacent to Science Fiction. The SF elements are scaffolding; the book draws upon them in order to drive its protagonist’s narrative arc but they must necessarily lurk as subtle and normalized elements of the fictional terrain.

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Prime Meridian‘s protagonist, Amelia, is a working class woman trapped within the boundaries of her social class in Mexico City. Passage to the settlement on Mars represents an escape from everyday drudgery, and has for years before the novel starts, but this passage costs. Unless one wants to end up in massive debt and over-exploited, a significant fee is required in order to gain access to Mars and Amelia works to save up enough money for this nearly impossible goal. Her main job is as a “rent-a-friend” through an application called “Friendrr” – where wealthy lonely people, such as the starlet Lucia who is one of Amelia’s clients, are able to pay their way out of loneliness. Another job she eventually takes up is the selling of her blood to rich buyers who, like Peter Thiel, think that blood transfusions from the young will ensure longevity.

Years before the novella starts Amelia’s dream of Mars was more concrete. She possessed a scholarship to a university, that allowed her to hob-nob with wealthier members of society, but she lost this scholarship because her mother’s terminal illness forced her to drop out of school. Her university friends, belonging to a wealthier social class, left her behind; her boyfriend, pressured by his rich father, left her. The escape represented by Mars became more elusive, and this elusiveness is made all the more poignant by her relationship with Lucia who once starred in a film about a fictional Mars, the representations of which are interspersed with Amelia’s story. There is the Mars of Amelia’s world, a white-washed settlement on the periphery of existence. There is also the Mars of Lucia’s film industry past, an adventure pulp from the 1930s.

Amelia’s desire for Mars is reinforced by the successive phases of alienation visited upon her by social circumstances. Her loss of the scholarship. Her relegation to a social embarrassment by her economically privileged university friends. Her failing relationship with her sister. Her reunion with her ex-boyfriend, Elías, which is one in which he hopes to keep her as a mistress. That part where she tries to free a rat from a trap and is bitten for her compassion would be tempting to read as metaphorical of her existence, especially considering how she lashes out at some of her friends, but it is not so bluntly metaphorical: it better represents catalyst of the return of the repressed, the motivation to confront her sister.

In the end it is the imaginary Mars that allows for Amelia’s passage to the real Mars. We never witness the real Mars, despite the clues we are given, though it is the novel’s narrative line of flight. A line of flight that bursts through the boundaries of predatory romance represented by the character of Elías, a wealthy man singularly offended that Amelia will choose Mars over a future of being little more than a mistress where “he might devour her whole and she’d cease to exist, be edited out of existence like they edited scenes in the movies.”

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Recently I’ve read a number of amazing SFF novellas that should, if we lived in a world that wasn’t defined by genre categories, be treated as literary fiction proper. Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers On Bone and A Song For Quiet, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass – to name a few. Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian joins the ranks of these interventions and, like them, ekes out its own unique space as an elegant novella that deserves to be recognized as more than a genre expression.

I’m still a little confused as to why Prime Meridian was self-published since its author is a rising star within the SFF milieux and, not to be insulting, it possesses a level of literary quality that the vast majority self-published works do not possess and in fact fall far short of possessing. In my mind something must be broken in the world of mainstream publishing when a critically acclaimed author decides to publish something with clear literary qualities outside of the SFF avenues that normally publish her work.

“There are only two plots. You know them well,” Moreno-Garcia concludes Prime Meridian, referencing a claim made by Lucia earlier in the novella: “A person goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.” This claim is ultimately cynical because neither of these plots are truly borne out in the novella. The journey never happens, though it is desired, until the end but is only promised; Amelia is a stranger interloping on the lives of her privileged friends. In any case, the book was a joy to read and I would like to imagine that its protagonist did go on a journey and this journey provided her with a better life.

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The Punisher’s Liberal-Imperialist Narrative

It would be easy to dismiss the recent Punisher series, the next Netflix MCU series, as simplistic action porn based on a hero whose super powers are guns and killing people. After all, aside from Punisher-esque protagonists being the staple of US action cinema, we’ve already had multiple versions of this second tier comic character: the campy Dolf Lundgren version, the “realist” Thomas Jane version (with a short film spin-off), the splatter-punk Ray Steven version. And yet this version of the Punisher, despite its predictable character development and clumsy attempts at pathos, is worth taking seriously for one reason only: it is the most coherent expression of liberal-imperialist ideology.

Like establishment Democrats who still think the answer to Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton, and that the entire world would not only be better but sanctified if Clinton had won the election, the writers of the Punisher want you to know that they are critical of the current violent order. Not critical enough to think through the foundations of the American system, but critical in a cosmetic sense that earnestly believes it is not cosmetic. The ethics of the Punisher is the ethics of Hamilton, of appeals to Obama’s legacy, of claims that the Founding Fathers would be displeased with “Trumpism”, that the American Dream is worth saving if only we could rid ourselves of evil elements that stand in the way of its final consummation. When it is cynical, and it does play itself mainly as cynical, this cynicism lies only in the fact that the glory of the American Dream might always be thwarted by the corruption of human nature.

Corruption: it always has to do with corruption. For the dyed-in-the-wool liberal the problem with the state of affairs isn’t the foundation upon which this state of affairs rests (i.e. capitalism and imperialism) but instead particular elements – corrupt individuals and connected conspiracies – that betray justice. Otherwise the foundations are legitimate; the solution is to excise the corrupt elements and save a system that is otherwise just.

