Saturday, January 21, 2017

Books 4, 5, 6: My aunt's dog is a pretty harshly judgmental critic sometimes.

I've fallen behind in the book reports, as I am now on books 8, 9, and 10 while I haven't even written up the previous three, so here we go, in one swell foop*

*The phrase "One Swell Foop" has it's own Wikipedia entry, which notes that the phrase is the title of a Xanth book but also points out that Peter Sellers used the phrase in the 1960s, and as early as 1900s people were malpropping the Shakespearean phrase. The actual phrase is one fell swoop, used by Shakespeare in Macbeth:
MACDUFF: [on hearing that his family and servants have all been killed]
All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

The three books in this post don't have very much in common but talking about them together might help explain why I liked one and didn't like the other two very much, and also I need to get caught up, and also maybe they do all have something in common, so we'll see. And we're off!

Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur begins the story of the young girl who is now apparently the smartest person in the Marvel Universe, and apparently it is something of an update to an older comic named Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur, or possibly just Devil Dinosaur? The storyline is roughly: Moon Girl, a/k/a Lunella Lafayette [carrying on the proud (?) tradition of alliteratively-named heroes) is a young girl who is 'inhuman,' which I gathered meant her DNA had been tampered with. There is some sort of fog going around that causes people with these DNA to mutate (or something; the first volume leaves that unclear for people like me.)  Lunella is searching for a MacGuffin that will help her find a cure or prevention for this.  Her goal is complicated by the fact that Devil Dinosaur, a fire-breathing T-Rex, as well as some straight-up Land Of The Lost man-beast ripoffs called "The Killer Folk" have both been transported from another dimension here.

Hausfrau, meanwhile, is the story of Anna, an American who moved with her husband (who is Swiss) to Switzerland and begins having affairs for, as far as anyone can tell, absolutely no reason whatsoever, and is now very sad about it.

The Defenders, finally, is a collection of short stories by Phillip K. Dick, who is revered by scifi people because of Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, each of which might be discussed in turn.

I liked Moon Girl. I didn't like the other two. The reasons why are differing but overlapping.

Let's begin with the one I really disliked: Hausfrau.  Here is why I read this book: I knew about it because of the cover controversy.  Hausfrau was released in hardcover, and in softcover deluxe paperback.  See if you can tell who was the target audience for each book.



The thinking apparently was either that more men might buy the softcover, or to change the way the book was marketed.  A blurb on the cover of the book compares it to Anna Karenina and 50 Shades Of Grey.  It is neither, and it is inferior to both -- and I say that despite not having read the latter and having disliked the former.

Speaking of covers, Moon Girl's was part of the reason I read that, too, as I am a sucker for the all-white cover with characters out of context.

So I knew about Hausfrau because some people thought the difference in covers might be somewhat controversial, and when I was browsing around books I saw that was available as an audiobook.  The blurb for the book now compared it to Girl On A Train, which I gather is the hot new book to compare other books too; apparently if your book has, at any point, a woman and a train in it, it will be compared to Girl On A Train and sold that way.  This is misleading in many ways; it assumes (for example) that Girl On A Train is a story good enough to make others want to read it, when in fact Girl On A Train which I just realized is called The Girl On The Train but I am too lazy to go back and change, so...) was more or less a reasonably-well-done average thriller.  Also, if your book doesn't involve the key elements of Train Girl -- i.e., a murder, a twist in the mystery, actual characters people might care about -- then your book isn't really like The Girl Train at all.

Hausfrau could be best described as "vaguely-wishy-washy wish fulfillment for women." It wasn't until the end that I realized it was even intended as an homage or retelling of Anna Karenina, and only then because Hausfrau Anna steps in front of a train and kills herself. No, I'm not sorry I spoiled that for you with no warning; the book isn't worth reading so I saved you some effort.

