Glimpsing solidarity: Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)

Stone_Butch_Blues_coverI’d been meaning to read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues for years when scoping out potential material for a new module suddenly gave me the opportunity. There was even a reasonably-priced second-hand copy waiting in my abebooks shopping basket. But before I could get to it, Feinberg died, someone snaffled my cheap copy, and prices for this disgracefully out-ot-print novel went through the roof. On a long shot, I checked my university’s library – and somehow its single copy had survived a series of recent purges (cos, you know, the last thing you want cluttering up libraries is books). It is a hard novel to describe, since all my reference points seem a little out. It is a bit like one of those Charles Bukowski novels in which incident follows incident and insecure job follows insecure job and characters appear and disappear in a quite specific marginal setting. The factory work Feinberg describes, and the cultures around it, recall Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991) and a section of John Sayles’ Union Dues (1977), as well as scattered chunks of Bukowski. But it is also nothing like them. Probably the closest thing I can think of off the top of my head are the sequences from Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissmann’s documentary Forbidden Loves: The Untold Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992) in which nine women recount some of their experiences growing up queer in Canada in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe the reason I am reminded of that film is that it also looks at mid-century lesbian pulp fiction, and there is a pulp quality to Feinberg’s writing at times, which is one of the many things I love about it (and which kind of brings us back round to Bukowski again, although I only really loved him when I was fourteen or so, and even then I had my doubts). One of my other favourite things about Stone Butch Blues is this passage, so I thought I would share it:

We talked all day long too. The owners only rented our hands, not out brains. But even talking had to be negotiated when it was on the bosses’ time. If we seemed to be having too much fun, laughing and enjoying ourselves too much, the foreman would come up behind us and hit the solid wooden worktables with a lead pipe while he growled, “Get to work.” Then we’d all look at our hands as we worked and press our lips together in silent anger. I think the foreman sometimes got nervous after he’d done that, sensing the murderous glances he received moments after he turned his back. But he was assigned to keep us under control. That required keeping us divided. We came from many different nationalities and backgrounds. About half the women on the line were from the Six Nations. Most were Mohawks or Seneca. What we shared in common was that we worked cooperatively, day in and day out. So we remembered to ask about each other’s back or foot pains, family crises. We shared small bits of our culture, favorite foods, or revealed an embarrassing moment. It was just this potential for solidarity the foreman was always looking to sabotage. It was done in little ways, all the time: a whispered lie, a cruel suggestion, a vulgar joke. But it was hard to split us up. The conveyor belt held us together. Within weeks I was welcomed into the circle, teased, pelted with questions. My differences were taken into account, my sameness sought out. We worked together, we talked, we listened. And then there were songs. When the whistle first blew in the mornings there was a shared physical letdown among all the women and men who worked between its imperative commands. We lumbered to our feet, stood silently in line to punch in, and took our places on the assembly line – next to each other, facing each other. We worked the first few moments in heavy silence. Then the weight was lifted by the voice of one of the Native women. They were social songs, happy songs that made you feel real good to hear them, even if you had no idea what the words meant. I listened to the songs, trying to hear the boundaries of each word, the patterns and repetitions. Sometimes one of the women would explain to us later what the song meant, or for which occasion or time of year it was sung. There was one song I loved the best. I found myself humming it after I punched out in the afternoons. One day, without thinking, I sang along. The women pretended not to notice, but they smiled at each other with their eyes, and sang a little louder to allow me to raise my own voice a bit. After that I started looking forward to the songs in the morning. Some of the other non-Native women learned songs, too. It felt good to sing together. One wintry Friday night, before we punched out, Muriel invited me to go to an indoor pow-wow on Sunday. I said yes, of course. I felt honored. There were a few other Black and white workers at the social – friendships too valuable to explore solely on company time. I began to go regularly and got strung out on fry bread and corn soup. (Alyson 2003: 77-78)

Stone Butch Blues is not really remembered as a novel of working class life, since its greatest urgency lies elsewhere, but this is one of several things that it is, and the politics of a passage such as this one are not a supplement. They are not detachable. They are intrinsic.

The admirable laziness of Jules Verne

17You know how sometimes an editor or peer-reviewer points out a shortcoming in something you’ve written but you really can’t be bothered to fix it because it would actually involve quite a lot of work and even if you could be bothered you can’t remember the last time you had any time?

And so instead you make the problem part of the framing of the piece? You turn the flaw into a feature by writing something like ‘in order to focus on I must reluctantly neglect the nonetheless important question of y’?

Jules Verne has you beat hands down.

