Friday, December 24, 2010

Children, go where I send thee

No high school kid in the '80s listened to as much Peter, Paul & Mary as I did. I listened to them all the time in high school, and basically never since. But I've been rediscovering them recently. I may be working up to a serious post on them, but in the meantime, here they are singing "Jane, Jane" (a.k.a. "Children, Go Where I Send Thee") in 1966.

Imagine a time when this was the height of cool.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Big Country

Big Country's problem was the problem a lot of bands have. When they burst on the scene it was with a sound, a musical idea, that was fully formed and dramatically different from anything that anybody had heard before. But when the novelty wore off, it became apparent (to a lot of listeners, anyway) that they didn't have much else to offer.

So, that sound. Obviously, it's the bagpipe thing. Using the e-bow, among other things, to make their guitars sound like bagpipes, and then writing twin-guitar melodies that sounded like they could have been stolen from old Highland hymns. These they laid atop rhythms that conjured up images of bekilted regiments alternately marching and pogoing. The whole announced the band as unabashedly, not to say self-consciously, Scottish in an era when British pop was opening itself up to contributions from border nations. In other words, since Ireland had coughed up U2, it fell to Big Country to represent Scotland, and the Alarm to hold up the Welsh end.

I know the band remained big in Europe more or less through the '90s, but really, it was all over for them after their first couple of years, as far as I can tell. The tricks started to sound old, but when they moved away from them, it became apparent that they didn't have any other musical ideas: everything I've heard from their second album and beyond is either a retread of ideas from their first, or else sub-U2 heartland-rock empty bombast.

But for an album and maybe a half - from 1983 into 1984 - Big Country managed to wring an amazing amount of awesome from their one idea. Everybody knows their two big singles, "In A Big Country" and "Fields Of Fire." But their whole first album, The Crossing, is brilliant - consistently satisfying, despite consisting mainly of different twists on the rock'n'roll fife-and-drum-corps sound. And they managed to survive on the artistic momentum from that album for a little while: a splendidly re-recorded version of "Chance" from the album, a decent non-album single, "Wonderland," and a handful of nice b-sides (including "The Crossing," a belated title track for the first album, and a good farewell to their golden youth) all complement that remarkable debut. Add in a few highlights from the second album, and you have a perfect Big Country disc, all you'd ever need.

Things I love about Big Country, then. When Stuart yells "shock" or "shot" or whatever the hell it is he yells over the intro to the album version of "In A Big Country" (the drum section in our high school marching band used to warm up with this, and of course they all yelled "shock." Us dopey clarinet players lived for that). That pugnacious, anthemic bass couplet at the beginning of "Fields Of Fire," way up on the neck. The crazy buoyancy of "Harvest Home," somehow sounding both old as the hills and new as the sunrise. The brooding, inscrutable "The Storm," which is basically a couple of Walter Scott novels set to Fairport Convention music. Their surprisingly affecting take on "Tracks Of My Tears."

I respect punk. But I think the most interesting music to emerge from the movement came when the punks started to outgrow punk and (re)discover other kinds of music.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Walter Mosley: A Little Yellow Dog (1996) and Gone Fishin' (1997)

Of course I had Walter Mosley in mind when I was writing my private little riposte to Doc-X last night. I mean, here's a perfect example of books that take the conventions of a genre, in this case the private eye mystery thriller, and use them as a means of getting at something else entirely. We get at something really important and true about the black experience in America in the 20th century through Easy Rawlins not in spite of the fact that he's a character in a thriller, but precisely because he is. Our understanding of the way private eyes are supposed to act, their relationships with the law and the criminal element, their moral codes, their stance vis-a-vis society, all of this generalized, genre-specific knowledge helps us to further understand Easy Rawlins because we see how he both adheres to and departs from what his genre leads us to expect. And the more we read Easy Rawlins the more we realize that both his adherences to and departures from the model are conditioned by America's racial history.

That's what we see in A Little Yellow Dog (1996), the fifth in the series. By this point (it's 1963), Rawlins has lost all connection with the knight-errant template. He's not even casually a private eye anymore - in fact, he's not self-employed anymore. He's taken a job as a school janitor, and he's trying to make it work, to leave the street behind him. Would Sam Spade do that? Would Sam Spade have to do that? No. And so now we've learned something about the difference between Sam Spade and Easy Rawlins. We know something, too, about the kinds of opportunities that were available to black men in the '60s in L.A., even black men who read Ian Fleming and Emile Zola and Marcus Aurelius. We know something about the kinds of relationships it was possible for such men to have with the police, and how very different those relationships were from those enjoyed by, say, Jake Gittes.

Maybe Mosley could have gotten this far with Easy without making him into a private-eye figure in a thriller-patterned series. Maybe. But then read the sixth book in the series, Gone Fishin' (1997). It's not a thriller. It's a story of Easy Rawlins's youth, of his time with Mouse in Houston. Their back story - their origin story, to put it in superhero terms. There's mystery here with a capital M, as the story involves witches, voodoo, fever dreams, and bayou Brigadoons, but no sleuthing.

And it's not, I'd venture to say, entirely a success. It's an essential entry in the series - for five books Mosley has had Easy alluding to dark secrets in his past, and more than that to the wild and scary ways of Houston and the bayou country from which so many of his L.A. acquaintances hail. East Texas and West Louisiana sort of take on the same resonance in these books that Chinatown does in that movie. Well, here we go back and experience it first-hand.

So as a way of opening up this character and his life experiences, it's effective. And it does a great job of sketching an almost mythic, slightly romanticized vision of life in the black deep South before the War - Mosley doesn't disguise the poverty or violence, but he does allow his descriptions of the milieu to echo Faulkner's lyricism, and his rendering of the journey to remind us of Huckleberry Finn.

