Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Unnatural States (Or, If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished)

We’re into pondering the future of literature around here.  Recent entries include e-book chapter mashups and twit lit and Harvard Press on Scribd.  Today’s comes from Nicola Furlong, self-identified shameless self-promoter and Canadian writer of mysteries.

Furlong has produced a multimedia novel entitled Unnatural States.  It is certainly multimedia.  Whether it is a novel is debatable.  More on that later.  Navigating the simple site, you are immediately confronted with a “Trailer / Intro”, which features an buzzcut older woman in sunglasses performing YouTube-esque antics in lieu of of a book jacket.  It had me clicking desperately for the next page.  Readers, it went downhill from there. unnatural states

Unnatural States is a linear progression of linked webpages filled with text, pictures, sound effects and more video clips.  These are all meant to serve as the stuff of this “novel,” which apparently is a mystery about some latter-day John the Apostle and a terrier-like reporter named Virginia hot on his trail.  Or something.  It was hard to tell, what with all the noise and bad sentences.

If it’s possible for a website to be claustrophobic, this one is.  When I’m reading, I like to know where I’m going.  How many pages the books has (or dots at the bottom of the screen, in the case of the Kindle), how far along I am, what chapter I’m on, and so forth.  Unnatural States gives you none of these.  You don’t how far you’ve come, or how far you’ve got to go.  There are no chapters.  No organization at all that I could detect, other than the arrows at the bottom of your screen.  If you want to understand what’s going on, you can’t skip the video clips.  You have to watch them.  It’s like taking orders from the author.  It’s annoying as hell.

I mean, I like movies and video as much as anyone.  But I watch them as video.  Clips as stand-ins for the written word are horribly inefficient.  They just take so long.  What would constitute a few paragraphs of dialogue takes three minutes of video.  It’s the same reason I prefer to get my news off the web rather than TV: in the time it takes a talking head to get to the gist, I can have read a whole page of analysis, and be on to the next thing, rather than passively waiting for the talking head to tell me what’s next.

Now, a novel just is a passive experience.  Which is why I can’t stand to read bad ones.  If I’m going to hand my conscious working mind over to a writer, he / she better do good things with it.  Inserting video clips as stand-ins for words just doesn’t cut it.  I don’t pick up a novel to be a part-time watcher.  I pick it up to be a reader.

Normally I’m all for innovation.  But this is the kind of thing that’s going to make a raging literary reactionary out of me.  There have to be some parameters.  A novel can be spoken, a novel can be filmed.  But, as yet, a novel cannot be turned into a multimedia showcase.  Not without ceasing to become a novel and becoming something else.  A dreary mess, in this case.

Take the video sequences, for instance.  Yes, they are painfully amateur productions.  But that’s not the problem.  Slick scenes directed by Quentin Tarantino would not improve the situation.  That’s because video clips are not writing; they are fundamentally something else.  This is the reason you don’t attend a movie screening of your favorite novel book in hand, nor read a book with a DVD remote, watching the scenes as you read them.  I suppose it’s possible to imagine a future when the multitasking hordes both read and watch video at the same time, but that won’t be reading (or watching, for that matter).  It will be something else.  For now the barrier between the two is impermeable.  Unnatural States is a demonstration of why.  If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished.

Is it fair to review a “novel” that I haven’t actually finished?  Normally I’d say no.  But in this case I think it is justified.  I couldn’t possibly drudge through to end of this exercise in digital tedium.  Furlong has managed to construct a galactic failure of tinny sound effects, 80s-arcade music, painfully turgid video scenes, and woefully uninteresting writing.  An actual novel, the kind that consists of mere words, is incapable of such a massive falling down.  So I guess this makes Furlong something of an innovator, after all.

Judge for yourself here:  Unnatural States, by Nicola Furlong

UPDATE: Normally I contact the author of a book or piece I review, and invite them to comment.  But I haven’t been able to locate Furlong’s contact information.  If anybody has it, please feel free to forward it to me.

Also posted at TeleRead.

Book Review: Password Incorrect

Password Incorrect is a truly zany collection of “tech-absurd” short stories by Nick Name, pen name for Polish author Piotr Kowalczyk, which only a networked world could have unleashed. It’s available for free from Feedbooks.