Just over halfway through The Sphinx of the Ice Realm (SUNY Press 2012), his sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, just after the startling revelation – to no one’s surprise ever – that the secretive crewman Hunt is in fact Pym’s old companion Dirk Peters travelling incognito, Verne, never a master of labyrinthine plotting, writes:

I’ve included enough clues in my yarn for readers to have spotted Hunt as Peters many pages back, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d expected this plot twist, in fact I would be amazed if they hadn’t. (148)

Lost in admiration.Lc2kzE8Bpw-2

And for words.

Except, of course, Tekeli-li!

Best books of the millennium so far

The BBC asked a bunch of US critics, what is the greatest novel of the millennium so far? Such an obviously completely bullshit question, you can imagine my eagerness to see the results. I was really looking forward to the pleasure of being outraged and/or bemused by their idiocy and poor taste. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through the day.

What can I say? I was robbed.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped the poll. And, leaving aside for one moment the obvious and complete bullshitness of the question, I had no problem with that. I like the novel an awful lot. And Junot very generously blurbed the Africa SF collection and contributed an extraordinary long interview to the SF Now collection, extracted here, so I’m very happy for him personally. But none of that helps when I’m jonesing for affront.

The situation was redeemed a little by one of the judges comparing Oscar Wao to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit. What the fuck? At last some provocation! Such pedestrian taste! How benevolent of white literary culture to elevate Díaz to such company! The unsavoury reek of appropriation, not only of Dominican/Latino culture, but of geekdom, too! Who dared to say such a thing?

I clicked on the link, and was once more robbed. The journalist is paraphrasing Greg Barrios’ interview with Díaz in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which the comparison – which also mentions  James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan – is really just an attempt to explain the structure of the series of Oscar Wao stories Díaz once contemplated writing.

Maybe the other 19 titles in the poll’s top twenty would offer some enormity, some better shots at genuine WTF moments.

Of the other books, I have read only three.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (number 6) has been sitting on the shelf for years. I finally overcame the potential embarrassment of being seen not to have read it yet, and got through it in one long sitting on two trains and two planes (serially, not simultaneously) en route to the US. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of geek-stroking moments, and I get why people like it so much. But all the way through I was troubled by how comfortable it was. How comforting to imagine twentieth-century American history so utterly free from any anti-Semitism whatsoever. It just seemed dishonest. Good, but a long way short of great. On the whole, I probably rate Jonathan Lethem’s vaguely comparable Fortress of Solitude more highly. (By coincidence, my partner, sat next to me on one of the trains and both of the planes, read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall (number 3), and had a kind of mehhh response. Neither book made the return journey.)

A professional obligation recently required me to read Zadie Smith’s NW (number 18). It took me completely by surprise. A genuinely compelling page-turner, if ultimately also just a bit too comfortable in its rather bourgeois worldview. I promptly bought White Teeth (number 11), but have not had chance to read it yet.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (number 17) utterly mystifies me. It is flimsy and trite and I really cannot see what anyone sees in it. But people damn well keep on seeing something in it.

Three others are in the to-read pile or, rather, one of the to-read piles, ‘cos this place is becoming unmanageable again. There is a looming happy convergence of personal interest and work which will hopefully get me to Edward P Jones’s The Known World (number 2) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah (numbers 10 and 13) within the next year.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (number 12) has been flickering in and out of a similar indeterminate space for a few years now, but every time I decide this time I really do need to read it I realise I don’t actually have a copy.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (number 19) would be in a to-read pile but I am determined to read one of these shorter books of his I have lying around before committing to such a sizeable tome. I mean, over there in the corner, there’s a small mountain range comprised of the evergrowing proportion of William Vollmann that remains unread. Surely I should do something about that first?

I confess to finding the whole idea of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, number 5) baffling. At least he only provokes indifference.

But Ian McEwan? (Atonement at number 9). Genuine ire.

I have not managed to get past the first chapter of anything McEwan has written since, I dunno, Black Dogs or possibly Enduring Love, though I can recall nothing about either of them. (I remember quite liking The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, and the two early story collections, which is why I stuck with him as long as I did, but I was fifteen or sixteen when I read them, so I doubt it is worth going back.)

At least, I suppose, we are spared Martin Amis. I agreed wholeheartedly with Beulah Maud Devaney’s statement this week that ‘life is too short for Martin Amis’, though found myself repeatedly moving her words and their meanings around a little. Martin Amis is too short to live! Let’s shorten the life of Martin Amis!

Nothing on the rest of the list provoked a thing. Least of all interest.

