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Posts Tagged ‘post-modern’

Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.

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Night of PanWith the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson middle grade fantasy series, Greek Mythology has also grown in popularity among both preteens and their teachers. Fictional treatments of such iconic figures as Jason, Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and even the god Pan have made the Greek myths familiar to young readers in a way that textbooks can’t.

There’s a reason why these myths continue to fascinate us well over 2,000 years since they were handed down to the Western World. The Greeks told stories filled with passion. Their heroes were capable of doing terrible things, and their gods acted in all-too-human—often lascivious—ways. Western drama as we know it was born in the religious dramas that gave us both comedy and tragedy. These myths greatly influenced all kinds of Greek thinkers—philosophers, mathematicians, rulers, playwrights—who in turn profoundly influenced Western thought in the Renaissance. We’d have no Shakespeare without the Greeks.

So universal do the Greeks seem to us today that it’s easy for us with Western postmodern values to forget how different from ours their cultural attitudes were. They had democracy, but also slaves, and women were treated as property as well. Warfare was glorified. Rulers often identified with a god who had the right to punish people as he saw fit. Once the ruling class ended the matriarchy of its ancestors, brutality was condoned or even praised.

Writing stories based on a culture with such a different ethical point of view from ours can be quite challenging—particularly in stories for young people, which we as teachers and parents require toe the ethical line. Stories with human sacrifice, gods who rape, incest, and other atrocities are generally kept away from pre-teens; in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, Herakles “swats” his family down instead of tearing them limb from limb. Percy Jackson only goes so far down this road as well—even when Percy slays a monster, it disappears in a cloud of gold dust rather than actually bleed to death.

Are there any novels out there for young readers that aren’t afraid to deal with the darker aspects of Greek myths? One such YA novel I read recently, Night of Pan by first-time novelist Gail Strickland (2014, Curiosity Quills Press) bursts out of the sword-and-sandal approach to Greek mythology with an exclamation point. The main character is not a storied hero, a wisecracking modern teenager, or a god. She’s Thaleia, daughter of a former oracle priestess at Delphi known as the Pythia.

Delphi played an enormous role in both Greek mythology and history. It’s a beautiful place, set on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, and for thousands of years the priests who ran the oracle grew wealthy from the kings who came from all over to seek information—or help—from the god Apollo. The Pythia sat on a three-legged stool over a gaseous vent, went into a trance, and spoke in tongues while the priests interpreted her babblings to their clients. While the Pythia was recognized as being important to the oracle, it was the priests—all male—who held the power and riches.

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Strickland’s approach is contemporary. Thaleia is a feminist; she has visions and defies the evil priest who rules Delphi and nearly pays for it with her life. She not only survives, but with her newly-found god companion Pan she gains the strength to claim the role of Pythia herself. In so doing she gives one of the most famous prophecies of all time, one which inspires the Greeks to defeat the Persian conqueror Xerxes in the naval battle at Salamis.

But wait, there’s more. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that, prior to Salamis, Xerxes tried to attack Delphi, and was repulsed by Apollo himself when the god sent an avalanche to repulse the Persians. Strickland cleverly uses this as another way for Thaleia to flex her magical muscles as she calls on Apollo for help, and to the amazement of her community the god responds.

Thus this story straddles too genres—historical fiction and New Age-tinged feminist pagan fantasy. Just when I thought this was a realistic story, here comes Pan with his bag of tricks. Thaleia is a true child of nature, and she experiences Pan not as a scary would-be rapist but as delightful-smelling outdoor kitchen god of sorts. At one point I was convinced they were going to have sex—isn’t that what satyrs do?—but no, Pan just wants to inspire her, like a good contemporary man who wouldn’t touch jailbait.

So Pan is cool, if a bit smell-infused. The other deity Thaleia encounters is Apollo himself, a far more powerful god who ruled the oracle. (Note: at one time the oracle was not ruled by Apollo but by Gaia, the earth goddess. I doubt many contemporary Pagans would have any problem wishing Gaia’s Python had kicked Apollo’s butt instead of falling to one of his arrows). Here Strickland has a problem: does she present the god as sympathetic, despicable, or something in between? After all, his head priest is a violent misogynist. Strickland presents him as a kind of disembodied force of nature—no face, even. Of course the gods could present themselves to mortals any way they liked, but I would have liked if Apollo had appeared with some kind of human aspect to him.

