Better Days For SFF are Upon Us: reflections on Sriduangkaew’s *Under She Who Devours Suns*

On my other and [far] more popular blog I recently reviewed a short piece of non-fiction so I got to thinking that I could do the same, here, with a short piece of fiction. After all, shortly after I read the article discussed in the link above I read (and then reread) a rather compelling short story, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Under She Who Devours Suns (published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies), that I loved so much that I wanted to do more than just read it but engage with it, albeit in a loose blog post kind of way. At the same time, my appreciation of this short story made me want to reflect on my appreciation of her short-form fiction as a whole and the significance of short-form, as well as the current emergence of a new speculative fiction renaissance and her part in this.

So bear with me, the introduction that precedes the review of the story in question will be overly-bloated due to the aforementioned concerns…

For over a year I have been reading Sriduangkaew’s fiction for reasons that will not be a surprise for people who read my other blog or for those who have read most of the posts on this one. Indeed, when she was first doxxed and the liberal mea culpas began, the dubious political line underlying her targeting was so obvious (pro-tip for those who can’t figure out what political line is in command: if it by-and-large mobilizes the sewage of rightist shitlords beneath a thin veneer of liberal ideologues then it is not progressive) that I wanted to read her fiction that, until then, I hadn’t heard about. This interest was also generated by the fact that I used to read her now dead blog, Requires Only That You Hate, on a regular basis and enjoyed, even if I did not always agree with, her polemical reviews.

[EDITORIAL WARNING: I’m only mentioning this background because I have a sneaking suspicion that, based on some of the weird comments I’ve received on this blog, merely reviewing Sriduangkaew’s fiction will encourage trolling. So for you would-be trolls I am very aware of what you think Sriduangkaew did, I think your analysis is garbage just like your politics, and I’m not going to engage with your concern-trolling comments because I’m very aware that most of you are not interested in challenging your warped view of reality. I think Mixon’s “analysis” is garbage, and there have been those who have demonstrated how terrible her sourcing is, and refuse to conflate polemical reviewing and counter-trolling with “abuse”. As someone who has read thousands of polemics between leftist organizations that span the last century I think this impoverishment of language is close to fascistic. You arseholes, if you lived in pre-fascist Germany, would attack Luxemburg for “abusing” Bernstein and, in the process, salute her murder at the hands of the Friekorps as social justice. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get back to talking about a great fucking SFF story.]

My first instinct was to read her novella Scale-Bright and, since it wasn’t available in dead tree format in any bookstore nearby, used some of my PayPal money to purchase the ebook. [And damn, now that I read and reviewed that article about the alt-right/neo-reaction movement I hate PayPal.] I tend to be a sucker for long-form – not because I think it is superior to short-form but mainly because I use fiction to take a break from my professional development of reading non-fiction academic texts and I want this break in a particular fictional universe to last as long as possible. Moreover, I think quality short-form fiction is very difficult to master, just like it’s difficult for my students to write short papers on complex subject matter. Those canonized or semi-canonized authors whose short-form I’ve consistently appreciated are few: Carter, Borges, Ballard, O’Connor. And in the contemporary speculative fiction scene it’s been difficult to discover an author who is consistently excellent, i.e. who can be precise and limited while at the same time drawing the expansive boundaries of a particular fictional universe. Novelists have it easy: they have hundreds of pages to info-dump, characterize, sketch out a narrative arc; a shitty novel is better able to absorb its errors than a flawed short story… The short-form fictionalist must work much harder than the long-form novelist to achieve passable quality; elegance is immediately required. (And this is why Borges and Carter immediately leap to mind whenever I think of the short-story: they were masters of precision and elegance.)

Although I started with Scale-Bright I found this reading experience partially unsatisfactory. Despite the fact that I loved this novella’s prose and fictional universe I still felt it was missing something vital: at points it was too obscure, on the whole it read like a very promising first book by and up-and-coming author. There was a certain lack that I wanted filled, a promise of something more substantial, which is why I turned to Sriduangkaew’s short-form fiction and, in doing so, discovered her brilliance. Beginning with the short stories written in her fictional Hegemony universe (which I still think should all be published in a single volume) I’m of the opinion that Sriduangkaew is the Borges of the new SFF renaissance.

What do I mean by a “new SFF renaissance”? Simply this: we’re living in a time where SFF literature is being transformed, in large part by marginal and/or radical left voices, and that this is an amazing thing, despite the efforts of those who want a return to a “golden age” that never existed. This transformation is the golden age. In the early 2000s we have the emergence of the so-called “New Weird” with writers such as China Mieville pushing the boundaries of speculative fiction; now this pushing is revealed as an opening for writers such as N.K. Jemisin, Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor, Kameron Hurley, and others to develop a SFF ethos that demands recognition, is not some nerd club of white boys who want to keep their pithy euro wizards and warrior and dragons, and is doing something altogether interesting. Sriduangkaew is part of this emergence because, as I just said, she is its Borges. This is not to say that she will never write, or is incapable of writing, a novel (because I really wish she would) only that her stories are as strong as the long-form leading lights, and are significant as being part of this renaissance, and that more people need to read them as part of a protracted consolidation movement regarding how and why SFF is becoming something better than it was (of course with many significant influential exceptions) in its mainstream past.

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So now, with this long introduction in mind, let’s turn to Sriduangkaew’s short story in question, Under She Who Devours Suns. I guess I have to say spoiler alert, a convention that has become hegemonic in the past decade, because I’m going to talk about the story. (I happen to believe that any good review will necessarily include “spoilers” which is why I think this whole spoiler alert business is conventional nonsense.) So go read this short story now before I spoil it for you. It will take less than hour of your time, or maybe more than an hour if, like me, you want to read parts of it again and again.

The reader of this short story is immediately struck by the beauty of its prose. The first paragraph is lush and demands attention; those who would prefer a paired down utilitarian prose of description will wince and cower back into the folds of the “puppies” slates of the Hugos:

By the time Melishem returns to her birth-city Tessellated Talyut, there is little of her that anyone can recognize. Her gaze burns unhuman amber, her bare scalp glistens with meteorite blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints, more delicate and superb than any lace. Her bare feet track salt across the earth, leaving shriveled worms and withered grass in her wake. She has been walking a long time, unresting and unseeing of any sight save her objective.

So we have the story’s protagonist returning to her city, transformed by an as yet undescribed history of exile. Meteorite blood, limbs infected with insects. Decay accompanies her motion. The protagonist is an entropic figure; her history is immediately compelling – how the fuck did she become like this?

Melishem failed to win a duel with another woman, Sikata, that decides the governance of a given polity in this story’s fictional universe. Despite the fact that Melishem and Sikata were close friends who believed their near equality would allow them shared governance, Melishem still lost to Sikata in the duel “with mirror-gun and sliver-knife,” even though it took an exceptional three hours, and so Sikata became the city-state’s guardian and Melishem, rather than excepting defeat, chose exile. She returns after years of honing her skills in the world outside of her homeland so as to return an reinitiate her failed duel. Upon returning, however, she discovers [and this happens within the first five paragraphs of the story] that Sikata is dead. Melishem’s opposite died in a duel to defend Talyut against an enemy; she succeeded in this duel and “purchased… another year of peace,” while Talyut was already reduced to victim warzone, but eventually succumbed to the wounds she had sustained. (And these wounds were “in her shadow,” a vague but gripping description.)

Refusing to accept the death of her double, Melishem requests residence in a city-state under siege by an undescribed enemy. Altered by the vaguely described experiences of her exile, she is something other – more than less than the humanity she had once embraced. A very important narrative fact that is eventually revealed: Melishem can transform herself, alter her flesh.