Start with the title story to see the absurd in action. My Kindle sat untouched for a couple weeks while I transitioned back to the U.S. from Thailand. When I got back to my Kindle’s homepage again, I did a double take—Password Incorrect? What password? I never needed a damn password before!—until it all came back to me. My reaction is strikingly similar to the befuddlement of the uniformly oddball characters of Password Incorrect confronted by the unexpected repercussions of their tech-doings.

Nearly all the 25 stories are flash fiction; that is, under 1000 words. My favorite was “Wishes Shovel Best.”

On Christmas Eve Slawek Przekosniak received an SMS with these wishes: “Wishing yo good ping super new”. He didn’t know who sent him that surprisingly enigmatic message.

Inspired, he creates software to manufacturing randomly bizarre messages, starting an online phenomenon that makes him the 67th-richest man in Poland. Until a curmudgeonly official is offended by an SMS which reads “Wishes shovel best” and turns him over to the Inquiry Board, the Board of Inquiries, and the Special Security Agency. Black limousines appear at his house on the night he is to receive a lobbied-for Site of the Year Award. In the Age (Moment?) of Twitter, this seems less a merely imagined story than another possible permutation of reality.

“Part-time Evening Elementary School” features a school designed for kids “too busy to learn during the day due to the time spent on the difficult task of maintaining our country’s high ranking in the very competitive field of computer games.” A school where PE classes are for stretching the spine and practicing joystick skills and English is considered vital because it allows “for quick mastery of games not yet translated into Polish.”

“Happiness in a Four-Pack” is about a revolutionary new product, “ingestible energizing happiness”. Unfortunately, after an initial burst of popularity, sales soon collapse. Consumer studies reveal that “customers don’t want to be happy. They are much more effectively motivated by misfortune.” Not to worry. “That’s Sad” quickly comes on the market. Its wide popularity causes the company’s owner to throw himself from a bridge in, you guessed it, a fit of happiness.

Outlandish characters are the order of the day. A sampling includes a professor from the Department of Westernmostenatatious European Polonisation, hockey-playing bacillus, and a Dr. Kaliszewski: “He entered the room happy as a lark, which normally accompanied him when he was happy as one. Now the lark was somewhat tense and you could feel it in the air.”

These are the sort of tropes, I think, that a native-English author would reject out of hand as clichés, but in Kowalczyk’s hands, manage to find new life. Gustave Flaubert, in teaching writing, counseled writers to find the “unexplored” element in the commonest of things, and I think this is what Kowalczyk has done here. Password Incorrect abounds with literary dexterity without ever sinking to the merely clever.

A couple of the pieces don’t quite measure up, as in the one featuring a middle-aged man who regresses into an embryo and the one with a talk show host who is “So sensitive and so sweet at the same time. Handsome. Appetizing. Just like a spring onion.” Kowalczyk stretches quirky to the very edge of its readable definition, and, in a couple cases, beyond. The collection would not have suffered from having only 20 stories.

Translated from Polish by Anna Etmanska, there are several spots where the English is, well, quirky. Generally these are very minor, but still noticeable. For instance: “He imagined Czeslawa Ceracz using this liquid and kept dreaming for good.” Truth be told, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, these are nothing an editor couldn’t quickly fix up. On the other, they seem to me characteristic of the international English that is the world’s actual lingua franca, as opposed to that of the Queen. So long as the text is readable, I don’t see any point in standing on ceremony. The English of Password Incorrect reflects its origins in the mind of a non-native speaker, and the idiosyncrasies never seriously detract from the meaning or humor of the stories. Therefore I don’t mind them. Just bear in mind that as you read these stories, you will notice them.

We have so quickly come to take the internet for granted that I think we forget just how recent and radical a phenomenon it is. As much as anything, these stories serve as a reminder. Issued up from the heart of Poland by a wired writer in translated English making absurd light of situations unimaginable even a decade ago, ones fraught with the danger of banality. But this nimble writer deftly zigzags to humor and sheer wackiness. It has been suggested that multimedia “books” could be literature’s future, and that may well be. But I think more likely candidates are the sort of short stories you’ll find in Password Incorrect, which exploits the networked world’s novelties while remaining true to the universal commonalities of the human experience.

