Nonfiction

Essay in the New Haven Review: The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)

Jeff VanderMeer • July 29th, 2012 • Book Reviews

The New Haven Review’s issue #10 (summer) is now out, and it includes my 9,000-word essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin),” which is an exploration of literary fakes. It focuses on a book entitled An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but also explores strange facts, an odd book of crayfish names, an eccentric penguin researcher tome, and much more. Here’s the opening of the essay, which is the longest piece of nonfiction I’ve written since my essay on Angela Carter back about 20 years ago. Other contributors to this issue include Nick Mamatas. You can order the journal here. Thanks to Brian Slattery for commissioning the piece.

***

This sentence is a fake.
This sentence is the original.
This sentence is an animal, not a series of words.

Michal Ajvaz’s short story “Quintus Erectus” provides an instructional metaphor with regard to literary fakes, a form with which readers and reviewers have a long yet uneasy history. “Quintus Erectus” describes a capybara-like South American mammal that, when it stands on its hindquarters, “presses its hands closely to the body, turns its head to the attacker and remains motionless…two vertical strips of dark hair…evoke an impression of human hands with fingers,” while coloration on the head “depicts the human face.” At a distance of three meters “we can easily mistake the animal for a man; from a distance of five meters the animal is indistinguishable from a man.” In the story, this unsettling illusion creates a feeling of wrongness and nausea in many observers. Are they seeing an animal or a human being? Is the text itself really a story or is it a disturbing something other, pretending to be a story?

The story of Quintus Erectus in some ways mimics the reaction in certain quarters to the literary fake—a piece of fiction that pretends in some way to be true. Is it fact or fiction? Is it good fun or something more disturbing? By operating under the auspices of traditionally nonfictional modes to tell its story, the literary fake chooses to bring the reader to suspension of disbelief through means that include extreme guile—and, in cases where the reader recognizes the trick, continues to amuse, entertain, and say something interesting about the human condition regardless. As such, it destabilizes our view of reality, which can be uncomfortable, sometimes unforgiveable, especially if we think someone is laughing at us. We don’t always appreciate things that look like other things, even if there’s a purpose to the mimicry; perhaps this is a vestige of an ancient evolutionary trait that allowed us to discern between the harmless and the harmful.

Nor do some readers, apparently, like to think they are being made to believe something false against their will. Fakes are especially divisive at two essential moments in time: when they successfully slip past the reader’s defenses and when the reader discovers the deception. Whether this latter point occurs soon after picking up the book or halfway through it, a literary fake eventually forces the reader to decide whether to be sympathetic or hostile toward the fakery.

Fakes may also be viewed with suspicion as artificial constructs, identified as stories in which the skeleton appears to exist on the outside of the body. Fiction is meant to be an uninterrupted dream or movie for the reader, we are often told, and those struts and supporting walls should always be inside the house of the narrative; only in nonfiction do we expect to see the architecture.

The irony of this view of fakes as an unnatural form is that most examples are forged by that most liberated state of mind: ecstatic imaginative play, poured into the constraint and thus given shape and structure. However, and here irony piles up upon irony, imaginative play (and, in some cases, results that exist purely as an offering on the altar of Play) creates another issue. Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.

On the Road: Newport

Jeff VanderMeer • July 18th, 2012 • Culture

Cliff walk-33

I had to buy a hat in Newport, RI. I had to buy suntan lotion. I had to buy a smoothie and dump it over my head. It is hot here. But I didn’t let that deter me, and I went and took the Cliff Walk in a light drizzle, and then decided to take the scenic drive…as a walk..which was a war of attrition after awhile, about 10 miles in all. You can see photos on my facebook, using this link (which I think is public).

Oh yeah–and I had one of the most perfect cheese plates ever at the White Horse Tavern, before my hike. Highly recommended.

Off to Richmond tomorrow! Nine hours! Huzzah!

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Goodreads and the Steampunk Deletions

Jeff VanderMeer • July 17th, 2012 • Culture

A very good blog entry here about the recent Steampunk book deletions on Goodreads, with all the context. From past behavior of the individual involved, I have a hard time believing this was accidental.

On the Road: Stonecoast, Maine, ReaderCon

Jeff VanderMeer • July 17th, 2012 • Culture, News, Uncategorized

BerlinNatHisMuseumVials (2)
(Core samples I have taken, which tend to manifest as organisms; thanks to Eric Schaller for his help with taxonomy, although all mistakes are my own.)

I am in New Hampshire at the moment, with a short break hanging out at Matt Cheney’s house before driving on to Newport and then to Richmond, Virginia, with the goal of winding up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, by Friday—in preparation for teaching at the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp for two weeks.