The new Punisher series tells the same story, but with modern liberal characteristics. Frank Castle is a veteran of the US war upon Afghanistan who was ill-treated, betrayed by corrupt elements in the war apparatus, and turned into a “hit man” instead of a “soldier”. The very idea that these categories are distinct, and that there is a righteous soldier who is not a hit man, speaks to a belief in the justice of imperialist war, that US involvement in Afghanistan is otherwise alright if corrupt elements hadn’t involved themselves. Moreover Castle’s trauma, a complex of being misused by his superiors and then violently betrayed with the murder of his family, becomes the central theme. And this is a very modern liberal theme: the abuse of contemporary veterans, the PTSD of “our boys”, the fact that any problems of war (and a war that is presumed to be just in the first place) are in how they negatively affect imperialist soldiers.

With a liberal attention to detail, the series focuses upon the trauma of the neglected veteran, a Democrat talking point. One important character runs a support group for veterans, soldiers attempting to find themselves at home and recognize that their trauma has to do with sacrifice upon the nation’s altar. This support group provides the impetus for significant plot points: not only does it eventually serve as the redemption of Frank Castle, but it launches the trajectory of a “wrong” way to deal with war trauma, the character of Lewis who, in rejecting the group’s help, becomes the series’ Oklahoma Bomber.

Anything that is bad about imperialist war, according to this narrative, is only bad because of the trauma of the imperialist soldiers. Why do they experience trauma? Because they were either misused or were treated poorly upon their return to US soil. Being an imperialist soldier is never questioned; those who engage in this vocation are treated honourably by the series, as if they have chosen the highest good – Castle refuses to kill other soldiers, even though he has become a vigilante, because these are the “good guys”. Even more reprehensible, but consistent with the series’ ideology, is the fact that the trauma of the victims of imperialism barely registers. In the flashbacks to Afghanistan those resisting the occupation are gibberish enemy savages, worthy of annihilation, with the exception of one individual who was “wrongly killed”. This individual is in fact a collaborator, a cop for the puppet dictatorship, who was murdered by his own corrupt allies.

But back to Lewis. Here is a character whose trajectory should be understood as the trajectory of a white nationalist, since he espouses precisely what today’s fascists espouse, but we are meant to feel for him. Even though Castle and Karen Page call him a terrorist because his assaults affect civilians, we are still forced to humanize him when his counterparts in Afghanistan are not allowed the same humanization. It’s some Dylan Roof shit, with the veneer of military institutional sanctification. Castle shares a moment of sympathy with him, even, when he suicides in a meat locker. Why can’t we all get along?

Other characters spring forth to form this liberal imperialist imaginary. Dinah Madani, an Iranian-American operative in the War on Terror in Afghanistan functions to consummate the liberal US dream that people from sites of oppression can and should be prosecuting US hegemony. She celebrates this hegemony, she pontificates about how “good” the US was to her immigrant parents, she has transcended racism. Her only problem is the barriers of corruption that prevent her from saving the American Dream. Ah, the liberal dream of a rainbow coalition of oppression!

The resolution of the series is the end of corruption, the unity of Madani and Castle, and an epilogue where Castle finds himself in that space to work out his trauma, which is only ever the trauma of the oppressor and never the trauma of the oppressed. Castle’s brown shirt vigilantism is thus channeled into liberal avenues of imperialist PTSD management and that is the moral of the story.

But this moral of the story is overdetermined by Castle’s freikorps style activities, which should otherwise be understood as fascist. The series works overtime to question this vigilantism while still giving it free reign. The Punisher is thus a social fascist narrative, which is precisely the ideology of liberal capitalism.

The Review, The Critique

The over-democratization of reviews and critiques in venues such as Amazon and Goodreads, far from opening up a space of popular discourse, has resulted in the crudest forms of populism. While it is indeed the case that we ought to build a culture of popular criticism, it is also the case that when such popular criticism is overdetermined by capitalist ideology the result is the valorization of the lowest common denominator. The average Amazon and Goodreads reviewer, paradigmatic of reviewers of art on other popular sites, has proven to be compromised by a bourgeois subjectivity that is disciplined by the capitalist culture industry.

What we find in these so-called “democratic” review spaces is the domination of impression over substance, the conflation of personal opinion with objective standardization, and the a priori assumption that one’s feelings about a work of art are tantamount to an objective critique. The “star” rating mechanics are not helpful in this regard since the encourage readers to rate a work of art based on their subjective apprehension of this work rather than a consideration that is anterior to whether or not they personally “enjoyed” the work in question. A reader-reviewer is thus encouraged to rate, in a positivist/mechanical manner, a work according to whether they personally “enjoyed” it, and thus to collapse personal opinion with objective critique, rather than to think through the work outside of the realm of opinion.

(This is to say nothing of “brigading” review practices where individuals on platforms such as Amazon or Goodreads decide to “punish” an author they dislike for dubious political reasons by one-starring them en masse.)

There is indeed something odd about Yankee-influenced discourses of democratic critique. There is a weird populism that treats personal opinion as existing on the same level of objective assessment. USAmericans, and those devoted to the USAmerican regime, are weirdly invested in the conflation of opinion with fact. An entire species of thought regimes are based on the assumption that every opinion is equal, and those expressing these opinions should have the right to treat them as truth even if they are in opposition to science. USAmericans pat themselves on the back when they defend the right of anti-science weirdos to treat their opinions about six day creationism as fact. This understanding is translated into the so-called”democratization” of literary criticism: USAmerican subjects, and those with the same magical thinking, are rating works of art and literature based on their own ‘sacrosanct’ opinions which they have been taught to see as objective. “Every opinion is valid,” is the liberal claim when this is, in fact, not the case.

This opinion-review practice can thus result in reviews that should not even qualify as proper reviews of a work of art in that they undermine the reviewer’s very ability to speak coherently about the work in question. One cannot provide a thorough accounting of a work of art, an aesthetic interpretation that tries to understand what it means as a work of art and its importance in the history of artistic production, if it’s being treated like a choice between a banana and bowl of cereal.