And refusing to accept that her duel has ended, or that her other cannot compliment her any longer, she uses the abilities she has discovered and mastered in her exile to raise a version of of Sikata to life. At first it seems her motivation for this necromancy is to reinitiate the duel, her very reason for returning, but these motives are unclear. The resurrected Sikata cannot immediately remember her identity; she is simply an approximation wrenched from this fictional universe’s afterlife who, at first, is only certain of the fact that she is a resurrected being. Melishem withholds key information, more interested in placing her in training simulations to ready her for a duel.

One of the many interesting passages of this short stories concerns the conceptualization of necromancy in this fictional universe:

On burnt paper she pins the anatomy of Sikata’s span; in jars and nets of sluggish time she simulates and experiments. She finds that while she could repeat the process, she would—literally—repeat the rest; she can pluck Sikata’s spirit forth again, from the point after her death but before this summoning. What she gets would be a simulacrum, an image copied from a certain moment that will know nothing of what has transpired since. The next iteration might ask different questions, might not say My thanks, stranger in a way that eases the pressure inside Melishem. There is no constant. Sikata-in-fugue is a variable without limits.

Here is representation of the germ of a magical system (one amongst several in fact), intrinsic in all of those lauded “world-building” fantasy ventures, but it passes as a single exciting paragraph. What the hell does this mean for a fantasy system of magic? The prospects are intriguing: the raised cannot remember any identity after their death, even if they were raised before, necromancy is simulated nostalgia.

Eventually Sikata begins to remember herself through the training trials exacted by Melishem whose motives are partially unclear, even to herself: is she developing her other into a warrior who can face her and properly repeat the duel she lost? At the same time it seems that Melishem wants her other to remember, to become a non-sexual lover/friend, despite Sikata’s repeated appeals to locate her wife.

When Sikata’s revelation comes, after enduring a training session where she encounters the ghosts of violence incarnate, Melishem is asked to explain what she did when she fled the city, leaving Sikata to govern and deal with the problem of invasion. Melishem says:

I’ve ranged the breadth of the Occident, fought and crushed their heathen warriors. I hunted demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests. […] I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.

This statement is evidence that this short story could have been a novel while, at the same time, is elegant in its ability to collapse a possible novel into short-form. Demons that were deserts, foxes that were islands, ghosts that were forests – what the hell? What fantasy reader doesn’t want to read pages upon pages explaining these statements, an entire back story of Melishem’s exile? Good lord, I hunger for this kind of story that took up no more than single sentence and ended with the still inexplicable “I flensed myself of all that I didn’t need.” Melishem has somehow become other, has transformed herself into an alien creature that is not only capable of raising the dead but can also alter her very self in a hive-like (“her articulated arms murmur with live moths”) manner. What the fuck happened to Melishem in her self-imposed exile? Seriously: I want to know. Good gods, this really should be a novel; its currently obscure fictional universe can easily be adapted into five hundred fucking pages! Sriduangkaew condenses this fantasy universe into a short story, like Borges describing a possible novel.

I will not describe the conclusion, where duty and love confront each other, the way that Melishem’s love of her other is consummated, and how all of this is motivated by various details that hang like Chekhov’s gun on the gorgeous walls of Sriduangkaew’s prose. Despite my disdain for occasional disdain for avoiding “spoilers” I won’t spoil that for you, especially if you’re reading it right now.

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Work such as Under She Who Devours Suns demonstrate that we are indeed living in a SFF renaissance, even if there are those who resist and desire to pull us back into a “golden age” that was never that golden and didn’t really exist. While there has always been excellent SFF the genre sections at bookstores and libraries were usually dominated by a sea of mediocre and derivative shit that, for some reason, is still defended by a group of MRA-type nerds who are content with mediocrity. Now things are beginning to change; more interesting work is being published and becoming popular. The fact that some people are pushing back with an eye towards backwards literature is just a sign that the best days of “genre” fiction are upon us.

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Book Review: Alif the Unseen

I’ll admit, right off the bat, that I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work in the comic book world.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m a great admirer of Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, particularly its ability to valorize an immigrant, non-white perspective within the confines of the Marvel universe while also making the protagonist appealing to girls of every culture.  Which is why I was excited to read Wilson’s non-comic novel, Alif the Unseen.  Indeed, I remember fondly Neil Gaiman’s transition from comics to prose: when Neverwhere was first released, and I was in the last year of high school, I saved up so that I could buy it in hardcover at the bookstore near my school – I was extremely excited by its very existence.

Two decades later, and lacking the same fanboy manic energy, I waited for years to read Alif the Unseen, picking it up when it appeared in my local branch of the public library.  But I was still just as excited: it was about Arab Springs, quirky characters, magical jinn!  On one level it did not disappoint: Wilson is just as deft with prose as she is with comics – the writing was beautiful and polished, the characters danced off the page – and Alif is definitely a promise of great work to come.  But on other levels I found this book quite bothersome.

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Alif the Unseen is about a fictional Arab city-state on the edge of the Empty Quarter that resembles various autocratic governments that were targeted by the movements of the squares that collectively formed the so-called Arab Spring.  And taking its cue from the Arab Spring, Wilson’s novel is about the resistance to autocratic middle eastern dictatorships and the “hacktivists” invested in this resistance.  Specifically it focuses on the titular “Alif” (an internet handle, the character’s real name is [predictably, because of the story] “Mohammed”), a hacker whose response to his love life gets out of control and ends up sparking an uprising, as well as a conjunction with the world of the jinn.  All in all this would very interesting… except that it rubbed me the wrong way.

1: proselytization

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a Christian family that was marginally invested in shitty religious literature that I’m extremely allergic to literature that is religiously didactic.  I’ve got no problem with authors who are invested in a particular faith trying to sell this faith through myth and allegory, but my hackles rise when I encounter literature that boldly and unapologetically proselytizes x religion.  Anyone who is familiar with this kind of literature (in particular the first world Christian “literary” industry [yes, I intentionally scare quoted literary] which has pumped out Left Behinds and a whole bunch of other shit) is aware that it functions with conversion in mind.  That is, the story orbits around the significance of conversion, about recognizing that the Bible contains the answers, and that any skepticism regarding the true faith will be challenged by supernatural events.  And look the Bible and some random preacher answers all your questions, an easy resolution is achieved, and yay this particular expression of faith!

Needless to say, as a consummate secularist I find this approach to reality quite dubious.  More importantly, as someone who appreciates literature I find this approach to narrative downright insulting.  Hence, I found Alif the Unseen similarly insulting because it read like the Muslim equivalent of this shitty Christian literature: at many points it read like thinly veiled religious proselytization – that is, piss-poor religious apologetics masquerading as a story.  The point of this kind of literature, regardless of its religious affiliation, is to result in a conciliation between the main character and the religion in question; on the way it presents many arguments as to why this religion is the truth, why its doctrine is sacrosanct, and why unbelievers are fucking idiots and/or hypocrites.

Over and over Wilson presents the Quran as an infallible doctrine of reality, greater than all religious doctrines.  While I’m happy to accept that Wilson is a Muslim and that her perspective about belief should be just as respected as those invested in other beliefs (and, to be fair, I’m even more happy to protect the right to be Muslim in the face of some of the most abhorrent Islamophobia), as someone who believes in the importance of secular demystification, I can’t help but cringe when Wilson waxes eloquent about the Quran’s monopolization of truth.  Isn’t this what all religions claim, with similar arguments, about their holy books?  And isn’t this the problem of religion that necessitates a secular movement?

