Posts Tagged ‘tolkien’

Stop Thinking, Start Living (Richard A. Carlson)

This is the recent rebranding of Carlson’s first book, You Can Be Happy Again! The premise is that all you need to do to be healed of your clinical depression and anxiety is to stop remembering that you have them. Well, actually, he starts by saying that all you really need to do is have an epiphany, but you can’t force yourself to epiphanize, so everything after the first few pages is an effort to guide you into a purposefully serendipitous experience.

For ages now I’ve been going back and forth as to whether depression is something that is inborn and I just have to put up with, like coeliac disease, or whether it’s something that is done to me, like a respiratory virus. Carlson introduces a third option – it’s something I’m doing to myself. Of course I don’t like this option because it means that I have to change, and I don’t like change.

Fortunately, Carlson gives me a lot of reasons not to listen to him. First, he attacks his entire profession. If all you have to do to cure depression is quit thinking about it, then nearly all psychotherapists are selfish gold-digging charlatans. Second, he attacks his readers as well. He keeps calling us who are depressed and seeking help for it silly and ridiculous, and he blames us for all our mental problems. Third, and clearly the most important, there are no double-blind tests or any other efforts to do quality scholarly research. Nor is there any secondary research. His points are seldom backed up by any evidence, and what evidence he presents is purely anecdotal. There is no reason for anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills to believe anything he says. Fourth, it’s so repetitive that eventually you start to believe him just because he keeps saying the same thing over and over again.

When you stick with it and get close to the end, things get better and he starts to acknowledge that there are some traumas that really do need professional attention, and maybe some people have problems that need more than purposeful ignorance. Because, you know, it’s not always the best thing to just ignore problems and hope they go away on their own while you’re waiting for your epiphany.

This came out way bitchier than I intended. Sorry about that. This is what happens when people blame me for my problems, however justified they might be.

In the Ring (James Lear)

This author usually writes his gay porn as James Lear, and he has a real name that he uses for more reputable work. And normally I don’t write here about the erotica, but the Dan Stagg series starts to drift away from the strictly porn. Lear is focusing a lot more on story in this book, and First-Person Narrator even desists from describing a couple of sex scenes because he thinks we must be bored of reading about him fucking (we’re not). This is the third in the series – in The Hardest Thing, he was hired as a bodyguard, and in Straight Up he was solving a mystery for some of his military friends. This is much more James Bond-ish, with Stagg hired by the CIA to go undercover in a boxing/organized crime thing. Yes, there’s still some graphic sex with super-muscle-y athletes and spies, but it’s seriously de-emphasized. So, more of an action novel than a gay sex romp, but still a good quick read with some scenes that make me happy.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Marlon James)

This book is amazing. It’s a graphically violent horror-fantasy, so a bit Tolkien and a bit Clive Barker, but instead of being based in British mythology, it’s all Africa. So there are spirits that do all sorts of mystical stuff, sometimes called demons, and there’s some vampire content, and people turning into animals. Quest narrative with a nonstandard ending, doors that appear in midair, government corruption, evil creatures who walk on the ceiling, a girl made of blue smoke, a man who becomes a leopard, and a tracker with a powerful nose and an eye that’s borrowed from a wolf (he’s the first-person narrator).

Someone has already purchased the film rights, but I wonder. One of the main thrusts of the book is to normalize QBTIPOC, and it’s hard for me to trust people. Is he planning to make a film of this, with all the gay sex between Africans who haven’t been corrupted by nonexistent Europeans, or did he buy the rights to stop anyone else from making the movie? Just to be clear, most of the main characters are gay men, but there’s a lot of homophobia too. I mean, it’s not like American homophobia, where they call us a bundle of kindling which means that the best thing to do with a gay man is light him on fire. They just call them boy-fuckers, which is at least descriptive of what they actually do. There’s also some of that internalized homophobia where tops get more respect than bottoms, but if you look at their abilities and nonsexual actions, there’s really no difference in masculinity. As he says close to the beginning, blaming a man for which way his dick points is kind of like blaming a compass for pointing north.

People who are religious are advised to turn away, because there’s a lot of profanity, and Tracker’s favorite way of swearing is to say Fuck the gods. There’s all sorts of wishing for the gods to go get fucked, which I enjoy but you might not.