Hausfrau is a couple hundred pages of Anna wandering around some place in Switzerland, having affairs with three men, and feeling vaguely disenchanted.  We are told that she doesn't make any effort to connect, but we don't see why her life might be so bad.  Her husband, Bruno, seems like a decent enough guy, her kids are okay, she's got money and some friends.  She's just depressed. Anna herself is almost transparent; we get so little backstory or action from her, and so much mopey maudlin thinking, that it's almost impossible to picture her as a character in the book at all.  Meanwhile, everyone else around her is a cardboard cutout of a person: The Scotsman who runs a whiskey store (or something). The chirpy American friend who thinks everything is great. The jaded rich woman who brags about her affairs. The silent, somewhat scolding Swiss mother-in-law.

Two things really standout to make Hausfrau annoying, apart from its marketing, that is, because, as I said, it's compared to an erotic book and a thriller, and it contains neither eroticism nor thrills [seriously, there is not any sort of mystery/thriller/action, at all].  The first is the continued use of German as a metaphor. Anna is taking German lessons to fit in in Switzerland, and periodically throughout the book Anna will cover some of her lessons in a AN EXTREMELY heavyhanded metaphorical way.  In German, the irregular verbs are the ones that have to do with love. LOVE IS IRREGULAR. I WISH LOVE WAS NOT IRREGULAR.  That's not a direct quote, but it is more subtle than how those things are handled in the book.

The second is the scene with her husband Bruno, when he figures out (for certain) that Anna has cheated on him and that her daughter is not his daughter. Bruno gets her in the kitchen and beats her up, pulling a ring off her finger and bashing her head.  The scene is intended to be probably the most dramatic in the book. It's not. It's the worst, as it comes out of nowhere, is entirely out of character for Bruno, out of tone with the book, and then is thrown into the dustbin immediately anyway.

You can tell it's out of character for Bruno because Anna tells you it's out of character. Up until the scene, Bruno has mostly been sitting at his computer in his home office, or drinking a beer at a party, and his characterization is limited to 'he hangs in his office some pictures his kids drew + he's a banker.'  Bruno and Anna have argued before, when Bruno suspects her of cheating, but he's never been violent. Then he goes nuts in the kitchen, and afterwards tenderly helps Anna bathe, packs a bag for her, and throws her out.  The author, threw Anna, tells us that Bruno had never done this before, and never would again in a million years.  LITERALLY. The author flatly say that.

The scene seems intended to bring some sympathy for Anna, but it has the opposite effect. It makes us dislike Bruno but not like Anna any better, if only because Anna is a cipher.  The effect is less emotionally affecting than reading a news story about a woman you don't know being beaten.

Hausfrau wants to be literary, like Anna Karenina, but ends up being less interesting and less well-written than Carrie Bradshaw's sojourn in Paris near the end of Sex And The City (a storyline that similarly relied on the deus ex machina of a boyfriend turning abusive for no reason and entirely out of character to drum up sympathy) . Stories about rich spoiled white women feeling lost when their husbands or boyfriends get jobs in foreign countries maybe just don't affect me? But they shouldn't affect anyone. The problems of rich spoiled upperclass people are not problems. They are momentary distractions. Anna has no real problems. She is not poor. She has no mental health issues. Her children are happy and healthy. Her husband has a good job. She has friends who like her and is apparently pretty and sexy. She's not even bored.  She's just boring.  Anna is what people who grew up solely watching reality TV would believe is a real woman: someone walking around in a life they wish they could have, with problems that they create and can thus solve. When Anna isn't going through boutique food markets buying fancy cheese, she is being pursued for sex by her husband's friends. OH THE HUMANITY.  It's Mary Sue fiction for women who don't even have the courage to read something more erotic.

Moon Girl, on the other hand -- nice segue! -- actually takes a trope character and stock situation -- brainy kid with outsized problem -- and invests it with some life.  Notwithstanding the horribly annoying "Killer Folk", Moon Girl is an above-average comic.  Lunella really is different and outstanding. Not in the trite "Katniss Everdeen" way intended to appeal to mopey teens ("I'm different and better but in ways so subtle it's hard to tell until I save the world.")  Lunella's parents know she has this DNA thing, and everyone knows she is smart, but they want her to focus on being a 'regular' kid and not always inventing things or sneaking off to roam the city with a fire-breathing dinosaur to find a cure for her condition.