For example, I’ve encountered reviews that admit to not finishing a book because they found it “difficult” and then one- or two-star the book that they did not read because they did not finish it. You would think that finishing a book should be mandatory to writing a review that possesses the right to rate. You would also think that a reader’s inability to understand a piece of literature says more about the reader than the book: it is not the book’s fault, unless it was thoroughly obscurantist for no good reason, that an individual reader lacks the attention or care to try to understand it; that one- or two-star review should apply to the reviewer’s reading comprehension and not the book. Ulysses is difficult. Hopscotch is difficult. 2666 is difficult. It is entirely laughable to imagine that the worth of these great works of literature should be decided based on their difficulty. Conversely, does the fact that the same someone can mindlessly consume a Harry Potter novel and give it five stars mean that pulp fiction possesses a higher literary quality than works that are one-starred because of their difficulty? The very idea is ludicrous and, again, speaks to the collapse of the categories of personal taste/opinion and critical assessment.

The culture industry’s reconfiguration of reading comprehension and literacy around commodification and patterns of consumption has encouraged and valorized the insipid opinion-review. The idea of thinking through a work of literature, film, art according to its own terms – its aesthetic qualities, its relation to the social-historical context of creative production, the best interpretation of its meaning as a work of art – is excluded from a practice of thinking that has been cultivated by bourgeois ideology. While there was a time when bourgeois art critics could pat themselves on the back for their understanding of culture, those days are long gone: the logic of the bourgeois order, which only cares about art and literature insofar as it can be commodified, now militates against the very culture it once pretended to represent. Bourgeois cultural education is no longer an education that teaches an appreciation of the arts (this is the residue of a time when it opposed the dregs of feudal society, when it was generating creative thinkers), but an education of commodification and mechanization in every sphere of life: Transformers movies are its apotheosis.

But to review something rigorously, to engage with a piece of art in a manner that gives your review (and even your mechanical rating) justification, requires effort beyond the one-dimensionality of personal taste. That is, critically reviewing and engaging with a piece of literature or art is not represented by the insipid populism that is centered by the Amazons and Goodreads of the world. The idea, here, is very simple: it is possible to review a work of literature and art you don’t personally enjoy and still understand and celebrate its artistic/literary merits. And this is precisely what a “good” (meaning honest and critical) review should do: suspend personal taste, recognize that consumptive patterns are the result of socialization, and attempt to think through a piece of literature, art, or film according to artistic/literary standards that, though historically inherited, lurk outside of my personal tastes.

To review critically is to suspend your personal taste and opinion, to transcend the opinion-review practice. For example I do not enjoy reading Proust but I understand that the artistic importance of Proust transcends my personal taste. If I was ever to write a review of his work I would treat it with the gravitas it deserves: I would read it fully, I would engage with it as a work of art outside of my own enjoyment of the work, and would not dare to fire off an asinine review based on my inability to actually read the text in question. I never finished Swann’s Way (though I made it halfway through), let alone the other books of Remembrance of Things Past, because I found it entirely boring – and this is why I refuse to review Proust according to my personal experience of trying and failing to read his literary output. And if I had read him thoroughly, and had still failed to personally enjoy his work, I would still be wrong to review his work solely based on my personal experience. It is possible to understand the importance of a work of art without liking it… Unfortunately the populism of reader reviews in sites such as Amazon and Goodreads encourages the opposite.

If we are ever to transcend the mechanical appreciation of literature and art that is cultivated by these populist review sites we need to also recognize that thinking through a work of art/literature requires a suspension of personal taste as well as the requirement that the reviewer fully engage with this work. I don’t have to personally “enjoy” a particular work to recognize it as important; my opinion and taste should be suspended if I aim to write a review that matters, that can speak beyond the infantile category of subjectivism. Otherwise it is the celebration of Transformers and Harry Potter all the way down.

Nostalgia for Harvey’s To Bring You My Love

The other day, while taking my daughter to day camp, I was playing P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love on the car stereo. Released in 1995 during my last year in high school, this album is one that I consistently return to, perhaps my favourite of Harvey’s discography, and unlike so many other albums of that period of my life I feel that it never dates. The ominous riff of the opening and title track, the heretic lyrics that spill across every song, the sinister anger that underlies the album, the story songs about murder and isolation… It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares about music would not like Harvey after hearing this series of tracks.

P.J. Harvey holds a special place in my heart. In grades eleven and twelve I spent a lot of time hanging out at a friend’s apartment (an emancipated minor whose home sadly became a juvie drug-dealing den) listening to Rid of Me over and over while smoking pot and watching Cronenberg films. To Bring You My Love was part of the constant soundtrack of grade 13 (which used to exist in Ontario) and my first year in university. Is This Desire was released in my second year in university and was instrumental in impressing the woman who would eventually become my wife. The story goes like this… I had just bought Is This Desire and dubbed it unto a cassette I could play in my parent’s van. After a late night at a hipster coffee shop I drove a woman I barely knew home. She asked me if I was playing the new P.J. Harvey on the van stereo and, without realizing that Harvey was her favourite musician, I turned it up. Years later we would end up dating but she still remembers this event as the moment that she was attracted to me. Yeah, that’s right, P.J. Harvey was instrumental in determining the course of my life.

But still, after so many albums that have all been brilliant, it is to To Bring You My Love that I keep returning. For those who haven’t listened to it yet the best way to describe its assembled songs and ethos is to think of it as a soundtrack to the works of Flannery O’Connor. And if you are unfamiliar with O’Connor then think of the following: a bunch of sinister songs that are about serial killers, mothers murdering their children, vulnerable women who have been demonized, abandoned, or taken advantage of by itinerant preachers. Come on, Billy: meet the monster.

This album is so essential to my development as a music lover that I am always shocked when someone who claims to care about music is unfamiliar with its existence. It’s a little like discovering a lover of “classical” music is unfamiliar with Beethoven.