You not likely come across anything quite like Password Incorrect any time soon. Unless this work receives the wide audience it deserves and imitators spring up. By which time, I hope, Kowalczyk will have delivered another collection to our e-readers.

Note: For more of Piotr Kowalczyk’s tilted take on the world, including a one-second book promo, see his blog Password Incorrect.

This review also appeared at TeleRead.

Book Review: Junk Sick

Review of Norman Savage’s autobiography Junk Sick inside:

I’ve had a long continuous fist-fight
with death. People were merely pre-lims.
– Norman Savage

Norman Savage’s life starts at 11 when he is diagnosed with diabetes. The whole anatomy of his life involves the disease. “Good diabetic control implies structure, work, planning, and deprivation, food deprivation. If you adhere to some rules and regulations, your odds are better of living a life relatively free of too many problems and complications. My gut instincts are to rebel against such a life.” And so he does, embarking on a 45-year odyssey of drugs, family, women, and poetry. He chronicles them in his autobiography, Junk Sick. (Get it at Smashwords.)

It starts with his family: “The helix of fate sealed with genetic glue grows like mold in the dark; it is moist, responds to secrets or silences, and needs no nourishment, except fear.” In the 50s very little was known about diabetes. Though they love him, Savage’s parents don’t know what to with their sick son. His mother preens over his every move. His father, a “disappointed gangster at heart”, treats his son like breakable china and withdraws. Savage wonderfully describes him as having “a heart, a twisted, misguided, loving, manipulative, judgmental, critical, ambivalent, divided, bleeding, granulated, diseased by hurt and betrayal heart, but he had a human, a very human heart.”

Fleeing his home in Brooklyn, Savage doesn’t have to search far for kicks. Introduced to heroin as a teenager, he is soon roaring full-bore down the substance highway, a junkie diabetic poet. Highlights: four amputated toes, a seduced and murderous socialite, knifepoint mugging in the Bronx, and friendships with Tom Waits and Allen Ginsberg. You wince at his drug-discombobulated days. When he passes out with a syringe in his arm, you think, how can he do that? The man is sick!

But the disease proves to be a deliverer. His ritual attention to diet and bodily functions, insulin shots, and close contact with the medical establishment keeps him alive. If he hadn’t been a diabetic, likely we wouldn’t be reading his memoir. But there’s no reckoning the price: “Even I could no more understand what my life was costing me than what your life really cost you.”

His other savior: poetry. Time and again he drags himself from the gutter to the page, never surrendering entirely to his narcotic demons, facing down the doubts a writer brings to the desk, privy to the holy madness of Ginsberg or Kerouac: “And so, with a niggling feeling inside me, a feeling that was not new to me, a feeling that told me I was copping-out, lying, that I was too easy on myself, that I was afraid, afraid of failure, looking stupid, unlearned, not assured, clumsy, awkward, and most importantly, vulnerable, I went back to concentrating on poems.”

Savage says there are “monsters of literature that have altered me in profound ways: Ginsburg, Selby, Celine, Pound, Pynchon, Crews, Roth, Morrison, Bukowski, who keep you going, restore your faith, patch up your pockmarked soul.” So imagine his wonderment when a teacher at the New School for Social Research offers to introduce him to number one on the list. Ginsburg becomes his mentor and friend: “I’d go up to Ginsberg’s pad on 10th Street and learn how to breathe life into my line and imagery into my words.” Apparently he made an impression on Ginsberg, as well. Twenty years later while student-teaching at Stuyvesant High School he casually calls Ginsberg and gets him to come do a reading.

Another luminary in Junk Sick is Tom Waits. Fast friends since the 70s, Waits “rekindled the writing bug” in Savage and would “call me up in the middle of the night from places that seemed like outposts in America, small cities in Idaho or Minnesota.” When Waits performed on Saturday Night Live, Savage was backstage in the green room. But their times together were no red carpet affair: “We would journey to Times Square arcades, catch flesh at some strip club like the Baby Doll Lounge, go to The Cedar or Doc’s pad or mine, talk and laugh and bullshit through the night and then get some food, the greasier the better, at an all night diner or café.”

Unfortunately, Savage’s good times continually bring him back to the substances: “Whatever intelligence or personality I possessed was in service of whatever drug I was doing.” Locked in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of dependence that subsumes hope and meaning into a quest for another high, Savage is unforgiving towards himself: “I became as boring and predictable as bad writing.” To himself, maybe. Not me reading it.