Seriously. I loved this book. It’s gripping and adventurous and paranormal and awesome. It’s supposed to be first in an upcoming trilogy, so that’s going to be great. I recognize that it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

Sacred Paths for Modern Men (Dagonet Dewr)

This is sort of like a pagan man’s Wild At Heart, the Christian book about how we should all be Braveheart. Instead of the one archetype, Dewr gives us twelve, pulling examples in a Golden Bough fashion from the classic mythologies, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Tolkien, and a splash of Judeo-Christian. The result is an examination of the nontoxic bits of masculinity that have always been a part of our culture but that we’ve ignored. It’s good to know that the pagan world has inspirational nonfiction, and I enjoyed this bit of it. I’m looking forward to reading more, as a sort of gearing up for the deeper study of what this community believes, searching for what I believe.

Each archetype has a couple of rituals, one for private study (often with arts and crafts projects) and one for groups. I haven’t practiced any of them yet, but it’s good to know that they’re there when I’m ready. I’m very interested in symbols, so rituals are very meaningful for me.

It’s a good book, about possibilities. The author spent a lot of time at the ManKind project, so he plugs it rather frequently. One of the things that interests me the most is that he refers to his flavor of faith as Storytelling Wicca, and that is definitely a concept I want to learn more about.

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Somewhere in Time (Richard Matheson)

I read somewhere that Matheson considers this one of his two best books – this is the one where love transcends time, and What Dreams May Come is the one where love transcends death. If that’s true, I can’t say I’m very interested in reading the rest of his work. Somewhere in Time is a time-traveling romance, where a man reads J. B. Priestley and realizes that time travel is a function of the mind (not a machine), and all you really have to do is hypnotize yourself. If you really believe it’s 1896, it will be. Our subject is a screenwriter in his mid-30s. He’s dying from a brain tumor, so he wanders away from his family and lands in a hotel on the coast of southern California. There, he sees a photograph of an actress from the previous century and he becomes completely obsessed. He goes through all the historical research and theories of relativity and time, and then he goes backward seventy-five years to see her.

She’s an actress who’s just okay, and has had two experiences with fortune-tellers who predict the love of her life. Suddenly a man shows up who fits their descriptions, and he’s odd but ardent. She’s guarded by her manager and her mother, but she still finds a way to meet up with this guy. Because we read the research, we know what’s going to happen. The actress is going to disappear from the stage for about nine months, then she’s going to be amazing. She’s technically flawless before, but it’s only after meeting her time-traveling man that she can really put some emotion into her roles.

Neither had ever loved anyone before, even though they’re certainly at an age to have done. The whole love story feeds into this misconception that there is only one love of a person’s life. I think it’s ridiculous – in a group of eight billion people, you think only one of them will love you? Rubbish! Love is everywhere, if we’re willing to look for it. These two people try to cram a lifetime of loving into a span of three days, and it’s a dismal failure. Not that they don’t love each other, but that waiting your whole life for one intense weekend and then never having another is a frightful waste. They have sex three times in one night, and it’s great, but why would she never try it again with anyone else? She has a long life ahead of her. He doesn’t, but in 1971 people with brain tumors are capable of casual sex.

What I’m saying is that the attitude toward love and sex is about as realistically believable as the idea that you can think yourself into a past you’ve never experienced.

This book is not as long as it feels. After a while, it seemed like the obstacles preventing the lovers’ union are simply there to stretch the story out as long as possible. It may have been more enjoyable as a short story. There’s a film that wasn’t well received, but it might be interesting to watch. Any excuse to stare at Christopher Reeve, right? Besides, the original title of the book was Bid Time Return, but it’s now printed under the film title, so maybe the movie is better? I don’t know. But the talent seems good, and the music is apparently popular, so it’ll be worth the experiment.

 

Men Under Water (Ralph Lombreglia)

It’s a risky business, giving young writers awards. You never know how the rest of their career is going to play out. This guy, for example, wrote two short story collections twenty-five years ago and has apparently spent the rest of his life teaching and doing media consulting. The stories are decent – all about men in pain acting out in one form or another, so it’s sort of like The Man of Feeling, reclaiming the primacy of (heterosexual white American) men’s emotional lives and the art they produce. I get the feeling in another month or two I will have completely forgotten this book. There’s one about transforming one’s house into a museum of love that caught my attention, museums and libraries being so closely related, but it’s another example of an unhappy man making everything about him, reducing a woman’s existence to a series of objects that he has a sentimental attachment to, and imprisoning himself in a literal basement.