To Bring You My Love is the album that first demonstrated Harvey’s breadth as a musician. Before 1995 her albums were paradigm examples of angry post-punk – brilliant examples but only several steps sideways from a garage band. Even then she was influential: Kurt Cobain cited Dry and Rid of Me as influences to the direction Nirvana was taking post-Nevermind. (And recently, probably because of this, Harvey was asked to front Nirvana, filling in for Cobain, for a reunion tour. She declined.) Before To Bring You My Love her work was already influential, and if she had ended her career as only a visceral post-punk musician, or even continued in the same vein, she would still be important. But To Bring You My Love was a transitionary album: the three piece garage band was discarded, Harvey began to incorporate different instruments into the arrangements of songs representing different genres. The distance between Long Snake Moan and Down By The Water is massive in terms of musical genre, but this gap is bridged by the overall theme of the album: an O’Connor southern gothic theme.

Since this album Harvey has produced albums that are not only thematically unified but have been designed to stretch her boundaries as a musician. White Chalk, for example, structured every song around a broken-down upright pianoLet England Shake was not only structured around Harvey’s desire to learn the autoharp but was thematically unified around the working class history of World War One. And, in my opinion, it was To Bring You My Love that signified this transition to a musician that transcended genre categories, an album that left the childhood of post-punk garage anger to embrace a musician adulthood that would be consistently surprising.

Although To Bring You My Love is not Harvey’s greatest album, my love for it is driven by both my nostalgia and my belief that it is her most emblematic: it signalled her decision to become a serious musician more interested in composition than being confined within a particular genre. I remember, for example, being disappointed by her Stories From The City Stories From the Sea because I felt it did not live up to the strength of her previous Is This Desire (the title track of which, I should mention, was the “slow dance” selection for my wedding). And yet, in retrospect, I have come to appreciate the choices she made on that album, her unwillingness to abide by what was expected: the song This Mess We’re In is sung primarily by Thom Yorke, demonstrating that she was more concerned with making a song than performing it – her skill as a composer necessitated, in this one song, her desire to have another voice other than her own take on the lion’s share of the performance.

Hence, To Bring You My Love represented Harvey’s shift into the category of song composer over and above song performer. Similar patterns can be observed amongst her male contemporaries, such as Nick Cave who she briefly dated. But while Cave continues to receive multiple accolades for his skills in composition and production, Harvey still dances on the margins. And I listen to the emergence of this margin dancing whenever I replay To Bring You My Love – from its opening low register guitar riffs to its concluding haunting organ chords.

On the Dead-Beat Dad Trope

The dead-beat dad is such a common phenomenon that it is now a pop-cultural trope. Whereas two generations earlier television and movies reified the nuclear family as a fact of nature, and one generation earlier the depiction of divorced parents became normal, no longer a sin to be overcome with a Parent Trap, the patriarchal rot at the heart of the traditional family was finally demystified. Families defined by the absent father, the single mother (sometimes struggling and sometimes not) free from an abusive spouse, and a reflection of the rejection of the world of the father was slowly normalized.  The dad as dead-beat became a trope that reflected a reality that previous family tropes had obscured.

Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) often latch onto this trope as evidence of misandry within the culture industry. Against feminist claims about sexist depictions of women in media, MRAs like to claim (either out of ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two) that it is men who are depicted in a sexist manner, the dead-beat being a paradigm example. Since they also claim that men suffer in custody arrangements since more women end up as custodians of the children, the trope of the dead-beat is perhaps particularly offensive since it reveals the lie to their crude empiricism: while it is correct that in situations of divorce and separation most women retain custody of their children, it is also a fact that most of these men do not challenge custody because they are in reality dead-beats who resist paying child support. The trope thus reflects a reality MRAs (some of whom probably are dead-beat dads) work hard to suppress.

But the thing with the culture industry is that, while it cannot help but reflect certain truths about social reality, it is quite adept at remystifying its tropes according to common sense ideology. Hence the emergence of a pernicious variant of the dead-beat dad trope: the redeemed dead-beat whose shitty behaviour is justified by noble gravitas. Since it is true that a large number of fathers in the imperialist metropoles are absent dead-beats of one kind or other, the media trope exists as an entertainment verisimilitude: most viewers will not identify with depictions of stable nuclear families, a large population cannot even identify with loving cis-het male divorcees. But in order to maintain this verisimilitude without turning men into eternal villains, which would alienate a massive swathe of the male consumer population, the trope of the dead-beat dad as maverick hero has manifested.

The 2008 film Taken best encapsulates this turning point in the dead-beat trope, the moment where it is recaptured by patriarchal ideology. Although significant as the film that catapulted Liam Neeson’s acting career into the type-cast of the gruff/aging/world-weary action man, Taken‘s true importance is in the reactionary reclamation of the dead-beat trope. Indeed, the characterization that would become Neeson’s current type-cast is only interesting if we understand its necessity for the performance of an ennobled dead-beat.

In Taken Neeson is only a dead-beat because of his commitment as a patriot. As a violent enforcer of US imperialism he was forced to make a hard decision between his family and the nation and, as any patriot with his particular “skill set” should do, he committed to the latter. If he is a dead-beat it is only because his family cannot understand the deep man pain of having to violently commit to the imperial aegis, so as to give their life stability from the horrors of terrorism. The inner truth is that he is only a dead-beat because his family, who could not understand the depth of his commitment to a better life promised to all imperial families, is incapable of understanding his pain of sacrifice. He is only a dead-beat because he sacrificed his family on the altar of the greater nation. In this way he is an echo of the Homeric hero: Agamemnon literally sacrificed his daughter to appease Poseidon, a sacrifice justified by the fall of Troy and the victory of the Achaians.