But Wilson goes to great length to present the Muslim doctrine as the doctrine of reality, greater than secular science.  Her jinn characters claim it is truth!  Because it protects itself from translation betrayal it must be correct!  Because it possesses some esoteric truth that reveals itself at the moment of translation it knows more than science… Seriously, at one point she argues that because an English translation uses the word “atom” the Quran has predicted particle science!  Never mind the fact that the word “atom” – as well as the notion of infinitesimal building blocks of existence – preceded the Quran by millennia.  I found myself quite offended that Wilson wanted me to think that the Quran was aware of modern particle physics when, in point of fact, it was tailing ancient philosophy – as so many religious texts were.

Even worse is the claim, made by the character called “the convert”, that Islam is some “matrix of social justice.”  Okay, on some level every religion possesses a “matrix of social justice”, which is why there is such a thing as liberation theology.  To assume that Islam possesses a better corner on this social market is pretty strange when the truth is that only a secular movement can permit social justice.  Why?  Because movements based on a particular religious expression must necessarily bar people who from other religions since the point of any religion is about conversion, about the afterlife endgame.  Social explanations for social phenomena require a secular, irreligious movement to be the foundation of struggle.  And the experience of liberation theology confirms this: it is no accident that liberation theologians decided that they should be subordinate to larger, secular struggles.  Ever since the French Revolution, no religious movement by itself has produced anything resembling progressive social justice; rather, purely religious expressions of resistance have tended to generate the kind of cultural nationalism that Frantz Fanon, among others, warned about.

But since Wilson is invested in proselytizing, everything about Islam must be the best thing ever.  In this sense, the character of Dina was particularly cloying.  Aside from the fact that it was clear, from the get-go, that Dina was the formulaic authentic love interest of a protagonist who was initially unable to understand who really loved him, I was more bothered by the fact that someone who was a traditional religious conservative was overly valorized.  Although Wilson attempted to characterize Dina as someone who was not the typical conservative Islamist – she doesn’t like censorship, she has problems with the regular Islamists, she likes music – the character’s fundamentalism annoyed me. Deference to the patriarchal convention of being owned by her father, her complaint about how metaphors are lies, her ideological certainty of religion… These are virtues of a reactionary.

Sure, Dina is more like your beloved avuncular conservative – that red tory religious individual who is somewhat sympathetic to the liberal rule of law – than a fanatical reactionary, but so what? The fact that my conservative family members can complain about ISIS doesn’t mean very much when they also complain about the accessibility of abortion, the institution of gay marriage, sexual education in public schools, and a whole host of other “moral dilemmas” that place them in the same constellation as the conservative militants they fear.  Only the problematic of Islamophobia in my social context made me find Dina even half-ways interesting as a character, but in the fictional context where she exists she should be understood as politically backwards. Replace her devotion to Islam with a devotion to US Christianity and she would be a Trump supporter.

2: liberal social networking bullshit

Even worse than her proselytization of her religion is Wilson’s proselytization of abject liberalism.  Alif the Unseen takes the worst analysis of the Arab Spring: a) that it was extremely revolutionary (never mind the fact it that it was immediately contained, that no revolution actualized); b) that it was brought into being by social networking hacktivism.  Even more problematic is its assumption that the liberal values of such a “revolution” (meaning, the values of US-style “democracy”) are the apex of ethics and morality.

Alif’s moral significance is based on his pursuit of a liberal anti-censorship ideology, regardless of political substance – the value of liberalism is his moral substance.  He is a “hacktivist” who shelters anyone who is censored by his shitty autocratic state, whether they be Islamists, communists, or pornographers.  The morality that is valued in this book is a morality of allowing everyone the right of free expression and nothing beyond this, i.e. the “American Dream.”  Obviously, I could not help but find this approach to reality somewhat disturbing.  If you’re going to defend Islamists, pornographers, and communists altogether just because they’re all repressed, you’re not a hero – you’re a bloody opportunist.  Pornographers are anti-women; Islamists of the ISIS type are anti-people; communists should disdain both camps along with people, like Alif, who shelters reactionaries.  Because let’s be honest: a society based on the freedom of speech of everyone and everything, even people who are anti-people, is pure capitalism.  While it is indeed the case that the US is Islamophobic, it uses the language of free speech to defend Christian reactionaries, pornographers, and anti-capitalists all alike: this is its justification for being a state of “freedom” and we know that it is complete and utter bullshit.

There is a moment in Alif the Unseen where a movement of the squares develops and the masses emerge, but in a way that replicates the most simplistic understanding of the Arab Spring: all these people of different ideological commitments are getting along because they want bourgeois democracy!  Alif and his friends are excited to discover that Islamists and communists are marching together “IRL”, and that their hacktivism has produced this “non-sectarianism” that is a hallmark of liberalism.  Never mind the fact that any anti-capitalist movement worth its salt should not collaborate with reactionaries; never mind the fact that the history about these collaborations is very clear – the religious reactionaries have liquidated those secular communist forces that have marched with them (in Afghanistan, in Iran) because maybe they are natural enemies.

But if we begin by assuming that an American style democracy is worthwhile, then we have to accept that the core value is a capitalism defined by vague “anti-censorship”.  Worse: social movements are governed by social networking, by hacktivists like Alif, who are determining “IRL” by virtual activities.  All of which runs contrary to reality where movements are determined and destroyed by on-the-ground organizing.  Which is why, despite the vaunted power of social networking, there was eventually a military coup in Egypt because the Egyptian military was an organized on the ground force – the social networking meant shit, just as it hadn’t really meant shit in the initial uprisings.  Rather, it was a symptom of mass spontaneous rebellion, not at all a cause.  The very American ideology of maverick individuals setting themselves against government conspiracies, however, generates the “hactivism” and social networking narrative; Wilson bought into this wholesale and, in buying into it, was completely uncritical of the liberal discourse that it mobilized.

Just take this crowd-sourcing, hacktivist understanding of social transformation away from Alif‘s simplistic understanding of the Egyptian intifada and what we have is an “Anonymous” idea of the world. You know, those scary internet blokes whose symbol is a Guy Fawkes mask – because, you know, they all decided they were rebels upon seeing V for Vendetta when they were eight and that’s about as far as their social analysis goes. Those rebel leaders who are great at making ominous videos but whose rebellious activities consist mainly of shutting down websites, social networking accounts, and doxing. Their politics, based as they are on a juvenile anarchism (which is pretty much “question everything and rebel dude”), tend to endorse the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Like when they got on the #iamcharlie bandwagon, or when they endorsed Gamer Gate’s claims (but not the people running Operation Gamer Gate because they thought they were snitches), or when they decided to target Black Lives Matter. Alif the Unseen‘s protagonist might as well be part of Anonymous; he certainly acts the part.

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If it wasn’t for Alif the Unseen‘s didacticism I would have enjoyed it far more than I did; the characters were interesting, the urban fantasy was well developed, the writing was well crafted. I am not saying that I’m opposed to didactic fiction – hell, I happen to like a lot of didactic fiction – but only that if one is going to craft a didactic novel they should realize where the didacticism becomes cloying: when it enters the realm of religious proselytization, or makes political points that feel entirely juvenile. These aspects tended to undermine what would have otherwise been an enjoyable read by an author who is doing excellent work elsewhere. (Indeed, the statements made about Islam in Ms. Marvel are far more sophisticated, while still being didactic, than what Wilson writes in Alif the Unseen.) I look forward to Wilson’s future novels; it’s too bad her first attempt wasn’t as great as it could have been.

Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories

Months back when I posted a list of my top twenty favourite fantasy series I was unaware that Sofia Samatar was going to release a companion piece to her brilliant A Stranger in Olondria. Now that this book has been released, and I purchased and devoured it almost immediately, I would definitely edit the list to include her – not sure who I would remove, but someone would definitely need to be removed.