I give Strickland props for creating an appealing main character in Thaleia, and putting her in an intriguing historical setting that shows obvious scholarship on Strickland’s part. At times I found myself a bit confused by events, and at times the marriage of historical and fantasy fiction strains a bit. But overall this tale’s most important function is to remind us that embracing one’s passion can lead to great success, no matter whether you’re a Pythia-in-waiting or a suburban kid about to experience all that wild stuff Pan was famous for.

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firing squad on food truck

Opening Hook

I’m not good at beginnings, but then nobody at Penderstout, Inc. is. “We’re always looking for that opening hook” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times, not only from the mucky-mucks but from the Darlings themselves. Maybe that’s why they keep hiring people here—in the vain hope that, sooner or later, someone will come up with an opening that will knock the reader’s socks off.

So, how are your socks?

Feh. I crumple that one up and toss it vaguely in the direction of the company-supplied wastebasket. It falls amongst the countless other crumpled notes, candy wrappers, and assorted flotsam and jetsam that never actually make it inside the gleaming cyclinder. Oh well, at least it gives the custodian something to do.

Maybe I should start by saying I’m an employee at Pendersnout. But maybe that’s not entirely correct. I suspect I’m an employee—that would be more accurate. I say this because others here appear far more “employee-like.” They have actual desks assigned to them on a permanent basis—at least until, you know. Whereas I have…if I’m lucky, part of a desk. Shared by someone else. Sometimes it’s only just a corner of a desk, barely large enough to keep the scraps of paper I’m supposed to be keeping track of.

Paper. Pendersnout, for some reason not fully comprehended by the up-and-coming Millenials, insists on still using it.

But my “desk” isn’t my job, is it? Then what is my job? Is it to hang out and schmooze with the Darlings at lunch break, or is it to spend all day combing through the manuscript, looking for excess buts? Of course I don’t have the actual manuscript—that’s for the mucky-mucks. I’m stuck with pieces of the previous drafts, because as we all know, Pendersnout is one anal retentive CEO.

Schmoozing with Darlings is fun, but risky. Because as everyone knows, Pendersnout eventually kills his Darlings, and associated Schmoozers are at risk, too. He has them marched out at dawn into the courtyard next to the food truck, where they get one final burrito before the firing squad puts them out of their misery.

Inciting Incident

Today I hear that the Inciting Incident is under review. Everyone’s talking about it: “Did you hear about the Inciting Incident?” “Who hasn’t?” “It’s critical to the story, so I’m not surprised.” “Nothing about this place surprises me anymore.”

“I hear Pendersnout’s going all post-modern on us.” It’s the new receptionist, who’s deranged in an adorable way—rumors are she’s on a fast track to make it into a side plot, or at least a back story. She wears flashy hoop earrings and proudly shows off a tattoo of a pert hamster on her thigh. How did she find out Pendersnout has a thing for hamsters? I’ll never know, that’s for sure.

“Post-modern? Not likely.” This from an Ink-stained Wretch. Nobody knows why he’s here, or what he does either. But he has narrative cred, so we all listen. “Pendersnout’s too old school for that.”

“Hah!” says Hamster Thigh with a sneer. “Post-modern is old school. Fiction is totally retro now, or haven’t you heard?”

“Then if post-modern is old school, it’s also retro, which makes it totally now, Hamster Thigh. Or haven’t you heard?”

Ah, an argument—are things heating up? Could this be the Inciting Incident?

“Lunch break.”

Employees and unnamed visitors wander off in search of food. Guess this isn’t the Inciting Incident, after all.

Faux Pas

Oh my God. I’ve been writing Pendersnout instead of Penderstout. If any of the mucky-mucks see this, my hide is history.

Though perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I could get taken off copyediting and put into sales, for example.

On second thought, sales? Feh. Better to be shot with the Darlings. Note to reader: please replace Pendersnout with Pendersnout wherever you see it. Thank you for patience.