 

What Remains (Garrett Leigh)

I seldom go for gay romances written by women, but this one was good. I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are squeamish about reading explicit gay sex scenes, because there are a ton of them, but if that’s no obstacle, this is a good story. Jodi is a web designer in London who gets hit by a car. There’s a coma, and some amnesia – he forgets about coming out of the closet and his five-year relationship with Rupert, a handsome Irish firefighter.  Personally, I’ve been having amnesia fantasies since I was a teenager, so the book touched on some ideas that I’ve thought out myself. I’d love to start over without all of the social conditioning. This is probably uncomfortably close to suicidal ideation, but it doesn’t feel the same. I don’t want to stop being; I want a shortcut to getting past the mental corset that hampers my ability to express myself freely in daily life. They fall in love again and there’s a happy ending, but it’s not super-sappy and the male characters are not unnaturally expressive or clearsighted as to the nuances of their emotional lives. They deal with things realistically, in a manner that is consistent with my experience of gay men of their ages.

 

The Nine Wrong Answers (John Dickson Carr)

The classic mystery of the 1960s. It’s such a perfect exemplar of its genre that nothing stands out too prominently, except for the gimmick expressed in the title. Every so often, there’s a footnote where the author discusses one of the genre conventions as a potential right answer, but as the title indicates, they’re all wrong. It’s a way of pointing out how well he’s meeting audience expectations while subverting them at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not super memorable either.

 

The Library at Mount Char (Scott Hawkins)

This book is engaging and well written, but terrible. A godlike figure kidnaps twelve kids and forces them to study in a mystic library, which is divided into catalogs. The protagonist studies languages, but other kids learn about animals, or war, or healing, or death. Their study involves a lot of practical application as well as book learning, so the girl learning about death dies and Father brings her back, over and over and over again. This is just one example of the way that something that sounds pleasant, like a magical library, turns into the locus of trauma and abuse. There is so much needless suffering, and the library is the source of it. For me, libraries were a refuge from the horrible things in my life – Hawkins makes the library the opposite. There is no safe place, and the library is the source of the terror. Knowledge is power, and you can’t trust anyone to use power altruistically. Carolyn does eventually learn that joy is better than pain, but it takes her a long time to figure that out. Most of the characters in the book die at least once, but my favorite does come back at the end, so there’s a little tiny bit of hope. But it’s not like in Catch-22, where the ending makes you realize there was always hope and the last four or five pages make the whole book of suffering worth it. There’s so little joy that it doesn’t compensate for the difficulty of the rest of the book. Maybe if a reader isn’t full of traumas like me, they won’t find it as triggering as I did. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks telling people to stay away from this book. It is too upsetting for me.

 

A Wish Upon the Stars (TJ Klune)

The finale to the series about Sam of Wilds and his friends. The only thing that can compensate me for the loss of more books is the fact that I can reread these four again. Happy endings all around, marriage, recovery of lost unicorn horns, defeating the evil one, reclaiming the land for love, secrets revealed, relationships repaired, gay sex. It’s great. The author includes an endnote about how he started writing these books when he was in a dark place and needed some laughs, and these characters and their ‘overt immaturity’ really helped him a lot. They’ve helped add to my life’s store of happiness, too. It does make me question whether his other books will be as delightful as this series was. I’ll have to try one sometime and find out.

 

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Patricia A. McKillip)

Heir of Sea and Fire (Patricia A. McKillip)

Harpist in the Wind (Patricia A. McKillip)

Truth be told, I read this trilogy in a single volume, which has been published under more than one title. The one I borrowed is Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy, but I’ve also seen it as Riddle of Stars.