As I’ve mentioned before A Stranger in Olondria is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, both in form and content, and was also one of the three favourite novels of any genre that I’ve read in the past decade (the other two being Bolaño’s 2666 and Kingsnorth’s The Wake). Her recent novel, The Winged Histories, is just as amazing as Stranger – I’m still going back and forth about which one I like more – and, just like Stranger I’m annoyed with myself for having finished so quickly.  I really tried to stretch it out, and it’s not like I don’t have excuses to stretch it out (what with all the professional development and work related reading I should have been doing), but I couldn’t last more than a month and a half, even though I rationed myself to small passages a day at one point. But since I could have finished it in a couple days, I have to congratulate myself on demonstrating some self-control.

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And Samatar herself already described the kind of feeling that comes with reading a beautiful book, when you’re reaching the end, near the end of A Stranger in Olondria when her narrator proclaims:

The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning toward the end. Still, you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window: there were still a few pages under your thumb, still sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly? – No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining word! And there – the end of the book. The hard cover which, when you turn it, gives you only this leather stamped with old roses and shields. […] Then the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.

I’m not the first reader who has noticed this passage and compared it to their experience of reading the book in which it resides (and now will compare it the experience of reading The Winged Histories. Of course I don’t believe Samatar intended this passage to apply to herself because, based on what she has written elsewhere and the interviews she has given, she is not like some Lars Von Trier of the literary fantasy world: a pompous asshole who knows they are talented and wants everyone to know it as well. Rather, since Stranger was a book that was a love letter to reading and writing – so much of a love letter that its world building invented entire libraries, literary traditions, a phenomenology of experiencing this imaginary literary universe, literary theory, religions built on the written word, and an emergent new literate culture (I especially loved that early passage when Jevick discusses all of the Olondrian writers describing reading and writing). And the book that Jevick is haunted to eventually write leads to the above passage. Even still, it applies to Samatar along with other writers of her calibre.

Hence, like A Stranger In Olondria, the experience of The Winged Histories is the kind of experience you can only get with a book that possesses a story that grips you deeply and a formal quality that, like Angela Carter’s prose, makes every want-to-be writer who cares about form feel a deep anguish that their craft will never be as good. At the beginning it takes some difficulty to get into, because Samatar doesn’t lead you by the hand patting you on the head, but then something clicks. I found myself stuck between the impulse to speed read because I wanted to know what would happen and the desire to slow down and savour each sentence. The impulse to reach the end; the impulse for the book to be eternal.

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Moreover, these books do what very few “world-building” fantasy novels have succeeded in doing: they like high literature and yet still present a world you can tell that Samatar has crafted ahead of time, like a Tolkien or those in his tradition, with pain-staking detail. As if Proust decided, one day, to not write the quintessential modernist novel and spent years crafting an intricate fantasy world that functioned according to its own internal laws – with its own mythologies, religions, artifacts, geographies, cultures, languages, conventions – and then wrote stories about its people with his skill in prose. (What sort of quintessential modernist novel would that be?) Or if Tolkien, after making his world, spent a few years learning how to write like a Conrad but with an attention to the actual political dimensions his mythologies would necessitate.

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t usually get elaborate fantasy world building with the English prose craft of, say, the Joyce of Portrait of an Artist as Young Man or The Dubliners. (Joyce is also, obviously, a stylist par excellence with Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake [though I haven’t had the energy to labour my way through the latter], but this is a different kind of style than what I mean here.) Okay, maybe Vandermeer and Valente, but their world building still possesses a magic realist dimension that, intersecting with a Borgesian approach, tends to build worlds that are surreal and weird – that aren’t primarily concerned with expressing a concrete fantasy world with the same geeky attention to detail as Samatar’s Olondria. Or maybe China Mieville, though his prose craft has only become more ingenious after his big world building fantasies (although, according to Strange Horizons, his recent book just might be part of the Bas-Lag universe). So when you get someone who writes like a Joyce, a Conrad, a Bolaño, a Carter, etc. and does so within a context that the nerds of “epic fantasy” have claimed as their territory, you’re dealing with something possibly unique.

The thing is, this world building ethos was not as prevalent in Stranger as it is in Winged, and so part of the brilliance of the former is to prove that both books proceed organically from a previously developed and thoroughly thought out fantasy universe. In Stranger there was only a glimpse of this universe, mainly because we were gleaning everything through the perspective of an outsider obsessed with Olondrian literature: Jevick, coming from the margins of Empire, arrives in Olondria only to discover that its literary output is different from its internal state, becomes haunted by a dead woman from another marginal culture, and gets caught up in events he cannot fully understand because he lacks the compass; we receive glimpses of the depth of the world through which he is moving but, like him, they are only glimpses – aside from the literary world he understands so much cannot be known. There was a map, of course, which is a key indication that the author might be a world builder, and there was evidence of a richness lurking beneath the surface of the narrator’s perspective, but it would take another book to reveal how thoroughly and previously constructed and thought-through this fictional universe was.

In Winged, however, we are provided with the entire story of internal politics and historical conjuncture that was partially experienced by Stranger‘s Jevick. The perspectives of four women, one of whom was a tertiary but important character in Jevick’s tale, frame this book, each one revealing a unique insider understanding of the Olondrian fictional universe. Add to this the complex and worked out genealogy, historical fragments that function as non-intrusive info dumps to convey the weight of history, an attention to cultural distinction, a language glossary, concrete explanations of religious history and formation, a fabulous mythology, and everything anyone would require from world building. Unless they just want elves, dwarves, and some pseudo Middle Earth.

It is actually quite depressing, at least in my opinion, that she would invent all of this only to say that it marks the “completion of the project. Never say never, of course, but I do see this book as my farewell to epic fantasy.” That is, when you think of the background geek-like obsession that it would take to compose a fantasy world in which you could write two novels, neither of which reads and behaves like the typical world building fantasy novel (I mean this in a good way, obviously, and I also mean to say that Samatar’s world building is far more transgressive, when it comes to content and form, than any of the recent “grim dark” iterations), it’s tragic to be told that this is all we’ll get. I want to know more about some of the historical background she outlined! Like those vampire rulers who used a war between human nations to intervene and impose a dread hegemony upon the continent that would eventually become Olondria. [quote about them.] Or the story of [writer that the Stone people disliked] who was mentioned both in Stranger and Winged. Or what about the future openings, first presented in Stranger, where the centre of knowledge production shifts to the former margins due to the upheavals between religious sects?

I want to know more! (I want a serialized television series!) But sadly – and necessarily – this desire to know more, and have the story of this universe told and retold over and over and over again is precisely the reason why, unfortunately, Samatar should close this book, giving us “only this leather stamped with roses and shields” so that “the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.” Over-serialization is indeed the death of her kind of literary world building.

*

One of the difficulties of judging The Winged Histories in comparison to A Stranger in Olondria is that I have no way of knowing whether or not I would have enjoyed the former as much as I did if I hadn’t read the latter. Whereas Stranger follows a single narrative of an outsider coming to grips with the reality of a culture he idolized from afar, Winged is an encyclopedic take on Olondria from several insiders involved in the upheaval the protagonist of Stranger drifted through.

