Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Weekly wisdom

"Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."

--Vladimir Nabokov

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Game of Thrones, coming soon to a television near you

If ever there was I time I was inclined to have “OMG OMG OMG!” as a post title, this would be it.

Ever have it happen that two of your very favourite things combine? Like chocolate and peanut butter, only better?

I am an avid but selective reader of fantasy novels—avid because I’ve loved the genre since discovering Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at the age of eleven, and selective because so much of the genre is cliché, borderline misogynist, and generally really badly written. There are however some authors who raise the genre back up to Tolkien-esque heights, whose novels are innovative and well-written. Canada’s own Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favourites; Robin Hobb’s recent “Soldier Son” trilogy was a splendid allegory of imperialism and indigeneity; readers of this blog know me as a Harry Potter fan; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is mind-blowing; and of course I have become a recent devotee of Sir Terry Pratchett. (I also play World of Warcraft on occasion, though right now my enthusiasm for the game is at low ebb—it goes in three to four month cycles).

There is however one fantasy series at the apex of the genre right now, and that is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I starting reading it in 1996, when the first installment—A Game of Thrones—was out in hardcover. It was an accidental acquisition: my brother Matt worked then at Chapters doing IT, and as part of their bonus they were taken into the overstock room and allowed to grab an armload of books. Not knowing much about my reading habits, but knowing I liked fantasy, Matt grabbed it.

That was thirteen years ago, and if I have any complaint about the series it’s that Martin is exceptionally slow in writing the novels. The series is now projected to run to seven novels, and in those thirteen years he has produced four: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), and A Feast for Crows (2005). Considering the heft of each installment, two years between each of the first three is reasonable; but then we have to wait five years for number four, and we’re still waiting on number five … with two more projected after that. Never have I been so deeply invested in an author’s continuing good health.

HOWEVER … for some time now, there has been speculation about the saga being turned into a television series, with each novel comprising one season. Now there is confirmation that this is happening, with season one starting next year.

That’s exciting in and of itself. What puts me over the moon is that the series is being produced by HBO!! H, B, fuckin’ O, as Deadwood’s Al Swearengen might say … so not only is my favourite ongoing fantasy series making it to TV, it’s going to be GOOD.

Long-time readers of my blog know my love for all (or, well, most) things HBO, and that I have picked up a little side-scholarship writing articles on such key series as Rome, Deadwood, The Wire and, most recently, Oz. I look at HBO as the flagship of the smart TV fleet, consistently producing brilliant cinema-quality series that make television watching almost a literary endeavour. My favourite fantasy series on my favourite cable network?? Too … much … goodness …

Breathe, Lockett … breathe …

What doubles down today on my geeking out is that Martin announced on his blog the other day some key casting for the principal roles. Some are actors I don’t know, or know tangentially, but they all look perfect.

What follows will make little sense if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire. Just warning you.

Tripling down on my geeking out is who they’ve cast in the central role of Ned Stark:

Sean Bean.

Yes, that’s right … Sean. Fucking. Bean. Boromir himself. Richard Sharpe. And now Ned Stark. It’s like someone gave him a reading list of my favourite things and he’s made it his life’s work to act in the film adaptations of as many as possible.

Next, Ned’s long-suffering wife Catelyn Stark: Jennifer Ehle.

For those who find her vaguely familiar but can’t place her, here’s a picture from her best-know role:

Robb Stark: Richard Madden.

Sansa Stark: Sophie Turner.

Arya Stark: Maisie Williams.

King Robert Baratheon: Mark Addy.

Now, this is the one I’m not sold on. I like Mark Addy, but I don’t know if he has the presence to play King Robert. Robert is described as a massive man gone to fat, oversized in all his appetites and, ultimately, something of a blowhard and an asshole. But with a heart.

Jaime Lannister: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

I don’t know this actor, but wow … does he ever look the part.

Tyrion Lannister: Peter Dinklage.

Of course, Peter Dinklage. It’s a bit of a shame that an actor as talented as him should of necessity be limited to the dwarf role in whatever he does … but he’ll be amazing as Tyrion. Tyrion is such a great character, too—Dinklage should really be able to get his teeth into this role.

Daenarys Targaryen: Tamzin Merchant.

Again, not someone I’m very familiar with—she plays Katherine Howard on The Tudors, but she really looks the part.

Theon Greyjoy: Alfie Allen.

And lastly, Ser Jorah Mormont: Iain Glen.

This one makes me very happy as well—I don’t know much of Iain Glen’s work, and the only two Hollywood films I’ve seen him in (Resident Evil: Extinction and Tomb Raider) were baaaaaaaad. He played Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead however, and played him brilliantly.