Morgon is a lot like Ged, the wizard of Earthsea in Ursula le Guin’s books. He’s just learning how to do magic, so he goes on a quest that spans the length of his known world to find an authority who will reveal to him who he is and what his life’s calling is. He thinks that he’s meant to rule over a peaceful island of farmers, but his life moves in a different direction. All the journeying is really typical of your Tolkien-based fantasy novels (McKillip admits the influence in her introduction), and Morgon even has to face the fact that the end of his journey is quite different to what he had imagined it would be.

But that’s only the first book. Part of Morgon’s journey was to complete a task that a local king had decreed would be rewarded with his daughter’s hand in marriage – Morgon had met her previously, having gone to college with her brother, so he was really okay with marrying Raederle if she would agree to it. The second book is about Raederle’s journey to find Morgon after he goes off to Erlenstar Mountain and never comes back. The series is full of women who are powerful rulers, fierce warriors, and even determined little sisters. While Raederle doesn’t set off with self-discovery in mind, it’s a strong element of her story as well.

In the third book, they’re finally together, but we see things mostly from Morgon’s perspective again. The conflict between multiple antagonists is finally coming to a head, with a giant war that spreads to all the lands. It’s sad, but McKillip does a good job of focusing on individual characters instead of faceless masses of humanity. The end is a new era, which we hope will be better.

I really like the way that McKillip doesn’t shy away from portraying abstractions, magic that can be perceived with the mind only and has no equivalent in our world. She takes up the challenge and does it well. I also appreciate her female characters for their strength, and the examples of nontoxic masculinity she provides as well. Some of the men are toxic, but not all, and Morgon’s journey has a lot to do with learning how to express his emotions. I like the fact that in the end, Raederle is still free to do as she likes, and that she and Morgon can love each other without living together. For the 1970s, the idea that a woman needs to grow in ways that don’t involve a man is sort of radically feminist. And true.

Last weekend I decided that I was done with being lonely, so I drove up to the nearest city with a gay bar to get dinner, do some drinking, do some dancing, and later do some fucking. The problem was, I’m rubbish with driving in cities. I’m never in the right lane, I get paranoid when someone drives behind me, and I never have change for parking meters. I called someone for directions, but I still ended up out by the highway. In Asheville terms, I went looking for Lexington Ave and ended up on Tunnel Rd. Or, if you prefer New York, I got lost in downtown Manhattan and found myself in Scranton. So I pulled into the Walmart parking lot to figure out where I was, and I saw a guy with a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. I ran into the Subway inside the Walmart and bought him a sandwich, looked at how late it was getting, and trudged moodily to the Outback Steakhouse. I had a great dinner and did a little drinking, read some Sartre, but then I just went home. This happened to me in Paris, too: I spent three days wandering the city, giving over a hundred euros to beggars, before I finally made it to Le Marais. I’ve got to make sure other people’s needs are met before I can accept the idea that my needs are important too.

This was always my favourite C. S. Lewis book. Maybe because, as a romantic, I’m drawn by its fragmentary nature. I tend to think that it’s more because the title speech captures what I believe the essence of religion ought to be: learning to see the infinite potential of each human being, and encouraging them to reach that potential.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

Many religious people will tell you that the purpose of religion is to gain a sense of God and to please Him. I think that it’s just as important to understand what religion tells us about ourselves and our fellow humans. I don’t usually think of myself as a god-in-embryo; it’s easier for me to see the divine in other people. Maybe that’s why I give to the homeless; when I help them, their gratitude makes me feel as if the universe approves of me. There’s something that feels more authentic, more beneficent in having a dirty kid who wears winter clothes in the summer and only owns eight pieces of kibble for his dog tell me “God bless you” than in hearing the same phrase from my coworker, who is consistently well-fed and is taking a month of vacation to travel to Albania. I shake hands with American Christians on a weekly basis (can’t resist a nice-looking guy in a suit, so I keep going back to church), but none of them confer the same degree of blessing as the old woman wearing hijab on the Champs-Elysées, who interrupted her prostrating to clutch my hand and kiss it. It is significantly more difficult for me to see the divine in my next-door neighbor, who shouts really damaging things at the woman he lives with, or in another coworker who literally sticks his nose in the air when he sees me coming down the hall (if I walked by him outside during a rainstorm, he’d drown). So, yes, even in the religion of free love that I’ve invented for myself, I still have a way to go.