I don’t know which are the greatest novels of the millennium so far. Not least because is it such an obviously and completely bullshit idea. But here is my list of the books published so far this millennium that I rate most highly. My criteria boil down to this: I could not wait to finish them so I could force my copies on other people to read. Which is unusual for me since, despite my enthusiasms, I am not by nature enthusiastic.

In date order:

2002
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt 
2003

Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (this is cheating a little, since it was published in France in 1998)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
2003-4
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
2004
Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient.
2005
Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
2006
Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
2007
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions
2009
China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street StationThe Scar)
2010
Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
2011
Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire
John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun
2012
Zadie Smith, NW

Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

1839lzdygndfmjpgFirst, the confession.

Until now, I have never read a Stephen King novel.

In my early teens, I just could not get into Christine (1983) or Carrie (1974) or, indeed, The Shining. Each time I gave up a few chapters in, and just figured he was not for me. Sure, I’ve read Danse Macabre (1981), his history of horror fiction, a couple of times, and have always cherished its description of Harold Robbins (he can’t tell the difference between a well-structured sentence and a shit-and-anchovy pizza). And I did read The Talisman (1984), King’s fat fantasy novel collaboration with Peter Straub, when it first came out – and since I enjoyed it, I attributed that to Straub (although not enough to actually read any of his solo novels).1 I even bought a copy of Dreamcatcher (2001) a couple of years ago, just to see if it is as hilariously inept as the William Goldman/Lawrence Kasdan film version, but gave it to a friend in the hope she would do the research for me. (She didn’t.)

But I am teaching the US cut of Kubrick’s movie this semester, so I figured alongside also watching Mick Garris’s 1997 King-scripted Shining miniseries and the Room 237 documentary, I should really give the novel another ago.

And you know what?

It’s all right.

It isn’t scary or suspenseful in any way, which might be because I already know the story. The prose only rises above workmanlike for literally – and I do not mean figuratively – a couple of nicely-crafted short sentences (which I failed to mark in the text so I can’t tell you what they were and may never find them again). But it is interesting in the way it is such a seventies novel.

That ain't no monolith...
That ain’t no monolith…

First, and least significantly, the cook, Dick Hallorann, often talks and thinks as if blaxploitation movies were King’s only source for imagining an African-American man – a quality Kubrick suppressed by

...and neither is that
…and neither is that

casting Scatman Crothers in the role, but which returns in the paintings decorating Hallorann’s Florida apartment.

Second, The Shining has something of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s post-counterculture misogynistic whininess that pins the dissatisfactions of lower middle class white masculinity on women.2 Terri Garr’s performance in the margins of Spielberg’s movie can, if observed, prompt at least some sympathy for her character. But just as Spielberg is uninterested in Ronnie Neary, so King, despite giving Wendy Torrance some backstory, some viewpoint chapters and some noteworthy nipples, really could care less. Like Spielberg always, King here is obsessed with paternity and patrilineality, even using the word ‘patricide’ in the novel’s climax to describe Danny’s role in the destruction of the Overlook/Jack.

Third, and most intriguingly, The Shining anticipates neoliberalism’s particular intensification of demands on workers. Much as the novel is about the past – the ghosts of the Overlook hotel; the effect Jack and Wendy’s neglectful, manipulative and/or violent parents had on them; Jack’s alcoholism; Jack’s violence – haunting the present, it now also has an air of being haunted by the future. When one socio-economic structure subsumes another, it does not replace it completely but carries forward, mutatis mutandis, that which it needs, that which it can make use of, that which does not contradict its operation and expansion. Which is why early capitalism had its feudal robber barons, and why this social relation and the sociopaths it rewards are ever increasingly evident in the aftermath of 2008.

In the later stages of the novel, the Overlook is revealed as a kind of raging Old Testament god, cruelly demanding that Jack sacrifice his son. His reward will be acceptance into a great chain of being, presided over by this dark ancient power and populated by mobsters, killers, CEOs and other criminals. However, the contract underpinning his adoption by the hotel is repeatedly expressed in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, of Jack having to prove that he is management material. From caretaker to manager – the American Dream! – through subservience and self-abasement misdescribed as personal merit.3

But what is the nature of Jack’s actual job? It is not the mountain-top location that makes his employment so precarious. Unearned, it is within the gift of his millionaire ex-drinking-buddy, Al Shockley, who inherited his wealth; and, as Jack learns, if he steps out of line, Al will fire him without hesitation. It is a job that completely obliterates any line between work and not-work, between workplace and home. It relocates and dislocates his entire family, but will last only a few months, and if he is fired, they will all be homeless. It requires his constant presence, often in stand-by mode. It colonises his consciousness and creative human capacities, and subordinates him entirely to the extraction of his labour-power.

