Friday, September 2, 2011

Novella: 'The Bayberry Years' (same universe as the short stories I just posted)


The Bayberry Years
By Nathan Turowsky



Prologue

It was a cold morning at the beginning of December, before the snows but undoubtedly after the fall was through, and the narrow streets of the city were full of fog. Through the streets from the dreary banlieues of South Boston all the way up to the ancient brick mansions of Beacon Hill came a young man with a bag of groceries on his shoulder and a packet full of several pill-bottles in the pocket of his coat. He walked along the cobbles, not navigable by automobile traffic, and through the fog under the out-of-date streetlights til before him was the apparition of a thick dark wooden door.
            The house that he now looked upon was not one of the oldest ones in the neighbourhood but it was old enough to impress one who had grown up in a borderline tenement, last of the seven children of a very traditional Irish Catholic family. It was built of brick brilliantly red even in this sort of weather, with shaped and somehow reinforced stucco cornices and one granite gargoyle. The roof of the house was steeply pitched on many levels, so that looking at it from below was almost like looking at the jagged Western mountains that the young man had seen in his geography textbooks in high school. The roof—or roofs, rather; the roofs were slatted in black-tarred wood, which the mistresses of the house every spring had to hire a new contractor to repair.
            There was not much in the way of a front garden—most of that sort of thing was in the back. There was just a short walk between two lines of burgeoning boxwood shrubs up to the front stoop and the door. Other than the shrubs the only thing there to break the solid line from pavement to stoop was a mailbox, green plastic with the Boston Globe logo stamped on it in white, with its red flag now up as they apparently were awake and had put the mail out already.
            ‘Already…’ The young man laughed. They were ridiculously early risers for their age. It was rather endearing in some way.
            The mailbox had two names on it, other than that of the newspaper, affixed to it in durable black vinyl tape with white lettering upon it: I. Crowninshield and F. Greenleaf. Crowninshield and Greenleaf were names with true old-Boston pedigrees. John Caspar Crowninshield had come to Massachusetts in 1688 from Germany and founded a long and storied seafaring family; the Greenleafs were not so old or well-established as the Crowninshields but they were quite rich and had been for some time. There were not many living people with those names alive these days, though; the old hold of the Brahmins of the city had been weakened in the time of Honey Fitz and finally destroyed by the 1960s or thereabouts. The families still existed in name, most of them; but even some of those names were dying out.
            The young man did not think of this as he opened the door and went into the wood-walled front hall with its hanging sea-paintings and impossible and imperishable smell of cod. He, David Lenihan, was paid thirty-one thousand five hundred dollars a year plus some personal medical coverage out of some weird and wicked rich-people plan to make sure that the two old ladies who lived here were doing all right in their daily lives. It was a job that he liked a lot, mostly. The old ladies were gay but David had no real problem with this. It was actually kind of sweet, since early on they probably hadn’t had an easy time and they’d stayed together anyway. Isabel Crowninshield had been a high-ranking customs inspector at the Port of Boston until retiring about eight or nine years ago. Flora Greenleaf had been involved in patronage of the arts and had been involved in printing and publishing for a while, but apparently this career had eventually gone belly-up somehow.
            ‘David?’ came a soft, high, quavering, croaking voice from up the big dark-wooden staircase with the motorised chair on a rail affixed to the banister. ‘Is that you, David?’
            ‘Yes, Miz C,’ David called back. ‘Putting some vegetables an’ stuff away. Gonna refill your med trays too.’
            ‘Ah,’ the voice came again. ‘Good, good. After that, David, please come up here. Flora and I want to discuss a few things with you.’

All three Mattie and Ellie short stories so far


Red Leaf Travelling Blues
By Nathan Turowsky

Allowed by the conductor to get on the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus despite not having enough money and being at the very edge of the PVTA service area at best, they settled down into two isolated seats at the very back, their heads resting against the cold metal behind them as they listened to the power train’s almost maternal hum. They went through the fields south of Bernardston and down the old streets of Greenfield. Past there, they crossed the big river at Turners Falls, where it fell over the power-dam in triple cataracts. South of Sunderland they got off and looked down past Amherst to the distant humps of the Holyoke Range. The hills north of the Quabbin were blazing with foliage to the east beneath the morning sun.
            ‘So what’s new with you?’ asked one of them casually, clapping her hand down on her friend’s shoulder.
            Her friend cleared her throat and said ‘Not much. Not much.’
            ‘Oh, come on. I haven’t seen you in quite a while, you know, Mattie.’

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Short story: 'Heaven is Just One Step Away'


Heaven is Just One Step Away
By Nathan Turowsky

The wind blew in over the estuary and buffeted the grey paps of water around the lower rocks of the sea-wall, and at the brink of the drop into the brine she stood with the sounds of the weekend’s last shanties swelling in her ears. The wind blew her hair around her face like a shifting shoggoth of a curtain, lapping at her glasses with the soft black insistency of crows’ feathers. One hand was holding the two breast flaps of her coat together; the button had come off several days ago, when she was fumbling with her clothes after voiding some bad Chinese food in a PetroCanada bathroom in Sherbrooke. The other hand, whose fingers were splayed down against the palm like a folded wing, gripped a brochure that sagged with the weight of the fog condensing along the top edge. It was a simple length of white paper that had been printed and then folded up like an accordion. On the front it bore the legend ‘Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, La Fête des chants de marins’ over a picture of a sailboat.
            This woman with her corvine cast, a raven of the mountain fields standing amidst the gulls of the sea’s gullet, stood with her back to another woman, shorter, with some feline energy about her, who was running along the jetty to the sea-wall in hob-nailed shoes that she had used these past few years for hiking and moving about in treacherous circumstances. Such as, for example, sprinting full tilt down a stone spit soaked with the mingled leavings of sea and sky, the grey St Lawrence lapping only a few feet away to both sides. ‘Mattie!’ she cried as she ran. ‘Mattie, don’t turn your back to me!’
            Mattie was not actually turning her back to the other woman—Ellie, her dearest friend, the mate of her heart, though she would not tell Ellie so in as many words for fear of Ellie’s response. She had this fear for the same reason that she was facing away from Ellie now. It was an inarticulate, almost babyish horror that seized upon her at times like this, a horror at the idea of having to face anything that might reward her gaze by casting her away. She shivered as Ellie’s footsteps behind her slowed and then stopped, the last few wet slaps of boot against water and stone very close by to her left. She shivered and she would have liked to think it was the weather but she wasn’t going to fool herself with false roaring-boys’ bravado.
            ‘Mattie,’ said Ellie again, her thin, artificially tense voice cutting to the quick through the music of the water and the hearty tones of the singer in the white tent on the shore behind them.
            ‘I’ve decided,’ said Mattie, ‘that I really love this place, you know.’ Her voice cracked a little; again, she was not going to tell herself that it was the wind. ‘I think we could be happy here for much more than a few days if it came to that.’
            Ellie frowned, which made little difference to the actual cast of her face out here in the sea wind, and said ‘I really don’t think you realise the full import of what you actually did, Mattie.’