Excited yet, fellow Ice & Fire fans? Further updates as events require.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Of pot and cough syrup, or Where random thoughts lead me …

This is a post pondering issues dealing with the legalization of marijuana, but bear with me as I share the sequence of random thoughts that brought me to that reasonably significant social and political issue. It’s a good snapshot of how my mind works at times.

I’ve had a nasty cough dogging me the past few days, the kind that’s powerful enough to give you the same sort of headache you get from shaking your head back and forth vigorously. So I went out and bought some cough syrup, and yesterday as I sat at my office computer I saw it sitting there; the following bit of West Wing dialogue dropped into my head.

SPEC. AGENT CASPER: Cough medicine with tractor starter fluid strained through a coffee filter is methamphetamine.
PRESIDENT BARTLET: Tractor starter fluid doesn't kill you?
CASPER: No, it'll definitely kill you, but first you'll get pretty high.

This led me in turn to the episode of Friday Night Lights (yes, I watch a lot of teevee) in which Tim Riggins realizes that his skeety roommate is actually a meth dealer, and the cough medication he’s been getting Riggins to buy for him is one of the key ingredients.

And then from there to the idle thought as I looked at my bottle of Benylin, “Well, if only I had some tractor starter fluid …”

The white-water rapids that are the stream of my consciousness then turned it into a philosophical and ethical question between personal morality and societal prohibition. On the one hand, I thought, I would have no specifically moral qualms about growing and selling small amounts of marijuana to friends and acquaintances, as I firmly believe that weed is a relatively harmless social drug—much less so, for example, than alcohol. The reason I don’t do so (besides laziness and an inveterate brown thumb) is that I would fear arrest or other legal punitive measures. So my hypothetical career as a small-time pot dealer founders on the reef of the law.

Conversely, even if I did have some tractor starter fluid on hand, I would never consider making or selling a drug like crystal meth, for the simple reason that it is a deeply harmful drug and I find its dissemination morally repugnant. There is no need for the social prohibition in this case, as my personal morality preempts even the thought.

This little unbidden thought experiment (which unfolded in all of about thirty seconds as I paused with my hands above my laptop keyboard) then opened up in my mind the various issues at stake in the current state of laws surrounding marijuana’s legality and lack thereof. I personally see the incremental decriminalization of pot in this country as a progressive and positive thing—the stigma attached to marijuana for the better part of the twentieth century, largely an American import, is the height of irrationality. We now fortunately have a much better sense of how it differs qualitatively from narcotics, and the benefits it offers in some medical contexts.

The problem with marijuana from an ethical and moral perspective is not its effects on users, but where it comes from. One of the upshots of its deeply entrenched illegality for the last half-century is that it offers big money to organized crime, and large-scale grow ops have become a suburban plague.

I never fully appreciated the pervasiveness of this until recently when my brother and sister-in-law went on the market for a new house. One of the first ones they saw, an early favourite, seemed priced oddly low for its size and location. It had been totally renovated, and the pictures of the renovation provided to prospective buyers showed that the walls had been taken down to the studs and replaced, as had been the ceilings and floors. It was then that the penny dropped for my father, who realized that the house had been a grow operation.

Weirdly enough, one of the inquiries about my brother's house asked a series of bizarre questions that made sense when you realized those making them were themselves looking to buy a house for a grow op.

The damage done to houses by large-scale marijuana cultivation is catastrophic. This is from a website for an indoor environmental testing company in Ontario:

“These homes or industrial units are operated at a minimum of 27 degrees celsius with a sustained relative humidity of 80% or higher. The end result is an excessive amount of mould growth often hidden inside wall or ceiling systems. Extreme humid conditions cause extensive mould growth throughout these buildings. Mould growth resulting from these conditions are considered extremely hazardous due to their toxigenic nature. Species of mould growth found in these buildings in most cases posses mycotoxins which can be extremely hazardous and life threatening for anyone who enters these structures. In many cases mould growth is growing inside wall cavities out of sight without any indication of a problem or any visible signs of moisture damage.”

What happens is a house is purchased with a down payment anywhere between $20-$50K, depending on the value of the house, through shell companies which then pay the mortgage for six months to a year. Considering that the yield at the end of that period ranges from hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars, the investment is minimal. After several harvests, the buyers just walk away, leaving a ruined house in their wake that will never, however much renovation is done, reclaim its pre-grow op value because the damage can be so pervasive.