I also appreciate Lewis’s approach to symbols, and his honesty with them.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

Symbols are not doctrine. They can teach, but only by suggesting, by pointing at something else. The symbol is not the point; what it represents is. The problem is that, when it comes to religion (of any sort), the thing symbolized cannot be understood without symbols. I think this explains my abiding interest in mysticism and sex. Language is a symbol like any other, and it’s often less adequate than more pictorial representations. I’ve spent my life looking for experience that transcends language, for glory that cannot be expressed. That bit in the Bible about “seek and ye shall find” is true; when I was religious, I sought mystical experiences, fasting, praying, meditating, sacrificing, any spiritual discipline that people do, I’ve probably tried in some form. In return, I heard voices, saw visions, and occasionally felt a touch or an embrace from someone who (empirically considered) wasn’t there. These days I look for transcendence in sex. Not as frequently as I’d like, but I can find “what feeds my soul” in that intense physical experience.

Lewis describes it not so much as transcending as transposing. The comparison here that makes the most sense to me is in making a piano reduction of an orchestral work. I’ve listened to and played enough of these that I get it. You can put all the same notes in there, but you can’t capture the timbre of the other instruments with a piano. There’s something about the opening to Rhapsody in Blue that only makes sense when it’s played on the clarinet. Even so, there are some things that just will never make sense in this life, because Earth isn’t the instrument life is written for. I’m not sure I completely agree with this idea, but I can see the beauty of it, and I can see how it helps others get through life contentedly.

As I was rereading this book, I realized how much I’ve changed from when I last read it, five or six years ago. For most of my life, I’ve looked for what Lewis calls “The Inner Ring,” that small group of people who really belong, who make things happen. I’ve been drawn to power and tried to associate myself with those people I perceived as having it. But not now. I guess now that I’m away from God and my ex-wife, I feel like I have enough power in my life that I don’t go around looking for more. I don’t even look at social groups any more. I see individuals, and I decide whom I want to be with based on their personal qualities. Perhaps not completely, but mostly I’ve been cured of this inner-ringer-ness.

The other big change is in my response to the essay on membership. Lewis teaches that the key to personality is in surrendering it to God. Working in the church, you discover who you really are, you are more completely yourself than when you are alone.

We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

I am too familiar with truthful paradoxes to argue against this with logic. All I can really say is, my experience was different. I didn’t become more myself; I became less. The more I threw myself into church service, the more I conformed to the patterns set by others. It’s no use turning yourself into an ear when you were made to be a leaf. And as for obedience and unity with God, that requires labeling half of my desires as evil and ignoring or fighting against them in order to kill them. Killing half of oneself does not increase the self; it left me half of a person. And that supposedly evil part of the self never really dies; like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, it lies in wait until a new opportunity arises. Then one day when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, those desires overwhelm you and you “fall into sin.” This Christian concept of what it means to be human is incredibly dangerous because it encourages such violence to the self. Not physical, but mental and emotional violence.

I find more diversity among “the worldlings” than the Christians. This diversity comes from having a healthier attitude toward the self. Instead of seeing myself as a battlefield where angels and demons struggle for dominance, now I am just myself. The desires I have for “evil” are as much a part of me as my desires for “good.” The more I can accept this fundamental truth, the more peace I have with myself. I try to love the people and other living things around me, and where I can’t yet love, I try to be kind. If I have a desire to be unkind, then I accept that as part of myself, but I also try to understand where the desire comes from. It’s often rooted in fear, especially fear of rejection, so I try to address my fears in other ways that don’t hurt others. I do not find this approach to life in most Christians, but it doesn’t seem quite as uncommon among the educated secular.