Stonecoast: Memory and Fantasy

It’s been an eventful and fun time on the road thus far. I started out in Maine, giving a presentation at the Stonecoast MFA program and then doing a reading that night. I had a wonderful time. The Stonecoast house is near the water and the grounds are lovely. I stepped out of the car and all of the stress in my body just left me…and then came back as I came to realize we wouldn’t be able to print the notes to my presentation. But someone—someone miraculous whose name I’ve lost—managed to do a kind of split screen thing where the slides showed up for the audience and my notes, on the same computer, just showed up for me…

Stonecoast--screen1
(Art by Myrtle Von Damitz III)

The presentation was on Memory, History, and Fantasy: Urban Landscapes and Characterization, focusing on my novel Finch—basically swooping down from an eagle-eye view to a street-level view to talk about the ways in which characterization and settings interact. It’s not presented like Finch is the be-all and end-all, as that would be presumptuous, and indeed I told the audience that what I was about to show them was predicated on an ideal of the novel, including thoughts I’d had about it since publication. Since it was an MFA group, I thought I’d just bring it re the complexity and have the visual element and some bullet point lists strewn throughout help make it not too dense.

Butt Ugly

One of the central ideas of the presentation is that spaces and buildings are not neutral, inert things in novels—or shouldn’t always been seen as such. That in fact structures are important opportunities in fiction, related to characterization. I tie this into the following idea, a note from the presentation: “Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.” I like to pull back to the abstract level here because it helps the audience to envision these elements as not inert but as kinetic and alive at the level of idea and metaphor.

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On Reaching the Curmudgeonly Age of 44

Jeff VanderMeer • July 6th, 2012 • Culture

mordmord

I’m sure it’s July 7 somewhere, so I might as well admit it’s my birthday and I’m 44. Turning 44 doesn’t bother me one bit, to be honest. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, getting about 2 hours of exercise a day, and feel strong as an ox. I’ve also had a monstrous first half of the year creatively, returning at full strength to fiction and completing a novel, Annihilation, the novelette Komodo, and several short stories. As well as finishing off parts of other novels, a long essay on literary fakes, and part of Wonderbook, my forthcoming illustrated book on writing.

Strangely, getting bronchitis after several dental surgeries was a blessing. It made me slow down and focus. Ever since then, near the beginning of the year, I’ve felt refreshed and rejuvenated. A far cry from the last couple of years, during which, quite frankly, the looming shadow of The Weird really impacted our lives in negative ways, even if we’re quite proud of the achievement embodied by that anthology. It just devoured our schedule, our routine, etc.

Although the balance in my life still sometimes goes back and forth, the one thing I haven’t ever given up during this year is the work in the gym, and it’s been a huge part of why I’ve managed to be so productive. I’m also happy to be 6 years out from the last time I held a day job, and very grateful to be able to do what I love.

I’m looking forward to a great rest of the year, with Wonderbook being turned in soonish, and several amazing new projects to announce in the next couple of months. I’ll also be completing Authority, the sequel to Annihilation.

Finally, as ever, thanks to friends and family–and to my wife Ann, my love, who keeps me sane, makes me laugh, and who is always there for me.

Recently Reviewed in The Guardian and Los Angeles Times: Graham Joyce and Kim Stanley Robinson

Jeff VanderMeer • July 5th, 2012 • Book Reviews

Just a quick note that you can find reviews of mine online this week at the Guardian and the LA Times.

I read Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale for The Guardian, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed parts of it, but for once Joyce’s agility at craft seemed exposed—a few too many wires and gears showing.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, on the other hand, I thought was wonderful—and featured one of the great love stories in science fiction.

I’ll have reviews of, among others, Carlos Fuentes appearing soon in other major newspapers.

Foyle’s War…Unaired Episode with Cockroaches

Jeff VanderMeer • July 4th, 2012 • Culture

foyles%20war 2

I think our current all-rain all-the-time situation, which is increasing the incidents of encountering my mortal foe, the cockroach, is getting into my head—along with Foyle’s War, the Masterpiece Theater mystery series, which we’ve been devouring….

I had this dream last night that we were watching Foyle’s War, and the episode was about the search for a giant human-sized murdering cockroach. Except there were a lot of law-abiding giant cockroaches in England, so the case was difficult. At one point early on, Foyle decided he needed someone to go undercover in an apartment complex full of giant human-sized cockroaches.

So Sam speaks up and says, “Oh, sir, I’d love to go undercover to help get this cockroach, if it’s all right with you, sir. I think I’d enjoy it, as a break from driving.” So Foyle reluctantly agrees to this, and Sam goes undercover.