Junk Sick does have its rough patches. Sections about the politics of drug rehab centers are somewhat drawn-out. The physical descriptions are sometimes leave a little lacking, as in “through the picket fences of elbows and legs I managed to see how life drains out of someone.” He is a little free with the double quotes: not everything needs to be “explained”. I would have liked to get a little more detail about New York itself, CBGB’s, driving a taxi, scoring heroin in the Bronx projects, but Savage breezes over these as though they are everyday occurrences. I suppose it’s because the city is Savage’s oxygen.

One of Savage’s heroes, the poet Charles Bukowski, never much rose above his own credo of “Don’t Try.” Savage did, not keeling under to despair or bitterness. In the twilight of his life, finally clean and sober, he reflects with humility: “I’ve become an Everythingian. Knowing that the brain of an ant is more complex than our most advanced computer, how the hell am I going to choose one explanation for how I developed and survived?”

I don’t know, either, but as a reader I’m glad there is one, and that Junk Sick came of it. Junk Sick is an absorbing read. Read it for an eyeball-level look into a life most people wouldn’t have survived.

Note: You can read some of Savage’s poems from 1976 to 1998. For more on Norman Savage, see his interview with Smashword’s Mark Coker here. Junk Sick contains adult situations and language.

This review also appeared at TeleRead.

Book Review: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men opens with a perfectly 19th-century-like description of a creek. We almost expect a respectable bourgeois couple to emerge from the trees discussing a ball or an engagement. Instead we get Lennie and George:

“So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard!”
“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”
“O.K. – O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tellin’ you things and then you forget ’em, and I tell you again.”
“Tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.”

It’s hard to appreciate, I think, just how steeped we are in these archetypes now. They are instantly recognizable to the contemporary reader. George and Lennie are popular culture.

Of Mice and Men is a long way from Dickens’ fixation with the workaday dilemmas of the faintly well-to-do, which is in itself a far cry from the country gentry of Austen and Bronte. Some of Hardy’s better novels dwell on the workers, but never quite believably. Though his father was a stonemason, his fingers aren’t dirty enough. And it has always seemed to me that Faulkner’s portraits of working folk bear the imprint of a soft-handed gentleman, the brilliant observer with fingernails stained by ink, not dirt. Doubtless I am missing others.

So along rolls the Great Depression. Steinbeck is right there to chronicle it. (Avoid the dreary In Dubious Battle, which reads like a museum-piece.) Steinbeck’s fingers might not have been callused – evidently he, too, was more observer than doer – but he wrote as if they were. Lennie and George have come to stand in for a whole generation, while the depiction of the black stable buck Crooks is especially poignant today, mere hours after America’s first black president has delivered his first State of the Union address.

Steinbeck is no master stylist. He uses too many apostrophes in the hunt for accuracy of dialect and his descriptions are sometimes flat and leaden. But if you read with your spine as Nabokov suggested, Of Mice and Men is an unbridled pleasure. It recalls the joys of childhood reading, the kind that highfalutin literature and pedantic high school English teachers often kill. Of Mice and Men is finely-rendered tragedy coated in a working man’s dust and sweat.

George said, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ’em – ”
“But not us,” Lennie cried happily. “Tell about us now.”
George was quiet for a moment. “But not us,” he said.
“Because – ”
“Because I got you an’—”
“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us.” Lennie cried in triumph.

Book Review: Little Dorrit

In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov said, “If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.” Yes. Let us. You could hardly contemplate a more worthy koan or saint or syllable. So please. Go download some Dickens and bathe in the River Charles for as long as your leisure permits.

(As always, spoilers follow.)

Possibly the kindest and most humane of all writers, Dickens just can’t help himself in Little Dorrit. A cynic might say he was so wordy because he was paid by each one. I prefer to think he was just too kind-hearted to do anything but full verbose justice to every sentence. And why not, when the result is this:

“Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to any one, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing; nobody knew that he had any capacity or utterance of any sort in him, which had ever thrown, for any creature, the feeblest farthing-candle ray of light on any path of duty or diversion, pain or pleasure, toil or rest, fact or fancy, among the multiplicity of paths in the labyrinth trodden by the sons of Adam; nobody had the smallest reason for supposing the clay of which this object of worship was made, to be other than the commonest clay, with as clogged a wick smouldering inside of it as ever kept an image of humanity from tumbling to pieces. All people knew (or thought they knew) that he had made himself immensely rich; and, for that reason alone, prostrated themselves before him, more degradedly and less excusably than the darkest savage creeps out of his hole in the ground to propitiate, in some log or reptile, the Deity of his benighted soul.”