Religion has actually been the area in my life where I feel the most rejection lately. Here in the United States the Supreme Court has decided that marriage is marriage, regardless of the genders of the people entering into it. A number of my friends are celebrating by adding rainbow filters to their facebook profile pictures and posting supportive comments. A number of friends I feel more distant from are responding by complaining about the color and insisting that by definition gay marriage cannot exist. While it’s not a definite dividing line, more Christians are straight-only-marriage-defenders, and more secular people are gay-marriage-celebrators. Then, the church I grew up in issued a formal statement to be read in all congregations throughout the United States and Canada claiming the church’s right never to recognize gay relationships. In my opinion, the gesture is unnecessary and hostile. Their stance on homosexuality has been clear for decades now, and has never changed. They are an institution dedicated to the salvation of humanity, they even claim that their priesthood ordinances are necessary for salvation, but they deny these to me and my people. It’s taken me years to understand that being rejected by this church and being rejected by God are not the same thing. But I’ve finally mustered the courage to respond to their rejection in the most sensible fashion: I resigned my membership. Most of the members I know think this is a horrible idea – I think they see me as embracing my damnation – but I can see the love in their concern, and I can accept their love and friendship without remaining one of them. If God is my creator, then I can best please him by being the person he created. [Sorry about the masculine pronouns. Part of being gay for me unfortunately involves a certain discomfort with femininity as an abstract concept, so I think of God as a him. There are many people I love who see God as female, or both, or neither, and I support their interacting with the divine in terms they are more comfortable with.]

So, looking at the table of contents, we have: The Weight of Glory, yes. Learning in War-Time, yes. Why I am Not a Pacifist, yes. Transposition, yes. Is Theology Poetry, yes, but it’s not as memorable so it’s a more tentative yes. The Inner Ring, okay, but not really relevant right now. Membership, no. On Forgiveness, yes. A Slip of the Tongue, no.

C. S. Lewis is good for striking at the heart of Christianity, explaining the basic concepts in a learned fashion. You can see his strong leaning toward the academy, but he explains things in such a way that most people can understand. If a person has a problem with Lewis, that person probably has a problem with Christianity as a whole because Lewis tends to shy away from topics that Christians disagree on. As I’ve said, of the works that I’ve read, this is the book that I have the most positive emotional response to. The emphasis is on application and reasoning rather than unquestionable doctrine, so it’s better for me and other people who don’t trust what can’t be questioned.

The concept here seems pretty simple. Ransom Riggs went searching for a bunch of old-timey novelty photographs and made a story out of them. Lest you think the pictures themselves are made up, cracked.com is fairly obsessed with old-timey novelty photographs, and we all know that they are the best source for historical fact. Despite its somewhat gimmicky nature, the story is pretty solid, and Riggs’ descriptions are vivid enough that his book would be interesting without the pictures.

Our protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy. That doesn’t necessarily make it a teen novel, but the simple vocabulary and sentence structure, the absent parents, the discovery that he has magical powers, and the coming-of-age that involves abandoning his family and former life for a group of friends he just met, do. Ditto the narration that lacks any sort of commentary longer than a single sentence, and the way that the story sidles up close to emotional moments and then runs off to hide in the corner when we get too close. I’m making it sound worse than it is; I don’t mean to. I’ll read the sequel.

So. Jacob Portman is an unpopular kid (Teen Novel Requirement #7) with exactly one friend, a six-foot-five redneck with green hair who disappears fairly early, which is too bad. I thought Ricky had some interesting potential. Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather tell these crazy stories about growing up in an orphanage for circus freaks in Wales and saving the world from monsters. One day his grandfather dies horribly, and Jacob sees the monster who does it. He spends quite some time in therapy, then talks his parents into letting him go to Wales to see the orphanage. When he gets there, he finds the peculiar children, who are kind of like the X-Men, if they were all between six and fifteen years old, and if Professor X were a time-manipulating bird-woman keeping them trapped in a perpetual childhood. They’ve been living in a time-loop for seventy years, so that the bomb the Nazis dropped on their island wouldn’t kill them all. Well, the monsters show up, the Nazis show up, and eventually Jacob goes off to save 1940 from bog-wights and Nazis. Come on, it’s a first-person narrator, you knew he was going to survive, and that he was going to choose to stay where he was accepted instead of going back to twenty-first century Florida.

I pictured my cold cavernous house, my friendless town full of bad memories, the utterly unremarkable life that had been mapped out for me. It had never once occurred to me, I realized, to refuse it.

I grew up in a small town in the South, kind of like the one Jacob is from. When your childhood is unhappy, you don’t see the possibilities for happiness that life can offer. There’s an age when you know everything you need to know for your life, and there isn’t anything other than what you already know. I’m glad that I got out of that town and have discovered that the world is larger, scarier, and more wonderful than I had thought. I’m glad I was wrong, and I didn’t need a magical sideshow to convince me of it.

