Thursday 13 March 2008

Some comments from Monday and my reference to Chabon's salute to Raymond Chandler started me thinking about the plotting in crime fiction. I took a few critical reviews last year when I tackled The Black Diamond Detective Agency. Some reviewers at the time thought it too hard to follow to be an enjoyable read. Which is certainly what I intended, or at least the first part of that equation. Any crime mystery that can be easily grasped is not worth the trouble of reading. A good mystery story requires some detective work from the reader, going backwards and forwards to make sense of it, even after you've finished the book. I changed the identity of the villain, and consequently the motive, to try to put some complexity into it. But like the subjects of Monday's post, the 'plot' is a received thing, passed down through a long line of other stories before landing in this one. I figured my piece could at best be 'a story about another story' and gave it my best shot.

I sat through one of the recent productions of Miss Marple with Geraldine McEwan in the title role. Even with the assorted controversial additions and alterations, and with the best will in the world, I can't help but see the whole thing as a tiresome exercise in the antique. I can get less excited about it than can the sad old clock that has appeared every night in The Mousetrap since that play opened in 1952. There's something that ought to disturb us about turning the tragic human mess of a murder into a parlour guessing game, as Alan Moore has said often in reference to his approach to From Hell. He supplanted that with his own insane recreation 'The Dance of the Gull catchers,' in which he debunked all of the theories including his own, and I was pleased to illustrate it. The movie turned it back into, if not a parlour game, a back alley round of pitch and toss.

In the whodunnit the solution is so often a pin that lets the air out of the balloon, dispersing forever anything that was there in the first place. I watched The Black Dahlia on dvd. It has a deceitful narrative logic justifying a catalogue of grotesque improbabilities. The final one is the detective executing the villainess in the motel room. But then this is De Palma we're talking about, who twisted the Untouchables into a tortured shape and God knows what he was thinking about with Scarface. Spillane's Mike Hammer at the end of Kiss me Deadly sets the villainess on fire, but then she was in the middle of killing him. I check wikipedia. sure enough, in Ellroy's Dahlia the detective more logically just arrests her. It's the movies, you see. They have to crank up the action a couple more notches and logic be damned. Neither did Spillane like the movie version of his own Kiss me Deadly, which upped the ante by throwing a radioacive isotope into the plot: Bezzerides wrote of the script: "I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it ... I tell you Spillane didn't like what I did with his book. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn't like me"

In the extended series of character driven whodunnits like those tv sleuths Cracker or McCallum, their family and acquiantances are in turn used as plot springboards and victims until the hero sinks in a hopeless swamp of dirty secrets and raw vulnerabilities. I've never affected the necessary degreee of cynicism to stick with these for long. If I have nothing on my mind and I find myself at the tv flicking through the channels, I can maybe sit through the workaday investigations of CSI, though it would never occur to me to make a point of watching it..

I was once fond the great first era of the hardboiled crime writing, with its helter skelter style. The recent Pulp Fiction 'The Crimefighters' anthology which I reviewed here had a fine story by Chandler, the touching ending of which has stayed in my mind for months. After retrieving the necklace that was the subject of the piece, Marlowe has a copy made to give back to his client to save her feelings if she should find out the thing her late husband gave her was in fact bogus. "You were right," she said, "They are not my pearls." And the story ends with him throwing the pearls of the 'original fake' into the sea from a forlorn rock. "They made little splashes and the seagulls rose off the water and swooped at the splashes."
For a minute or two there was a dark and unfathomable poetry in the genre.


Wednesday 12 March 2008


This is shit. I just heard Dave Stevens died.It was only a few months ago since I was wondering what he was up to. And he was born less than two weeks before me! What's going on here? that's two great people in less than a month. "We're in mortality country now..."
Dave was a lovely bloke.

The rest of this post was put in here earlier and does not reflect my current mood.

John C. in comments yesterday likened Mortimer's work to that of our contemporary British illustrator Paul Slater, (see left). His site is well worth a visit for some juicy laffs.

Thought for the day: "It seems to me that men ask a lot of questions, but they're not willing to do the research. They're always asking, 'What do women want?' Why don't they try buying us a bunch of stuff and see what happens?-- Livia Squires.

Hey, I could have been THIS Eddie Campbell:
Hurricane Fire Chief Hangs Up His Helmet- Hurricane Valley Journal- march 5-2008
Hurricane City Councilman John Bramall and Mayor Tom Hirschi present retiring fire chief Eddie Campbell with tokens of appreciation for his years of service, as Mrs. Campbell looks on. The Hurricane Fire Department hosted an open house to honor retiring fire chief, Eddie Campbell, for his many years of dedicated service to the community.