There is apparently a pot drought in Newfoundland right now. The police seized a massive shipment coming in, and as a result pot-smokers everywhere here are suffering weed privation. Upon being told of this, I joked that I should scatter some seeds in the unruly rear section of my backyard, which I have not trimmed back this summer, and cultivate small amounts of marijuana to sell to friends and acquaintances and supplement my income. Of course, I am not about to do this (and the way you know I’m not is because I’m musing about it on a blog—so if the constabulary happens to read this, I ask you to keep that in mind. Though if you do want to come and inspect my backyard for cannabis, feel free. Just watch out for the spiders).

On the other hand however, this makes me wonder if one way to reconcile pot decriminalization with the problem of organized crime’s predations would be with—pardon the pun—just this sort of grass roots approach. Legalization advocates point out that the regulation and taxation of marijuana as a cash crop could be a financial boon to government; I find it hard to imagine that we won’t arrive at that point eventually, but it will likely take a long time, and in the interim organized crime will continue to destroy houses (to say nothing of the concomitant violence accompanying large-scale drug trafficking). In the meantime, what about making small personal gardens of maybe a half dozen plants legal? The hypothetical scenario in which I cultivate a few plants and provide for a small circle of people would have the minor but very real effect of taking that business away from the big grow ops. Spread that out on a broader scale of people planting cannabis alongside their hydrangeas and heirloom tomatoes, and that effect could be profound.

Incidentally, since drafting this post I watched the episode of The West Wing mentioning the ingredients of meth, and as it happens I got it wrong: Special Agent Casper says allergy medication, not cough medicine, is what is used. That this entire sequence of thought began with me misremembering a key detail seems eminently appropriate.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday round-up

Because all of my perceptions of U.S. politics tend to be filtered through The West Wing, I keep hoping in the midst of this health care train wreck that there will be a "Let Bartlet be Bartlet" moment for Obama. Except that the problem there is I think Obama is being Obama in this increasingly futile attempt at fashioning a bipartisan bill. Being conciliatory and accomodating is admirable, but not so much when those you're attempting to accomodate are essentially saying--out loud and publicly--that under no circumstances will they vote yes on any health care reform.

It's time to circle the wagons, use the majority, and beat the Blue Dogs with a hose until they toe the line. Where's Rahm "attack dog" Emanuel in all this?


I'm now linking to Hendrik Hertzberg's blog at The New Yorker, because I'm reasonably certain that everything he says is right.


A colleague of mine sent around this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, and I'm of two minds on it. On one hand it makes some excellent points about what in humanities academia has come to go by the rubric "professionalization" -- in short, a premium put on research and publishing, with the emphasis on volume and a hierarchy of value with peer-reviewed journals and academic presses at the top. What has resulted, the article argues, is a dizzying increase in scholarly publishing with a concomitant reduction in reading audience for this scholarship.

On one hand, I tend to agree that the elevation of peer-reviewed writing to the level of the sacrosanct tends to make literary scholarship increasingly specialized and obfuscatory. I further tend to think that professors have a responsibility to the larger community as public intellectuals, but that kind of writing and publishing doesn't happen when one is under the gun to get as many articles in peer-reviewed journals published as possible come tenure review time.

On the other hand, the article makes a few false distinctions. The question of "audience" for peer-reviewed work is a bit of a fallacy, because that's a bit beside the point. Speaking personally, my own motivation for research and writing and (ultimately, hopefully) publishing -- besides the carrot/stick of tenure and promotion -- is my own interest in my subject matter, and the desire to keep sharp for the sake of my students.

There's also a a false binary in the article between "interpretive" (which seems to be synonymous with New Criticism) and "performative" (which I take to mean "theoretical") reading. What about historcist scholarship? Or more sociological approaches? Or the simple fact that literature's relevance changes depending on the realities of our given historical moment? That is, after all, why we keep returning to Hamlet.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Weekly Wisdom

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

—Douglas Adams

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blog as autobiography

For the next installment in my summer reading series, I’ve been working on my response to two books dealing with the so-called “God debate”—on the side of the “new atheism,” Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, and on the other Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Both are powerfully argued and deeply intelligent books, and extremely thought-provoking. In spite of my own status as a lapsed Catholic and occasional atheist, I find my sympathies lying more with Eagleton’s arguments than Hitchens’, for reasons I’ll expound when and if I ever get the post written.

What prompts this post is not those texts per se, but rather the fact that in responding to them and formulating my critique, I found myself offering a fairly lengthy religious autobiography—in part largely because it is a subject that tends to make one want to lay one’s cards on the table and share one’s experiences and beliefs past and present. Why this is the case with religious discussion I am not certain—perhaps because matters of faith tend to be intensely personal and that inflects any broader discussion of religion in culture. It’s hard to say.