The thing that sets Moon Girl apart is not just the way it blends 'wacky superhero' stuff with realistic-ish scenes in a touching way (the way the probably-forgotten 'Mazing Man comic used to do) but also that Lunella herself is about as realistic a version of a supergenius elementary schoolgirl can be.  She feels separated from her world, and seems to want to both fit in and remain special.  There is a touching moment when Lunella makes a real effort to just be a 'regular kid', and everyone applauds her for it, until one night lying in bed she wonders if normal is really what she wants and if it wouldn't be better to actually have the fog change her because a normal life is kind of boring and below her.  Unlike Anna's internal struggles about whether or not she should cheat on her husband and/or take part in her family's lives -- a struggle which carries no emotional weight because Anna is a blank slate and hence the answers seem easy [NO, don't cheat on your apparently-very-decent-until-the-author-abruptly-changes-her-mind-husband] -- Lunella's issues seems like they're worth thinking about: does being a genius, and having this weird DNA, mean that she can't ever enjoy what people would think of as a regular life? And would she be able to enjoy it anyway, being a supergenius? Is what makes her special and unique something that will keep her from ever actually having a regular life?  It's hard to believe that it would be easier to identify with and be invested in the story of a young girl who is trying to help a dinosaur fight the Hulk than a woman with three kids in a foreign country, but that's how these stories read.

Part of what makes Moon Girl fun, too, is that it invests some life into the tropes so that you don't necessarily see what's coming next, without dumb twists that are telegraphed from the very setup of the story.  Unlike, say, The Defenders.  (Even nicer segue!)

The Defenders helps demonstrate why older literary works maybe ought not be given the deference and heft they are accorded -- that is, why Phillip K. Dick maybe isn't the shining literary star people insist he is (and why Anna Karenina ought to be consigned to the ashheap as well.)  Electric Sheep, which I loved, was brilliant. The Defenders stories are not.  The stories were written in the 50s and 60s and seem clumsy and obvious now. It's hard to believe they didn't seem that way, then, and it's likely they did, but that this type of storytelling was the popular culture then. In the same way that television shows from the 50s seems dull and slow-paced but were beloved by the people then, the stories from that era feel elementary to us now but were apparently the accepted manner of storytelling back then.  This is a good argument for not continuing to teach or read things from decades, or centuries, ago: while the themes may be universal, the storytelling and language and style are not, and it makes it difficult to enjoy and/or get the themes when you're struggling with simply reading the book in the first place.

In The Defenders, Dick's short scifi stories demonstrate more or less the worst of short scifi stories: stock situations, telegraphed twists, telling-not-showing.  A man has to travel back in time to kill the founder of a religion... only to find out he is the founder!  Humans send robots to fight their wars while they hide underground... only to find out the robots have decided not to fight!  And so on.  In each story, about 25 words in, I was able to correctly guess what the suprising plot twist (TM) would be, and the surprising plot twist is an unfortunate hallmark (especially) of short scifi.  If all I had ever read of Phillip Dick were these short stories, I'd have never read Electric Sheep, because it would be impossible to imagine that the banal storytelling of these shorts could be created by the same guy who came up with the compelling dystopia of Rick Decker's bounty hunting life.  Putting Dick on a pedestal for his great book I guess is okay as long as we acknowledge that a lot of his writing was pretty crummy.

Reading -- and thinking about reading -- tells us a lot about ourselves as well as about the world we live in and the things the writer wants us to think about.  I always go back to the My Aunt's Dog Theorem I devised, which is this:

For any given piece of art -- story, painting, poem, etc. -- there will be someone who will take in that piece of art, and think That reminds me of my aunt's dog.
What it means is that inevitably we bring our own baggage to any work of art and thus the artist's intent will be subordinated, or at least subverted somewhat, by how we interpret it. (My Aunt's Dog is therefore a corollary to my other theorem, which is: Everything Is Symbolic Of Everything.)  But it works both ways: we don't just interpret works according to our own experiences. We also interpret ourselves in relationship to those things we read or watch or listen to.  When you like or dislike a book, the reasons why you like or dislike it can tell you as much about yourself as about the book you are reading.

