Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category
While rummaging throughout my books I came across a copy of Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. This volume ignores the novels and instead compiles his 55 shorter works. I have long preferred his stories, or more accurately, his snippets.
Kafka’s longer works have achieved notoriety (who has not at least heard of The Trial or Metamorphosis ?), but lend themselves to abstracting his work – “Kafkaesque,” “absurdist,” etc. Abstraction of this sort, while useful in a macro-literary study, are useless when trying to extract a man’s thinking process. (For my mind, the only point of consuming any kind of media.)
In the short stories (some only a paragraph long) it becomes clear that these are those moments of pure release, spurts of literary orgasm if you will, those moments that are all too often embedded in longer works, surrounded by fluff. And they are lodged in a specific moment, rather than the timeless quality of longer stories. In this way, these are, in the words of my roommate, “Facebook statuses of the day”, and perhaps that is why they appeal to me so much. We can see actually discern or even ‘see’ the way he thinks.
For example, in contrast to the Metamorphosis, in Poseidon we can easily imagine a bored Kafka staring off into space while behind a desk at an insurance firm, idly contemplating the amount of paperwork the Greek god would have to go through in order to manage the oceans of the world.
Others are more complex. In a short 6 lines, The Departure juxtaposes the men and women who have heard ‘the call’ with those who have not:
I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. The servant did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me and asked: “Where is the master going?” “I don’t know,” I said, “just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.” “So you know your goal?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Out of here- that’s my goal.”
Some can hear the clarion call. To fight, to publish, to build, to photograph, to love, to think, to create. In my experience, this class of people shares the strength to leave. Rather than be confined, or dictated, or silo-ed, or oppressed, they innovate, shatter boundaries, and move – often with surprising velocity. But, as The Departure reminds us, others can’t hear that frequency.
On the question of how those who are limited can transform themselves into those who can hear the call, Kafka is profoundly unhelpful. All he can offer us is a giant fucking caterpillar-man.
But. Perhaps that is a solution. Perhaps the essence of Kafka’s thinking – to observe and then attach your own, regardless of relationship with reality – is the answer. Perhaps, in the modern era, our daily blogging, our hourly Facebook statusi, our minute-by-minute tweets should be, rather than observations of the present, offerings on the unknown, thoughts, snippets, fantasies, but in the end, output the original.
Twitter offers the amazing ability to transmit our most naked and original moments, across time and space, with rich video and imagery, our trials and tribulations. Our sons and their granddaughters will be able to see how we thought with a thousand times more clarity than we will ever be able to comprehend Kafka’s snippets. Perhaps this will drive them to hear the call – itself embedded in the global thought-stream copiously documented online.
Kafka was first limited by his day job, and later in his life, his health, revealing an inverse relationship between constraints and writing the absurd, creating the original. Today we have compounded those physical constraints with overwhelming information overload.
Crippled by this daily infoassault, we cannot even output our absurd, our original. We cannot add to that which we observe. Instead, courtesy of Kafka’s servants at Twitter, we can endorse, but we cannot transform what we experience into our own.
We are reduced to Retweets.
Nearly 25 years ago, as a freshman college student balancing a science major with the obligatory credits in the Humanities, my English 101 professor introduced me to the concept of “verisimilitude”: the likeness or resemblance of a creative writing effort to reality. While this was a difficult feat for me in my writing assignments, it is something that Luke Larson has effortlessly achieved in his first novel, Senator’s Son.
Luke was a journalism major at a rival PAC-10 school, courtesy of an NROTC scholarship to the University of Arizona, and as a junior officer in the U.S. Marine Corps served two tours in Iraq (both in al Anbar province – first in 2005 during the election of the Iraqi Transitional Government that was to draft a permanent constitution, and again in 2007 during the Iraqi national referendum and the start of General Petraeus’s “Surge”).