We are meant to feel pathos for Neeson’s dead-beat dad who, upon retiring and returning home, discovered that his home life, like that of Odysseus, is in disarray. But in the contemporary world of Taken the absentee father (whose absence was also justified) cannot murder his wife’s suitors and reclaim his patriarchal seat. Instead, more noble than his Homeric counter-part, he is forced to be “cucked” by a substitute father who is depicted as weak and decadent. There is no examination about whether Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, has paid child support, let alone the political questions regarding a dad murdering for imperialists. Bryan Mills is the victim, showing up at the birthday party of a daughter he barely knows like every dead-beat asshole ever and we are expected to root for him because he is the real father; his nobility has already been established.

Taken in fact works hard to convince the audience that there is a good reason for being a dead-beat dad. It’s a good thing that Neeson never paid child support, never did any child-care or house work, because he learned those very “masculine” skills required to be a true father. Good thing he was a violent imperialist dead-beat because, when his daughter is abducted, he can prove to his ex-wife that he is the real father by doing what his effete substitute cannot: using all of his skills earned as a dead-beat in service to Empire to save their daughter. He murders and tortures all of the terrorist sex traffickers, demonstrating that the dead-beat is a noble protector, to save his daughter from slavery. In the end the nuclear family is validated by the violent dead-beat. Hell, Bryan Mills doesn’t even give a shit about the abducted daughters of other fathers, who aren’t as masculine to save them, because he ignores hundreds of other victims in his singular goal to preserve the sanctity of his biological family. It is the noble dead-beat who swoops in to save a daughter he hadn’t given a fuck to raise or support––but he is the biological father, the authentic head of a family he saves from the skills earned in as an absent parent.

In the 2016 film Deadpool Ryan Reynolds’ character, Wade Wilson, jokes about Liam Neeson being a bad father in Taken. “They made three of those movies,” Wade Wilson quips: “At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.” The bigger joke, though, is that the audience isn’t asked to wonder if Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a bad parent before he parachutes in to rescue a daughter he has no social right to call daughter. According to the evidence supplied but suppressed by the movie, this dead-beat dad was a bad parent from the very beginning: abandoning your daughter so you can be a Yankee murderer, leaving her to be raised by a single mother without child support, should signal the behaviour of an abusive asshole. Instead, Neeson’s father in Taken is depicted with mythic grandeur: the dead-beat who justifies his absence by using the skills gained in this absence to prove fatherly machismo.

Taken is not alone in this retrograde reclamation of the dead-beat. Take 2014’s 3 Days To Kill, co-written by Luc Besson who was also behind the screenplay of Taken. (Is Besson a dead-beat dad? This seems to be a common theme in his current work.) In this film, Kevin Costner plays a CIA killer who, for reasons similar to Bryan Mills, has been absent from his daughter’s life. Hell, Costner even tries his damnedest to sound like Neeson’s gruff portrayal of the world-weary imperialist murderer. Battling against his hyper-sexed woman handler, Costner’s character must recenter himself as a father for a daughter who would lose her way without the reestablishment of the nuclear family. This daughter’s rightful resentment at his absence in her life is off-set by the fact that she needs him for stability. The tragedy is that he was only a dead-beat insofar as he chose to serve his nation, leave the child-rearing to a wife whose prime duty is to raise children, and thus the viewer is entreated to view his awkward attempts at reunion as truly parental. To be a dead-beat dad, we are meant to believe, is a supreme act of sacrifice.

This reclamation trope must necessarily brush up against the grain of reality. For in reality, dead-beat dads are not noble figures. As a father who cares about my daughter I cannot imagine abandoning her for some greater good, especially since the good I pursue is diametrically opposed to patriarchy––I can’t imagine leaving the lion’s share of childcare to my partner. Aside from these political motivations, it is hard for me to care about a father being taken seriously as a father when he hasn’t given a fuck about his daughter’s life for most of this daughter’s life. Seriously, why would any dead-beat dad who has spent the majority of his life ignoring his child suddenly become this child’s saviour? If this mythic biological impulse wasn’t enough to stay with the child, or at least to provide child support, then it probably won’t ever manifest in a meaningful way.

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When the dead-beat trope is not being reclaimed and sanitized, however, it still functions to regulate our understanding of fatherhood and valorize patriarchal ideology. Since asshole fathers are so common there is a tendency to lionize a dad who manages to be a decent parent more than his mother counter-part. That is, there tends to be over-excitement around a father who cares for his kid, who does house work, who nurtures. No such excitement is accorded to mothers for doing the same thing because they are “expected” to be nurturing. In film and television the nurturing father is celebrated in a way that the nurturing mother is not; this both reflects and reinforces the way we understand parenting in reality.

All a dad has to do to qualify for a father of the year award is to not be a dead-beat. A pretty low bar to clear if you really think about it, but because so many assholes don’t clear this bar it’s seen as a victory for humanity when fathers simply succeed at being decent, equitable parents. It’s endearing and cute, like many anomalies are, prized because of its rarity. Sometimes it generates an aura of martyrdom: the man who gave up on being “masculine” (a career, maverick autonomy, etc.) for noble reasons, like Bryan Mills’ sacrifice at the altar of national security. The trope of the tragic widower (such as Jude Law’s character in 2008’s The Holiday) expresses this kind of nobility, a nobility denied to the widow.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a “good father” by complete strangers simply because they saw me playing with my daughter, taking her on long TTC rides, and pretty much doing what most mothers do on a regular basis. I get congratulated for being a responsible parent like I’m a hero for doing some pretty banal shit that my partner and a lot of women also do without random compliments by passersby. Being aware of this attitude, along with the fact that my partner has not received the same attention for doing identical work, prompted me to reflect on the matter a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Moreover, this celebration of the father who beats the dead-beat odds is amplified for nurturing single fathers who have sole or primary custody of their children. Hell even if they have equal custody and do their part they are heroic!

Hence, even when the reality of male privilege in the context of parenting is accepted as normative, when the fact of the dead-beat dad becomes a trope, this privilege is still reinscribed. Either the dead-beat is justified with these ludicrous Taken narratives, or it becomes a low bar that, once cleared, congratulates cis dudes for being just okay. Our current understanding of the family really does need to be demolished.