What is most remarkable about Winged, aside from its composition and literary style, is that it skirts the theatre of action. Although it opens with the character Tav and her experience as a “swordmaiden” – a rare woman warrior amongst men – and though the violence of a social upheaval and a separationist movement form the basis of the book, warfare is relegated to the margins. We are intentionally not shown, as in so many of these world-building books, scenes of violence and sword-swinging action with the set pieces of armies of facing armies. Tav’s tale breezes through her experience fighting a border war which is a political distraction, concluding with her desire to fuck up the Olondrian Empire in the favour of familial connections based in subaltern populations. She conspires with her cousin, a secondary character from Stranger to start the rebellion against the emergent theocracy that was the focus of that book, but then her narrative ends. The following parts of Winged focuses on the experiences of other women involved in this unrest, all of whom are significant to the unfolding events but who aren’t at the centre of violence, and so the violent narrative arc of this war becomes an object of reflection that is only experienced as a violent aftermath by the other protagonists. Indeed, it is concluded halfway through the second section, even though it started at the end of the first, and relayed to a woman under house arrest.

Dodging the action of epic war, while building the world in which it takes place, is one of Samatar’s strengths as fantasist. She can narrativize all of those mythic events that determine a concrete world with distinct cultures, mythologies, languages, and organic characters while avoiding the very events that this kind of world-building is meant to valorize: kick-ass battles and quests. While it is indeed the case that Tav, her first protagonist, is a character who possesses the privilege to establish her agency in the midst of war, the fact that she is unique as a woman in a patriarchal world (she had to trick her way into the army based on a forged letter and an appeal to gendered exceptions to the rule) necessarily demands that her narrative be disrupted by those women who will experience war in a different manner. And isn’t it far more interesting, Samatar invites us to consider in the face of the typical epic fantasy fare, that we investigate the ways in which these massive upheavals might be experienced by excluded women?

Following Tav’s narrative is the story of Tialon, daughter of Ivrom the militant priest of the Stone. Here is where Winged positions itself directly with the narrative of Stranger: Tialon, lover of Jevick’s teacher Lunre (once Ivrom’s disciple), who helped Jevick escape when her father, Ivrom, arrested him because of his possession. Now she becomes a primary character and narrates the story of her father and his austere religion. In Stranger this religion, which tried to place itself in the service of rationality while suppressing the irrational, ends up facing the return of the repressed so that Jevick becomes the unwitting tool of the destruction of all that he valued in Olondria (books and libraries) only to experience their regeneration in his islands.

Here, we learn how such a rational religion could become an austere theocracy: this graffitied stone pulled from the wasteland and worshipped as a message from god became the locus of Ivrom’s desire to challenge the supposed infiltration of Olondrian society of decadent intermarriage between Olondrian nobility and non-Olondrian subject populations that produced Tav, her rebel cousin, and her sister. Ivrom, patriarch that he is, is obsessed with outflanking the great aunt of Tav, her sibling, and her cousin who has spent a lifetime trying to take over Olondrian society from within. In doing so, he has turned his daughter into an appendage of a religion he himself has adopted. In the rebellion that Tav helps initiate, Ivrom is executed and Tialon is placed under house arrest, where she attempts to excavate the history of her father’s fanaticism. And as the rebellion is suppressed, and Tialon nears the end of her house arrest, the conflict she feels over her father’s project and his venal patriarchy results in an ambivalence over his execution:

I think he went easily to the noose, slipping earthward like a leaf, and gave the prince one stern, cold look before he died. I think he died so quietly that the crowd was awed for a moment and fell silent, and the prince himself quaked with fear. I think he did. No, I think my father begged for mercy. I think they dragged him from his chair and made him crawl to the foot of the tree. I think he loosed his bowels and his murderers laughed. I think he thought of me and feared for me and thanked the Nameless Gods that I was not there. I think he cursed and threatened them, he swore the gods would smite them. I think his bones were so light he took a long time to die. I think he is still hanging there. I think they cut him down. Let me go… Let me see him. Let me go.

Tialon’s story is followed by the narrative of Seren, Tav’s lover, in the time when the war is over, Seren’s people are liberated from the Olondrian yoke (but at great cost), and Tav has returned to her to abdicate the her life as a warrior. This narrative is told as a fragmented prose poem, a way of making sense of a subaltern culture devastated by war and in the midst of reconstruction. Seren is obsessed with the ways in which a patriarchy imposed by conquest has effected her people, particularly the ways it has caused her family to fall apart: her grandfather died in a previous uprising, her grandmother spent her entire life demanding revenge, and this legacy has always been one that has forced its way into the construction of masculinity at the expense of the women.

Remembrance becomes the remembrance of patriarchy, something which Seren hopes will be broken – especially since she has seen this way of life devastate her family and prevent her from having the kind of lover she desires. A remembrance that reproduces itself in the song and saga of her people:

This is why I say that music should not be for remembrance. We remember too much. We need music to forget. Songs that leave no scars. All these women with scarred faces and the men would say, “She goaded me to kill.” It was the common defense in the case of murder, so conventional, like a song, every case of murder seemed to be the same, even long blood feuds among hundreds of people, always the same, it was always the case of honor and there was always a woman who goaded the man to kill. […] I always felt that this defense was true but also false. True because of the way my grandmother tried to goad my father to make him kill. False because something else was standing behind my grandmother. A vast and terrible logic. Formulaic, like a song. The closed and shining logic of men and women. All of us, singing ourselves to death.

Finally there is the story of Tav’s sister, Siski, that takes place after the rebellion fails – when Siski and her lover/cousin, Tav’s co-conspirator – flee into obscurity. But this is a tale that also excavates the the past of Siski and Tav, the way that family trauma has affected them, and at many points is quite heart-breaking. This was the most difficult part of the book to get through, even more so than Seren’s story, put it was also the most rewarding. All of the disparate strings are tied together in a melancholy way, in the midst of a dread transformation. The world of the fathers, the world of women attempting to assert themselves within this world in a way that is not healthy. I tried so hard to savour the end of the book, to stretch it out for as long as possible.

*

There were so many moments in A Winged Histories that caused me to shiver. Like when the matriarch of the family – the same woman that the priest of the Stone, Ivrom, despised and who pushed Tav, Siski, and their cousin to the forefront of Olondrian society – loses everything in the rebellion but is trying desperately to reclaim her hopes for imperial power. She is attempting to write letters to Siski that vacillate between angry directives and apologetic explanations. The letters accumulate like litter, all of them expressing her contradictory emotions, until she writes one about how she was working “on a single painting for half a century. And now imagine a child tears it with a razor.” Then she finally she cries, a single “tear on her knuckle,” and attempts three more missives: “Siski you children are all the same. Siski your duty. Siski your failure”; “Siski the lives of women”; “Dear Siski. Forgive me.”

We are left with a novel that is composed of the voices that are usually suppressed in epic fantasy, voices that simultaneously suppress the normative conventions of this same fantasy. The doors are closed on the fictional universe Samatar initiated in Stranger even though Winged reveals the historical and cultural depth that could be explored in later novels. In this way The Winged Histories is a book as it is defined by Seren:

The is the book of song, which means the book of laughter. In Kestenyi, song, yai, is related to laughter…  But in the che we have another word for book. We call it hawan, lamentation. I don’t know why. Perhaps long ago a woman saw someone weeping over a book. Or perhaps it’s because we call every long poem hawan. Our many hawayn, histories of death and mourning. We, we women, we sing them, but we don’t compose them. It is said that we don’t compose them. We are always too late for the battle, we come behind it, we compose little songs, yaili, we don’t have time. […] So: the book of song. The hawan of kyai, the lamentation of laughter. […] The mourning of laughter, the sob of mirth, the tears of joy, are you finished yet, have you got it all?