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Short Story: 'White Knife'

White Knife

When the merchant Master Rai came to the physician Master Ema’s house at the upper end of the village where the stream bubbled out of the mountains in a pale torrent, the snow was melting from the high slopes and the buds on the trees were just beginning to unfurl into tender pale young leaves. The physician’s house was set just aside from the stream, low and thatched, separated by a wide garden already bursting with early flowers and spices from the narrow but hard-packed road that went up from the village into the mountains’ hulking palisades. Master Rai came to the garden gate and swung it open with a boorish bang and went up to the front door, which went into the house by way of the apothecary, a perpetually dim room now lit through the slots under the eaves and at nighttime by water-lanterns and candles.
            The north wall of the apothecary was covered for the first six feet up, ending just about a handsbreadth beneath the slot at the bottom of the sloping ceiling, with row upon row on shelf upon shelf of small jars, some of native clay, some of Chinese porcelain or Dutch glass, bearing little paper labels on which Master Ema or his daughter had written the names of almost every manner of drug and medicinal herb in their small, spidery, nearly identical hands. On the south wall were anatomical charts from China and long lists and tables describing the properties of the ingredients on the north wall. In the middle of the room was a large low table; Master Ema was crouched over this table now, his thin back quivering in time with the work that his hands were doing. In his left hand was a lump of what looked like ginger, probably stored without air or moisture in one of the Dutch jars for the gods only knew how long; in his right hand was a short sharp knife that gleamed in the light from below the eaves. Every few seconds the right hand would come down on the left, cutting off another tiny chunk of ginger, which Master Ema would then almost mechanically pick up and cast into a small bowl.
            Master Ema was tall, over five and a half feet, and thin as a boating pole. His face was somewhat pinched, his nose long between the Chinese lenses in his oddly light eyes. Probably some of the blood of the furthest North ran through his veins. It took him well over a minute to notice Master Rai and several seconds beyond to follow through on his surprised grunt and look up from his cutting. By that point all but a little dirt-crusted butt of the ginger had been chopped up and put into the bowl.
            ‘Rai-san,’ Master Ema said. ‘I didn’t see you come in.’ He smiled. His smile was very thin and ironic and did not show even a hint of teeth. It was the smile of a man whose smile had to reassure without  being crass or accept without being unnerving. ‘What brings you here?’

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book: Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori

This is going to be a somewhat terse review, since I've had a long month, a long week, a long day, and am tired and using my godfather's computer because mine is in for repairs to the motherboard.

Back in the 1980s, Kyoko Mori, a Japanese immigrant working through college and grad school in the United States wrote various short stories, in English but with a very distinctly Japanese sensibility, about a girl called Okuda Yuki whose mother Shizuko commits suicide when she is twelve years old. There were different points of view in the different stories, with mostly 'Yuki chapters' but also some 'Hanae chapters' (Yuki's stepmother) and 'Masa chapters' (Yuki's grandmother). As time wore on the stories took on the character of an overall arc, which in the early nineties Mori welded into a novel that she titled Shizuko's Daughter, which follows Yuki's path through hatred and resentment of her father and stepmother to acceptance of her position in a family.

There's a lot to love about how Shizuko's Daughter pans out, such as the way it manages to be fiercely tradition-positive without being at all reactionary, the amazing relationships between the female characters, the snapshot of life in suburban seventies Japan (hint: It rhymes with Bevolutionary Boad), and the absolutely lovely writing (a sample passage, from a chapter in which Yuki, a runner in middle school at this point, develops her first crush on a fellow runner named Sachiko: 'The hurdler had long hair--Yuki imagined it would come down to her waist when she had it loose--which she wore in a thick ponytail, baring her long white neck. Her skin was fair even after a season of track practice in the sun. As she passed Yuki, she smiled, her lips curving upward just a little, not showing her teeth at all. Yuki smiled back and then looked down at her own knees....Her face felt hot.' From a chapter in which Yuki destroys a science lab project at her school to make an art project out of it: 'Moving silently, Yuki got the lid from the desk, washed and dried it, and put it back on the jar. The maple leaves and the pine needles had filled the jar almost to the top. She placed the jar carefully in the center of the desk among the scalpels and the microscopes. Then she took the empty colander and walked to the window, crawled through, and sat for a moment balanced on the edge, swinging her legs. She looked right and left. Nobody was in sight. First, she tossed the colander, which landed on the edge of the concrete path. The next moment, she pushed off with her arms and jumped out. She landed neatly on her two feet beyond the bushes and picked up the colander. Then, grasping it like a baton, she sprinted toward the woods for more maple leaves like clustered flames, pine needles that smelled of mountain air. Her ten minutes were long since used up. Miss Sakaki would fail her for today's assignment. Still, she would return in time to fill the tables with color. She began to smile as she ran.'). The book made me cry at many, many, many points, most of them in a good way, although the first four or so chapters of the book are truly dismal, as are both of the Hanae chapters.

Speaking of Hanae, she's another great thing about the book. She is so despicable. Initially she comes across as a stereotypical evil stepmother without much to her, but later we get to see what goes on inside her head. It is not pretty, but she becomes less of a caricature while remaining just as repulsive. It actually works really well.

The one issue that I have with the novel is the way a particular character near the end is presented. I don't have any problems with the character themself--in fact I actually like them a lot--but they come across to me as something like a Western lead character who stumbled into a supporting role in a Japanese story by mistake. If you read the book, and know me, you should end up with a pretty clear idea of who I mean and why I find what's done with them slightly (but not extremely) problematic, particularly given the focus on Yuki and Sachiko earlier in the book. It's a problem that could easily be resolved by either removing a single sentence, or tacking the character in question more firmly into Yuki's family somehow (this would work because of the tradition-positive and in particular family-based theme of the book), but as it is, what happens with this character leads to a somewhat uncomfortable lack of ambiguity in the end of the novel, and it just feels a little strange to me.

The best-written and most lovable character is probably Masa, Yuki's grandmother and Shizuko's mother. She doesn't appear much interacting with her daughter, since most of the flashbacks of Shizuko are Yuki's rather than hers, but it's obvious how very much she loved her. Shizuko has some flaws, most notably the fact that she killed herself despite having a preteen daughter who was very close to her (which is a pretty serious flaw, to be honest), but by and large she's presented as a very good, very loving person who had the misfortune to exist in (as they say) a world she never made, kind of like something between Anna Karenina throwing herself under the train and that guy jumping off the cliff early on in Madlax. Masa having raised Shizuko, and having a strong, fifty-year-long at the least relationship with her husband Takeo, and dealing with Yuki throughout an extremely unpleasantly (though understandably) self-pitying period in her early teenage years, and growing flowers and painting and doing crafts, comes across as pretty close to an ideal paragon of the values that the book espouses, but like Hanae in the other direction her point-of-view chapters make her a lot more interesting than a simple perfect exemplar would be.

Shizuko's Daughter is overall an incredibly good novel, the only problem that I had with it coming in one minor aspect of the role of one supporting character who shows up towards the end. This is considerably less problematic than I find the vast majority of things that I read. It's gorgeously written, with vibrant, engaging characters and images, and has an absolutely beautiful and very hopeful message in the end. And now what I really want is to find and read Mori's other work.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Occasional Thoughts on Japanese Women's Writing [That I Got All A's For]

ON TADANO MAKUZU
Tadano Makuzu’s political opinions are in many respects very conservative by the definitions and standards of late Tokugawa Japan. Her religious and nationalistic views, which are refreshingly forthright for a woman of her time in their expression, are very tied up in kokugaku ideas. Her criticisms of the ruling class are not aspersions cast on its existence or its basic character but rather expressions of the idea that it does not use—and does not safeguard—its power in the right ways.
Makuzu opposes the perceived frivolity and sybaritism of some parts of the samurai class. She compares them unfavourably with the relatively spartan nobility of the Russian Empire and also critiques their unwillingness to fully engage in the production of public policy regarding such ‘non-Confucian’ topics as the economy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fractional short story, though part of ongoing novel project: 'Clapboard City'