From there, the episode gets really strange. First of all, they keep cutting to Foyle’s sergeant, who has called in sick. But you see recurring shots of him, and he’s dressed in a black tuxedo and attached to the ceiling of his house, and just kind of hissing and there’s white stuff coming out of his mouth, that he’s affixing to the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the scenes with Sam infiltrating the apartment complex are as if through the holes in her cockroach disguise that allow her to see out, so you just see a lot of confused, claustrophobic dark shots of exterior feelers and cockroach mandibles and terrible glossy bug eyes, along with this chittering that you gradually realize is Sam trying to speak cockroachese.

If that’s not bad enough, Foyle spends the entire episode from then on in a chair by the fireplace of his home, and every once in a while he’ll move his head really fast to face the camera, and he gives this really fiendish smile, and we see a ghostly overlay of a cockroach head over his own head.

So, finally, Sam gets in a lot of trouble, and they just manage to rescue her, but when she returns to Foyle’s place, he’s still in the corner just staring off into space, and we cut to the sergeant on the ceiling, who has kind of married the ceiling—like, he’s now kind of decomposing into it, or becoming something else entirely.

We then cut to Sam on the white cliffs of Dover—no idea how she got there—and she’s staring out like she’s expecting to see something on the horizon, and she says “They weren’t really cockroaches, were they? They weren’t. They weren’t.” Then the next-to-final shot is a close-up of Foyle’s son flying through the air, but when the camera pans back, we see he’s not in a fighter plane but instead on the back of a giant flying cockroach, high above the white cliffs of Dover. Except, as we pan back in, we see that it’s the son’s *head* growing out of the back of the “cockroach”.

The very *last* shot is of Foyle again, in his chair, except we realize it’s not really a chair. That it’s a kind of weird carapace. And he looks right into the camera and screams, “For England! For England! For England.”

The end.

Recently Experienced: Thumbnail Reviews of Books, Movies, Music, TV

Jeff VanderMeer • June 22nd, 2012 • Culture

I’ve been hoarding up little thumbnail reviews of books, movies, TV, and music experienced over the past few months—offered up to you here in a long post that hopefully has something for everyone. There’s not as much in the books section just because of all of the sampling I do for Omnivoracious features, the editing (so I’ve been reading manuscripts, really), and the writing. I’m too lazy to provide links—and too busy—but all of this stuff is easy to find.

If a movie or TV show is starred **, we saw it on Netflix On Demand.

Books

(Just a note that I’m currently reading and enjoying the hell out of the 1970s novel The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith—so far, I’d recommend it most highly. I’m also half-way through Chiina Mieville’s Railsea, and I think it’s his most relaxed novel yet—he’s clearly enjoying himself, and I think that helps the reader enjoy the book even more, too. Definitely recommended thus far.)

THE CRONING by Laird Barron. Alas, although I like Barron’s short fiction, this first novel wasn’t that good. From my review on the Amazon sales page: “Unfortunately, this novel is a mess. The main character is tediously boring, the main situation relies on the main character being something of an idiot, and there are chapters and chapters of family history that display very little talent for knowing what is useful and interesting. The rituals described are right out of old pulp fiction. Allusions to Machen et al only spotlight the problems. The last chapters, which are meant to be epic horror, are instead pretty unintentionally hilarious, with a portal described as being as big as a bowling ball and then a hula hoop not helping the atmosphere much. Opening scenes set in Mexico that feature a fairly cliched-sounding university rep and generic detail don’t help. The other problem is that the novel could’ve been written in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, and the author wouldn’t have had to change more than a few words, really. The writing on a sentence level is often good, but can’t save the novel. It’s a real disappointment, as I went in wanting to like this novel very much–I am a fan of much of Barron’s short fiction. I hope the next novel is better.”

VLAD by Carlos Fuentes. I enjoyed this one a lot, with a review forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here except that he manages to mix satire and dark humor with something also very serious and Grand Guignol, and refreshes the vampire trope rather nicely. Creepy and hilarious.

GONE by Mo Hayder. A surprisingly emotional and twisty detective story from a writer who is hit-or-miss for me. Hayder can be great, as in Birdman, or just plain effed up as in Pig Island, which plays out as a horrendous bait-and-switch (first half great, second half from some other novel). Here, she’s done a great job with the characters and writing, and it’s a riveting read but had depth as well.

THE VANISHING by Heidi Julavits. Ann read and really liked this weird fusion of the uncanny and other elements. Psychic attacks. Mysteries from the past. Lots of layering-in of elements from different genres.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I think it’s no surprise to anyone given prior blog posts that I loved this one to death (with a review forthcoming). As I said commenting as a reader on the Amazon sales page, “2312 is an amazing feat of the imagination: a plausible view of our solar system three centuries from now, one that combines genre and mainstream literary influences to create a rich tapestry of adventure, intrigue, and extrapolation, with strong, strong characters. What holds the whole thing together is the love story—yes, I said it. A love story. As brilliant an interesting a love story as you’re likely to find in all of science fiction. I thought this was the best SF novel I’ve read in the last few years.”