Martyrs and the Remaking of Films that Shouldn’t be Remade

The USAmerican remake of Martyrs was released on April 1st like a massive April Fools joke. For many of those familiar with the original French film by Pascal Laugier the remake was yet another example of remaking-blasphemy: take a foreign film that has subtitles and that possesses some level of cult importance, write and film another version that is palatable to an audience that might have never heard of the original. The argument that the audience can’t be bothered to read subtitles and so deserves a remake in their own language is asinine: the masses who lack access to literacy aren’t going out of their way to see niche horror films and, if they were, the technology of voice dubbing is far more advanced than it was in the past. Let’s be honest about these remakes: they’re cash grabs for an industry that, having lacked any unique ideas for a long time, seeks to plunder other industries in the hope of a quick profit.

I’m not a purist who thinks that remaking films is essentially wrong; I don’t think it makes sense to proclaim fidelity to an unqualified originality. Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu was a great film because it translated a silent film into the realm of sound. Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs was good because it took a shitty action film with an interesting premise and embraced this premise while refusing to be a shitty action film. I don’t give a shit about the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur because I don’t care about the original and have no desire to see the remake. John Carpenter’s Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly were excellent remakes because they departed so wildly from the originals, and in fact eclipsed them, that they ceased being remakes.

But there are those films that should never be remade, that the remakes are terrible copies, and that one wonders why so much money was spent making them in the first place. Like remaking Tarkovsky’s version of Lem’s Solaris: as much as Soderbergh pretended that he was just re-adapting the novel every critic who saw the movie realized it was influenced by Tarkovsky… And really, when it comes down to a choice between Tarkovsky and Soderbergh who are you going to choose? Or what about the recent USAmerican version of Old Boy: a perfect Korean film turned into a fucking asinine English speaking reinterpretation that worked so hard to outdo the original to the point that anyone who had seen the original knew they were watching a reference. When it comes down to remaking a film that was perfect in its own right you will either end up with a substandard copy or, in very very rare cases, something that is just as good because it’s mainly a shot for shot remake (i.e. as I’ve been told that Let Me In, the remake of Let the Right One In, is). The latter possibility is extremely rare.

As aforementioned, the justification for remaking even the great films is based on foreign films that English speakers wouldn’t watch – especially in the US where illiteracy is more commonplace due to their shitty public education system – but as I also pointed out above this is a weak excuse. Why spoon feed the supposed illiterate masses with remade versions of great movies when these same and supposed illiterate masses are more likely to attend a second showing of Batman versus Superman than a limited run of a remake of a French horror movie? More to the point: studios aren’t concerned about what the viewing public that can’t read subtitles is deprived of being able to watch because of the language barrier; they’re more interested in what is possibly sellable, because it was successful elsewhere, for people who hadn’t heard of the original. These are the same people that remake even English movies, anything where a pre-existing idea can be hastily redone, and hopefully quickly with as little money as possible spent, in the hope that because it was successful before it will be successful again.

Why the hell would anyone remake Martyrs anyhow? The original was never commercially successful: it was undermined by French censorship, destined for cult status from the moment it played in film festivals. Nor was universally beloved by critics: it is only now, almost a decade later, that it is being reconsidered as a critical masterpiece. The cult status it received was due to some horror critics realizing what it was trying to do, its unapparent avant-garde sensibility, that is only now – when faced with the shitty remake – leading some critics to declare it the greatest horror film of the 21st century. Indeed, the Guardian critics, who initially gave the original film a poor rating because they were so bemused by its content and form, scorned the remake for reminding the viewer of “just how much Laugier’s film had going for it.”

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This from the original with shotgun viscerality…

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…versus this remake 9mm gun hero bullshit.

The fact is that, like all remakes that strive to capitalize for god-knows-what-reason, on brilliant films in another language, the USAmerican Martyrs is something I won’t bother watching because it has no reason to exist. Like a remake of Citizen Kane or Battle of Algiers or 8 1/2 it cannot justify its emergence. You only need to look at the trailer to realize it has immediately missed the point: the protagonists are white women instead of women of colour, an oversight regarding what the original was trying to do – comment on both gender and racism in the militarization of torture. Every review has pointed out how the remake broke with the discordance of pacing that was essential to the original and instead, as the aforelinked Guardian review points out, “cuts up each sequence like a Nine Inch Nails video to drive home the presence of its editor.”

In resistance to the remake I recently rewatched the original Martyrs with a group of friends, most of whom had never seen it. After the experience we spent over an hour arguing about the film: everyone, even those who disliked horror films, were impressed. One thing that was pointed out as essential to the film, and that the remake resists, was this change in pacing. There is that moment where, as my friend who saw it with me at Midnight Madness when it was first released pointed out, the viewer slams into a brick wall that is like the endless battering of the remaining protagonist. And as my friends in this rewatch elaborated, this was a moment where everything that made the film exciting in the first half was turned back on the viewer resulting in a split consciousness: you identify with the victim while at the same time being complicit, as a voyeur, with the actions of the victimizer because you celebrated certain aspects of the first half.

So what Martyrs does is provoke the viewer and draw a line of demarcation across the horror sensibility. When I first saw this film, during its premier at the TIFF’s Midnight Madness, the person on the other side of me from my friend cheered on the first half of the film but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the second to the point of muttering and swearing – he actually booed the film when it ended. Better yet, the director came unto the stage after the showing to mock traditional horror fans for their conservative commitment to violence and state that he intentionally made the decision to shift the film’s pace and tone to throw this commitment back into the collective face of horror fandom. This splitting of fans and critics alike is what makes Martyrs greater than those films that is beloved by every fan or every critic. Good films achieve a level of consensus amongst viewers with their 80-90% approval rating on, say, Rotten Tomatoes (like, for example, a piece of entertainment fluff like the first Avengers movie).  Great movies might be those that provoke an agitational divide where critics and fans are completely split and the split is monumental. Better yet, they force reconsideration years later. For example Battle of Algiers holds a 99% rating on these aggregate sites now, but what would it hold on these same sites if they existed when it was made: critics were indeed split when this film was first made, when it threatened their understanding of the state of affairs. The demarcation has stood the test of time.

In any case, now that I have rewatched the original and am of the opinion that the remake should never be watched because it has no business existing, I feel it’s time to promote my old article – written back in the days when my other blog was just becoming popular – about Martyrs that has the distinction of being a wikipedia link for the New French Extremity “genre”: The Transfiguration of Horror. I’m sure it won’t be as painful to read as the remake is painful to watch.

Damn you Michael Gira

Part of my late highschool soundtrack was Swans.  I was introduced to them by way of their 1994 album, The Great Annihilator, which was their temporary (har har) “swan song” – what with it being the last classic Swans line up of Gira and Jarboe.  Since it was released by Invisible Records (later to be reclaimed by Gira’s own Young Gods label), and because I was then a Pigface fan and into anything Invisible released, I dubbed it from a friend and then listened to it over and over and over.  I remained a Swans fan for years, slowly accumulating their past discography, and was extremely excited when Gira rebooted them in 2012 with The Seer.  Lord, I was such a fan that I followed Gira and Jarboe’s side projects.  And three years before The Seer was released, right before I defended my doctorate, one of the last live shows I attended (I’ve actually lost interest in seeing bands live because I’m getting lazy) was a Gira solo performance – preceded by James Blake – at the Drake in Toronto.

All of this is to say that it is massively disappointing when an essential part of your adolescent, and indeed post-adolescent, soundtrack is undermined by the reality that your beloved artist is a fucker.  Here, in case my readers are unaware, I’m talking about the recent statements made by Larkin Grimm, a musician formerly part of the Young Gods family, about how Gira raped her years back.  And then, because she was upset about being raped (because apparently she shouldn’t have been), dropped her from his label.