Victoria Yarborough deposited another tray of buns in the oven and wiped her grimy face with the toreador-patterned handkerchief that she kept in the generous breast pocket of her smoke-stained off-white apron. She shut the oven doors, took several (of what would be) long loaves from Rab Ember, put them in the other big oven, and said ‘Alright, still. Time for a break, innit?’
           ‘A’righ’, Vicki.’ Rab grinned a wide-spaced, speckled grin and waved at her with his big brine-sheened hand. ‘Gonna go down the newsstands, I take it?’
            ‘Of course,’ Victoria said. ‘‘Sa new Prime Minister. Well…’ She paused and frowned and laughed. ‘An old Prime Minister, agin.’
            ‘What is it, third time?—fourth? I know ‘e’s served more ‘n wunst before.’
            ‘Third time,’ said Victoria. ‘I swear…feel’s like summat’s going to go horrible wrong quite soon in this country.—Well, it’s been four years. Baldwin’s going to have to go t’ the country again soon in any case.’
            She shrugged and walked out. It was useless discussing politics with Rab. He had a head for the lists of Prime Ministers and what they looked like and the common little facts about them but not much else. To be truthful, Victoria herself was not exactly a political genius either, though for lack of having the chance to rather than of being able, she thought. What she really liked, in the manner of finding interesting, was things like Boys’ Own tales of the great imperial wars. A more than passingly queer interest, she knew, for an East London baker’s girl to have. But the world wasn’t always going to be what it was now, was it? Some day, she knew, or thought she knew, or hoped she knew, all mankind from China to Peru would be laid out in the range of possibilities for her life before her.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reviews of reviews, hip hip hurrah!

Hey friends! It's time for another instalment of One-Star Amazon.com Review of Books That Are Generally Considered Actually Quite Good!!!

[studio audience: yayyyy]

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories:

'
Flannery O'Connor has been hailed as a great short story writer and a great Catholic writer. While it's challenging to discern her Catholicism - at least from this collection - it's exceedingly easy to spot her use of racist language. Was she putting this language in the mouths of obviously small, ignorant people, a la Norman Lear and Archie Bunker, to teach lessons against racism? I certainly do not know enough to say.  As reported by J. Bottum in the October 2000 Crisis Magazine, "the bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana, banned the racist texts of Flannery O'Connor from the schools in his diocese....A woman known in her own day for her anti-racism now placed on the forbidden list on the grounds of racism." While O'Connor was hopefully not a racist, the bishop's removal of these works strikes me as having been wise, indeed. '

Yes. Censoring language used by fictional characters in books written fifty years ago is certainly 'wise'. I'm utterly blindsided by its wisdom. In fact...wait, no, 'blindsided' isn't the word I'm looking for; I meant 'I want to fucking throw up', sorry.
Also, 'challenging to discern her Catholicism'? Are we even talking about the same Flannery O'Connor?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My adventures on Wikipedia


>Kannazuki no Miko
>Manga
>Japan
>Japanese yen
>Bretton Woods System
>Monetary policy
>Federal Reserve System
>Nelson Aldrich
>Ambrose Burnside
>Battle of Fredericksburg
>Confederate States of America
>List of historical unrecognized states
>Anglo-Corsican Kingdom
>Corsica
>Italian language
>Italian American
>Irish American
>Joe Biden
>United States Senate special election in Delaware, 2010
>Christine O’Donnell

An observation, a simple observation.

Sarah Palin's Magical Mystery Tour is coming to my part of the country. I don't know who she thinks she's kidding but we're not frontier idiots here. They're not even frontier idiots in the frontier, because people in all places are smarter than she and her cohort give them credit for--and considering how dumb people are this is saying something. So she can get on her high horse and ride the fuck out of Dodge.

Ahem. That is all.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Book Review: A.C. Grayling's Hail-Mary pass at lasting relevance.


The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, the new ‘secular alternative to the Bible’ by the philosopher A.C. Grayling, is exactly what one might expect a book explicitly conceived of and written as a ‘secular alternative to the Bible’ to be like: Inoffensive, generic, and completely uninspired.
            There is a lot to dislike about Grayling, a professor at the University of London and fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, both for religious people and for irreligious people who have cultural or artistic interest in religion. With somebody like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens it is relatively easy to point to their relative (though not as extreme as sometimes made out) bitterness and rancour as reasons to, if nothing else, critique their motivations for behaving as they do while advancing their beliefs. This goes doubly for Sam ‘If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion’ Harris. Grayling, on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down. He is maddeningly vague about his opinions at some times and unexpectedly and inexcusably nasty at others, and when he is nasty he adopts a condescending attitude that makes one long for Dawkins and his ability to act as if he thinks that religious people are basically intelligent and normal people whether or not he actually does. I do not know why he decided to write The Good Book. I want to believe that he was acting in some form of good faith, however defined, but the contents of the book make this a little more problematic than one would like.
            The first problem with The Good Book, and one of the worse ones, is its style.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My church's Easter sermon this year (sourced from anglicansonline.org)


A

re there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!


The Easter sermon of John Chrysostom (circa 400 AD)


Sunday, April 24, 2011

A poem for Lent: Last 25 parts (LXXVI-C)


LXXVI.

Hadley bulges into Connecticut,
Blowing bubbles into the river
Beneath the bridge under the same sky.

The café, the bus stops, the mall
And the old farms and farm stores
The Agway, the passing artery
Of the throbbing Interstate, rejoicing.

A better person stands on the bales of hay
In Hadley’s fields in the late summer, but here
At the beginning of spring, snow still crusted
Dirtily under bushes and in the shady spots
Of buildings, there is not yet goodness here.

Yet no evil, rather a pre-Adamite furry sense
Of being in a honey-coloured world, the glasses
The colour of jade, colour of ancient Emperors’
Desire for an eternal life in an unchanging world
Without point or postulate, not yet affixed to the face
And so there can be no evil at such a time in any case.

The cows flick their tails in this unimagined springtime
Their fuzzy minds, identifiable as psychology but too far
In the state of innocentia veritas to genuinely interpret
Falling to thoughts—or thought-like objects—of dimly
Remembered warmth from a forgotten summertime.

Lordly, shining in that crevasse of worldliest existence
Town and country inseparable stand strung out along the road
Something true and proper and eternal, protected and fought for
Greater than business, greater than trade or anything, just here.

The words of this world are short as they spread across the sky
Ideal words, a simpler kotoba mot lexe wort woord parola slovo
Polyglot of the air, polyglot of the river, polyglot of the whole earth.


LXXVII.

Lord God of Hosts of Montague
Steered us good and right and true
Through lands of paper and lands of pen
Until we reached true Home again.
The words upon a yellowed page
Do not fear the tyrant’s rage.
A binding, though without fresh paste
Leads not our minds to foolish haste.
Covers of leather roughened and worn
Cannot mistake when they were born.
Pulp stretched out in its drying-frame
Will never throw calumnious blame.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Confessions of a religious-leftist

I don't ENJOY identifying as progressive/liberal. I really don't. I have very serious and basic disagreements with the fundamental view/views of existence (secular, rationalistic, et cetera) on which most people who share my policy positions seem to base them. I'm lonely.

'People may not believe it but I advise you all to check your Bibles more closely. God mandates this [radical redistribution of wealth] in Amos and most of the minor Prophets, as well as by implication in Jeremiah, in the Synoptic Gospels, and even in Leviticus 25. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for America, too.'

This is how I debate with radical libertarians.