I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door.

I’ve also found this to be true. Sometimes I head blindly through doors simply because they happen to be open, and I need to get away from the current situation. It’s how things get better. I wouldn’t say my life is perfect, or that anyone should take it as a model, but it’s a damn sight better than it was.

Another requirement for the teen novel is the inexplicable crush. I didn’t get these as a teenager, so I think they’re overrepresented in teen novels, but I did get one just a few months ago, so maybe not. I do like the description of what the initial mutual attraction feels like:

I didn’t know what to call it, what was happening between us, but I liked it. It felt silly and fragile and good.

There’s one phrase that I’m really glad he didn’t use, ever: waiting for his life to start. I get frustrated over this phrase because it implies that we don’t live during our childhoods. Each of our lives began back before we can remember; all that stuff when we didn’t have control over our lives continues to inform our actions and attitudes forever.

I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.

When I think about all the different things that happen to children and young adults, I’m amazed any of us reach thirty-five. Sometimes I need to be reminded, but my life is a miracle. I should have died of pneumonia back when I was a toddler. There are a few other times I thought I was going to die; there’s also my childhood paranoia that my older siblings were trying to kill me. Then there’s that annoying habit I had for a few years of falling asleep while driving. I once wandered into a Communist rally in a foreign country, and I’ve done things that would get me beheaded in this country if I were to confess them in the right places. Yes, life is scary. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen more beautiful places and people than a poor white boy from Down East has a right to expect. I’ve looked at the Sahara Desert from the air, where the patterns in the sand look like giant trees, and climbed mountains in Brazil to find the giant crosses that overlook the cities there. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and seen the Pacific Ocean from a highway in Canada. If the world were as merciless as some people think, I would never have left rural North Carolina.

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.

This is a phenomenon I’ve often noticed and tried to explain to people. For Jacob, it was his grandfather dying. For me, the first was going to college for the first time. Then there was getting married. Then the birth of my first child. And the second. And the third. And then the separation from them. It always seems to me that everything in my life has been preparing me for whichever transcendent experience happens next. I’ve had enough of them that I fully expect to keep having them, these moments that alter the way I see myself and the world so profoundly that I feel ripped in half.

Someone once told me the story of reading The Lord of the Rings as a kid, when she had to wait between books. How nerve-wracking. I mean, think of the ending of The Two Towers. Sam, convinced that Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, takes the ring and the magical elven flashlight and sets off to throw the ring into the mountain alone. The movies make this moment easier by not ending there. Miss Peregrine ends on a similar journey-beginning moment, and the reviewers on Amazon say that the second one does too. If you’re into that, could be a good thing. I think it’s only good if the author keeps writing stories in the series (cough cough — Fathom’s Five — cough cough), and ends on an ending note when he loses interest/inspiration/momentum. We’ll see how Ransom Riggs does in the future.

Oh, and it’s been turned into a graphic novel, if you’re not as fond of . . . words.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.

 

When this book was first published twenty years ago, I was in its target audience. It’s now out of print, but you can find/order just about anything at a good bookshop. I first read it fairly recently, and it took me back to feeling like a kid reading pulp fantasy novels to escape his unhappy life. It made for good airplane reading.

When dealing with the fantasy genre, it is most common to talk about series instead of independent stories. This is an audience that usually has a voracious appetite for reading material, so the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. After all, if Harry Potter had only lived for one book, he would never have become the cultural landmark he is today. Getting your series turned into a movie is also extremely useful. So when people discuss Diana Wynne Jones, they tend to talk about Howl’s Moving Castle, the first of three books and it became an animated picture by Hayao Miyazaki. Being a one-off with no film, Hexwood doesn’t get much attention, and I’m sure the out-of-print thing doesn’t help.

This novel hits most of Diana Wynne Jones’s major themes: Celtic legends, transformations, discovering one’s identity, magic, and British culture. [It was very strange to both read Howl and see the movie, and watch how all the explicitly Welsh culture from the novel becomes Japanese in the film.] I like the way Jones resists Tolkien’s influence. The sword and sorcery stuff is there, but it’s not there for its own sake; it teaches us how to live in the contemporary world. And when a character even mentions hobbits, the author kills him immediately. Spoilers might be considered particularly egregious in a book like this, but I’m going to ruin it for you anyway.