Story Arc

Just the look on the face of Joan the Serious Editor as she trundles out of the meeting clutching her tablet is enough to send hamsters and other assorted rodents scurrying for cover. I focus on the one remaining square inch of desk that has not been overrun by Ink-stained Wretch’s collection of antique fountain pens and assorted bottles of ink, but it’s no good. Joan the Serious Editor has perfected the art of the Voice of Doom, and we are compelled to listen.

“Why are you here?” she says in a deceptively upbeat warble. “I mean it, people. Can you answer that question?”

Everyone looks at their shoes. Finally, Ink-stained Wretch, while expertly rolling a cigarette, holds forth. Or at least starts to. “Perfectly good question,” he mumbles through his moustache. “I believe Camus had the best answer to that one. Or Artaud, actually, in The Theater and Its Double. He said—”

“Artaud?” Joan the Serious Editor’s voice grinds the Ink-stained Wretch’s vocal meanderings into the rug. Okay, bad metaphor, but you get the drift. “Why do you think anyone here gives a damn about Artaud? I’m asking you a question. And you need to come up with an answer. Jesus.” She shakes her head and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s the Inciting Incident, isn’t it?” interjects Hamster Thigh.

“No, it’s more than that.” Total silence now. “It’s…the Story Arc.”

We all gasp.

“The whole thing?” squeaks Ink-stained Wretch.

“Yup. Everything’s under review now. Nothing is sacred.”

“Good God,” says Hamster Thigh. “Does that mean…”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Joan the Serious Editor says. “But I just want to assure you—all you people—nobody’s going to lose their job.” She clears her throat. “But I want each of you to draft a statement summarizing your job function here at Pendersnout, Inc. Tell me how you can improve our productivity.” With that she spins on her heel and leaves us with her best authoritative stride.

“We’re fucked,” says Ink-stained Wretch. “She said the P word.”

We all know what that means. Anytime management says the P word while claiming you’re not going to lose your job, guess what happens.

Even Hamster Thigh looks downcast. “What are you going to say in your statement?” she says to me.

“Not sure yet,” I reply. “But I can start by deleting a few buts.”

“And saying Penderstout instead of Pendersnout,” adds Ink-stained Wretch.

Whatever.

Voice

A new directive has come down: the voice is no longer first person present, but omniscient third past tense. That’s not surprising, but why did it take so long for the mucky-mucks to figure it out?

Climax

Harry Penderstout looked puzzled at first, but immediately clamped on his winning smile as the visitor strode confidently into the executive suite of Penderstout, Inc.

“My son,” said Harry Penderstout, beaming widely. “Harry Penderstout, Jr., my beloved son. What brings you here?”

Harry Penderstout, Jr. chuckled softly. “Beaming widely, Dad? Really?”

His father’s smile wavered for a split second before catching itself. “My son,” he boomed, “have I ever told you that this”—here he made an expansive hand gesture toward a non-existent window—“will all be yours?”

“Two clichés in a row. Impressive, even if not ironic. Except that I’m not Penderstout now, Dad. Nobody’s named Penderstout. So now I’m Pendergast.”

The old man sighed. “I suppose the mucky-mucks insisted on the change?”

“With help from Joan the Serious Editor.”

“You might have asked me first.”

Harry Pendergast shifted uncomfortably. “That…brings up something else, Dad. I’m not asking you first anymore.”

“You’re not?”

“No, in fact I’m not asking you at all.”

The old man’s brow furrowed. “Like storm clouds?” he pondered.

Pendergast smirked. “That’s your third cliché, Dad. Your entire idiom is tired. You’ve lost your story mojo.”

Penderstout reeled with indignation. “No son of mine is going to treat me like this!” he roared. “Apologize, or I’ll have you taken out and shot with the next round of Darlings!”

His son couldn’t hide the gleam in his eye, even as he spoke softly, with concern. “The Darlings won’t be rounded up and shot anymore, Dad. They’ll be put to rest peacefully, instead.”

“What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is that you are no longer in charge of Pendergast, Inc. I have the Board on my side, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sorry, Dad. I love you, but you’re expendable.”

“Damn you!” Penderstout picked up his phone. “Security!”