Look, I know that there’s a school of thought out there that says we should separate the work of art from the artist – maybe following a death of the author line of thought – and I really get that.  We talk about the same thing in critical thinking, warning students about circumstantial ad hominems and how, regardless of a person’s circumstances and interests, it is fallacious to use this as an excuse not to judge an argument on its own merits.  So maybe dismissing Gira’s music because of these rape accusations, and that they are most probably (according to an inference from the best explanation) not baseless allegations, is some kind of ad hominem art criticism.  Obviously there are a lot of artists I enjoy who did extremely problematic things in their life times – and obviously I don’t think Tolstoy’s work should be dismissed because he was an abusive patriarchal asshole – but when it comes to artists in the present, and not dead assholes whose work now stands over and above their dismal lives, I cannot help but find it difficult to separate their work from their practices and commitments.  Take Burzum, for example: the first time I heard them, before I was given a name to look up or told about Varg Vikernes, I thought the music was brilliant… But the moment I learned about Vikernes’ beliefs and activities there was no way I could stomach the music no matter how interesting it was (though, confession time, I have a guilty soft spot for Chelsea Wolfe’s cover of “Black Spell of Destruction” – is this liberalism because it’s slightly removed, thus allowing me to avoid the epistemic fallacy?) because Varg’s a fucking fascist.  So yeah, my desire to listen to Swans now, which has been part of playlist for twenty years, has utterly evaporated.

I want to pause here, because I suspect I’m going to get a random google-warrior wandering onto this post chastising me about believing in these so-called “allegations”, and explain why Larkin Grimm’s accusations are convincing.  Leaving aside the fact that, despite what MRAs falsely maintain, false rape accusations aren’t endemic – that is, while they do happen they are statistically miniscule – an inference to the best explanation should lead us to believe Grimm’s account over Gira’s denial.  First of all, Grimm has nothing to gain from making this accusation: it came out, years later, because she had accused someone else of sexual harassment and realized that, in order to be consistent, she should be open about Gira even though, if she had made it to “get” something (because in the mind of the rape denier these claims are made to get things, whatever these things are) then it would have made much more sense to make it when she was dropped from Gira’s label rather than, as is consistent with rape victims who have been victimized by people they respected, living with the trauma and making excuses for the rapist; since she made this statement about Gira she has been re-victimized by the typical rape-sheltering abuse of online fans of Gira – why the hell would anyone that? – which anyone with half-a-brain would know would happen the moment such an accusation is made.  Men in position of power, even if it is in a small corner of indie fandom, are able to count on fans leaping to their defense.  Grimm’s silence for years is consistent with the profile of a woman who experienced the trauma of victimization and was scared to speak out about a man who wielded a certain amount of power in the indie music community of which she was a part.  The only argument that undermines the fact that she wouldn’t be aware of this cost-benefit analysis is some bullshit appeal to female hysteria, and fuck that.

Secondly, Gira’s second statement regarding Grimm’s accusations is pretty bloody revealing.  Earlier, supported by his partner, Gira referred to Grimm’s accusations as a “slanderous lie” and went to great lengths to deny any form of sexual encounter with Grimm, implying that she was obsessed with him, that he was a poor beleaguered dude dealing with a fangirl, and that no sort of sexual interaction happened.  And then suddenly he makes another statement, undermining his previous claims, that there was an intimate encounter… That sort of resembles precisely what Grimm claimed only that it was consensual and he didn’t rape her when she was sleeping.  Of course his current statement spins it so that it was just a romantic tryst, but it’s pretty telling that he initially denied this but is now providing a distorted non-rapey version of her “slanderous” story.  Good Lord, now he even agrees with Larkin that he said “this doesn’t feel right” in the moment of rape, only with him it’s not rape but a consensual affair.  This is seriously creepy.

Okay, with the inference to the best explanation out of the way, back to the problem of listening to Swans in the wake of this event.  When I was kid getting into all of these indie and underground bands, one of the things that drew me to them was that, unlike the shitty mainstream music, they were cool.  But it’s not very cool to think about the artist behind the music raping women when they sleep – that is the very essence, and violently so, of lame – just as it is not cool to realize that an artist is committed to a fascist politics.  Hell, I stopped finding Thurston Moore cool when he cheated on Kim Gordon in such a way that he ended up looking like a creepy old dude, and the only reason I still find Sonic Youth to be cool is because of Kim Gordon and not because of Thurston Moore. And thinking of Gira as a rapey dude is far worse than this; it renders his music obnoxious.  He ends up being the same as all those sad mainstream fuckers who take advantage of their groupies because they believe they have the right to use women who like their work.

Part of me wants to believe that I can listen to Michael Gira’s work pre-2008, and thus still appreciate the old Swans catalogue, since it is prior to the moment where he “allegedly” raped Grimm.  Sadly, but far less sad for me than it is for women like Grimm who have had to deal with this bullshit for years, this part of my life’s soundtrack has been irrevocably ruined.  As one of my good friends texted me upon hearing about this controversy: “I feel like it’s a matter of time before basically all of the male artists I like will turn out to be scumbag rapists.”  Yeah, who next?

Remembering Kathy Acker

“You create identity, you’re not given identity per se. What became more interesting to me wasn’t the I, it was text because it’s texts that create the identity. That’s how I got interested in plagiarism.” (Kathy Acker, Hannibal Lecter, My Father)

When I was moving books around on one of my bookshelves today I noticed, for the first time in a long time, my Kathy Acker collection.  It’s been years since I’ve read Acker, and I’m sad to say that these days I don’t think about her as much as I used to, but it’s always surprising to notice the amount of books of hers that I own and have read – pretty much most of her catalogue.  This was because, from the middle to the end of my undergraduate, I went through a serious Kathy Acker phase.

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I first encountered Acker, at the end of my second undergraduate year, in the University of Western Ontario bookstore with the book In Memoriam To Identity.  This was during a time when I tended to purchase and read a book due to combination of availability, author blurbs, the publisher, a cool sounding title, and whether or not the first and last sentence of the book in question were interesting.  In Memoriam To Identity possessed blurbs from Burroughs and Winterson, was published by Grove, had a neat title, and had an intriguing first and last sentence (“Why didn’t I have a scorpion?” and “Since all the rest is unknown, throw what is known away.”).  So I went through a serious Acker phase, that only ended halfway through my MA because I ran out of Acker books to read.  Hell, I even ended up owning the soundtrack – that Acker made with the Mekons – of her last novel Pussy King of Pirates.  Indeed, I first encountered her in the year that she died – too young and because of cancer.

Despite the fact that, years after having read all of her novels (and owning most of them), I’m a different person than the undergraduate who first picked In Memoriam To Identity out of a university bookstore, when I really reflect on this period of my life I cannot help but recognize its significance.  Acker was the feminist post-Burroughs US avant garde novelist that anyone who went through that Burroughs phase in high school needed to read when they grew up: she represented, in so many ways, the completion of a particular kind of American experimental fiction.  That is, following the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up experiments we had the Acker iteration of this experiment that functioned according to a plagiarist cut-up of fiction and theory where intentional plagiarism of texts that the author despised was spliced into similar plagiarisms or translations of texts the author liked so as to produce a set of literary contradictions.

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My favourite of these experiments is still Empire of the Senseless where a surreal version of Neuromancer is spliced into the Algerian Revolution.