 

Adaptation and Nostalgia: on the Preacher series

As I’ve discussed before, adaptations are tricky things. On the one hand there is the fannish tendency of attempting to perfectly replicate the source material that might end up mummifying the original work in a formulaic representation. On the other hand there is the adaptation that is attached to the source material mainly in name and has little to do with it otherwise. The Preacher adaptation is hard to pin down: at points it feels like it has veered to far in the territory of the latter case, at other points it does come across as trying to faithfully replicate the key aspects of the graphic novels.

My interest in the series, though, is driven by a nostalgia for the comics I consumed at the end of high school and the beginning of my undergraduate degree. Preacher was one of the series I followed at that time, and at one point I thought it was pretty amazing, but then my tastes changed both politically and aesthetically. Hence, I wasn’t overly concerned with whether or not the show would faithfully abide by its source material because I had ceased caring about the comic series as anything more than something I used to enjoy, that I had fond memories of, but no longer counted myself a fan. Indeed, the fact that it took me so long to watch the series is probably evidence that I was not overly excited by the idea of the adaptation let alone committed enough to care if it managed to stay faithful to the original version of the story.

Some background… One of the reasons I stopped caring about this particular comic series (and in fact culled all the dusty Preacher collections from my bookshelves years back) was because I eventually realized it was a US libertarian trash heap that worked too hard in passing itself off as transgressive. Trying to offend religious sensibilities by writing stories about God being an asshole, the inbreeding of Jesus’ blood-line, and an irreligious Texan who wanted to kick God’s ass was not, in my mind, that radical in an ideological context that promoted some white maverick John Wayne loving Texan named after a colonial murderer as a cowboy protagonist. The series persistently valorized some of the most insidious aspects US mythology (i.e. the sacredness of the Alamo, the heroism of Confederates, the cowardice of the French in WW2, the supposed “amazingness” of US society, etc.), had a pretty offensive treatment of Vietnam, mocked the Easter Rising and John Connolly, and at the end of the day was about a small group of white folks “sticking it to the man” through their own piss and vinegar. Let’s be honest: politically, Preacher was pretty shitty.

The fact that Seth Rogen of all people was one of the adaptations producers did not help renew my interest in Preacher. Aside from the fact that I cannot stand his comedic hijinx, he is also responsible for making that extremely racist film about the DPRK and is one of the people who saw fit to publicly chastise Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz for daring to criticize colonialism and apartheid. Lovely fellow.

So I approached the television adaptation with an attitude of tired interest: let’s see what they do with something I used to like when my tastes were different because there’s small chance that it could be worse than what I remember. (This attitude is similar to what I feel about the new Star Wars films.) Thankfully the series cleared this low bar and, in the choices it made to stray from the source material, made me interested enough to keep watching and look forward to a second season. I’m not saying it’s pure gold or some masterpiece everyone should watch, only that the way in which it cleared that low bar was intriguing enough to take notice. In fact, the series was often more interesting when it strayed from the source material than when it remained faithful.

Of course, the television was barely faithful to the way in which the comic’s narrative developed. The writing team threw multiple characters from the comic, some of whom would be encountered later and in different contexts, into the same town at the very beginning. Whereas the comic began with Jesse Custer’s church being destroyed by Genesis’ arrival, leading Jesse to leave town, meet with his ex-girlfriend Tulip and the vampire Cassidy, and begin the road trip story that would define the entire series, the adaptation brings multiple characters to the same town so that it feels a bit like a Twin Peaks affectation. You know, throw a bunch of creepy and quirky characters into one place and see what happens. So you get a situation where Jesse knows the Roots rather than encountering them first as antagonists. Where Odin Quincannon knows Jesse’s family because he’s from the same town, rather than being the sinister figure Jesse encounters at a much later point of the series in another town. Where Tulip shares a childhood and then a life of crime with Jesse rather than being someone he meets as an adult. Even still, the gist of the story (Genesis entity, God fleeing, Heaven in crisis) remains the same and most of the characterization remains quite faithful. When such characterization differs, or at the very least is given depth, the show is in fact superior to the comic.

Take, for example, the character of Tulip. In the comic she’s a white woman from a privileged background who was taught to shoot by her NRA loving single dad who somehow becomes an amazing gun-toting vigilante. Most of the character tension between her and Jesse has to do with the latter’s southern boy macho bullshit getting in the way of recognizing the former as an equal (i.e. he’s always trying to protect her when she doesn’t need protecting but somehow that’s okay because of LOVE), which is utterly boring. In the adaptation, though, Tulip is played by Ruth Negga: she’s a black woman from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up in a situation of violence, claimed a subject position in this violence, and possesses the kind of rebel agency that the comic Tulip couldn’t believably possess. Moreover, television Tulip’s tension with Jesse has nothing to do with this macho-protector bullshit; they possess a different and more equitable shared history. Really, and mainly because Negga’s a phenomenal actor, Tulip is the best character in the adaptation: she’s introduced as some kind of kickass MacGyver assassin that little girls want to be like but, at the same time, possesses significant character depth.

Then there’s the character of Eugene Root who was little more than an extended politically incorrect gag in the comics: a Nirvana fan who tried to suicide with a shotgun after Kurt Cobain killed himself only to survive the attempt with a severely mutilated face. In the comic he’s mainly called “Arseface” (a name that appears here and there in the adaptation as fanservice but is in fact treated as insulting) and exists for comedy relief – the “joke” is that the protagonists laugh at his disfigurement only to demonstrate their magnanimity by befriending him. But in the adaptation he possesses a real subjectivity – at one point he even challenges Jesse which leads to a tragic development – and the story behind his failed suicide disfigurement is given more nuance than “Nirvana fan”.

