Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem

Monday Night Links

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* The kids are all right: Last Friday night, the Harvard College Undergraduate Council announced that the student body had voted 72% in favor of Harvard University divesting its $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

* Barbarians at the Wormhole: On Anthony Burgess.

The trope of invasion is doubly brilliant, first because the invasion plot is a mainstay of SF and second because the trope captures quite neatly what it must feel like for some literary intellectuals to be forced to confront the increasing cultural cachet of SF, to face its meteoric rise over the last thirty years from lowbrow genre to literary respectability. The genre now comfortably occupies university syllabi, best-of lists, and handsome Library of America editions — though some hardened highbrows might suspect its popularity is more a function of marketing than of quality.

For all its brilliance, Clowes’s trope of invasion makes an important mistake, failing to note that the invasion is largely moving in the other direction. After all, one wouldn’t expect Asimov’s Science Fiction to run a special issue featuring “literary fiction,” but publications like the New Yorker apparently do feel the need for a science fiction issue, perhaps trying to freshen themselves up by tapping into the unruly energies of a disreputable genre. Indeed, the lure of the so-called low genres — and SF in particular — has long proven irresistible to those who otherwise fashion themselves as literary types, at least since Kingsley Amis’s classic 1960 study of the genre, New Maps of Hell.

Clowes’s New Yorker cover is, in fact, a perfect example in miniature of the subgenre Amis called the “comic inferno” — humorous dystopias such as those written by Frederick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, and Robert Sheckley. This subgenre, by Amis’s account, mocks ideas of progress in its humorous rendition of dystopian futures. What is dystopian about Clowes’s comic cover is very precisely that SF cannot be ignored, that it disrupts the bourgeois regularity and comfort that informs the imagination of hypothetical readers of The New Yorker. The genre — which always bears with it the threatening knowledge that the world might change inexorably, beyond human control, or at least beyond the control of those who are humanistically inclined — cannot be ignored, because the signs of our world’s deepening state of crisis (political, technological, environmental) cannot be ignored.

* Bonus: “Anthony Burgess Answers Two Questions” by Jonathan Lethem.

Not only are student loans not a burden on the federal government, they’re a good investment. In 2012 the DOW estimated its subsidy for student lending at -17 percent. In other words, the DOE “subsidies” actually represent money coming in. Including all expenses, from loses on defaults to debt collection to program administration, the DOE will pull in more than $25 billion in profit from student lending this year alone—billions more dollars than the IRS will assess in gift and estate taxes combined, and more than enough to pay NASA’s whole budget. The DOE explains the negative subsidy through a divergence between “the Government’s borrowing rate and the interest rate at which borrowers repay their loans.” After all, no one can borrow at lower rate than the U.S. Treasury, certainly not college students and their families. Bondholders aren’t the only ones who think student debtors—including defaulters—will pay back every cent they owe, with interest. The government is literally counting on it.

* The headline reads, “Charges dropped against man arrested for wearing an elaborate wristwatch.”

* Elmo accuser wants to retract his retraction. Hostess may survive after all.

Hostess Bankruptcy Has Worked Out Well for CEO Brian Driskoll.

This is not identical to the story with the American Airlines bankruptcy, but there’s something similar about it. There the CEO gets a large payday if he can avoid a merger, regardless of the value for the enterprise.

The handwriting is on the wall. Until Republican candidates figure out how to perform better among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Asians, Republican presidential contenders will have an extraordinarily difficult time winning presidential elections from this point forward.

JSTOR provides free access to Wikipedia editors via pilot program.

* Cory Booker to live on food stamps for a week.

My name is R______. I am six years old. I think it’s not fair to only have 5 girls in Guess Who and 19 boys. It is not only boys who are important, girls are important too. If grown ups get into thinking that girls are not important they won’t give little girls much care.

* Remixed trailer of the moment: Gotham High.

* And a new game: impressions of Sean Connery as Gandalf. Oh, what might have been!

The Upper Middlebrow

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UPDATE: A Twitter conversation spawned by the article, minus the @_machinic_ quotes that aren’t public that make the stupid thing readable: Twitter v. The Wire v. Climate Change.

The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.

Liberty Valance, Those Guys, and Kaczynski’s Bad Dream

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(alternate title: Valances of the Dialectic)

Jonathan Lethem has a rather strange but oddly compelling essay in the Believer in which he endeavors to figure postmodernism as Liberty Valance.

Written by gerrycanavan

October 4, 2011 at 8:37 am

Lethem v. Piper

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Soft Skull has a new book series called Deep Focus, each a long essay on the importance of a particular work of art; I mention this only because the first in the series will be written by Jonathan Lethem about They Live.