The long and short of it is, after writing out an account of my own engagements and struggles with matters of religion, I read it over and wondered if this was something I really wanted to post to my blog. On the one hand, I don’t mind sharing, and it feels somewhat cathartic to write it all through. Should it spark an animated discussion, so much the better. On the other hand, part of me is slightly appalled that I am so blasé about putting what is really a deeply personal narrative out into the public sphere. Is it narcissistic to do so? Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I don’t exactly have a wide readership for this blog, and that most people who would actually read through what I have to say (or who have read this far in this post) already know me pretty well, I do wonder at my compulsion at times to post elements of my life into a forum anyone can read.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve gone back and read old posts and realized that while tempted during periods of blogging inactivity to discontinue this blog, I have never done so because I have grown very attached to this. It has become something of an autobiography or memoir, erratic and fractured in nature—the posts don’t unfold a narrative of my life so much as a grab-bag of thoughts, meditations, screeds, and updates—but ultimately something I am glad to have started, and something that has proved a more reliable site and source for my personal history than any private journal I’ve ever started (indeed, my journal more often than not these days contains notes toward blog posts).

And yes, I suppose it is a bit narcissistic to publish on oneself in a public manner. But then, I became reconciled to my narcissism some time ago, and in so doing hope to regulate it somewhat. It is, to be fair, a bit of an occupational hazard.

Posts on the “god debate” to come. Account of personal religious odyssey possibly included.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A modest proposal

After reading this column by Gail Collins in the NY Times this morning, I reflected that this new, worrying phenomenon of anti-health reform mobs packing heat at town halls poses an interesting health-care question. Namely, if an anti-reformist does an injury to himself with his gun, what is the likelihood that his insurance will cover it?

I say that with my tongue firmly in my cheek of course, but the ongoing saga of anti-reform mobs—and yes, “mobs” is the proper term here—pre-empting discussion and dialogue at the behest of lobbyists in the employ of the health insurance industry, to say nothing of the egregious disinformation being disseminated, represents a depressing nadir in U.S. political discourse.

But I’m off topic. It was the issue of guns that sat me down to post this morning. More specifically, it was the bizarre fact that all of the guns on display in the cases outlined by Ms. Collins were entirely legal.

I find it interesting that those most adamant defenders of the second amendment tend to share political ground with those who favour a “strict constructionist” interpretation of the constitution—namely, the belief that the constitution should not be re-interpreted to suit new historical contexts, but should hew as closely as possible to what the Founding Fathers intended when drafting it.

Now, speaking as an English professor, I think this entire approach is a bit wonky. Interpreting a text on the speculation of what was in its authors’ heads is an invitation to fallacy. On the other hand, I’m willing to grant that there is a lot of daylight between matters literary and legal. That being said, I’m not sure how a strict constructionist approach to the second amendment translates into “guns for everyone!” It reads, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Here, a little historical context is helpful. The Founding Fathers were deeply suspicious of professional armies such as the British redcoats, seeing them as the tools of tyranny. The original idea was that the U.S. should not have a professional army, but a people’s militia. To that end, it was the citizenry’s obligation to have weapons on hand to prevent (to quote The Simpsons) King George from coming into your living room to push you around.

Well and good. Of course, that particular prejudice against a professional military class didn’t last, and today the U.S. spends as much on its defense budget as the rest of the world combined.

See, if I was being a strict constructionist, I would parse the amendment as follows: the first clause regarding the “well regulated militia” (key word regulated) that is necessary for the “security of a free state” (i.e. national security resides in this militia) modifies the main clause “the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Gun-rights advocates tend to decontextualize the main clause, leaving out the modifying clause—which ultimately stipulates that the right to bear arms is predicated on being a militia reservist.

The fact of the professional U.S. military sort of derails a strict constructionist reading of this amendment. I do however have a solution—two solutions, actually.

Seeing as how the second amendment implies the illegality of a professional military, it should be dissolved and everyone gets to stockpile as many guns as they want. Failing that option, in exchange for surrendering their firearms, every American will be issued one Brown Bess musket—which was undoubtedly what the Founders had in mind when they spoke of “arms”—to have on hand should King George ever feel like throwing his weight around again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Weekly wisdom

"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”

—Tom Stoppard

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer reading, parte the seconde: The genius of Sir Terry Pratchett

For the last two years I’ve been teaching an introductory course on literary theory, and as a means of giving the students a sense of different theoretical approaches, I have them write all their essays on a one text of their own choice—something short, 10-15 pages, and it can be a short story, a chapter or passage from a novel, a poem or series of poems, and so forth. Of course, not everything they choose will I be familiar with, so they give me a photocopy of their chosen text.