Even more interesting, to my mind, was the adaptation’s refusal to celebrate USAmerican mythology, a key element of the comic, and instead treat the foundations of the US with cynical contempt. The flashbacks to the “Saint of Killers” origin story, for example, are also flashbacks to genocidal settler violence: frontiers towns that hang Indigenous people from trees and encourage scalping – the “western” history of the US is given the serial killing dimension that it actually possessed. As critical scholars such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have pointed out, settler men, women, and children were united in the ideology of genocide and these flashbacks depict this ideological unity as historical fact. Obviously this depiction is not perfect, and at points it feels more about shocking the audience than being truly critical, but at the same time it rejects the asinine settlerist mythology that the comic often promoted. Low bar clearing? Maybe.

None of these changes are enough to render the show perfect. Indeed, one of the reasons I didn’t finish the series until recently was because, when I watched the first episode back when it initially aired, I was turned off by the opening scene that happened in “Africa”. No country or region within a country, just the name of the continent and a scenario that felt like the “this is what all of Africa looks like” trope: shanty-towns, a dust-ridden place of worship, dusty roads in the outback, superstitious enthusiasm. Seriously folks, this is some retrograde shit. Only the fact that, in the last episode, Tulip made sardonic comments about God’s whiteness allowed me to (partially) stomach that.

In any case, compared to the other recent (and network) DC-Vertigo adaptations – the underwhelming Constantine and the eye-rolling Lucifer – Preacher stands out as a franchise that could be better than its source material. Hopefully the second season improves on the faults of the first and does more than simply accommodate my nostalgia.

The Organic SFF of Sridaungkaew

First, a caveat… Okay, in more than one post made in the past four months I’ve discussed, mentioned, and reflected upon Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work so this one might seem like overkill. To put it in perspective, though, since summer is when I get the time to focus on reading fiction in a manner that is more serious than using it to fill in the spaces of my commute to work, I often end up discovering that one author’s work dominates this reading experience. For example, last summer was dominated by my experience of reading Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. The experience was so singular, and absorbed me so wholly, that I’ve pretty much forgotten what other novels I read in the Summer of 2015. Sriduangkaew’s short fiction did the same to my Summer of 2016: although I had read her novella and some of her “Hegemony” short stories in the past, upon reading some of her recent 2016 fiction (beginning with The Beast At The End of Time) I was so taken by the experience that I went back and read a number of her past short stories I hadn’t yet read as well as followed much of her 2016 fiction – some of which was being released while I was being absorbed by her authorial imagination. I bought an ebook of the Flesh anthology so I could read her contribution to that book; I concluded my summer reading as my teaching semester began by purchasing the most recent Apex Magazine so I could read what would be her last work of 2016 before it was released online.

As my close friends will be aware I tend to focus on the fiction I love to the detriment of conversations about literature, turning everything back unto what I’ve found the most evocative in my recent reading history. In 2015 they wondered why I was going on and on about a book written in an approximation of old English about the Norman Invasion of the British Isles. In 2014 they were most probably rolling their eyes whenever I said the name “Sofia Samatar”. In 2012 at least one person must have complained that I was figuratively beating them over the head with the heavy tome that is Bolaño’s 2666. In 2008 I kept trying to lend people my copy of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and someone who finally relented still has it and has not read it (come on, it’s amazing!). In 2004 more than one of my friends/acquaintances was most likely exhausted by my blather about China Mieville. None of these names go away because I remain a devoted fan of these books and their authors, and I consistently bring them up again and again (seriously if you have not read 2666 or A Stranger In Olondria then what are you doing with yourself?), but it is true that I tend to be singularly focused on whatever fiction marked my summer reading to the detriment of everything else. So at the moment, yeah, it’s the name “Benjanun Sriduangkaew” that I keep feeding into conversations about SFF or literature in general with my friends and colleagues; most of them are probably annoyed that I keep sending them links to her stories with repeated invectives to “read this now.”

Normally I don’t do much about this habit aside from a review and various mentions in other posts (i.e. in 2012 and 2013 references to 2666 found their way into multiple posts on my other blog) so this time I thought it might be interesting to say a few things about my impressions of the fiction that seized my imagination this summer. Moreover, in the case of Sriduangkaew I think this is important because of all the backlash she has received since Mixon’s article, and the people mobilized by this article, because I fear that this reprehensible affair might further marginalize the voice of an author whose contributions ought to be treated as significant.

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There is something entirely organic about Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s fiction. On a surface level she crafts stories that evoke fantastic depictions of the organically weird. “Within her the next batch of bees is fruiting,” she writes in The Bees Her Heart The Hive Her Belly, “and each of their small hearts flutters in time to the monkey chants… She can hear them between her ears, in her stomach, secret communication through the hive that is her torso.” In The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire the author describes a temple gate composed of eldritch limbs that require the protagonist’s flesh in order to open; before that a birth in a womb grown from resin. In In Them The Stars Open Up Like Doors she writes of women who conceive universes in their wombs. In Under She Who Devours Suns the protagonist is introduced as a strange mutated organism that drips with “meteor blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints.” And in nearly everything she has published to date there are lush moments of the organic weird, descriptions that fuse technology or magic with the body, the landscape, the visceral fauna of her fantastic landscapes.

But her work is organic in a sense that is larger than these stories that are burgeoning with the incredible imaginations of organs and organic matter thriving or decaying. Indeed, when I reflect on my experience of reading Sriduangkaew’s work a passage from Antonio Gramsci comes to mind: “millions and millions of social infusoria building up the red coral reefs which one day in the not too distant future will burst forth above the waves and still them, and lull the oceanic tempest, and establish a new balance between the currents and climes. But this influx is organic, it grows from the circulation of ideas, from the maintenance of an intact apparatus.” Although the apparatus Gramsci is describing is an ideal communist party, the passage reminds me of Sriduangkaew’s best fiction where the “intact apparatus” of the story unleashes a circulation of ideas that is analogical to organic life. Reading a good Sriduangkaew story is like experiencing the development of a “coral reef” upon which the waves of a raging “tempest” crash. In her best stories (of which there are many) one feels inundated by multiple interweaving ideas, so many concepts and wild conventions, that are focused upon a story that is revealed, at the end, to possess the same elegant contours as a coral reef.