'God is Love and Love is Justice. Justice entails dealing fairly in human affairs, not denying people the rights that you would not have them deny you. Love is so fundamental that the right to civil recognition of romantic commitment regardless of sex (as civil recognition of familial and professional commitment pays no regard to sex) can be counted a basic human right. And ‘to turn aside human rights before the face of the Most High, to subvert a man in his cause, the Lord approveth not’ (Lamentations 3.35-6). God is Love, God is the source of love, God is concurrent to love, and any love that does not destroy the lovers flows from God and is with Divine blessings. If it is love, and if it is beautiful, is all that matters. In love the moral becomes the aesthetic, the aesthetic the moral. God did not institute the fact of love for some brute material teleology like sex and reproduction. God instituted the fact of love because He is Love. In the end nobody is free from experience; all our experiences are the same, so please don't be cruel.'

This is how I explain my support for gay marriage.

It's not always easy to hold what is fundamentally an un-Enlightenment (not anti-Enlightenment, simply un-) view of the world in a political culture that still thinks that John Locke was a pretty swell guy (and not one of the founding fathers of the Atlantic Slave Trade and an all-around bastard who got off on the thought of genocide in the name of white people's so-called 'private property' rights). In fact it's typically extremely difficult whenever discussion turns from policy issues to the underlying philosophy. I don't know what to do. I'm starting to think that because I'm in a minority therefore I must be wrong.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A poem for Lent: parts LI-LXXV of probably around a hundred and ten or so, more or less


LI.

Just being here
Just under the same
            sky, sleeping
here, our existence
            flourishing, gives us
A second point to move on.

Love itself
Taking the form of a
            reading from the books
of fate, is lifeblood
            pulsing, in an eternal rush
Within vividly carnelian veins.

The whole world
Amorous and ambiguous
            squeals, its voice
resounding over rock and
            flood, taking a point
Drawing it out for a hundred years.


LII.

In elation, the lights go out
The colours come out after
            the fall, before the spring
            that yet begins, its light
            greenness blinking.
Over the parks and pales
Light greens and delicate
            reds, making worlds
            out of dull understanding
            bring it all on by.
In a desirous sort of culture
Wanting is the nature of feeling
            really here, wanting
            all manner of things
            and loves in the breast.
The fir tree shakes in the spring rain.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Proto-Romantic philosophers and so-bad-it's-a-masterpiece yuri. You cannot get any more 'Me' than this.

A scene from Philosophy Club a couple of weeks ago:

Girl (name withheld since we're not on especially good terms and I don't want to be a total jerk to her over the Internet): *says something about Kannazuki no Miko*

Me: Oh, hey, I just finished rewatching that show! It's not really very good, but I have a bit of affection for it for reasons unrelated to its objective quality.

Girl: Such as?

Me: I'm not always entirely sure why, but in some ways I like the characters a lot, even Chikane given the extreme situations in which she has to make decisions. Of course, they're not perfect by any means.

Girl: Well...I mean, what Chikane did was certainly, on some levels, wrong.

Me: Oh, definitely. That's part of why she did it.

Girl: Yeah. I mean, just think of it in Kantian terms: What if everybody raped their girlfriend in an attempt to incite her to violence so that she'd destroy and recreate the world?

Me: I...I think that the categorical imperative, here, has to be parsed to the level on which not everybody is in a position where that would have the intended effect even if it was done 'correctly'. If it's possible to commit sex crimes correctly, which it isn't, by definition.

Girl: Are you a Kantian?

Me: Kantianism plus some virtue/duty ethics, yes.

Girl: Well, okay, how about...

Me: How about if everybody was the Lunar Priestess and acted as Chikane did? I feel like that's the correct categorical imperative analysis to use here.

Girl: Then it wouldn't be Kannazuki no Miko, dipshit.

Me: It wouldn't be the categorical imperative either.

Best philosophy club or greatest philosophy club?

The Law takes cyborg bear heroes very seriously.

This is a disclaimer to BEARsen, a kids' cartoon about a Swedish cyborg bear superhero that my friend Vita and I have long been trying to make happen.

BEARsen is a work of fiction. Some characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is not only not coincidental, but probably intended to be insulting as well. The creators of BEARsen abide by two natural laws—the law of awesome and the law of comedy. Any use of other scientific laws, including but not limited to the mass-energy relation, dominated convergence theorem, Euler-Maclaurin formula, Knuth up-arrow notation, Hempel’s raven, Drake equation, Maxwell diagrams, rank-nullity theorem, central dogma, Westermarck effect, maternal effect dominant embryonic arrest, modern evolutionary synthesis, Curry’s paradox, the Witch of Agnesi, the golden ratio, the law of equivalent exchange, Boyle’s law, Hoyle’s rules, Robert’s rules, house rules, rule of law, and punctuated equilibrium, serves only to enhance the awesomeness or funniness of the events in BEARsen and should not be construed as an endorsement of scientific education as a path to Epic Win. BEARsen is not affiliated with any church, synagogue, mosque, temple, shrine, shul, cathedral, basilica, monastery, abbey, nunnery, gurdwara, madrassa, stupa, hermitage, priory, friary, pagoda, convent, meetinghouse, jinja, or longhouse, except for the First Church of the Blessed St Bob of Hackensack in Mombassa, Kenya. Side effects of watching too much BEARsen may include headache, nausea, vomiting, death, dizziness, stomach pain, acid reflux, cardiac arrhythmia, mild heart explosions, headache, varicose veins, darkened stool, darkened soul, lycanthropy, trucanthropy, arteriosclerosis, haemorrhoids, spontaneous loss of virginity, mild discomfort, vampirism, susto, gender impermanence, sugar high, more vomiting, 401 errors, fallen armpits, Zod’s Disease, spontaneous combustion, flaming ninjas, fair use doctrine, Dogma 95, inverted cranium, electric guitars, por speling, colon cancer, apocalyptic prophecies, apoplectic prophecies, Tony Danza, speaking in a badly done German accent, a desire to dance the Virginia Reel, explosive diarrhoea, implosive diarrhoea, a desire to add increasingly more ridiculous symptoms to a list, St Robert Bellarmine, Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, headache, warts, flatulence, demonic possession, wandering skin, cranial inversion, fin rot, Dakka, seasonal allergies, null pointer exceptions, sleep crime, listening to non-stop Japanese electronica, need to shout the word ‘BEAR’ when it comes up in conversation, thinking that you’re good at Guitar Hero to impress others, More Dakka, headache, stomach-ache, nosebleed, horniness, hysteria siberiana, desire to have sex with Ingmar Bergman, exploding uvula syndrome, a desire to take over the world using eight reprogrammed robot masters, spontaneous regaining of virginity, the ‘dancing sushi’, flying ball rot, scarlet devil compaction, abscessed animus, atheism, theism, headache, erectile dysfunction, projectile dysfunction, volatile malted milk impoundments, infections of the crescent of Gianuzzi, isles of Langerhans, crypts of Lieberkühn, canal of Gugier, circle of Willis, area of Cohnheim, pyramids of Malpighi, antrum of Highmore, spaces of Fontana, cistern of Pecquet, angle of Ludwig, Scarpa’s triangle, Gower’s tract, Goll’s column, pouch of Douglas, convolutions of Broca, and jelly of Wharton, sudden infertility, sudden fecundity, Tanizaki Yukari-sensei, need to shout the word ‘BEAR’ when it doesn’t come up in conversation, headache, convulsions, flying ball rot, artificial insemination, temporary insanity, permanent insanity, hilariously ill-plotted shōjo, bone-crunching zombie carnage, Godless liberals, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, and mild rash. The creators are not responsible for any loss of life, limb, face, friends, enemies, infrastructure, faith in the human race, ammunition, political goodwill, or the God of Diodorus Siculus that watching BEARsen may cause you to incur.
 
