Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Writing is a kind of banditism

Full title: Steal Like An Artist. 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Author: Austin Kleon
Genre: Non Fiction
Attributes: 160 pages, paperback
Publisher: Workman Publishing Company(2012)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from a friend)

Austin Kleon’s book runs on clever aphorisms like a vehicle properly fueled. Its major purpose is to cause reflection on common assumptions about writers and the way they work. The issue of plagiarism stands out, because it challenges the understanding of what is and what isn't ‘legal’ in this thing we call writing. It soon becomes apparent that a writer should have no real concerns about legality when it comes to appropriation, because writers are 'illegal' players by definition. Intertextuality, the texts cross-communicate, simply blows away any distinction between any two or more texts, and points out the fact that writing is really, at its core, re-writing. A quote from André Gide relativizes everything very nicely:
"Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything needs to be said again."
Kleon pronounces his sentences without restraint, because the topic accepts no beating around the bush. When done properly, plagiarism is not a horse of the apocalypse, as the schoolmasters teach their pupils, but rather the engine that makes the whole business of writing move forward.
As it befits a book about appropriation, Steal Like An Artist is intensely peppered with quotes. They come not only from writers, but from artists of various kinds and temperaments: Marcel Duchamp (of course), Picasso (obviously), Jim Jarmush (why not?), David Bowie (yes, of course); plus many-many others (Ecclesiastes and Kobe Bryant included). All these confirm the core of Kleon’s claim that creativity is re-creation. And to ease the tensions:
“You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.”
Since the book is also a manual for the writer-to-be, various lessons are condensed into bite-size aphorisms that read as quickly as they pass before one’s eyes. They clarify things about artistic curiosity, about auto-didacticism, about Google and the virtues of instant knowledge (“Don’t ask a question before you Google it.”), about the burning desire to read (“There’s magic in being surrounded by books.”), and so on.

One wonders what makes one a really good thief.
Source: Bless This Stuff
To make things truly clear, here’s what Kleon means by copying: not plagiarism pure and simple, but the forge in which one’s talent is wrought; to get there, one needs to borrow a little, but only so much as to give oneself a jumpstart. And that is truly needed, since there are more chances to go unnoticed by the Empire of Letters than chances to grow into Salman Rushdie:
“There is a kind of fallout that happens when you leave college. The classroom is a wonderful, if artificial, place: Your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas. Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience. Soon after, you learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think.”
And that should set the record straight. As for a trailer, because they're always nice (especially when they are the work of artists), here's Kleon's. Nice!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The weird logic of calamity

Full title: Andrew's Brain
Author: E. L. Doctorow
Genre: Fiction, novel
Attributes: 224 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Random House (2014)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Many things happen in Andrew’s Brain, as well as in Andrew’s brain. Many ideas, many events, many questions and answers: an entire philosophical menagerie making a lot of noise and causing a lot of mental stir. Andrew, a neuroscientist who has lost two wives (one through divorce, the other one through death), is, apparently, undertaking psychotherapy. The novel, cleverly constructed in the form of a dialogue, has Andrew, the speaking voice, addressing and being addressed by an unnamed collocutor whom he often calls, simply, anonymously, “Doc.”

The two of them talk and talk – mostly about how Andrew’s existence has been characterized by an endless series of accidents. We learn that he’s prone to making stupid mistakes, to causing accidents of various magnitudes, and, in general, to bringing outrageous bad luck to the people he comes in contact with. Because this is also an American novel dealing with American issues, the events described reach national dimensions. 9/11 comes as no surprise: perhaps Andrew’s most prominent involvement in this weird logic of interlocked accidents. The same goes for his association with the White House, after discovering, by accident (how else?) that he was class mates with the current President.
But what really matters is the argument built around the relationship between Being and accident. The two terms are rather easy to discover. At some point, Andrew uses them to refer to his two wives:
“Martha was being, Briony was becoming.”

This sets the narrative on a serious philosophical path. Being and Becoming are not only terms to characterize Andrew’s wives; they show how the world at large spins.
Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to the fixed, domineering status of nature; as when Andrew describes the Wasatch Range, when he moves to work as a neuroscientist in a department where he is the only academic specialist.
“Wasatches ruled that town. After a day or two the truth dawned on me. You got up in the morning, they were there. You pulled into a gas station, and they were there. They were there in their stolid immensity, and that was that. You were colonized. They negotiated the light, they had to pass on it before it got to you.”

Mount Olympus in the Wasatch Ranges
Source: Wikipedia
It is behind this larger-than-life nature that the tragedies in Andrew’s life take place; and by extension, the tragedy of the entire human race. With the permanence of the mountains in sight, it becomes more likely to read the protagonist’s profession as a reference to humankind in general. Talking about brains is talking about human minds; talking about their evolution and their limitations:

“How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking?”