Written by gerrycanavan

June 12, 2010 at 12:09 am

Atwood, Lethem, Robinson

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I’m part of the year-end Independent Weekly “What Our Writers Are Reading” feature this week, with capsule reviews of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. Here’s the takeaway ‘graph from the Robinson review:

In both genre and mainstream literary fiction, America’s vision of its future has been dominated for decades by dystopia and apocalypse. Robinson is perhaps the last, best utopian in American letters, unapologetically crafting in his novels visions of the better world that he believes can still emerge, through struggle, out of this one. Individual lives, he writes in The Years of Rice and Salt, always end with the tragedy of death; it’s only in the long history of collective struggle, over lifetimes, that we can hope to find the possibility of comedy, of happy endings. (As Martin Luther King put the same idea: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”) The first principle for Robinson, King and any other citizen of Utopia is not just the belief that a better future is possible but the conviction that the dream of the future can help us save the present; in the two-millennial span and twisting grandfather paradoxes of Galileo’s Dream, that political and philosophical commitment is made, for the first time in Robinson’s long career, spellbindingly literal.

Dollhouse, Flashforward, and a Few SF Links

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Dollhouse, Flashforward, and a few SF links.

* Both Dollhouse tonight and Flashforward yesterday were noticeable improvements over a string of weak episodes, but problems persist. On Flashforward, the characters remain essentially interchangeable ciphers, with almost no tension or mystery surrounding their relationships or their individual participation in these events. (This is perhaps the one area where the show really should have cribbed more from Lost.) But the tease that China may have been involved is a nicely paranoid reading of the disastrous consequences of the Flashforward for the Western hemisphere and a clever post-9/11 twist on the novel, which has no such subplot—and the connection of the isolated L.A. office to a larger investigatory framework has been much needed. And the episode was just more fun.

The Sierra episode of Dollhouse was good, but I can’t help feeling as though the show is being quietly retooled yet again; the actions of most of these characters just aren’t commensurate with either half of last season. In particular, most of last season was devoted to a multi-episode arc in which the Dollhouse staff struggled to stop the dolls from “glitching”—but now the exact same glitches are considered perfectly acceptable to everyone involved. Echo is allowed to openly discuss her newfound continuity of memory without consequence or even particular interest from the staff, while Victor and Sierra are apparently now allowed to openly date. What has happened to account for this radical shift in Dollhouse policy? Dr. Saunders’s disappearance and the generally chaotic atmosphere that plagues the Dollhouse week to week should incentivize them to keep a closer eye on the dolls, not give them freer reign.

Likewise, the idea in the episode that the Dollhouse staff had been “misled” about Priya’s situation—a fairly clear attempt to retcon one of the characters’ most heinous crimes—doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny; patients in mental institutions can’t consent to secret medical experimentation (or, for that matter, sex slavery) any more than kidnapped women can. There’s no excusing what’s been done to Priya either way, and that Topher supposedly believed he was somehow “helping” her barely qualifies as a fig leaf. I think I preferred the harder edge of Original Recipe Adelle and Topher 1.0.

Other things rankle, too. The violent final scenes in the Evil Client’s House are well-acted, but the sequence of events makes little sense outside the heat of the moment. What did Priya and Topher think was going to happen, and why were they so utterly unprepared for what obviously would? Topher would have given her a ninja update at the very least.

Seeing so much praise for this episode from critics and the Twittotubes just shows again how badly people want this show to be better than it really is. I’m still enjoying Dollhouse, but abandoning the 2019 arc and failing to sign Amy Acker as a regular are starting to look like fatal flaws for the series. Even an heavily hyped episode that (for once) didn’t focus on Echo doesn’t compare to last season’s stellar second half (1.6-1.11 and 1.13). I hope the upcoming focus on Senator Wyndham-Price and the inevitable introduction of Summer Glau help pick things up.

No new episodes until December, in any event.

Meanwhile:

* Harlan Ellison has won $1 from Paramount Pictures in his suit regarding Star Trek‘s “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In fairness, $1 was all he asked for.

* Christopher Hayes reviews Ralph Nader’s “practical Utopia,” Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!.

* And Gregory Cowles reviews Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City for the New York Times.

Lethem’s Manhattan is an alternate-­reality Manhattan, an exaggerated version where an escaped tiger is rumored to be roaming the Upper East Side and Times readers can opt for a “war-free” edition dominated by fluffy human-­interest ­stories. Instead of terrorist attacks, an enervating gray fog has descended on the financial district and remained there for years, hovering mysteriously. (Mysterious to the novel’s characters, anyway; investigators may want to subpoena DeLillo’s airborne toxic event.) 

Looks good.

J.G. Ballard, "Poet of Desolate Landscapes"

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Not to take away from his verdict on the 20th century: Ballard’s a bard of techno-anomie, of late-capitalist disaffection, and his writings are just the tonic if your local cloverleaf traffic jam or gated community or global warming harbinger has got you feeling out of sorts. But it’s precisely his grounding in deeper undercurrents of cosmic-existentialist wonder that give that tonic its fizz. His is the voice reminding you not to take the postmodern hangover too personally: it was always going to happen this way.

Jonathan Lethem eulogizes J.G. Ballard in The New York Times Book Review.

Written by gerrycanavan

September 12, 2009 at 1:46 am

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