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Tuesday 11 March 2008

T his is a book I bought a year ago. As to its contents, it is a study of the English satrical print between 1780 and 1830. I'll leave the rest to someone who gets paid to be a reviewer. It was out in paperback as recently as September 2007 and here is the Amazon page. All I will put up here by way of recommendation is to note that the sixth chapter is titled 'Bums, farts and other transgressions'

As a lover of everything to do with the eighteenth century, this is a book I would have picked up anyway (as I did unseen by mail order), but two things about it pleased me greatly. The first was to find it addressing an idea that I dabbled with myself in my aborted book, The History Of Humour (of which three chapters appeared in serial form). The idea that there is a history of any given subject is not one that should be taken for granted. In fact the idea of history itself had to be invented, as explained in The gift of the Jews ('How a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels') by Thomas Cahill.
Here is a paragraph from Gatrell's introduction:

"By focusing on casts of mind that were satirical, sardonic or ironic, as well as on some more genial forms of humorous expression, the book offers a history of humour and laughter. Attention to so large and loose a subject must break new and difficult ground, for there isn't much previous research to build on. It is lucky for laughter that most historians prefer to write histories of misery, pain and woe, since nothing so kills laughter as analysing it. Yet humour is as plausibly a historian's subject as any other, and it allows us to say new and important things. As the Aristotelian formula put it, man is the only animal that laughs (and weeps and blushes) because man alone can see the difference between how things are and how they ought to be. In other words, the reflex of laughter is controlled by mental processes; and mental proceses have histories. The subjects that people think it appropriate to laugh at; what kinds of people laugh; how cruelly, mockingly, or sardonically they laugh (or how sympathetically and generously); and how far they permit others to laugh- all vary with time, sex, class, place, and culture. And since these questions have always been regulated by moralists, laughter has always been central to the processes by which Western manners have been disciplined over the centuries. For all these reasons, studying laughter can take us to the heart of a generation's shifting attitudes, sensibilities and anxieties just as surely as the study of misery, politics, faith or art can. Indeed, the art forms which shape this book, whose purpose was to provoke amusement at others' expense, are perfectly contrived to lead us to past mentalities along routes as yet hardly explored."
The other thing is that the cover shows, not a detail from one of the satirical prints that the book is all about, but a reproduction of a paintng by John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-1779). He was an artist in the neoclassical idiom, and of portraits and 'conversation pieces'. But he also made a couple of large scale caricature groups, and did this kind of thing so well that presumably he must have made a lot more of it than I have seen. But then all the accomplished portraitists of the time dabbled in the new fashion of 'caricatura.' William Hogarth was a traditionalist and he resisted and protested against this Italian import,
"caracatura is...divested of every stroke that hath a tendency to good drawing...for the early scrawlings of a Child which do but barely hint at an idea of an human face will always be found to be like some person or other... etc"
which is one of the reasons I have a problem with the precise way Hogarth's importance is measured by the 'comics' intelligentsia. "Hogarth... consolidated the graphic experiments of earlier prints and established a complex language of graphic devices that artists have borrowed from ever since," it says in a footnote in Masters of American Comics. This is bogus history writing. It suggests a template that had to be filled, and Hogarth was the square peg that the writer wanted in the round hole (in order to create the fiction of a long and noble continuous art of drawing in sequences). Much as the artworld now elevates him high over his contemporaries, historiographically Hogarth is a point of discontinuity. The interests of art at that time (of Hogarth's late years) went off in another direction entirely, and Mortimer in his serious art was very much of his time. But there is something about the immediacy and spontaneity of inspired humour that can allow it to stand outside of the fashions and constrictions of time. It could be said that Mortimer's caricatures appear very twentieth century (sic). The first of the enlarged details below could almost be a humorous sketch of Rowan Atkinson for the tv guide.

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Monday 10 March 2008

Every time the annual San Diego convention comes around (July) I always notice I have a pile of stuff from the previous one that I haven't read yet. I do dip into it from time to time. Today I picked up the promotional excerpt from Austin Grossman's Soon I will be Invincible, consisting of the first two chapters. The book was published last June I believe. I found myself talking to the author (he must have been talking in turn to a mutual acquaintance as I walked past or something). I referred to Grossman once before, on June 15 when he was reviewed in the NY Sun. His writing is casually and stunningly intelligent. Almost every paragraph is bejewelled with wit:

Most of them are naturals, superpowered since puberty or before. Powers that came on their own. Naturals are the world talents that form out of the ever-churning soup of the human megapopulace by accident or fate. Once in a hundred million times, a lifetime of factors align, and at the right moment something new coalesces out of high-tech industrial waste, genetic predisposition, and willpower, with a dash of magic or alien invention. It started happening more often in the early 1950s and no one knows why- nuclear power plants, alien contact, chlorinated water, or too many people dancing the Twist.
(In the indicia is a note that says "THIS IS AN UNCORRECTED PROOF. IT IS NOT FOR SALE AND SHOULD NOT BE QUOTED WITHOUT COMPARISON WITH THE FINISHED BOOK. I hope they caught the typo on page 29, a simple transposition of 'the' and 'in' that would not have been picked up by spellcheck)
The US edition has a gorgeous cover designed by Chip Kidd while the UK ed. has a hideous illustration that makes it look like a comic book. You can see them both at the Wikipedia page for the title. Visualising Grossman's characters in such a literal way, i.e. they are 'comic book characters', so here's what they'd look like on the front of a comic book, undermines much of the author's work toward making something more of them.
Right about now somebody is going to observe that I'm writing about a book after having read only two chapters. I'm giving Grossman the benefit of the doubt and presuming he continues as well as he starts, all through the plot of his story. My point is that the plot would not interest me as a plot in itself. Truth be told, the plot in Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, my favourite book of last year, became less interesting to me the closer it got to resolution. How else can you wrap up a crime story except by solving the mystery? The book was most interesting to me about 45% of the way through. The sophisticated reader knows that the plot in this kind of book is not the heart of the thing. Sure it is what the book is 'about', but it is as much 'about' the plot at 45% as it is at 99%, no more no less. It gets no further from nor closer to its subject. The cumulative tension is never entirely real, in fact the negation of the possibility of 'real' is our postmodern motor. A latent sense of form, and a publisher's need to sell books, demands that we go through the motions and act out the bogus drama if we lack the courage or imagination to do otherwise.