One of the upshots of this is that I find myself reading chapters out of novels I haven’t read. Sometimes I am unimpressed, but more often it is just enough for me to want to read the whole novel. I have, in the two times I have taught the course thus far, been led to some excellent reads, like Christopher Moore’s Lamb and David Adams Richards Mercy Among the Children. But perhaps the biggest gold mine—or addiction—has been with the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. This past winter, two students gave me chapters of his work—one from Small Gods, and other from Wyrd Sisters—and I have since then read both those two novels and another ten on top of that.

I’ve been familiar or aware of Terry Pratchett for some time now (it’s hard not to be, if for no other reason than he’s penned about thirty novels since the early 80s and has practically a shelf all to himself in the fantasy section), having read Good Omens, a novel he co-authored with Neil Gaiman. I’d kept Pratchett at arm’s length since then despite loving Good Omens, or rather because I loved Good Omens—with that many novels on the shelves, it could easily devolve into a literary addiction, and lord knows I’ve had enough of those. But then came this past winter and my sampling of two chapters of his work, and the rest is history.

Perhaps this isn’t technically “summer” reading, given that this Pratchett spree started in February, but I’ve read enough of them since May to qualify.

So what is so appealing about these novels? To the uninitiated, the “Discworld,” where these stories take place, is ... well, let Pratchett describe it. From Wyrd Sisters:

“Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin about them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.”

The Discworld, the novels suggest, is a whimsical invention of a Creator who “got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocities, and decided to have a bit of fun for once.” What this imaginative coup allows is for Pratchett to people his world with everything and everyone, from humans to dwarfs, trolls, imps, vampires, werewolves, golems, wizards, witches, as well as a host of different human cultures and races that resemble those of our own world—and it is in the meeting and clash of these many groups that a great number of the novels find their dramatic tension.

While the novels range all over this capacious world, many of them center in the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork (a city typical of Pratchett’s playfulness with naming both places and people). Ankh-Morpork is a primary point of contact for these multitudinous peoples and races, and is as such rather deliberately evocative of post-colonial London. It is also emblematic of what I find most appealing about Pratchett’s novels, besides his brilliant sense of humour—all his novels (or those I have read so far) tend to embody a sort of low-key philosophy of pragmatism. The whimsically fantastical Discworld and its often benighted or absurd denizens belie an author with a keen eye for human foibles and a strong sense of irony as a form of natural law.* Pratchett, one intuits, is an anti-absolutist, someone for whom dogma of any species is anathema to a balanced and equitable society. One should not take the presence of gods and such timeless characters as Death (who makes at least a cameo in all the novels) as evidence of a belief in the transcendent, either: the gods inhabiting the Discworld resemble nothing other than the Greek pantheon of competitive, jealous and petty deities. And in Pratchett’s world, the power and stature of gods is entirely determined by the amount of belief people have in them. The gods, in other words, are dependent on their worshippers, and not vice versa.

Like much great fantasy, Pratchett’s characters and situations have much to say about who we are, especially in the fetish of small differences that tends to excite prejudice and bigotry. That those “small differences” seem exaggerated by the contrast between the various species inhabiting the Discworld is often little more than comic misdirection. This is not to say that the novels offer a simplistic or cloying moral that underneath we’re really all the same—far from it. Often the resolution of differences is little more than the adaptation to living with our own pettiness. One of the characters who most embodies Pratchett’s pragmatism is the effective dictator of Ankh-Morpork, the shrewd Lord Vetinari. Vetinari is sort of the ultimate benevolent dictator: everything he does is for the better of his city, and his entire strategy is an elaborate balancing act in which he maintains the common weal not by ruling through fiat but by putting individuals into situations in which they act (a) in their own best interests, (b) according to their conscience, (c) out of a sense of honour or bravery, (d) out of cowardice, (e) out of avarice or personal gain, but in so doing carry out Vetinari’s wishes while imagining it was their own idea.

I tend to read Vetinari as Pratchett’s response to the old adage that the benevolent dictator is the ideal form of government (ruling in the common interest, but with the dictatorial power to get things done with dispatch). Vetinari is both a vindication of this claim and an expression of its vacuity: he carefully avoids the dictatorial power to “get things done,” knowing how that would disrupt the delicate political balance; and he is such a singular figure, one cannot help when reading his storylines what will happen to Ankh-Morpork when he is gone.