So yeah.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Escape to Hell and Other Stories

There comes a time in every great dictator's life when he puts pen to paper and writes a series of quasi-philosophical, Gonzo short stories that address themes of urban alienation, the pharmacisation of emotional problems, family dilemmas, and the flatness of a globalised world, which then get published as a proper, bound, English-language book, with a foreword by former White House Press Secretary and United States Senator Pierre Salinger.

Well, actually, no, that is not true. That only applies to Muammar al-Qaddafi, the David Bowie of modern tyrants, who wrote Escape to Hell and Other Stories in the early 1990s, one of the better (or less horrifically godawful) periods of his rule over the Great Socialist Libyan Arab People's State of the Masses. Qaddafi apparently was trying, at the time, to reinvent himself as a serious, if deliberately unpalatable to Western post-Enlightenment sensibilities, political 'wise man' along the lines of Sayyid Qutb or Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Escape to Hell was his Eoineen of the Birds, an intended sally of the political into realms of serious cultural production, and what a quixotic sally it is.

Pierre Salinger, who wrote the foreword for Qaddafi's short-story collection, is of course the famed reporter-turned-Kennedy Administration official-turned-appointed Senator from California-turned-reporter-turned-conspiracy theorist worryingly reminiscent of Maniwa from Paranoia Agent. With his gushing attitude towards the work, Salinger betrays either an excessively loose adherence to his own culture's political mores (such as representative democracy, an independent judiciary, minority rights, or the rule of law), poor literary taste unfortunate given his apparent distant relation to the author of Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye, or both. I'm going to go with both, for now, and get on to the bulk of the Colonel's work.

Escape to Hell's title story is one of the few with anything like a recognisable plot, although it is really more like a broad-strokes historical fable describing the urbanisation of Arab/North African culture in the modern age, a process of which the author disapproves. Thematically it is similar in this respect to a certain subset of classic Westerns, though I do not doubt that the author and, for instance, John Wayne would fall in hate at first sight. It is by no means badly-written--it is spare and has a certain grim elegance similar to that of the desert that Qaddafi calls home--and its themes, unlike the themes of pretty much everything else in the Qaddafi ouevre, can be reasonably defended as serious literary explorations of alienation and the demysitification of the world.

After this, the only part of the book that can really be classified as a story, Qaddafi abandons plot, characters, dialogue, and the other markers of narrative writing in favour of a more stream-of-conscious, almost Gonzo style, with which he tells the stories of, among other things, his own childhood, a shady pharmacist in Benghazi who moonlights as a drug dealer (it is clear that Qaddafi was under the influence of this gentleman's wares when he wrote about him), Operation El Dorado Canyon (though only in passing), and a family of Touaregs that he claims to know but which may well be yet another surprising use of actual fiction in this ostensible short-story collection.

Escape into Hell is not a good book in the conventional sense, but it is an interesting book and at least not as horribly written and utterly unengrossing as many other tyrants' screeds, such as Qaddafi's own non-fictional (in the same way that Escape into Hell is fictional, which is to say not very) Green Book. The foreword reveals worrying things about Pierre Salinger, the title story reminds one somewhat of a desert Charles Portis albeit one who is phoning it in, and the rest of the book is useful for its glimpse into the mind and self-justifications and rationalisations of the man whose name is so commonly followed by '--must go now' in the news these days.

Also, 'Pierre Salinger, who wrote the foreword for Qaddafi's short-story collection' is the second most surprising-even-to-me phrase I have written to-day, after 'Unleash nerd rage: Target: Neil Gaiman'.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A poem for Lent: Parts XXXIV-L of I-known-not-what


XXXIV.

Diesel’s scent, warm, billowing
wrapped up in its own thing like an identity
wafts over a tangled country
like a chessboard

The water, the swamp, the trees
the housing blocks, the baseball
diamonds, the post-industrial lots
and haze, crash together
mingled crazily and without form, without
            lot or consequence
Something unearthly, something
            less than everyday yet
            in this world, totally so
            totally there.

Electrical supercharged on
towards Connecticut, the train
charges along the twisted scope
of the sound-shore.

The sky is blue, too blue
            as if smiling
it looks to scorn the shade and cool
of the sombre trails of illusory
half-substantial draperies

—As the damasked robes
            of a wandering ghost.


XXXV.

Returning to the town
of the green-on-the-whitesward
            O bells clanging
            for compline!

The sun crashes down
            whitely, whitely
—Over an edge
            serrated, separated
A human work of
common spaces and block-jagged
                        lines.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A poem for Lent: Parts XVII-XXXIII of NANI DESU KA?!


XVII.

Now it’s sunset
it’s springtime
almost, and in sunset-beams
the cat’s curled up
on the mattress asleep.

From the cold
insulated
without penitence
or need to repent
his pre-Adamite depth.

Still chilly but
with snow now gone
paving crazy in
thawing streets
the wind is a blessing.

In the wind’s
benediction
the record of the spring
wind is the record
of the autumn wind.

Spring and autumn
the seasons for norms
the months with neither
beach-holidays nor
ski-resort-holidays.

Winter and summer
the seasons for Norns
one gone one not
realised but wanting
to be frozen.

Stamp up and down
now it’s cold rock-hard
now it’s soft soil
waiting for the
gardener’s hand.


XVIII.

There is an unveiling of svelte loveliness throughout the town.
Without asking, simply look and watch as the spring air lights up.
There are no fireflies yet, not for several months in these parts.
But even so the sudden lightness into the evening bravely blazes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A poem for Lent: Parts I through XVI of I-know-not-how-many.

Yes, this is indeed what I am doing for Lent. I'm going to add to it every day between now and Easter. This is what I have so far.


Lencten Tide
By Nathan Turowsky

I.

Reluctant eyes watched
            Through the skies’ frames and the snowmelt
                        on the Holyoke Range
            come
            Parnassus.

Turbulence of reality unveils its greyness
Under putative silence of spanning stone.
Eye of God to eye of man
Off the waves two worlds connect.
Something’s secret behind the nerves
There—Deep, deeply.

The ground is yet white
It is an underskirt layer
That is green.

Red banded wings
            set out over still water
Not the deep river and not
            the cold Quabbin
Under a quivering cast of stratus
As they would in the golden world.

In Kendrick Park
The nudity of the trees stands suddenly
Over earth’s similar nudity
In front of the pitched roofed Capes.

From remaining ecstasy of snow
Brush buds carmine-purple
Standing along the highway
                                    tin soldiers.

Light come down
            as love is
            wont
So that on
            the high-flung
            mont
With the joy
            of dancing
            colts
We may catch
            its florid
            bolts.


II.

Once my heart made a sound
Like a little starling nested
            in the wall, not reaching
            down into the hollow…

Not here not there here everywhere
Kindness, space of the eye.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

So, let’s talk about Edo women writers.


In my class on Japanese women writers, we are now into the Edo period. The Edo period, which lasted from 1600 to 1868, was the worst time to be a woman in Japan maybe ever. First of all, education was completely segregated. This is not uniquely bad by itself, but in this case the main textbook for women, Onna Daigaku, contained such gems as ‘to you your husband should be as Heaven itself; you must love and serve him with fear and trembling, lest you call down upon yourself celestial castigation’. The dominant political ideology was a bizarre form of Confucianism in which women were literally perceived as walking wombs, and one of the government’s slogans (the ‘yes we can!’ of its day, almost) was ‘danson johi’, which means ‘revere men; despise women’.