Senator’s Son wastes no time hurling the reader into the breech. Written in a tempo prestissimo style, this rapid-fire novel gives you a no-holds-barred perspective of modern counterinsurgency from multiple perspectives: the families at home with a dissociated populace; the wounded warriors battling the demons of recovery, opiate pain-killer addictions and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the careerist bureaucrats that infiltrate every large organization; and most importantly the junior officers and non-commissioned officers who must make up for “higher’s” planning inadequacies and strategic myopia. Larson’s use of a 2047 scenario in the southwest Pacific, with a lone Senator holding the deciding vote on whether or not to commit U.S. military power abroad, helps to reinforce the strategic consequences our actions today can have on future generations.
Set in 2007 Ar Ramadi, a city of nearly a half-million that serves as the provincial capital of al Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Senator’s Son is the story of the platoons of GOLF Company. GOLF is a Marine company (part of a Marine battalion tied to an Army brigade) responsible for sweeping missions in south Ramadi in the days prior to the 2007 Iraqi national referendum (and a few months prior to “The Surge”). Their early ventures from the “Snake Pit” (a heavily fortified Marine firm base) poignantly demonstrate the complexities of contemporary warfare.
The force protection concerns are palpable – one can almost smell the raw sewage flowing through the ruined streets of a dying city, and feel the peering eyes of snipers tracking you in their sights. Every piece of litter is a potential Improvised Explosive Device, and every sound a threat. And like Mayor Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” theory in late 1990s New York City, the reluctant shift from a hardened, up-armored patrol mindset to one of cooperative engagement with a foreign culture underscores the essence of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine now codified in FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency.
Like real life, there are few “happy endings” in this book. Each platoon commander in GOLF has his own strengths and fallibilities: from steadfast Bama’s bravery and bigotries to the maverick Greg’s ingenuity and independence. And each must face his own demons in the prose that Larson deftly weaves.
At a minimum, Senator’s Son is a brilliant primer on leadership: how to learn which rules are worth breaking, the importance of adaptability when there are no black-or-white situations but only gray, and the primacy of relationships.
But it is also a tribute to those who answer a call to serve – whether they serve in their own communities as volunteers, or have the privilege of wearing the Eagle-Globe-and-Anchor of a Marine (like my grandfather, a mortarman with CHARLIE-1-6 in Guadalcanal and Tarawa, and my grandmother, a clerk-typist at Hunters Point-San Francisco who met my grandfather after his malaria washed him out of the Fleet Marine Force). Senator’s Son is a testament to the resilience of those who carry the burden of personal sacrifice with such humility that we can take our own freedom for granted.
This book is a “must read” for anyone who cares about the greater world beyond our neighborhood – and the role that power (be it the “hard” power of weaponry and kinetic energy, or the “soft” power of relationships) can play in shaping the world for better or for worse.
A while back I promised myself that I would read more novels. I’ve been meaning to read On The Road, by Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, on and off, for 20 years or more. Penguin has released a new edition, so I recently brought a copy and read it.
When I was in my teens and twenties, I hitched about a lot, in New Zealand and overseas. The road trip I remember best was in ’89, when several of us packed into a Valiant station wagon and drove clear across Australia, from Perth to Melbourne, via the Great Southern and the vast Nullarbor plain. I remember driving towards the rock wall of the Stirling Range, rising sheer out of the desert, and seeing the red, brown and yellow strata sparkling in the midday sun after a rainstorm. And shifting down, then jamming the accelerator hard, to pass road trains – giant trucks pulling two or three trailers – on desert road straights across the Nullarbor. Good times.
On The Road reminded me a little of those days – particularly the early part of the book where Sal Paradise sets off from New York to hitch to the west coast in the late 1940s. You get a fresh sense of life on the open road from someone who’s seeing it for the first time. Kerouac’s description of the landscape is poetic, and some of his character sketches are well-drawn.
But On The Road quickly becomes turgid – an empty and verbose account of criss-crossing the United States at breakneck speed, with a detour, towards the end of the novel, into Mexico. Of driving day and night, always drunk or high, or both, rarely stopping anywhere longer than a few hours, and certainly never long enough to get more than shallow impressions of people and places.