With all of these interspliced plagiarisms, that Acker usually referenced at the end of chapters, I ended up being introduced to a variety of authors and theorists.  For example, it was because of Acker that I first encountered Antonin Artaud.  But most importantly, it was because of Acker that I found the basis of my “gateway drug” out of Anarchism and into Marxism… This was not because Acker was a Marxist but because, at the time (around the third year of my undergrad), I was reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and for a while thinking it was the coolest thing since margarine, but then ended up reading an essay by Acker where she attacked Baudrillard’s nihilism in favour of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which she saw as a foundational theory to her fiction, which caused me to pick up Anti-Oedipus. Indeed, my initial undergrad interest in Deleuze and Guattari was because I’d heard about it from Acker… And because I temporarily lost myself in the D&G rabbit-hole I ended up locating myself upon a Marxist route: from Anti-Oedipus to the autonomists, to the kind of Marxism I adopt today.

When reflecting on Acker I also remember a third year literature course that I took as an option (one of those non-philosophy credits I was obligated to take in my undergraduate) where I tried to convince the professor to let me write an experimental essay on Acker’s work.  The course was called something like “Literature of Protest and Transgression” – and was also important because it was where I first read Brecht, namely Saint Joan of the Stockyards – and my idea for an essay was to write about Acker’s novels and method according to her method and novels, i.e. by doing a plagiarized cut-up of her writing in the form of an essay.  That is, I proposed an essay that would consist mainly of creative plagiarism of Acker, which I would note at the end, in a way that was blurred completely with my own writing.  Unfortunately, the professor didn’t like the proposal and I ended up doing something different that had nothing do with Acker but that I can’t remember… Weird that I remember what I proposed and not what I actually wrote, but these days I can’t remember most of the essays and assignments I wrote during my undergrad.

Kathy Acker is one of those authors who possessed an experimental antipathy to the literature of her social context.  The motivation for her method of appropriation and detournément (she never used, to my memory, the term detournément, but she did start writing about the same time as the Situationist International) was based on a love-hate relationship with the literature of her social-historical context.  USAmerican literature is trash, she declared multiple times, and because of its anti-intellectual puritan roots – which were also roots of violent colonialism and slavery – Acker claimed that the US possessed no worthwhile literary tradition.  Hence she made the corollary claim that the only “worthwhile” USAmerican literature was an avant garde tradition that played with the trash literature of colonial puritanism, challenging its assumptions by disarticulating its narrative form.  Her literary heroes in her social context were people like William Burroughs who wrote according to transgression and cut-up, as well as a handful of science fiction authors who attempted to make literature by embracing genre “trash”, but otherwise everything was pulp and pornography.  With this pseudo-literary basis in mind, the point for Acker was simply to play with the trash that was at hand, replicating it into rearrangement so that, in its disarticulation, it was turned upon itself.

Acker was both the heir and replacement of Burroughs but, unlike Burroughs, she was more aware of the literary environment in which she operated.  The fact that she interviewed Burroughs, was named a literary successor by Burroughs, and delivered a eulogy at his funeral establishes her lineage in the American avant garde tradition.  But more importantly she transcended Burroughs, and should be seen as far more important than Burroughs ever was in the avant garde and experimental milieu, because she was able to theorize her operational environment and develop a literary machinism that thought through the meanings of producing literature in her social context.  Unlike Burroughs, Acker thought through the multiple problematics of class, race, gender, sexuality, and etc. in order to generate a literature that was not only conscious of its anti-literary environment but could embrace it in an ironically political manner, thus transforming it into something wild.

“It is here that literature strikes, at this base, where the concepts and actings of order impose themselves. Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.” (Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless)

Remembering Sonic Youth

I picked up Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl In A Band, from the library today and am already half finished… which is something of a surprise because I usually find autobiographies and biographies difficult to read quickly, especially if they’re about artists/musicians rather than historical figures such as Mao, Lenin, or Luxemburg.  My enjoyment of the memoir, in retrospect, isn’t really that surprising.  Sonic Youth is one of the bands I have followed since I was twelve, and whose albums I return to time and time again, and many of the other bands I followed were bands that were connected to, influenced, or cited by Sonic Youth.  (For example, I got into Bikini Kill because Gordon was something of a rock-and-roll godmother to Kathleen Hanna.)

Like many, in the year before Gordon released her memoir, I was slightly devastated by the end of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage, which of course signalled the end of Sonic Youth.  The memoir speaks to all of this, placing Gordon’s experience as a founding member of Sonic Youth and the eventual end of that experience, in the context of multiple art and music scenes.  Most importantly, it makes me want to listen to all of my Sonic Youth albums again – and to go out and download those albums that I only possessed on cassette (given away a year ago with all of my cassettes to the local Goodwill).  Indeed, after reading the first five chapters while my daughter was watching television, I pulled out the first Sonic Youth album I could find on my CD shelf (Washing Machine) and put it on so that my daughter, who loves rock and roll (her words, in fact, like the Joan Jett song: “I love rock and roll!”), could dance out her energy.

Up until eighth grade, my music tastes were formed by the artists in my parents’ and my friends’ parents’ record collections.  I didn’t like most of what I heard on the radio station and instead, like my two best friends, spent all of my time listening to the Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and other 1960s/70s artists.  A slight exception was made, in sixth and seventh grade, for Guns and Roses, but I never saved up my allowance money to buy Appetite for Destruction – I just liked playing air guitar to “Sweet Child of Mine” and that was about it.  But in eighth grade, when my best friend’s older brothers were getting into “cool” contemporary music, I started getting into contemporary bands and musicians that excited me more than the music I’d simply absorbed from my parents’ generation.  One of the first three albums I bought that was not from the 60s/70s was Goo.  (The other two, and I can’t remember which of the three I bought first, were the Cure’s Disintegration and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.)

Sonic Youth thus occupies an important place in my music-developmental education; they dominated the soundtrack of my teenage years.  Like, for example, when I finally made the jump from cassettes to CDs (can’t recall if it was 10th or 11th grade) and Sonic Youth formed the bridge of this jump: Dirty was my last (non-dubbed) cassette, Experimental Jet Set was my first CD.  For a while I would get Sonic Youth albums as birthday presents each year.

(Weird thing is, I never saw them in concert.  Back in those days I saw a lot of bands in concert, even taking trips to Toronto to see the ones that wouldn’t play London Ontario, but I missed out on Sonic Youth.  I’m not precisely sure why I failed to see them in concert, why they were no more than a soundtrack and there was no encounter with the metaphorical man behind the curtain.)

Since my musical interests were located in Sonic Youth, I never cared too much about Nirvana.  When Nevermind took the radio stations by storm, and everyone was talking about “alternative music” and “grunge”, I had already been listening to Goo for months so I was less impressed.  I had even heard Bleach, thanks to that friend’s older brothers, and was not really that excited.  I was more excited by the Jesus Lizard, and kind of saw this Nirvana garage band revival as something that was derivative Sonic Youth, who I preferred.  This isn’t to say I disliked Nirvana, but only that I liked Dirty more than In Utero – and that the latter is important to me only insofar as it introduced me to Steve Albini, and thus Big Black and Shellac.

In many ways, Sonic Youth typified the dissonance of my teenaged years and paralleled my interests.  When I got into Burroughs and Ginsberg, as a lot of high school kids looking for “cool” literature did, I was excited to discover that Sonic Youth possessed similar interests.  And later, in the early days of university, when I began to follow the avant garde noise music that my city possessed some historical cache in promoting (the Nihilist Spasm Band of the 1960s/70s being significant in this regard) I was shocked to discover that London’s “No Music Festival” was frequented by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo.

I would also like to think that Sonic Youth’s place in my adolescent soundtrack contributed to the politics I would eventually adopt.  While I’m not under the impression that they were a bunch of communists pursuing revolution – nor do I really care since I appreciate them primarily for their music – there was that line of Gordon’s in “Kool Thing” that intrigued my twelve year old self: “are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?”  And that question, like so much of Sonic Youth, seemed pretty fucking cool.