However, in this horrible, horrible environment, there were a few really awesome ladies who survived and even thrived to produce really amazing literature. I’m thinking here particularly of three women (those who we’ve covered extensively in my class), all of whom I really admire the Hell out of for putting up with this bullshit, both in their lifetimes and after their deaths (no women ever appear in anthologies of Edo literature, despite the output of these three and others).

  • Arii Shokyuu (1714-1781). Satirical poet and sometime travel writer. She was a third- or fourth-generation member of Basho’s poetry school and is known mainly for inflicting some of the worst (by which I mean BEST) puns on the Japanese language in the history of its literary tradition. May or may not have been an actual nun; certainly lived like one in a lot of ways. Only female Edo writer to attain some measure of popular acclaim and ‘respectability’ (as a writer, at least). Author of Record of the Autumn Wind. Compare: Mark Twain, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris.
  • Tadano Makuzu (1763-1825). Political philosopher, in her own cultural context considered extremely traditionalist and conservative, but in a broader context also advocated such things as imprisoning large-scale merchants for being parasitic middlemen who oppressed the workers. Religiously traditionalist and nationalistic; positioned herself as opposed to politically conventional and economic rationalism (as it was perceived at the time). Had a friendship with Takizawa Bakin that went bad when he refused to apologise for being a ‘simple fool’. Author of Solitary Thoughts. Compare: Dorothy Day, Christopher Lasch, Franziska von Karma.
  • Ema Saiko (1787-1861). Refined and highly educated and formalist poet, with command of Japanese, Chinese, and possibly Dutch. A dyed-in-the-wool hikkikomori and total daddy’s girl; her father, by all accounts, was awesome enough to completely deserve it. She is now mainly known (unfairly so) for getting NTR’ed by Rai San’yo. Really liked The Tale of Genji kind of a lot. Wrote poems about having to refuse her little sister alcohol. Author of Breeze through Bamboo. Compare: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Christina Rossetti.

I really like and admire all three of these ladies but Arii Shokyuu is probably my favourite. Here are two of her groaningly awful (by which I mean AWESOME) pun-couplets:

Why is my hat frazzled now…?
—The autumn wind. (TL: this is a pun in Japanese)

So I turn back to look once more,
For I am a woman, at Mt Kagami. (TL: kagami means mirror)

And here is a slightly longer poem by either her or one of her compadres, it’s not quite clear:

A robe of mist
Soaked at the hem
Princess Saho
With the coming of spring
Stands pissing.

So, pretty much, when I grow up, I want to be a coolface-tier haikai writer and travelogue author just like her.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chizu revisited

So, a few hours ago, I had a discussion with Maya about Aoi Hana. In this discussion, one interesting thing that we had decided to do was to reopen the topic of Chizu, the character who many of you will remember from my disgusted rant about her and how despicable she is a while back. In this discussion, we discounted a lot of our previous assumptions about the character in favour of a new set of theories that I now feel not only explain her better but also serve to place her as a character type in the history of both Japanese and world literature.

Our conclusion was that Chizu, when you strip her of the cultural and genre trappings, is in fact a remarkably similar character to Dom Claude Frollo, the antagonist from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Discount for a second the Disney adaptation of Hugo’s story: the Frollo in the book is a less horrible but also even more absurdly pathetic figure. There are three main bases for our comparison here:

  1. Lust (maybe actual love, to be fair to Frollo and Chizu, but given the circumstances this seems a little less likely, especially in Frollo’s case) for a young girl as an initial motivating factor for both characters, though la Esmeralda and Fumi, as people, have very little in common.
  2. A profound lack of understanding of cause and effect, and the fact that actions tend to have specific consequences, which leads the characters to act on their rather questionable motivation in ways that have a profoundly negative impact on the stories’ protagonists. In Frollo’s case, what he fails to understand is the sheer political and spiritual inappropriateness of his attachment; in Chizu’s case, it is the legal and social inappropriateness, in addition to the effect that it is having on Fumi, who is prone to attachment and separation issues.
  3. A form of cowardice that causes both characters to, when confronted with the consequences of their behaviour, spin excuses that, while not false, are presented in a context either indicating outright (in Frollo’s case) or heavily implying (in Chizu’s) that their main desire is to make the problem go away without having to actually address it.
Item 2 in this list is interesting in Chizu’s case because Aoi Hana is a Japanese text and ‘not understanding cause and effect’ is an extremely, extremely common hamartia or heroic flaw in the storytelling tradition of Japanese Buddhism. So this doesn’t really make Chizu any inherently worse than, for example, the mad abbot from Aozukin by Akinari Ueda, though, like Mitsuko from Tanizaki’s Manji, she is presented a little more negatively, since Aozukin is a Buddhist parable outright whereas Manji and Aoi Hana are not. In the context of the story it’s perfectly appropriate and correct to see that Chizu is a rather awful person who could probably benefit greatly from having her head examined. But my initial opinion about her—that she is a manipulative sociopath—gives her too little credit morally and too much credit intellectually. She’s a rather dull person in some ways, needlessly brutish in other ways, and, I now think, a far cry from the sort of wicked mastermind that I initially perceived her as.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy St Valentine's Day

So, St Valentine's Day has come round again, and in the spirit of Christian martyrdom I'd like to take a moment to reflect on all of the people who were persecuted and killed who do NOT have the good honour to be remembered with saccharine candy hearts and cards featuring Renaissance-era putti misindentified as cherubim, Cupid, or both. People like St Elmo, who had his guts torn out on a windlass; St Eulalia, who was deliberately frozen to death in the snow; St Eustachius, who was baked to death; St Lawrence, who was grilled to death (not the same as baking); St Agatha, who...no, you don't want to know what happened to St Agatha.

This isn't to say that taking any of these people and turning their feast day into a day of love is at all inappropriate; in fact, given the context of what allegedly happened to Bishop Valentine this actually makes a lot of sense. But it is to say that there are many things at play here that he would not have appreciated: The implication that if you're not in a physical relationship there is something inherently wrong with you; the pressure to buy specific types of gifts for people who may want something more lasting or more useful or both; the bizarre misappropriation of both Christian and pagan imagery in ways that are almost as bad as Neon Genesis Evangelion just less obvious because more familiar. While obviously the nature of the Christian saint from whom the day takes its name is not precisely relevant or applicable any more, it should be remembered that the man did more than just perform weddings in catacombs; he was somebody whose legend is of one who supported love and mutual social support between spouses, families, friends, and colleagues, all over the known world.

This St Valentine's Day, if you have a husband, wife, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, beau, or consort, treat them as specifically and individually specially as they deserve. Also tell your friends you care about them, call your parents if you don't live with them [and are still on speaking terms], and if you run across anybody in need and there's anything you can do to help them, do. (Also, eat chocolate.)

This is a day about love.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book: Snow Country.

If you turned the sad, tired existence of a self-professed, proudly cynical materialist upside down and shook it, something like love, and beings like angels, would fall out and come pouring down like dust. If you got so plastered at raucous parties every night of your life that you could cross the mountains of Jōshin'etsu Kōgen in winter a thousand thousand times and only think that it was the grass that was silver, you could know what it meant to love and be loved by someone, just because you understood her and she was there, no matter how cold your sober thoughts had become. If at the moment of your death, rash and impulsive and asinine, your cynical world could be turned right-side-up again, perhaps as the world fell out from under you love and angels could stay in this time.