Here’s the idea: There is a vast intergalactic government/corporation that relies on selling flint from Earth, which is used in interplanetary transportation. Earth has a galactic monopoly on flint, but we don’t know that. The Earth represented is a fairly close approximation to the one we live in. The corporation is governed by a group of five Reigners, who are so far from most of the workers that they are more mythic than real. They have an assassin called The Servant who takes care of any problems for them; he is their public face. The current Reigners are corrupt and excessively involved with consolidating their already extensive power. On Earth, the corporation is called Rayner Hexwood International; the Earth installation has the two goals of exporting as much flint as possible as cheaply as possible and preventing the local population from discovering the existence of life offplanet. There is also a secretive underground file storage facility, sometimes called a library, sometimes Hexwood Farm. The library houses The Bannus, a reality simulator that helps people make decisions. It was designed to create a reality that would run people through several different versions of a situation so that they could choose the best way to act. This Bannus was programmed to choose Reigners. Reigner One didn’t want to lose his position, so he sealed it up and hid it where he thought no one would ever find it. He did the same to his two most dangerous enemies. A thousand years later The Bannus is pissed, and manipulates a computer hacker into breaking the seals and turning it on. The dupe wanted to do some live role-playing with hobbits on a Grail Quest, but instead he got angry alien technology with mind control. It sucks in all the people around it and convinces them they’re living in this Camelot-style environment; as the book goes on, it sucks in more and more people, and the situation gets increasingly complex. But none of these people know they’re in a simulation, only the hacker does. Life before plumbing was rather more difficult than he anticipated. But hackerboy isn’t the protagonist; he’s just a pawn who thinks that he’s more central than he is.

The local village is early-1990s contemporary British, the sort of life considered normal by the intended audience. Ann is a regular girl with a familiarly obtuse family. She hears voices in her head and discovers a magical medieval world in the woods at the edge of the village. She accepts her reality as the real one, but can’t convince her friends in the woods around the castle that their reality isn’t real. Given time, Ann figures out that neither is real. She’s not a girl; she’s a grown woman who accompanied the Reigners to Earth to try to defuse the situation. The goal is to find and shut down The Bannus; it’s hard because it keeps convincing people they’re knights or ladies-in-waiting or shopkeepers. And if a sentient computer can alter reality, what would it make itself look like? Would it really become a Grail? The Bannus’s goal is to draw in the Reigners and kill them. This makes the book significantly darker than, say, the Howl books, because people die horrible deaths. Slipping in rivers, drinking poison, and being attacked by dragons. Not really kid-friendly, but the few references to romance or sexuality are all appropriate for the type of ten-year-old I was.

Even though this book was written by a woman, even though the main character is a female, it just barely passes the Bechdel Test. There are comparatively few female characters, and most of their interactions are unfortunate stereotypes: prosaic mother meets rebellious preteen daughter, evil woman in position of power eliminates all female rivals. They talk about fashion and families. Even in this world, an imagined world containing other imagined worlds, action belongs to men. The back of the book makes it sound like it’s all about Ann, but the cover art has three young men. It’s just weird.

This is a book about clearing away the corrupt elements at the top of society and replacing them with more virtuous equivalents. It’s not about revolution and overthrow; it’s about peaceful transitions to a better version of the present system. This is why the killing is so strange to me. Normally, the violent situations can be avoided, and there’s room for everyone in society. In Hexwood, there is no place for some people. They have to die. Like most fantasy narratives, it’s essentially conservative. I think that’s weird too, but it’s also true.

To some extent, all fiction is fantasy because it doesn’t describe events that actually happened. The stuff we label the fantasy genre, though, tends to present us with thought-experiments that study our limitations. Along with getting rid of the existing Reigners, The Bannus is also training the new ones not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Cycles of violence and exploitation can be broken, but someone has to work consciously toward creating new patterns.

And, there you have it. The language is functional and direct; the messages are fairly clearly spelled out; the characters are pleasant to be with. It’s not a taxing book, but it is one I enjoy. Think, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. That kind of feel.