With an attention to style that is reminiscent of Angela Carter, and that is only equalled in genre fiction by Sofia Samatar’s brilliant novels, Sriduangkaew drops the reader in the middle of a thick forest, slowly guides them unto a path, and demands that they find their way through the winding trail that will lead them to the wilderness that awaits at the conclusion of every good story––the feeling of wanting it to go on forever. In novels this wilderness is delayed by hundreds of pages (and the aforementioned Samatar even wrote a lovely exposition of this wilderness experience at the end of A Stranger In Olondria) which is why Sriduangkaew’s stories are more terrible: we are only given several thousand words before we’re met with the wilderness.

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Many years ago when I was reading a lot of Angela Carter I was struck by how Carter spent so much time on every single sentence. No word was out of place but, at the same time, she did not sacrifice beauty to the kind of mechanical precision demanded by that terrible George Orwell essay that high school creative writing classes shove down the throats of their students. Sriduangkaew’s prose left me with the same impression: the nature of her style was such that it felt natural while also being complex. Again: organic.

While some nay-sayers (generally those mobilized by the Mixonites who are trying to find reasons to dislike Sriduangkaew’s work) complain about “purple prose” the unfortunate fact is that there is vocal group of SFF fans who despise anything that appears even remotely literary and would most likely complain about the literary skill of Roberto Bolaño or even Joseph Conrad (but not the latter’s colonial affectations). It is interesting how the backlash against SFF’s current new renaissance, best represented by the “Puppy” attempted take-overs of the Hugo Awards (a group in which Mixon and company should rightly belong), is opposed to both literary and progressive expressions of the genre. They want everything to be simple, boring, derivative, and retrograde… But, as Samir Amin once remarked, ideas that are connected to transforming society are generally superior to ideas that seek to preserve society as it is – this is because, he argued, societies do change and transform and thus any idea that denies this is, by its very nature, banal. Perhaps we can extend this logic to creative expressions such as literature: any story or novel that seeks to challenge and transform the genre, whether in form or content, is superior to those that are the same old, same old.

It is not that SFF hasn’t lacked literary and/or avant garde voices in the past (an example that immediately springs to mind is Delany’s Dhalgren) but that the past two decades have given us evidence of a new renaissance that seeks to institute a genre transformation. China Mieville’s so-called “new weird”, with Perdido Street Station and the other “Bas-Lag” novels, was an early signal of this transformation: it was not only an epistemic break with traditional fantasy, a rupture in continuity with various past elements, but betrayed a progressive political commitment (hell, in Iron Council Mieville straight up quotes Rosa Luxemburg), and became stylistically more interesting with every successive work. Add to this, for example, the work of Jeff Vandermeer, Cat Valente, Hal Duncan, Steph Swainston, and K.J. Bishop… it is clear we have an example of an actual SFF literature that is not stylistically boring or derivative in the process of emergence. But most important to this new renaissance are the voices of the traditional margins that would spread so much angst amongst the ranks of genre conservatives: Sofia Samatar, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, etc. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work belongs to this sequence, though the genre conservatives and gate-keepers have worked to prevent her recognition because she had the audacity to challenge their game. But yes, she deserves to be recognized as part of this renaissance. In fact, she was being recognized as part of it and probably would have found herself in the company of Samatar had she not been doxed and re-marginalized.

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The organic nature of Sriduangkaew’s work, with its narratives that stretch out through multiple complex sites of story, is the kind of lush terrain that twists and interweaves parallel to political non-fiction because, like the best fiction, it evinces (but without being didactic, thankfully) a progressive political sensibility. This is why, because Sriduangkaew’s fiction dominated my Summer 2016 reading experience, these stories ended up infiltrating my own non-fiction work. In an article intended to promote my upcoming book I used a Sriduangkaew story as an analogy, an avenue into a discussion about my narrative backdrop. Or why I used another Sriduangkaew story as the analogical opening of a draft for future publication. Because every one of her stories, organically deep in the sense of a coral reef, lend themselves to analogical appropriation by progressive non-fiction works while, at the same time, being eminently quotable due to the beauty of the prose.

As I mentioned above, Sriduangkaew’s style is reminiscent of someone like Angela Carter. Where you look at a single sentence and wonder if the author spent an hour working to make it a perfect construction. There was a time when I hoped to publish fiction and spent a lot of time writing novels that nobody would read except for my closest friends. In that time whenever I read the work of someone like Carter I felt that I had no right to publish because my attention to formal detail could never be as good. This was not jealousy but simply a moment of being in awe of an author who truly represented the craft of the written word. Sriduangkaew generates the same kind of awe-inspiring feeling, making me feel that maybe I should remain in the realm of non-fiction publishing because no fiction I’ll craft will ever be as good as hers. Because, let’s be honest, the ability to construct a complex story that is organically connected to an equally complex style is something that is rarely achieved, particularly in the SFF genre. There are very few stories that are “organic” in the manner of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”; often style is sacrificed to story and even the story is mechanical and formulaic.

Hence, I truly look forward to the future stories published by Sriduangkaew and hold my breath for a novel. Mainly because I want to dwell in her fictional universes longer than 7000 words – I want 10, 20, 30, 40 thousand or more words! And if you have taken the time to read any of her stories you should as well because it is impossible to read a Sriduangkaew short story and not want it to go on for longer, to not wish to delay the wilderness that awaits the end of the dense forest of each and every narrative she produces.