“I agree,” Pendergast said. “Security?”

The door to the Pendersnout suite opened and four men in lab coats entered. They carried tasers and red pencils. “Come with us, Mr. Penderstout,” they said.

“Don’t worry, Dad. You’ll be well cared for in a new facility with all the modern conveniences.”

“My own son. I don’t believe this.”

“Save the histrionics, Dad.” Pendergast nodded to Security. “Take him.”

After Security efficiently hustled out Penderstout, Pendergast gingerly set himself in the old man’s chair, feeling the soft leather, inhaling its intoxicating dead animal scent.

“Finally,” he whispered to himself, “I can put this thing to rest.”

Denouement

Do you suppose Hamster Thigh got it right? Is Pendergast, Inc. now committed to post-modern fiction, or will Pendergast continue to churn out the usual pulp?

“Know what I heard?” said Hamster Thigh as she munched on her food truck burrito. “I heard this isn’t a novel, after all. It’s a short story. Almost flash, even.”

“I could have told you that all along,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“Then why didn’t you?” I said.

Hamster Thigh cocked her head, as though listening to the wind. “Did you hear something?” she said.

“Nope,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“I thought it was that guy.”

“The all-about-me guy?” Joan the Serious Editor had just joined the conversation. “He’s no longer here.”

Hamster Thigh and Ink-stained Wretch didn’t say another word as they finished off their burritos.

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Kelly Link. Now there’s a post-analog name for a fiction writer. I just finished reading her latest collection of stories, Pretty Monsters, and was not disappointed.

Ms. Link does not write fiction so much as she lets it slide around her characters’ skulls before rolling them out in cleverly designed droll packages. At times this approach left me scratching my head, but at other times it left me chuckling with admiration. Her art defies categorization, like all great art, so I’m convinced she’s onto something with some serious conceptual crunch.

Pretty Monsters is a collection of longish stories that’s reputedly her first collection targeted at the lucrative Young Adult Fiction market. It’s easy to see why her editors picked that genre. All the tales here feature at least one satisfyingly quirky adolescent mind, and the way she uses adolescent dialogue is spot on. And does so in refreshing, non-stereotypical fashion filtered through the ironic lens of a fully adult writer:

“Let me save you from the biggest mistake of your life,” Madeline said. Her voice took on a thrilling intensity, as if she was about to impart the secrets of the universe to Clementine… “Cabell Meadows is not hot. Cabell Meadows is at least six years older than you and he still doesn’t know that tube socks are not a good look with Birkenstocks. Cabell Meadows voluntarily came to a high-school biology class to talk about how he spent his spring break shooting bears in the butt with tranquilizer darts. Cabell Meadows is an epic, epic loser.”

If there’s any thing I’ve noticed about teenagers it’s that they have a virtually limitless urge to turn things on their heads, while simultaneously trying to fit in with their peers. They can be amazingly clever, creating their own realities as they struggle to fit in with the adult world. “Pretty Monsters,” the story for which the collection is named, not only has social relations crafted by this zany experimentalism, the structure of the story itself feels cobbled together by it. The end of this story is both wacky and chilling, and while part of me was disappointed that it wasn’t more conventional, another part was all, “Yeah! Well played!”

Edgy, angsty teen humor is not Link’s only forte, either. She can spin a beguiling fantasy or two as well, as evidenced by a couple of fine stories in this collection, “The Wizards of Perfil,” and my favorite, “The Constable of Abal.” Both stories construct an interesting alternate reality, but by the end my expectations and assumptions about this reality got tweaked ingeniously. (Although, I’m proud to say, I saw the ending of “The Wizards of Perfil” a mile away. That didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.)

Another story, a kind of new millennium twist on Borges, features kids whose lives are taken over by a TV show about a world that is entirely contained by a magical library—The Free People’s World-Tree Library—and a character named Fox, who either dies or doesn’t die. As is typical in her tales, the plot is propelled by tantalizing clues about what’s happening, but with characters who bravely carry on despite growing suspicions that their version of reality is doomed. You might call it post-modern, you might call it metafiction, but this is no boring Thomas Pyncheon novel. I call it fascinating.

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