Alright, so that was two sentences. But ones nicely illustrating Little Dorrit’s twin virtues: art and social commentary.

Today’s Madoff is merely Merdle reborn. Except the swindler Merdle commits suicide while his present-day counterpart cringes in a mansion hoping for parole. Thusly demonstrating the chasm between Dicken’s artistic temperament and the real world’s shabby realities. Though Dickens is under no illusions that justice will prevail:

“’I hope,’ said Arthur, ‘that he and his dupes may be a warning to people not to have so much done with them again.’
‘My dear Mr Clennam,’ returned Ferdinand, laughing, ‘have you really such a verdant hope? The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle; in that fact lies the complete manual of governing them.’”

But Little Dorrit is no mere morality tale. Dickens is too big-hearted to be a scold. In fact, he loves his characters so exquisitely he can’t let the bad world happen to them. Oh, they undergo various trials and predicaments. Some even die. But Dickens the Kind Creator gives no one a burden she cannot bear or one that does not ultimately improve her or doesn’t testify to her inherent goodness.

He can’t even stand to create a truly evil character. The villains have a cartoonish quality, cut-out understudies for evil, not evil itself. The cigar-puffing black-outfitted Blandois is so farcical a portrait of a villainy I doubt even Dickens’ contemporaries took it seriously. The preposterous incompetence of the bureaucrats in the Circumlocution Office (i.e., the British Treasury) is a lampooning of all red tape ever spilled anywhere. The hapless prisoners of the Marshalsea and the poor residents of Bleeding Heart Yard have their foibles, their sins and blindnesses. The puffed up rich and powerful are cast from their false pedestals with contempt.

Revealing the common humanity of them all. No need to debase his characters with barbarity or subject them to violence, actual or spiritual. Like a loving father he gently prods them to light, and like wayward children, they obey. As in Little Dorrit herself:

“So diminutive she looked, so fragile and defenceless against the bleak damp weather, flitting along in the shuffling shadow of her charge, that he felt, in his compassion, and in his habit of considering her a child apart from the rest of the rough world, as if he would have been glad to take her up in his arms and carry her to her journey’s end.”

Needless to say, Little Dorrit takes her place in the Dickensian pantheon of shamefully mistreated heroes who eventually triumph. The inevitable happy ending arrives with all the grandeur of a duckling in the rain, Little Dorrit’s rickety narrative structure a hair’s breadth from collapse.

But you don’t read this book to get to the end. You read it for the endlessly artful sentences and the droll insight into the nature of the human beast. Few contemporary works have this kind of ambition and so appear trivial in comparison.

“The wide stare stared itself out for one while; the Sun went down in a red, green, golden glory; the stars came out in the heavens, and the fire-flies mimicked them in the lower air, as men may feebly imitate the goodness of a better order of beings.”

Such is the task Dickens set himself in Little Dorrit, if not all his works. Of course he did not entirely succeed, but for long stretches he comes admirably close, and where he fails, well, he fails grandly indeed.

Get it for free at Feedbooks and Manybooks.

* * *

Despite more moaning about eyestrain (“For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around.”), I plowed through Little Dorrit, 1024 pages on paper, on the Kindle with no eyestrain or unhandiness. By now I don’t even notice the blinking of a page turn nor the button-pushing.

I have dogeared hundreds of books with the intention of returning to choice quotes. But since I don’t read with a pen in hand, these remain lost on the page even on those rare occasions when I pick up a book again. Not a problem with the Kindle. Exact quotes are highlighted and stored. A remarkably handy feature that serves as a reminder of why you treasured a fine book in the first place.

Book Review: Content


I confess: I am not a tech nerd. I sort of wish I was, now that they’ve taken over the world. But I’m just a writer who’s recently been climbing a very steep learning curve about free culture and DRM (digital rights management), getting on board with Creative Commons and the like. So Cory Doctorow’s Content, supposedly a primer on the future of the future, should be just the book for me. After all, Doctorow has been on the forefront of this movement since before it was a movement.