I HOTEL by Karen Tei Yamashita. This book is beyond brilliant. I can’t believe it didn’t win the National Book Award. I could rave about this novel all frickin’ day. It’s a nuanced fusion of both traditional and experimental approaches to fiction, detailing the experiences of Asian American characters and others during the time of social upheaval in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. Composed of ten novellas, each one unique, each one amazing, I Hotel is notable in part for how adroit Yamashita is at negotiating such a complicated landscape with such ease. Despite the weight of the subject matter, there is a lightness to the book, and a clarity, that is remarable. What it illuminates about race, culture, class, and other important issues—and how it takes the didactic and renders it in artistically compelling ways—is stunning. And it beggars in its complexity and its sheer exuberance and compassion and…well, in every other way just about any SF/fantasy novel dealing with similar issues over the past decade. It really underlines for me why it is so toxic and so inbred to just, as a writer or reader, read only SF/fantasy, or only any one kind of approach to fiction. It’s like walking around with only part of your brain engaged. Or walking around with blinders on. Such balkanization leads to all kinds of missed opportunities for cross-pollination and for understanding.

Movies

Reminder: the ** means I saw it on demand; those stars aren’t a reviewing scale or anything.

AND SOON THE DARKNESS. A cult British film about two women biking through France who make a series of increasingly stupid decisions with a serial killer on the loose. The annoying thing about this movie is that it holds your attention for the first third, with a kind of growing tension and great use of the landscape…and then it just becomes dumber and dumber until it becomes Super Dumb. Avoid.**

ANTIBODIES. A pretty absorbing German serial killer movie, with the right weight and emphasis given so you care about the people involved. It, however, decides on a kind of semi-mystical ending that involves CGI deer that don’t look real and don’t fit the rest of the flick. Just turn it off right when you see the first deer, and maybe that experience won’t scar you.**

BAJO DEL SAL. A great-looking Mexican serial killer murder mystery that I haven’t finished yet due to deadlines. Also because it looks like it’s setting up one particular individual to be the killer, and he’s not particularly interesting. But definitely worth a look-see, depending on what you want from this kind of movie.**

CABIN IN THE WOODS. Joss Whedon can renovate rather brilliantly at times, but he’s not good at subversion. So in tackling horror movie tropes and putting his subtext on the surface in a ham-fisted attempt at social commentary or satire…all he winds up doing is perpetrating the same clichés he’s trying to make a comment about. The fact is, any bad horror movie already parodies the horror genre, things have gotten so bad in that regard. Whedon would have been better off just trying to create a horror movie that renovated and riffed off the genre instead of this meta-mess.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. This documentary by Werner Herzog actually wound up not being our favorite, as it seemed to go on a little long and end with white crocodiles for no reason, but the core of it has some breathtaking visuals of the prehistoric cave painting, and Herzog’s ruminations are always great. Worth it for that alone. See it back-to-back with Prometheus. Heh.**

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Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria: Free Chapbook Preview!

Jeff VanderMeer • June 21st, 2012 • Culture

I received an advance copy of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria from Small Beer Press a few months ago and unfortunately—I feel pretty guilty—have been so busy that all I’ve been able to confirm is that it’s really well-written and looks like a great debut. BUT, now you can preview the novel, as Samatar is letting everyone know that Small Beer is offering a free sampler. So go forth and get an early look at a promising new writer.

Rose Lemberg on Feminist Characters

Jeff VanderMeer • June 21st, 2012 • Writing Tips

I’ve been meaning to link to this post by Rose Lemberg for awhile, about not “limiting the range of female characters to the kick-ass heroine,” although that description reduces it down too much, so go read it. The comments are also insightful and interesting. I have to say—this is what I thought it was always supposed to be about. Creating individual, unique people in terms of your characters, attempting as much complexity and inconsistency and strength and weakness as we all have.

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A tangent: I think to at least some extent, we’re also seeing a kind of push-back against the kind of shrink-wrap, pre-packaging of cliche across several fronts, in part because the commodification of fiction, the reduction of it to just one aspect of the publishing process–as commercial product—is often incompatible with dealing in nuance, complexity, and individuality. This affects many aspects of a novel but is most noticeable, of course, in the context of the characters.

Cliche, stereotype, thinking in terms of types rather than individuals, not putting enough thought or imagination into our decisions…these things don’t just create bad writing, they diminish us as writers because it means we either don’t care enough about really exploring and investigating human nature or we simply aren’t capable of doing so.