Kerouac portrays the two main protagonists – Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – as noble. He would, of course, given that the book is written roman à clef. But really the pair are dead-beats. Paradise is a witless drop-kick; Moriarty is a real loser, and a predator to boot. The book gets really creepy when it condones the abuse of women – emotionally, physically and sexually. The way the protagonists sexually exploit young women – for instance in the Mexican brothel – is repellent.
I don’t know that much about the Beat Generation and its self-indulgent musings. After reading On The Road I have little desire to find out more.
For some time now Paradise Lost has been resting comfortably in my “anti-library”. John Milton’s epic of the Fall of Man is one of the great poems of the English language; but I got bogged down in chapter VIII, where Adam blathers on in the Garden of Eden. Recently I gritted my teeth and returned to the poem. I’m halfway through chapter X and closing in on the end.
One of the problems with Paradise Lost is that it’s long and long-winded. Another is that while Milton’s tale – about how Satan rebelled against God, was banished to hell, then sought revenge – is gripping, many elements of the story are preposterous to the modern eye. Like that in chapter X, where Sin – Satan’s daughter – and Death – Sin’s son and Satan’s son and grandson (yeah, that’s right – Satan begat Death by Sin) build a giant causeway from Hell to Earth across Chaos.
That said, Milton had a terrific turn of phrase. He gives the best lines to Satan and his lieutenants, as when Mammon declares his preference for “hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp”. And Milton’s descriptions of Hell and Chaos – “a dark, Illimitable Ocean without bound” – are sublime.
“Into this wild abyss the wary Fiend, Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while, Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith, He had to cross.”
It’s this rich imagination which makes Paradise Lost an essential read.
Cross-posted at Kotare.
James Woods, a esteemed literary critic, made headlines in 2004 by denouncing Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer as a form of “hysterical realism:”
Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs. Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and others have featured a great rock musician who played air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck and a giant octagonal cheese (Pynchon); a nun obsessed with germs who may be a reincarnation of J Edgar Hoover (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec who move around in wheelchairs (Foster Wallace); and a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with the silly acronym Kevin (Smith).
While I personally loathe Jonathan Safran Foer’s work, I am a bit uneasy about the idea that the novel can’t be messy, expansive, and above all have a postmodern sensibility. Thoughts?
As October looms ahead, we can only prepare for the great month of quality movies ahead of us. But, to celebrate the late season of blockbusters, I had to go back to the basics and see the much-hyped Shia LaBeouf in “Eagle Eye.”
And essentially, I was very surprised. The movie was very good. It wasn’t great in any respect, but one must concede that regardless of your moviegoer credentials, everyone likes a good action movie. And Eagle Eye was no exception. It had a great plot, with a normal few flaws that could be noticed if analyzed. But what really strikes me about it is that it had all the great ingredients to satisfy the viewer. As a political “strategist,” my job is to look outside the box, and in some cases, behind it to find what really fueled the fire.
And here it was mostly the timing. After watching this movie, you were satisfied mostly because its genre has been a rarity since the close of the summer. And between this time, the average watcher has been forced to see their share of horror and documentary films. Not that this stint of change is necessarily bad, but it was a sort of refreshment to see another expensive action movie stocked with everyone’s favorite overpaid and huggable cast. It was a change refreshing you from your dull job, workload, or in my case – 7th grade math class.
The second effect that made this movie good in my opinion is that Shia LaBeouf was in it. To make it clear, I really don’t like the guy. But in this case, he made the movie work. And although I do hate to say this and probably never will again, LaBeouf was the one and only person for this movie. Why?
I sat through him in Transformers. He is now to me what he essentially is to everyone else – innocent and worth rooting for if placed in a good plot. And in this movie, everything came together. The timing was so correct that if you enjoy LaBeouf or not, we needed him. We needed to see a blockbuster, and we did. It just happened to have a good plot, and although it was similar to Live Free or Die Hard, it had the right main characters.
My point? Eagle Eye isn’t good enough that you’ll be showing it to your grandkids. Far from it. But with work, (in my case) school, and negative politics, its not a bad refreshment.