Unfortunately, he spends most of Content preaching to the geek choir. I didn’t finish Content (available on paper and for free on the Net) ready to rise and defend our free culture. I felt like I hadn’t been invited to the party. But more on that below.

Fundamentally, Doctorow’s 28-essay collection hits the mark again and again. Take his foray into the lion’s den: the transcript of a 2004 presentation he gave to Microsoft execs regarding DRM. He points out how an average user might initially be stymied by DRM, but in the end it only takes a search engine to get around any DRM that has or ever will be invented.

He shows how Sony, inventor of the Walkman, is dead in the water when it comes to portable music. By insisting on clunky DRM, they got their lunch eaten by Apple and others. No consumers sat around saying “Damn, I wish Sony would devote some expensive engineering effort in order that I may do less with my music”; Sony’s legions of once-devoted customers jumped ship. Doctorow argues that a similar fate awaits Microsoft if it continues down the DRM road. “Tech gives us bigger pies that more artists can get a bite out of. That’s been tacitly acknowledged at every stage of the copyfight since the piano roll.” Microsoft ignores this sage advice at their own peril: its ongoing woes are at least partially the result.

There’s other mighty prescient stuff in Content. The RIAA’s recent shift to stop going after individual downloaders and the Obama administration’s new online openness make Doctorow look like a virtual soothsayer. Meanwhile the content industries have chosen wrong, wrong, and wrong again, staking their futures on business models that were rendered obsolete the minute the first P2P network came online. You can practically feel Doctorow’s delight in bringing these foibles to light.

But his ability to reel off glib mixed metaphors with such fantastic ease is something of a problem. Doctorow’s slick superiority complex just begs the unconvinced to be repelled. Now, Content isn’t an academic tome on the model of Free Culture. I think it’s meant as a free-wheeling, good-timing jaunt through some of the shallower waters of the ongoing struggle for a free culture. A work you can take seriously without being so serious about it.

And you would, if only Doctorow could restrain himself: “Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend’s sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store’s Western Union terminal.” Neither a hapless office hack nor an oppressor of the Third World: the smugness is a little suffocating, frankly. This doesn’t make him wrong. I don’t think he is. I’m on his team. But I’m not sure he wants me there.

* * *

A few years back, I tried to use Classmates.com for an upcoming high school reunion. This dowdy site was undoubtedly shunned by the geekniks in a mouseclick. And rightly so. Not only was it annoyingly user-unfriendly, but you had to pay for information. I swiftly abandoned the attempt and this marked my last foray into social media until Facebook. By the time I got there, Doctorow had long since dismissed Facebook as “having all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old.”

But I don’t think I’m alone. A whole generation of us who aren’t old (I’m 33) went on with our lives only marginally aware of the ongoing digital revolution. We used the tools as they trickled down – email, websites, blogs, and now social networks. For those of us who haven’t been on Usenet newsgroups since 1992, Facebook is a revelation equal or greater to the quantum leap of email a decade or so ago.

Doctorow is a cutting edge advocate, developer, and early-adopter of digital technologies. It seems to me that precisely because he is so far ahead of the curve he fails to grasp Facebook’s addictive appeal to the techno-commoner. Facebook is like an effortless life reunion. Profoundly conservative, it’s largely about people going back to their roots: old classmates, work buddies, girlfriends. That and putting up pictures of kids. Everyone puts their kids up for the gawking at (including me). Doctorow predicts that when the junior high bullies catch up with them, people will abandon Facebook. I’m not so sure. My daughter is up there, after all. Why would I abandon her? Wouldn’t it just be easier to unfriend the bully?

According to Doctorow, “adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” In his tech-obsession, he has lost sight of a fundamental fact: Facebook is not a social situation. It’s on a computer. A machine most of us can still turn off, like a TV or a car. Real class reunions feature excruciating minutes of chitchat. On Facebook, you simply click away. His predicting that Facebook will join “Sixdegrees, Friendster, and their pals on the scrapheap of Net.history” seems like hyperbole at best. Facebook could yet go the way of Geocities. But it sure doesn’t look that way yet.