For myself, I find myself inordinately disappointed when a book oversells itself and turns out to be simply typical, or worse.  I find myself delighted when something rises above itself.  I know why that is: I'm looking for the atypical.  So much of our lives are typical. We have the same routines each day. We experience the same things and think the same things about them; if you ever look at a bunch of pictures you have taken, and then look at any random set of photos on, say, Flickr, you will see that inevitably numerous other people have taken photos similar (if not identical) to the ones you've taken.  That doesn't surprise me: we tend to think the same things are beautiful or scenic or noteworthy -- but those things become, quickly, typical, banal, overdone.

In my work, even, legal cases become more or less categories.  We might get a new case in and think this is a [insert former client's name]. That in fact is how law works, to an extent: you try to figure out what former case your new one is most like, to determine how the courts will treat it and how you might be able to alter that earlier result.  So your divorce or car accident or foreclosure isn't as unique as you think, any more than that picture of the scenic overlook or the moon on a cloudy night over a lake is.

What I look for in a book is something to pull me out of the typical, to make me think and feel and worry and wonder, to stick in my memory.  I bet I've read 2,000+ books in my life, maybe significantly more.  I bet I can remember (maybe) 100, tops.  The ones I can remember that jump off the page at me are books that have done something new or different or amazing, even when they are wrapped in old clothes. Catch -22 , my favorite book ever, is a World War II story. I hate World War II stories; simply telling me a story is set in World War II makes me not want to hear any more. And yet I re-read and re-read Catch-22 despite the setting, because Catch-22 is an amazing book that presents something new each time you read it. It is sad and funny and dramatic and ironic, and it has a lot on its mind that it tells in a courageous, unusual way.

Moon Girl isn't Catch-22, but it shares attributes of that book: it takes the familiar and rearranges them in a way that isn't meant simply to startle or surprise, like The Defenders, but rather in a way that is meant to make one think about what those familiar objects mean, almost like Warhol's soup cans. There are a million stories about young girls who are somehow different but what sets Moon Girl apart from them is that in Moon Girl the difference is more in how Lunella herself is struggling with her own difference.  She isn't a hollow shell set up so a reader can engage in some wish fulfillment, like Anna; there are no sudden twists to add drama to a story that otherwise lacked it, like The Defenders.  It is a familiar story told in a familiar way that nonetheless engages the reader through good writing and a slightly-different perspective.  Lunella, a genius child with inhuman DNA and a dinosaur friend, feels more real than Anna, and less hackneyed than any setup in The Defenders. Part of that may be because Moon Girl doesn't seem to be trying to be something more than it is.  Hausfrau, like I said, wants to be Anna Karenina.  Dick's stories want to be important, to convey big themes about religion and society and war.  Moon Girl wants to be a silly comic about a girl with some big thoughts on her mind.

In the end, that may be what makes the difference for me: the striving.  The most typical thing an author can do is set out to make a point, to be something, to Create A Masterpiece That Will Teach Us All.  Stories that set out to do more than tell a story rarely achieve either of those goals.  People that try to Be Someone often are hiding the fact that they aren't anyone at all.  The same goes for books.


Andrew Leon said...

Oh, you probably just like comics. :P

I have 'The Man in the High Castle' sitting in my "to read" shelf, and I'll probably get to that after I finish what I'm reading. I've liked what I've read of Dick so far (which isn't a lot but does include Electric Sheep), and I think this book may be a good read at this particular time.

You seem to not know the background of the Inhumans in Marvel? And the fog?

And I gotta cut this short 'cause I gotta go.
Did you ever make it ot Rogue One?

Briane Pagel said...

I did. Also I'll be posting more of your stories' reviews soon.