Jonathan Crary entitled his 2014 book on the ruinous human effects of contemporary capitalism and its attention economy 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep; I guess I will now have to read King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to see whether it is just a coincidence that he called it Doctor Sleep.

PS Even after reading The Shining, I have still read more Guy N. Smith novels and seen more Lawnmower Man movies than I have read King novels.

1 I got bogged down in the early pages of Koko (1988) years ago, and still have an unread Shadowland (1980) in a box somewhere. But I did once stay in a hotel room next to Peter Straub at a conference in Florida, and was (admittedly unintentionally) a considerate neighbour, which surely must count for something.
2 You will be glad to hear this kind of silly whinging and contrafactual scapegoating is a thing of the past. Oh. No, wait. See  this. And this excellent response.
3 As satirised in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and straightfacedly reiterated every day by all that bullshit about this being a meritocracy.

William Barton and Michael Capobianco, Fellow Traveler (1991)

675521This is one of those books that’s been lying around the house unread for a couple of decades. I bought it on the strength of a positive review in Interzone, probably, or perhaps SF Eye. It has made at least two previous trips to the US and back with me, and tomorrow it will be on its way to the charity shop. It is not a great book, or even a particularly good one, but it is odd in an interesting way. Or interesting in an odd way. In the opening years of the 21st century, Gorbachev aborts a Soviet moon-landing in favour of a mission to divert a near-Earth asteroid, Sinuhe, into a cislunar orbit, using nuclear bombs for propulsion. There, it can be mined for materials with which to revitalise the Soviet economy, build a lunar base, stage missions to Mars and generally open up the solar system. The US, however, views it as threat to the pax Americana established by their successful SDI programme. Fellow Traveler is hard sf of a particular engineering kind, a thriller rather lacking in thrills. It reads like one of the mission checklists its cosmonaut characters religiously plod through. And the cosmonauts themselves are largely ciphers, something they seem to acknowledge about themselves when discussing problems with a pair of cabin-feverish mission specialists who threaten to contaminate the novel with melodrama:

Neither one of them’s had any training in how to hold things in. They . . . can’t suppress themselves like we can. Emotional bullshit. Not pilots. Not engineers. … What can I say? They’re wet inside. (188).

Barton and Capobianco attempt to counter this flatness by interlarding into the present (in)action flashbacks about growing up in the Soviet Union and becoming involved in the space programme. In this regard, Fellow Traveler recalls novels from Gregory Benford’s ‘when he could be bothered’ phase – In The Ocean of the Night (1976), Timescape (1980), Against Infinity (1983), Across the Sea of Suns (1984) – which imported some of the lessons of the American new wave into hard sf, but it is far less successful. What makes Fellow Traveler most worthy of comment is its rather peculiar politics. It is deeply critical of the path taken by NASA since the 1970s, arguing that the visionless, military-dominated, mission-by-mission status quo needs to be replaced by an expansive and exploratory space programme. However, it does so by giving that grand old upwards-and-outwards vision at the core of what John Clute calls Agenda Sf over to the Soviet Union, lock, stock and barrel. When Gorbachev addresses the Congress of People’s Deputies (78-9), he could be a huckster shilling for Wernher von Braun or Willy Ley on a 1950s Disneyland episode. Later, in private, he says of the Sinuhe mission,

It is not only a beautiful idea, as the torso of a woman is beautiful, it is simplicity itself. Mankind will have made a genuine leap, not the paltry step the Americans made so long ago. (91)

And, according to the first of the novel’s appendices, this mission was in 1991 ‘possible – though just barely possible – using … off the shelf technology’ (382) the USSR, but not the US, possessed. Barton and Capobianco attempt to shame the US into colonising the solar system. Furthermore, their general critique of the shallowness and tawdriness of American consumer culture implies they would prefer limitations to democracy and a degree of autocratic centralisation if it got the US an offworld foothold. While the American president, government, military and media are depicted as, respectively, weak, ineffective, paranoid and carelessly sensationalist, overt approval of autocracy is only expressed by non-American characters. One of the cosmonauts, for example, thinks

Kruschev had been such a crude old peasant, embarrassing on the world scene and, in the end, cowed by a handsome American boy. But, like Mussolini, he seemed to have the knack of making things work. Maybe that was important. (17)