Other examples bound to repulse the non-technorati: he can’t resist telling us that Jeff Bezos is a friend of his. He is positive that science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the internet. (Tell that to the Russians who put the entire Nabokov oeuvre online.) He informs us he picks up a new Apple PowerBook every ten months. Etcetera. Taken in disparate chunks over a longish period of time, you might not notice the grandstanding. Read as a whole, it’s downright exasperating.

More to the point, it’s counterproduc
tive. Standing on constant guard against an onslaught of geeky snarkcasm leaves you less than open to Doctorow’s many salient points. Which is a shame considering how many he makes in Content. But for the free culture and creative commons movement (what James Boyle calls cultural environmentalism) to spread to the people, I’m afraid a homelier, humbler spokesperson is required.

Note: This review is also up at TeleRead. As always, I’ve emailed Doctorow to see if he’d like to comment. Let’s hope he puts in an appearance.

UPDATE: Got an email back from Doctorow that looks suspiciously auto-sent: “Thanks, Court”. Not sure what I’m being thanked for, but that’s alright. I doubt he knows either. In any case, there’s been a bit of discussion over at TeleRead. Please go contribute if you’d like.

Short Story Review: “Refresh, Refresh”

You know what the test of reading a story online is? Whether you read it straight through without clicking away. A really great piece would overwhelm even the skittery Google Mind.

“Refresh, Refresh” doesn’t. But it’s still one crackerjack of a story. Benjamin Percy doesn’t succumb to that urge to “hook” the reader with an instant opening. That feels like a victory. And leads the way to a hell of an ending. (Partially revealed below. Don’t read on if you’re not into spoilers.) You’d be very hard pressed to locate any flaws in this piece.

More than once I felt I’d read this story before. Which is not a bad thing, because to my mind “Refresh, Refresh” invokes some very deep archetypes. Boys acting out the wargames of their fathers in the aching spaces those fathers have left behind. You can see the story playing out in every warring country since Sparta. The finely wrought twanging of this nerve alone makes it a fine story. In my estimation it is necessary a fine story do this to be considered fine.

But it is not sufficient. Having come so far as to define a classic paradigm for the contemporary scene, the story teeters on a ledge and – stops. As if satisfied it has come far enough. There’s no striving. No reaching. It fails to … fail. Percy has some deeply winning tropes here that work wonderfully. But they don’t go far enough. Like the ending, when the two boys elect not to push the loathsome recruitment officer into the crater.

This is not a criticism of the ending itself, you see; but just as the boys leave the officer on the edge of the precipice and go off to sign recruitment papers, so Percy leaves the story teetering on an edge that wins prizes and publishing deals and teaching contracts but lacks the courage of its own vision.

It is as if the story is calculated to be brutal, but not too brutal; coarse, but not too coarse; its characters hurting macho toughs, but not too hurting, or macho, or tough. The rough edges have been sanded away, allowing the heavy burden of too much vision to skim over its slick surface. As though aimed at the editors of prestigious literary magazines, rather than at readers or towards the achievement of an aesthetic pinnacle.

Which does not make a bad story. It is very very good. But not great.

So, read “Refresh, Refresh”. Definitely read it. As first-rate a story as I’ve come across online. The search engines will regard it fondly. The Google Mind, though, will quickly skip on.

UPDATE: I have been very remiss in failing to thank the estimable Brad Green for suggesting “Refresh, Refresh” to me. Thanks, Brad. And I have emailed Benjamin Percy asking if he’d like to comment. Let’s hope he puts in an appearance.

Short Story Review: "Refresh, Refresh"

You know what the test of reading a story online is? Whether you read it straight through without clicking away. A really great piece would overwhelm even the skittery Google Mind.

“Refresh, Refresh” doesn’t. But it’s still one crackerjack of a story. Benjamin Percy doesn’t succumb to that urge to “hook” the reader with an instant opening. That feels like a victory. And leads the way to a hell of an ending. (Partially revealed below. Don’t read on if you’re not into spoilers.) You’d be very hard pressed to locate any flaws in this piece.

More than once I felt I’d read this story before. Which is not a bad thing, because to my mind “Refresh, Refresh” invokes some very deep archetypes. Boys acting out the wargames of their fathers in the aching spaces those fathers have left behind. You can see the story playing out in every warring country since Sparta. The finely wrought twanging of this nerve alone makes it a fine story. In my estimation it is necessary a fine story do this to be considered fine.