One of the problems with writing about Pratchett is how prolific he has been: I’ve read twelve of his novels, and that isn’t even the halfway mark (he’s up somewhere over thirty). The books abound with so many little comic quirks and asides, so many ingenious moments of imaginative invention, and what is really (to a new reader) an ongoing internal logic to the Discworld that becomes more comprehensive with each read, that it is difficult to offer specifics. This much I’ll say: if you like that uniquely British sense of humour such as one finds in Douglas Adams; if you are a fantasy fan; if you like crime fiction (because, interestingly, so many of these novels end up being narratives of getting to the bottom of something); and if you like novels that are almost invariably non-formulaic and surprising—I think you’ll find yourself quite as addicted as me.

So be warned.


*I must give credit for the phrase “irony as a strong form of natural law” to my friend Gregg Taylor; he used it in an episode of his online radio drama Black Jack Justice (episode 20, “Sabien’s Law”). While I would normally be loath to steal phraseology, this one was simply too apt for Pratchett’s sensibilities. Considering that the phrase is used to describe a certain police lieutenant and that one of Pratchett’s most endearing recurring characters is the hard-bitten and pragmatic watchman Samuel Vimes, this should not perhaps be a surprising coincidence.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Imaginary book reviews

Once when asked why he didn’t write a novel, Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges responded that he had no patience to write anything more than a handful of pages long, never mind an entire novel. But he had such brilliant ideas, his questioner pressed—surely there must be something he imagined of novel length? To which Borges replied yes, of course. But on those occasions what he’d do is write a critical review of the novel he’d imagined.

This comment has been rattling around with me lately, because I go through periods when I get a surfeit of story ideas. These get jotted down in a notebook, perhaps with some plot points fleshed out or even some exploratory prose, but rarely anything beyond that. Story ideas are like tunes stuck in my head—they drive me crazy for a week or so, during which time some writing happens, but then they tend to be replaced by other things and I lose interest. This might not be an issue if I had ideas for short stories, for which I could conceivably bang out a draft, but alas I seem to think on a novelistic scale.

This is not to say I don’t return to these ideas and flesh them out a bit further at times, or that I don’t one day hope to actually make it all the way to the end of one of them and get something into print. But whatever people might think, writing fiction is really hard work, and it’s even harder to do it well (a lack of talent on my part may well also be a contributing factor—time will tell, perhaps). With the bulk of my time devoted to my, you know, day job, writing creatively becomes more of an occasional hobby for my own amusement.

Which is why Borges’ notion of the imaginary book review appeals to me. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a second blog to outline and “review” these novels that bang around in my skull. Considering the number of ideas I’ve had, contrasted with the productive time I could spend on them, all to the power of my basic laziness, it’s pretty much a mathematical impossibility that I could write them all in my lifetime—I’d have to be Philip K. Dick or Philip Roth. And, well, Dick was crazy, and Roth strikes me as a bit of a dick. To say nothing of the fact that as abstract ideas or a couple of pages of point form notes, it’s hard to say whether they’d even be viable ideas.

At the same time, I do like many of my ideas, and wouldn’t mind sharing them.

Of course, there’s also the times when I read or watch something and see that I’ve been scooped. Ever since the first time I watched Independence Day, I’ve wanted to write something that would be a corrective to that film’s hokey and triumphalist utopian ending. The implied future the film leaves us with is one in which, having come together under American leadership to defeat the aliens, the human race looks forward to having all its rifts and conflicts resolved.

I imagined a dystopian novel set some eighty years after the victory (over an entirely different alien enemy, of course—I wouldn’t want Roland Emmerich demanding a percentage), humanity, much reduced in numbers by the alien attacks, resides in a series of fractured and contested geographical alliances. The feel-good honeymoon after the victory soon eroded into a race by vestigial nation-states to plunder the alien technology and thus gain advantage, militarily and otherwise. The asymmetry of technology has resulted in several extremely powerful groups, which exact tribute from neighbouring impoverished demographies for protection. Meanwhile, what aliens survived have been imprisoned and forced to educate humans about their technology.

I’d always liked this idea. And then the other day, I saw a trailer for Peter Jackson’s new film District 9. The premise seems to be—at least in part—that an alien species has arrived on Earth and have been effectively imprisoned. While the film’s broader theme is obviously about racism and the mistreatment of refugees, the trailer makes it clear that a big reason for their imprisonment is to force them to give up their technological secrets.