And the novel is so incapable of imagining cultural difference that it repeatedly defines characters in absurdly nationalist terms. The Italian Anselm Bustamonte, contemplating the way the Soviet mission renders the Piazzi II probe to Sinuhe redundant, thinks:

It was a miracle of engineering, and would have thrust Italy into a central position within the newly reformulated ESA overnight. Certainly the country’s prestige within the EEC would have been strengthened as well, reclaiming the technological lead she had lost during the late Renaissance. (166)

Elsewhere, the stereotyping is less overtly nationalist, but every bit as hilarious. Russians, for example, are given to saying things like

Hegel would be proud of you, Academician. (23)

and (in 2002!) of a Moody Blues (!) track:

It is bourgeois and repetitive, performed by cretins with the skill of dancing bears, and, worst of all, encourages the most antisocial of behavior. (186)

Which is, come to think of it, pretty accurate, if hard on ursus terpsichoris. Russians also tend to think in terms like these:

It was May, but the winter had held its iron grip on Moskva like a true bureaucrat, deferring any real changes until the last possible moment, afraid to take responsibility for anything new. (70)

This nationalist stereotyping tendency is best captured, however, by Hermann Oberg, the imaginatively named German director of the European Space Agency.1 The voice of reason trying to mediate between Soviets and Americans, he sometimes adopts what he considers a more French approach, since French is the language of diplomacy, but other times he is a lot more, well, ‘German’:

What was it Hitler had said? Yes, on the occasion of the first V-2 launch, he said, ‘Es war doch gewaltig!‘ Too true … Bastard had the soul of a poet. … After all, anyone who loved dogs and blondes couldn’t have been all bad. (37)

And, directly before addressing the (privately disdained) UN,

He was imagining himself standing before an outdoor amphitheater, filled with thousands of black-clad, torch-wielding young men. Iron Christians. The crowd was chanting something, Horst Wessel Lied, perhaps. (148)

By the time of the novel’s epilogue, fifteen years after the principal action, Oberg is President of the Federal Republic of Europe, and the Scandinavian states have joined a renascent USSR, while the US, whose unilateral intervention nearly destroyed the world, languishes in decline. Clearly what Americans needs is a collective goal. And a vastly more ambitious space programme. And a dictatorship. That way they can get to live in space and have a thousand year Reich all of their own. Or something like that.

1 It it difficult to tell whether this is laziness or homage. Other minor character names include Zarkov (yay!) and, more peculiarly, Jo-Lee Hooker and George Buckminster Smiley.

British soft imperialism conquers the Moon, the stars! At last!

the-quatermass-xperiment-crashed-rocketHave you ever wondered why the British Experimental Rocket Group never got us to the Moon?

9944612544_ca01507874_b
Sid James points Brian Donlevy in the direction of the bar

Nigel Kneale, authorised biographer of (and chief propagandist for) Professor Bernard Quatermass, was always quick to blame it on the militarisation of the British Space Programme, while American analysts tend to pin it on the UK’s lack of frontier spirit and yankee know-how (and there is certainly evidence that Britain tried to recruit some of that – though they ended up with a washed-up alcoholic who spoke so quickly you always had the sense that he was impatient for any conversation to end so he could get to the bar).

The truth, however, is revealed in Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed (1998).

Moonseed_Stephen_BaxterOn p.451 of a 534-page novel, we read that a US astronaut, who has landed on the Moon in a jerry-rigged emergency mission to save the Earth,

sipped her … tea. Even freshly made, it did not seem hot enough. One of the old clichés of lunar travel, she thought: water boils at lower temperature in low pressure.

quatermass-2-hammer-films-brian_donlevy_moon_colony

120dome2

And, as this model and the Winnerton Flats prototype reveal, the lunar domes Quatermass intended to build would not have solved the problem.

That’s right.

Basic physics robbed us of the Dan Dare future we were promised. Once it became clear quite how rare a nice cup of tea would be in space, we as a nation – an entire nation – just lost the will to go there ourselves. 8069053883_6ae139b878_z

However, the story does not end there.

A careful reading of Baxter shows that it was Britons who unleashed the planet-destroying Moonseed, thus forcing the US and Russia to co-operate in the mission that would ultimately lead to the rapid terraforming of the Moon (and then, it is implied, human expansion across and beyond the Solar System). And should anyone doubt that this is ultimately a British triumph, observe what happens on pp.489-90. Henry, the American responsible for setting the lunar expedition in motion and for sneaking along the equipment necessary to make the Moon habitable at the speed (if not quite the absurdity) of Total Recall­, knows that his crazy plan has worked the moment it starts to rain on the Moon.