But it is not sufficient. Having come so far as to define a classic paradigm for the contemporary scene, the story teeters on a ledge and – stops. As if satisfied it has come far enough. There’s no striving. No reaching. It fails to … fail. Percy has some deeply winning tropes here that work wonderfully. But they don’t go far enough. Like the ending, when the two boys elect not to push the loathsome recruitment officer into the crater.

This is not a criticism of the ending itself, you see; but just as the boys leave the officer on the edge of the precipice and go off to sign recruitment papers, so Percy leaves the story teetering on an edge that wins prizes and publishing deals and teaching contracts but lacks the courage of its own vision.

It is as if the story is calculated to be brutal, but not too brutal; coarse, but not too coarse; its characters hurting macho toughs, but not too hurting, or macho, or tough. The rough edges have been sanded away, allowing the heavy burden of too much vision to skim over its slick surface. As though aimed at the editors of prestigious literary magazines, rather than at readers or towards the achievement of an aesthetic pinnacle.

Which does not make a bad story. It is very very good. But not great.

So, read “Refresh, Refresh”. Definitely read it. As first-rate a story as I’ve come across online. The search engines will regard it fondly. The Google Mind, though, will quickly skip on.

UPDATE: I have been very remiss in failing to thank the estimable Brad Green for suggesting “Refresh, Refresh” to me. Thanks, Brad. And I have emailed Benjamin Percy asking if he’d like to comment. Let’s hope he puts in an appearance.

John Updike’s rules for reviewing reviewed

I’ve read only a small portion of John Updike’s voluminous output. I confess to being underawed. I’ve also come across one or two of his book reviews, though I can’t recall which. Maybe it’s because they weren’t memorable. (Whether a book review should be memorable is another topic.) Today I came across Updike’s rules for reviewing, and now I think I know why.

These rules so chivalrous that you might fool folks into reading a book you didn’t much like. I am more of the Dorothy Parker school: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” There’s no point prancing around with niceties.

But Updike was clearly more of a gentleman than me. Here, then, are the John Updike Rules of Reviewing, via Critical Mass:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

Okay.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

Okay.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the books, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

Surely some summary is allowed. You can do a Wikipedia or Imdb-style spoiler warning, though.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

This only matters if the plot is essential. Not the case in all books.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

I’m with Faulkner in thinking that all writing is failure. A reviewer’s job is, at least in part, to determine to what degree this is the case.

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. … Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Praise is only worth something if it’s given when deserved. That is to say, sparingly. Writing a novel or short story is a formidable endeavor in a world that already contains Pale Fire and Pride and Prejudice and Slaughterhouse-Five and Bleak House (to say nothing of “The Dead” or “Death in Midsummer” and “The Things They Carried”). In my judgement, reviews ought to reflect this reality. Succinctly.

John Updike's rules for reviewing reviewed

I’ve read only a small portion of John Updike’s voluminous output. I confess to being underawed. I’ve also come across one or two of his book reviews, though I can’t recall which. Maybe it’s because they weren’t memorable. (Whether a book review should be memorable is another topic.) Today I came across Updike’s rules for reviewing, and now I think I know why.

These rules so chivalrous that you might fool folks into reading a book you didn’t much like. I am more of the Dorothy Parker school: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” There’s no point prancing around with niceties.

But Updike was clearly more of a gentleman than me. Here, then, are the John Updike Rules of Reviewing, via Critical Mass:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

Okay.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

Okay.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the books, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

Surely some summary is allowed. You can do a Wikipedia or Imdb-style spoiler warning, though.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

This only matters if the plot is essential. Not the case in all books.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

I’m with Faulkner in thinking that all writing is failure. A reviewer’s job is, at least in part, to determine to what degree this is the case.

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. … Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Praise is only worth something if it’s given when deserved. That is to say, sparingly. Writing a novel or short story is a formidable endeavor in a world that already contains Pale Fire and Pride and Prejudice and Slaughterhouse-Five and Bleak House (to say nothing of “The Dead” or “Death in Midsummer” and “The Things They Carried”). In my judgement, reviews ought to reflect this reality. Succinctly.