So, really quite different on the whole from my idea. But I still feel scooped.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Regatta Day

Yesterday was the annual St. John's Regatta, a sculling competition--or series of competitions--that takes place every year on the first Wednesday in August. Or if it's raining, the first Thursday. Basically, everyone looks out their window on Wednesday morning, and if the weather is too rainy and/or windy, they go to work. If not, holiday! And somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifty thousand people descend on Quidi Vidi Lake to drink beer, eat from the many food kiosks set up for the day, and socialize. Oh, and watch some rowing.

Regatta day also has the added element, for me, of being something of an anniversary. Four years ago on August 2 I arrived in St. John's to start a new life as a tenure-track professor at Memorial. The next day was Regatta. The annual August holiday inevitably brings back strong memories of that move, with all the accompanying excitement, fear and anxiety.

Four years. It seems almost unbelievable that it has been that long. When I reflect on the change, on my move, and my job, I offer up thanks to whatever gods might be listening. It could have easily been miserable and disastrous. But it hasn't been.

A lot of my happiness here has to do with what an amazing city St. John's has turned out to be. But even more has to do with my job. It is in the people I find myself working with that I have to wonder at my unbelievable good fortune.

Academic life has a great potential for discord. No one can hold a grudge like professors, and tenured life can lead to long-term enmities. There is probably more career mobility now than at any time previously, but it is still nothing like the business world, where people make moves all the time. So there is a tendency for a certain longevity in the university world, which, coupled with the fact that getting professors to stand in a line is like herding cats, exacerbates the normal political and personal bullshit one finds in any job environment. I have heard, and experienced, many, many horror stories about inter-departmental warfare. As has been said, academics take themselves so very seriously because so little is at stake.

One nice thing about the job is that it is possible to put one's head down, stay out of the fray, and simply do your own thing, ignoring as much as possible the spats and skirmishes. But that isolationist type of academia is really not why I got into this. I like, and to a certain extent need the interaction that comes with sharing research and ideas, shaping curriculum, navigating a course for the department.

One of the things I loved about my department here at MUN from the outset was the knowledge that not only was this kind of inetraction going to be possible here, but that as new faculty I would be more or less obligated to be involved.

Which itself could have made for a miserable situation, but I found myself in the midst of an amazing group of people, supportive and serious, many of whom had themselves lived through an extended departmental civil war in the 1980s and early 90s--and were generally unwilling to ever go through it again.

The other thing has been the departmental renewal that has happened in the last five or six years. I was one of the first new people hired, but since around 2003 we have brought in nine new professors. And what's astounding, even a little bizarre from the perspective of academia, is how well we all get along. I ruminated over this the other day with one of my pre-tenure colleagues, and we both commented on how unusual and unlikely in our experience such a lack of backbiting, grudge-bearing, and professional jealousy is. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps we're not actually unusual, my colleague speculated. Part of our common ground as new faculty is a general impatience with that kind of behaviour, an impatience we learned in part from observing it during our long graduate apprenticeships. Perhaps this is something the new generation of academics have in common?

That seems a bit utopian to me, but it serves as good an explanation as any for the time being.

Right now, apropos of my fourth anniversary of coming to Newfoundland and Memorial, I'm just grateful to have landed where I did, with the people I did.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Weekly Wisdom

“There's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

—Dorothy Parker

Monday, August 03, 2009

Looking on with something akin to horror

I have been asked on occasion why I pay so much attention to American politics on this blog and not so much to Canadian. There are a couple of reasons, perhaps the biggest one being that it goes more or less hand in hand with my academic specialization—I am an Americanist, and one who focuses on issues in postwar and contemporary American literature and culture. Given that my approach to literature is broadly historicist, much of what I teach and study is thus necessarily politically inflected. (In teaching a 20th-century American novel course last year focused on issues of race and identity, it would have been an egregious elision not to couple it with material on civil rights and the legacies of slavery, to say nothing of the immediate context of Obama’s historic campaign and election).

There is also the significant factor of being the outsider looking on at times with something akin to horror. There are those who characterize Canadian politics as boring, which is not an evaluation I agree with at all; that said however, we do seem to lack the extremes of American political discourse and the virulence with which those extremes are expressed. Which is not to suggest that Canadian politics is genteel (just watch your average Question Period), but that we have a broader ground for consensus.