That's Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari, a book that addresses the question of how people love when they don't know how--how people love when they escape a loveless cage. It's a bit of a 'cry and throw the book against the wall' sort of novel; I literally did that when I got to the end. But oh, it's so amazingly beautiful.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shimura Takako’s Aoi Hana as a Social Fairy Tale


Astute followers of my journeys through the realm of Japanese literature and art, as well as anybody who is insane enough to see me as a ‘tastemaker’, will know of my intense and abiding love for the writer and artist Shimura Takako and her series Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers). I will not here attempt to explain the series, but rather to offer a theory about it to those who are already familiar with the basics. Aoi Hana is notably a spiritual offshoot of sorts to the work of Novalis, a German writer who lived in the later part of the eighteenth century and wrote exceptionally strange stories with typically Romantic themes. As Aoi Hana has at least one root in Novalis and German Romantic literature is all fundamentally based on fairy tales (even Faust, the grand climax of all German writing, is based on shady folklore from the Renaissance), it is my theory that Aoi Hana can be—though by no means must be—interpreted through an analysis of the characters’ and events’ roles in the structure or praxis of the German fairy tale.

 
The first thing to establish is that Aoi Hana admits of being defined as a fairy tale despite its lack of any supernatural or even particularly unusual elements, due to its use of a setting (all-girls high school) and setting-specific tropes that carry defined readings, associations, and references within them, within the context of Japanese media. ‘This is set in an all-girls high school’ enacts narratological protocols in the mind of one familiar with Japanese writing much as ‘Once upon a time’ enacts them in the mind of anybody in the West who can remember their childhood, though obviously they are not the same protocols. The setting immediately establishes Aoi Hana as a ‘social fairy story’, a very slightly unreal iteration of real issues—but in this case, the fairy tale comparisons can be drawn deeper as one pays attention to the somewhat Jungian psycho-romantic nature of both Aoi Hana’s storyline and the typical fairy tale schema.

The first principal player in a fairy tale is of course the questing hero, in this case Fumi. The first thing that makes Aoi Hana unusual if looked at as a fairy tale is the fact that Fumi is also the princess archetype, whose ‘rescue’ is brought about by the actions of another questing hero, Akira. But to some extent this unusual apportionment of roles between the two leads is due more to a shift in perspective than anything else. In fairy tales we are presented with numerous examples of resourceful and industrious princesses who are portrayed as active in definite and specific ways in securing their safety until the questing hero’s arrival—think of the continued obfuscations of Cinderella and her fairy hit woman, or even the tenacity and patience of Rapunzel. So Fumi’s role in Aoi Hana is not inherently different to the role of the fairy tale princess despite the fact that she also shares double-duty as the fairy tale hero. For Fumi, the quest is simply her own growth and salvation.

The villain role in the fairy tale, as defined by Vladimir Propp, is shared in Aoi Hana between several different characters. The role of the villain as the actor in ‘a story-initiating villainy, where the villain caused harm to the hero or his family’ is fulfilled perfectly, to the letter, by Chizu, who is either malicious for no real reason or (and this is admittedly more likely) simply so impulsive and self-centred as to achieve a pretty wonderful resemblance to someone who is. The role of the villain in ‘a conflict between the hero and the villain, either a fight or other competition’ can be held to be that of Sugimoto-senpai, whose fight with Fumi is intensely psychological and based on the changing specifics of an unusual situation and whose competition with Akira, while to an extent tempered and limited by that same situation, is much simpler and more direct. Finally, the villain’s role in ‘pursuing the hero after he has succeeded in winning the fight or obtaining something from the villain’ is in Aoi Hana played by social forces rather than specific persons (although persons certainly act in accordance with these social forces), reinforcing Aoi Hana’s status as both an explicitly queer story and as a social fairy tale.

Other characters fill other roles in Propp’s morphology. Since the fairy quest is personal there is little need for a dispatcher, Propp’s ‘character who makes the problem known and sends the hero off’. The dispatchers in Aoi Hana are the heroes themselves. The magical helpers are many and to be quite frank are frequently the characters in the story who serve the least point beyond their fairy tale purpose, though many of them are charming. These are people like Pon-chan, Mogi, and Yassan; those of the Sugimoto who are not Yasuko; and some of the older lesbian couples who appear later on. The princess, in addition to being one of Fumi’s parts in this piece, is also a large portion of Kyoko’s function, though the fact that nobody is actively pursuing her except for the relatively incidental Kou (whom I believe to fill the ‘donor/benefactor’ slot along with several other family members and close friends of the main characters) means that she actually fits the fundamental kernel of this role less well than she fits its normally attendant tropes. The false hero, who takes credit for the hero’s actions and tries to marry the princess, is arguably another part played in the early part of the story by Sugimoto-senpai, and not a role that has much significance later on.

In style and tone Aoi Hana also has much in common with the fairy tale. The childhood-friends setup is pure Perrault, pure courtly fairy tale of Italy and France; Fumi’s traumas reverberate through her future actions and future actions upon her in ways very similar to the patterns of repetition in such Grimm tales as ‘The Juniper Tree’ and to an extent the original long version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, in which the title character’s unfortunate experience in the first part of the story sets her ill-at-ease and makes it hard for her to manage the situation in the second. Verbal considerations and style, which Propp discounts but which for Grimm and people like Angela Carter and A.S. Byatt are of overwhelming significance, do not immediately correlate to the fairy tale, partially because of their provenance in another part of the world, instead serving more to tie Aoi Hana to the ideas in the Romantic stories that took fairy tales and analysed them in terms of principles and themes. The centre of Aoi Hana is yearning. The blue flower symbolizes yearning, in many cases the yearning of one lover for another or the yearning of two lovers for something sublime that will bless their love.

In Aoi Hana’s case, the yearning is both kinds, with one’s fulfilment leading to the other as the hero-princesses continue their quest together, and that is pure fairy-story.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Switching to the topic of fictional villains who are just absolutely vile and who I hate through and through...

WARNING! SPOILERS FOR AOI HANA



Hanashiro Chizu, from Aoi Hana.

Chizu first appears at the beginning of the story as the main character Fumi's older cousin. When Fumi was twelve, she went over to visit Chizu at Chizu's college dorm and Chizu coaxed her into sex (Chizu was about twenty at this point). While obviously this was rape even by bizarre Japanese laws on the subject, Fumi, being both an unbelievable shrinking violet and an emotionally confused pubescent lesbian, took it as a sign of love and entered into a several-year-long sexual relationship with Chizu.

On Fumi's first day of high school, Chizu got engaged and had a party to celebrate without telling her, then barely ever spoke to her again.

This would be bad enough--it is indirectly the source of the vast majority of the conflict in the story because it's the cause of a lot of Fumi's trust issues and questionable taste in women--but Chizu makes things even worse for poor Fumi when she shows up again later in the plot, when Fumi is trying to sort out her feelings for her best friend Ah-chan. Chizu tells Fumi that she is sorry, obviously falsely because (a) she then goes on to chide Fumi for thinking that it was going to be long-term and says that it isn't her fault that 'society broke them apart' (all of which is obvious bullshit on its face, since Chizu isn't in an arranged marriage and Fumi was twelve when Chizu started having sex with her) and (b) Chizu raped a twelve-year-old girl who loved and trusted her, then strung her along for years and dumped her.