Looking at the Wiki entry linked above. I notice that there are template subject headings, "Plot", "Characters" "Major Themes", "Literary Significance", "Allusions and references", and that the penulitimate of these has no content. It just says:
Literary significance and reception
This short section requires expansion.
What? Can it be that Grossman was so busy with last minute preparations and looking for that typo on page 29 that he forgot to include the 'Literary significance'? I'm reminded of an old friend of mine, who was a very clever chap with academic accomplishments, but he appeared to think that the composition of a piece of fiction involved thinking about all those things separately, first 'plot', then 'character', 'themes,' etc. and putting the work together in the same order in which scholars conventionally dismantle it.
And for all I know, the rest of the world thinks it is so.

Meanwhile, Children's book art gains mainstream acclaim
-By Stephanie Reitz -Associated Press- 03/07/2008
They're not the "Mona Lisa" or "Whistler's Mother," but images such as the Cat in the Hat, the Very Hungry Caterpillar and other icons of illustrated children's books are gaining respect in highbrow art circles. Once seen as fun but forgettable, the genre is now being featured in mainstream museums and dissected in college art courses.
"It's undervalued as an art form. The great children's book artists are drawing from art history and the trends of their times," said H. Nichols B. Clark, director of the Carle Museum, which features numerous artists and houses pieces from Carle's decades-long career, including his signature Hungry Caterpillar.
"I can't say we're viewing it quite the way we're viewing Monets, but I do think there's been more attention and focus on this," said Jean Sousa, the Art Institute of Chicago's director of interpretive exhibits and family programs. "It's a distinct entity. It doesn't have to compete with the Monets of the world because it has its own special value as art."
The appeal of some images has lasted over the decades, such as H.A. Rey's "Curious George" and Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit."
But art historians and educators say only time will tell which of today's illustrations become tomorrow's icons. From Caillou to Captain Underpants to Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, the staying power has yet to be seen.
"There are some that are likely to be around forever, but we just can't predict yet which ones they'll be," she said.
The 'art world' is inordinately concerned with what, like the proverbial bad smell, is going to hang around. Time has a cumulative and selective intelligence and posterity will have the vantage of hindsight and therefore be more enlightened than the here and now.
And for all I know, the rest of the world thinks it is so.

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Sunday 9 March 2008

Serendipitously, two from the Vatican:

Vatican lists "new sins," including pollution

Thou shall not pollute the Earth. Thou shall beware genetic manipulation. Modern times bring with them modern sins. So the Vatican has told the faithful that they should be aware of "new" sins such as causing environmental blight.
The guidance came at the weekend when Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, the Vatican's number two man in the sometimes murky area of sins and penance, spoke of modern evils. The Vatican opposes stem cell research that involves destruction of embryos and has warned against the prospect of human cloning.
Girotti, in an interview headlined "New Forms of Social Sin," also listed "ecological" offences as modern evils.Under Benedict and his predecessor John Paul, the Vatican has become progressively "green." It has installed photovoltaic cells on buildings to produce electricity and hosted a scientific conference to discuss the ramifications of global warming and climate change, widely blamed on human use of fossil fuels.
(thanks to Tita in comments)

This one appears in the Onion ('America's finest news source'):
Shroud Of Turin Accidentally Washed With Red Shirt
The Shroud of Turin, an ancient linen cloth believed to bear the image of Christ and considered by many clerics and devotees to be one of the holiest relics of the Christian faith, was inadvertently dyed a light shade of pink after being washed with a red T-shirt, sources reported Tuesday.
"Simply because the shroud has been given a slight pinkish tint does not in any way diminish its sanctity," Vatican spokesman Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo said during a press conference held to address the spiritual repercussions of the shroud's staining. "It is still very much the icon of the suffering of the innocent of all times."
According to Lajolo, the damage occurred when Pope Benedict XVI, whose turn it was to do the Vatican laundry, did not notice that a brand-new, bright-red Hanes Beefy-T belonging to Cardinal Angelo Sodano had been placed inside of the consecrated cleansing vessel, the Holy Whirlpool 24934 top-load washer... (More)
(Via wee hayley campbell)