But our view of all of this is, in a way, passive. Easy is so young, so naive, and so helpless for so much of the book that, through his eyes, we don't really understand a lot of what's happening to him - even the central murder is left a little ambiguous. And this means that we don't come to quite as deep an understanding of this society as we do of the L.A. of the other installments in the series. There's one exception - through the character of Miss Dixon, Mosley shows us the heartbreaking precariousness of black life in the south, as the death of this one indifferent white landlord manages to destroy the whole town of Pariah, located on her land. We understand how impossible it is to build a life when you don't have access to the money you'd need to buy the land to build it on.

Anyway, as I say, the novel has its strengths. But as a whole it didn't feel as richly detailed, as thoroughly known, as the other books in the series. And who knows why that is - I don't know much about Mosley's life, only what's on Wikipedia, but it may be that he knows L.A. in the '60s a lot better, more personally, than he knows East Texas in the '30s. But I think it's also because the formula of the detective story forces the hero to be out and active, meeting people, putting clues together. That formula is absent in Gone Fishin' - and that's a valid decision, and maybe Easy's passivity here is really what Mosley wanted to explore (his epiphany, after all, is to learn to read).

But you see what I'm driving at, in my characteristically roundabout way: I think it's genre that allowed Mosley to explore black L.A. so well. Absent genre, we don't know black East Texas nearly as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Edward Docx, genre fiction, literary fiction

I just got back from Powell's and Kinokuniya in Portland with a sackful of books that include both James Church and Terry Eagleton, the Tale of the Heike and a new manga, and I find that I'm late to the party, as usual, I see. (Or is it that I'm crashing? I can never tell.) Edward Docx (who seems to be a British novelist, rather than a file I can't open with my old version of Office) fired a broadside against genre fiction last week in the Guardian.

He seems to have two main gripes about it. First is that it's badly written. I tend to agree with him about Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown, his two main whipping-boys. At the same time, I heartily agree with Laura Miller at Salon, who notes that cliché-ridden writing is not necessarily a drawback for some readers in some situations. Drawing on C.S. Lewis, Miller is defending accessible prose and those who read it- kind of echoing B.R. Myers' famous assault on the Cult of the Sentence from a decade ago. The gist is that not every reader is always, or even ever, up for prose that, sentence by sentence, tortures itself in an effort to avoid cliché. It's work to read, and some of us just like to read for pleasure.

I agree with Miller, but in fact I don't think she goes quite far enough: she's still buying into the same dichotomy that Docx is setting up, that "serviceable" prose, prose that "flows," that's easily readable, is artistically inferior - she just seems to be saying, lay off those who think that. They know what they like.

I'd go farther: I hold that sentence-smithing is only part of what goes into novel-writing. What goes into a novel? Sentences - syntax and grammar and style - of course, but also story - pacing and plot construction and character. And, beneath all that, there's the possibility, at least, of subtext, theme, ideas.

And none of these things presupposes skill at the others. Anybody who's read an academic book knows that you can have deep ideas but still be unable to express them in beautiful sentences. And anybody who's read Larsson or Brown knows that you can have a story that works for the reader without beautiful sentences. Likewise, one could point to any number of high-lit novels that prove you can have ideas and style without having to pay any attention to the mechanics of storytelling, or even the need to have a story to tell.

Why can't we recognize that since novels involve a lot of different skills, it's possible for novels to have different kinds of excellence? To say that Larsson and Brown are lousy sentence-writers but still manage to write interesting novels is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. They're not good sentence-writers, but they are excellent storytellers. There's real skill there. And the appreciation of skill is a large part of the apprehension of art, no?

In short, to say these novels are badly written, and to have that charge mean what Docx means, is to oversimplify what's involved in writing a novel. They are extremely well-written, I'd say - and the purely workmanlike nature of their sentences is part of that, allowing the reader to follow the plot (and whatever ideas the authors may have embedded in the plot) without getting hung up on individual word choices.

Docx's second point - and I'll admit that this is a pretty ballsy claim to make in 2010 - is that genre fiction is inherently inferior to non-genre, self-consciously literary fiction:
...even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. ...If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.
I happen to think he's wrong, but I'm going to argue this point not by example but by analogy. Recently I was teaching an 18th-century Japanese comic book that was parodying popular sermonizing, using the metaphor of the kite. Ah, yes, the kite metaphor: I had this explained to me in Sunday School. You've seen kites high in the sky, straining against their tethers. They look for all the world like they're trying to get free and fly away into the ether, but are restrained by the string. The string looks like bondage. But in fact it's only the string that allows them to fly - cut the string, and the kite falls to the earth pretty quickly. Rules (the sermon goes) are like this - they may appear to be restrictions on freedom, but in fact they're the only things that allow us any freedom at all.

In the comic book in question, the parody came in when the author took this basically common-sensical metaphor and elaborated it beyond all believability, driving the point home with mock-pedantry for thirty pages. Very funny stuff. But at the same time it does make you think about the central metaphor, and how it is pretty common-sensical. (A mixture of parodic and sincere didacticism was this author's hallmark.)

And that's how I look at genre fiction. To Docx, the conventions of genre fiction look like rules that curtail the novelist's freedom and limit his/her potential. Certainly it may work that way for some writers - conventions can certainly be a crutch - but not all of them. For some writers conventions are the kite strings that allow them to soar - rules that spur creativity, or focus it, rather than kill it. To say that genre constraints interfere with the novelist's ability to write a good novel is like saying that Shakespeare might have been a great poet if he hadn't been constricted by the rules of the sonnet form.