It's unclear why exactly Chizu felt the need to come back and fuck with Fumi's sense of self-worth by telling her that it was basically her fault for allowing a much older and admired relative to rape her. She does not gain anything by doing so. The simplest explanation is that Chizu is simply a sociopath and gets her kicks from Fumi's suffering, which because Fumi runs with a mostly rather awkward and alienated crowd directly drags down several other people as well.

And the worst part is that Aoi Hana's other characters include bratty jerks, tactless morons, and callous bounders, but none of them are remotely horrible enough to even comprehend whatever the fuck goes on in Chizu's head. It's as if Livia Soprano decided that she was going to make a living by using her maniuplation tricks on the cast of Mary Poppins. Nobody in Aoi Hana is even halfway dark or cynical or evil enough to even begin to understand what Chizu is doing to them.

And...I mean, just LOOK at her.

That FUCKING SMIRK.








Semi-review: Kuragehime

So, a while back I watched Kuraghime. Kuraghime is a show about a bunch of bizarre nerdy girls who live in a house together and the cross-dressing male fashionista who upends their lives, especially that of the young and adorkable marine-invertebrate nerd (titular Princess Jellyfish) Tsukimi.

There's a lot to love about Kuragehime, mainly its honesty about who people fundamentally are. It's been said that everybody is a geek of some description, with things like sports and relationships having obsessive fanbases so huge as to dictate what 'mainstream society' is to everybody else. In view of this, Kuragehime depicts Kuranosuke (the cross-dressing guy) as a fashion geek more than anything else, which makes him really endearing. Also, in one episode where he gives everybody makeovers, he does not do so to this one overweight lady in a kimono--wonderfully not because 'OH SHE'S FAT AND YOU CAN'T FIX THAT WITH MAKEOVERS', but because her personal style is 'very traditional Japanese woman', not 'frumpy slob', and that's not really a problem for his immediate purpose of making this group look presentable in a formal setting.

Anyway, what I realised while watching this, and more fully to-day, was that I'd actually consider dating a girly enough guy as long as it was made clear that the relationship would not be sexual. And I'm...really not sure what this says about me, actually!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Giant Writing Project, Part V of Whatever


Hildy’s Story

1

Lieutenant Wilhelm Weishaupt was the commander of a very small platoon—five soldiers, guarding a border tripoint that had not seen military action for, depending on how you counted it, either sixty-odd years or nearly a century. He loved his job. It was, perhaps perversely for a military position, relaxing, affording a lot of time to go out strolling along walls older than the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs, looking over the hills, dales, and rockslides, honest and free in his fatigues beneath the sky.
            The Bundesheer had seen better days to be sure, but that was a long time ago, and besides, any way of thinking that considered going out and raping and pillaging the western Balkans ‘better days’ than standing and watching the birds was a way of thinking that Lieutenant Weishaupt wanted absolutely no part of. This was one of many border forts that had been built in Carinthia and the Tyrol throughout the period when the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had been a world power. It was one of if not the only one of these forts that still served any military function whatsoever, and Lieutenant Weishaupt was keenly aware that his platoon, 1444 Squadron, existed basically as window-dressing, one of the army’s token ‘romantic’ settings, reminders of days gone by. It was like joining the Foreign Legion and shipping out to Djibouti.
            He had heard from Sergeant Sturmvoraus that 1444 Squadron was getting a sixth soldier sometime soon—new meat, a Private Wildermann who had joined the army at the absolute minimum legal age in order to escape her home situation and get enough money to have at least a fighting chance of getting through some university in Germany. She (Private Wildermann was a she) had taken the train down to Arnoldstein and would probably report for duty at the fort shortly.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Angel Beats

Key Visual Arts is a Japanese video game developer best known for its work in the genre known as 'visual novel' (aka The Only Type Of Video Game That Nathan Can Or Will Sit Through). Visual novels are, basically, works that are written as if they were conventional (in form, not necessarily subject matter) Japanese literature and then transferred into text files that are mixed up with pictures and music and some (typically low) degree of interactivity, essentially creating the equivalent of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that I devoured when I was a kid. [This is a little hard for me to explain so here is a random section of one of the most famous and influential visual novels, Tsukihime ('Lunar Princess'; by the author of Kara no Kyoukai, Nasu Kinoko). And here is the beginning of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni ('When the Higurashi [a type of cicada] Cry'), a more recent and extremely groundbreaking horror story by a younger writer who Nasu discovered.]

Key's visual novels are typically romantic, fluffy, yet rather sad, sort of like a cross between Latin American soap opera and Henry James. They are almost all set in very traditional, often somewhat bland (from a Japanese perspective), but oddly narratologically self-aware environments. They are known for their heartbreaking stories and subtle treatment of the odd supernatural element (as opposed to Nasu or the pseudonymous Naku Koro ni author, who are explicitly fantasy-horror writers from the get-go).

In 2009, somebody working at Key decided to start work on a non-video game project, which was to be fairly multimedia, incorporating a television anime, a manga series, and a series of actual bound text novels. This series, which started to be rolled out later that year and continued through 2010, is Angel Beats.

Angel Beats tells the story of Otonashi, a young man who has a horrible life, dies, and is reborn in an odd complex similar to a Japanese high school but larger and with enough amenities to be self-sufficient. He has spotty memories--which is apparently unusual among the denizens of this purgatorial universe--and is unhappy with the situation. Otonashi meets a girl called Yuri (that's her with the assault rifle in the picture) who press-gangs him into an outfit called SSS, a paramilitary group that commits terrorist attacks and industrial sabotage against the student council and faculty of the high school in an attempt to provoke the intervention of God.

One unfortunate part of this is that, other than the SSS, the student body president Tenshi ('Angel', the...well, the angelic girl in the picture, obviously), and a few other key players, nobody in the entire world (that they can access) seems to have free will or even be self-aware. Yuri refers to everybody else as NPCs, non-player characters, in an example of Key's aforementioned self-referential narratology. There are many, many NPCs and they can be easily mobilised from their normal 'lives' to attack people, seemingly at Tenshi's discretion. The main saving graces of this setup are that the NPCs are easily distracted and--key to the entire plot and theme of the text--Tenshi does not actually seem to be using them in a way that plays along with SSS's war games...

______

Of course, no such series involving an afterlife--the genre called 'Bangsian fantasy' in the West--can come out of Japan without bringing the masterpiece Haibane-Renmei to mind. If you haven't seen Haibane-Renmei, and have any interest in this sort of story at all, you as a matter of course eventually will. Angel Beats is no Haibane-Renmei, mainly because nobody at Key Visual Arts is ABe Yoshitoshi, but too its credit it does not try to be. The main things that Angel Beats has to recommend itself are that it is emotionally real despite the ersatz Philip José Farmer premise (Tenshi, at least in the early parts of the story, brings to mind not so much a Christian angel as an Ethical from the Riverworld series), it takes life and death seriously without making any potentially alienating grand religious proclamations (although it does not pull this off as masterfully as Haibane-Renmei, mainly because nothing perhaps ever can), it allows individual characters to have their own beliefs and agendas and values in the context of its purgatorial environment (thus eliminating part of what makes Dante's Commedia sometimes difficult to read), and the very things that sometimes make it hard for the series to hold itself together also set it apart from Key's earlier body of work as something that brings the production company outside of its comfort zone in a genuinely interesting way.

I would not recommend Angel Beats to everybody. It is, as I keep saying, not Haibane-Renmei with its timeless genius. What it is, however, is a full-throated, good-hearted, smartly-executed addition to an odd little fantasy subgenre that sometimes struggles to find its place in the world of modern fition.