The ongoing debate about health care south of the border has really brought this into sharp relief. I have found it extremely educational, while with every passing day making me not just proud but relieved to be Canadian. So much of the debate seems to me fraught with nothing less than profound cognitive dissonance, but then that probably betrays my own cultural prejudices—as a Canadian, the right to health care is a no-brainer. Nor is this a specifically Canadian sentiment, but one shared by most of the developed world, in which even our most conservative governments won’t scale back public health care. The U.S. is the odd man out on this issue. Advocates of a public option or single-payer model in the States must grind their teeth in frustration at the specter of the rest of the developed world looking on in puzzlement at America’s apparent inability to enact what Europe and Canada have had for decades.

I really have been watching the debate unfold with something akin to horror, and that has proceeded less from the ideological argument than the fact that what we’ve been seeing is not ideological so much as rabidly partisan. The ideological argument would at least be interesting, and would be educational in what it would have to say about the social contract. However, from where I sit it seems to me that the opponents of public health care would have difficulty making the ideological argument—the position they can’t make candidly is the principle that health care is not a right, but a luxury.

As far as philosophical positions go, this one is fair enough. I obviously disagree vehemently with it, but would have more respect for American lawmakers if they would at least be honest. However, this is not a tenable position, considering that poll after poll shows an electorate that wants, at the very least, a public option, and I can’t imagine standing up telling people they don’t deserve health care because they’re not wealthy enough would result in many victories come election day—especially considering the fact that employees of the federal government have about the best health insurance in the country. Further, the free-market fundamentalism espoused by the American right, which hews to the dogma that private business is invariably more efficient, cost-effective, and competent than government-run anything founders on the reef of the actuality of the American health insurance industry. We must always remember that private insurance companies make their money in not paying out claims; if you grant the principle that health care is a right, the horror stories one hears of people being denied coverage for major surgery based on inaccuracies or elisions in the way they filled out their policy—or the cynical practice of writing legal loopholes allowing the company to deny coverage into the policy—become that much more egregious.

I firmly believe that health care, like education and really anything that protects the health and well-being of citizens (ranging from water treatment to the police force), needs to be firmly in the public sphere, for privatization of these sectors of society puts the focus on profit rather than where it should be—namely, the citizenry these sectors serve. The conservative argument would contest this with the position that the bigger government this necessitates is inefficient, wasteful, and intrusive, and that private ownership would result in a situation not only more streamlined and effective but also one in which individuals’ access to these services would be proportional to their own success and hard work.

Well and good. I’m happy to have that debate with any comers, but again, if we’re seeing these positions articulated in the current American health care debate, it happens obliquely at best.

There are two principal arguments being made against “Obamacare,” one valid and the other cynically mendacious. The valid argument is over paying for health care reform, and while the numbers have been twisted and spun on both sides, at least it proceeds from a genuine concern.

The second argument isn’t so much an argument as a strategy, as it contains a multitude of arguments of varying degrees of untruth. This strategy is, very simply, to smudge and obfuscate the Obama administration’s message, and if it also manages to scare the crap out of some people, so much the better. A representative selection:

—under Obama’s plan, you will be denied treatments that a faceless government bureaucrat deems too expensive or unnecessary

—the government will dictate your choices in everything from hospital to doctor

—public-run health care is socialism

—access to your doctor will be complicated by a series of government bureaucrats you’ll have to get through first

—seniors will be visited by government employees and made to decide how they want to die

This last one is my favourite, and seems to have been the falsehood that has—predictably—gone the most viral (so to speak).

All of these claims are at the best disingenuous and at worst cynical falsehoods, and can all be disproven by the simple expedient of looking at the public health-care options already provided by the federal government—Medicaid, Medicare, and USVA coverage. Medicare in particular is an excellent example of an extremely popular public program, to the point where any legislator seeking to repeal it would be committing political suicide. In fact, in a misapprehension that would be comical if it weren’t indicative of the disconnect at work in this debate, many seniors have expressed their fear that the Obama health care reforms would eliminate Medicare.

The right has done a good job of propagating such misunderstandings, and while the deliberate falsehoods are appalling enough, the cynical political brinksmanship on display is breathtaking. The Republicans, probably correctly, see that a loss for Obama on health care would cripple the administration, and so are doing everything in their power to block, slow, dilute, and crush the nascent legislation. Meanwhile, public support for the Obama plan has been eroding steadily, pretty much in direct proportion to the loss of progressive elements—that is to say, each hint that the public option will be weaker or gone altogether denudes support, which of course the right wing opportunistically points to as evidence that the electorate doesn’t want health care reform.

As I said at the outset, all this makes me happy, proud and above all relieved to be a Canadian. Our health care system is by no means perfect, but it is an extraordinary comfort to know I’ll never have to take out a second mortgage to pay for a procedure because I was denied health insurance for leaving off my childhood bout with chicken pox.