This is not Andrew tight-roping between his personal misfortunes. If the shot is widened enough, one can guess behind this individual brain a description of the very species that we are; above anything else, a description of the narrative aptitude that makes one specimen capable of telling a story such as the one about Andrew’s brain.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

More sad superheroes

Full title: The Twelve-Fingered Boy
Author: John Hornor Jacobs
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Attributes: 264 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There’s something about superheroes that makes them good candidates for prisons. That’s where the protagonists of John Hornor Jacobs’ The Twelve-Fingered Boy start they journey. They are two boys with outstanding attributes: one can cause explosions, the other can control minds. What a perfect tandem. And yet, they have their share of misfortunes. Of course they have them. Would we call them superheroes otherwise?
Shreve and Jack perform in a world that’s utterly strange to them. They have pasts darker than the darkness in the soul of the inevitable villain relentlessly in their pursuit. Says Shreve (full name Shreveport Justice Cannon):
“I’m fifteen. I can’t get a job. I don’t have a driver’s license. And I’ve got a record. Jack is just thirteen. Two kids alone in the wilderness, two kids alone in the city.”
They’ve just escaped from a correctional institution. They are fugitives now: homeless, restless, careless runaways. Plagued by parental problems, chased by authorities, they have time on their hands and they use it to do some good: they save a girl from the terror of her own imprisonment, one that is more horrible than their own.

Source: The Guardian
The prison theme runs through the novel like a red thread. It’s not only the one where they boys had been detained (Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center for Boys). There are also prisons of the self and imprisonments by the strictures and inflexibilities of society. Everything with the potential to cause rebellion in a teenager is there. Everything with the potential to cause them to run away from home, to challenge justice and to find it lacking, to get into trouble, to have their share of youthful misgivings – is there. The book is a YA novel: a text about growing too quickly when the immediate environment is too willing to eliminate one’s singularity. That’s why the tone becomes philosophical at times, why the narrative voice turns wise, and why it develops this peculiar ability for introspection. Every time he enters another’s mind, Shreve waxes lyrical:
“I hurl myself through the darkness between lights, and I invade Weasel. On all fronts, I attack. I feel his senses, his eyes, his skin. He can hear and taste me. I fill his mind with me, my presence, that part of me that is nothing but me – not body, not habit, not blood or flesh, but me.”
In spite of all appearances, the protagonists have no dark intentions. They perform their superheroic deeds only when they have no chance. But when they do, they’re devastating. The powers they handle are powers that conquer (minds) and destroy (bodies). They’re well aware of the implications. They know, with the wisdom of maturity, that superpowers bring about supertrouble. They are reluctant heroes. They fight their own demons while fighting the demons that want to restrain their moves.
As such, The Twelve-Fingered Boy is a Bildungsroman: a novel of growth, development, evolution, ripening. It’s the story of teenagers growing into men; superpowers and obstructions and all. The story, that is, of any adolescent in the world.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Immortal until proven otherwise

Full title: Vicious
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Attributes: 368p, hard cover
Publisher: Tor (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

V. E. Schwab’s Vicious falls within the category of fantasy. It features characters with powers that exceed human capabilities; it talks of life and death as exchangeable elements in a present that is abnormally elastic; it makes appearance and disappearance seem a child’s game. All these are, of course, recognizable feature of the genre of superhero fiction. But the book breaks with the tradition of its genre in a number of ways. To start with, it doesn’t feature outlandish settings, where gnarled landscapes create morbid moods; nor is there any hyper-urbanized environment, any dystopian variation, any mind-twisting architecture. Merit and Lockwood (the two major settings of Vicious) are neither Transylvania, nor Gotham City. They are very quiet, almost invisible towns, where the background characters are normal – too normal, well-behaved to the point of obliteration.

The author, the book
Source: Writer Quirk

But the most important element of the novel is characterization. Through it, the line of demarcation between good and evil is repeatedly blurred. The main characters (former college mates Eli and Victor) live in an interesting limbo, where their moral standing changes in major ways. In the beginning, the reader finds them engaged in a project that teases the limits of normality, but in which they are involved like two good friends: they try to figure out a theory of what they call ExtraOrdinaries (EO’s): people who have experienced near death and who ended up changed in significant, superhuman ways. Things get complicated along the way and Eli and Victor acquire their own EO abilities. This is the point where they become enemies. They are given the roles of protagonist and antagonist; roles which, however, are soon unsettled. The protagonist turns out to have a lot of dark patches on his soul – as many as the antagonist, if not more. The antagonist, on the other hand, is given the privilege of internalization, which helps him become a more positive person (at least one with motives that are not impossible to understand and even accept).
This makes it hard to identify good and evil. The latter, in fact, appears to be the dominant force in the novel. As one sentence sums it up,
“There are no good men in this game.”

What’s more, with the central positions vacated or renegotiated, there are moments in the novel when the supporting characters have a chance at advancing a little, behaving like heroes a little, playing at the game of protagonists a little. Their rise to significance adds another spin to the novel, which ends with these presumably minor personages having the last word.
Speaking of which, it seems as though the book in its entirety revolves around a central maxim, one equally promising and nihilistic:
“We are all immortal until proven otherwise.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?