Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Triad V: Ian Bogost, Magic Carpets, Serial Killers, and other Latour Litanies

Actually, that's the only Latour Litany here, really.  But it's a nice segue into our first book, and our list of books. This time in Book Triad, we'll be looking at:

Alien Phenomenology by Ian Bogost
The Secret of Ka by Christopher Pike
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Reviews and other ramblings after the break.

Last time around, my readings of Parikka and Bryant (not so much Jemisin) prompted a bit of a buzz, as Bryant and a few other OOO folks retweeted the post; it generated some appreciated traffic.  Longtime readers know that I am nothing if not an attention seeker, so this reading, I am daring lightning to strike twice by reviewing a book from fellow OOO-er Mr Bogost.  (Actually, I already the book picked out before I published the reviews, but why should facts get in the way of a good joke?)  The Pike book and Larson's historical romp are similarly things I've been meaning to get to for a long time.

Alien Phenomenology, or what it's like to be a thing by Ian Bogost. Alien Phenomenology is a bit of a strange book; it's a summary and continuation of some of the big discussions in object oriented ontology, and as such follows in the footsteps of Harman, Latour, Morton, and Bryant. It's also a point on the trajectory that Bogost's books have been building towards for some time, and contains traces of Unit Operations, Racing the Beam, and How To Do Things with Videogames (among others). In a nutshell, the book argues that we should consider things less from a human-centered view. And for that matter, less animal-centered or life-centered. Rather, we should think of life and nonlife together as things. The first chapter is probably the most dense, as it introduces the subject and the basic arguments regarding it: how it differs from scientific naturalism and social relativism, how it calls for recognizing that the thing always recedes from view, and that we can never understand it fully. Chapter two is on what Bogost calls ontography, which is different ways of describing or depicting things without resorting to humanist perspectives: as lists, as unexplained images, as exploded piecemeal images, as artifacts that couple things tightly (unsurprisingly, given his backgrounds, the artifacts are games: Rush Hour, Scribblenauts, and In a Pickle). Chapter three is metamorphism, and talks about how things relate to each other, and how those relations can be understood (incidentally, this seems a standard outline for OOO discussions: chapters on explaining what things are are followed immediately by chapters explaining how they relate.) Chapter 4, carpentry, argues that theorists can't just talk about OOO, but need to practice it, and he offers some examples on how that works. The final chapter, wonder, emphasizes the radical perspectives that come with OOO, or considering the world in an alien phenomenology. I'm still not 100% sold on OOO after reading this; it still seems a bit too generalized a concept for my taste. And on a more literary note, I don't think I'd recommend this as an introduction to Bogost or OOO. While it could be read on its own, I think it makes a much better companion piece, once you've read enough of the things he's referring to to understand some contexts he doesn't have full room to flesh out. Still, it's one of the better accounts I've read on OOO in that Bogost goes a step further to describe not just what it is, but how one would go about practicing it
The Secret of Ka by Christopher Pike.  With this book, I have now been reading Christopher Pike books for fifteen years. Back then, he was writing YA supernatural horror with a heavy emphasis on romance (see: The Remember Me trilogy). Now, it's more fantasy than horror, but the rest stays largely the same. But the for most part, that's a good thing. The plot of the story is that Sara Wilcox, fifteen year old American girl, is vacationing in Istanbul while her father works. A few random misadventures, and she's teaming up with hot (sigh--this would be the peril of a late twenties male still reading YA these days) local boy to discover the origin of a magic carpet she finds on her father's dig site. But the boy--Amesh--has his own ideas on the rightful use of said artifact, and moral ambiguity enters quickly. From there, the book delves into ancient wars, djinns, and Sara's discovery that she and those she cares about are very different from whom she thought they were. In a book with this sort of plot, the cultural appropriation can either be the elephant in the room, or a driving force, and Pike expertly navigates the latter course. The power relation between Amesh and Sara in terms of economic status, nationality, and gender is understated but well developed, especially in the earlier sections of the book. The mythology and magic rules of the Middle East are also treated with respect. In a YA book, the development of the main character is an essential feature, and Sara progresses from a nice but sort of spoiled girl to a confident, kind person. There's a heel turn of one of the main characters near the end that seemed so tonally off that it soured the ending of the book considerably for me, but in general, it's a good, breezy fantasy story.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erick Larson.  Erik Larson tells two dual histories that took place during 1893 in Chicago: the World Fair and the murders of Charles Holmes, one of America's first recorded serial killers.  The best and most impressive part of this book is the level of historical detail and research Larson put into it.  Though he rarely calls attention to his sources or his investigations, it's clear that he has devoted a lot of effort and time into unearthing these moments of the past.  Unfortunately, his presentation of said facts is definitely not to my tastes.  Larson chose to present the facts in a narrative manner.  And it's hard to make history--especially history in the distant past--seem narratively relevant, since most of the story's already in place before the writer picks up their pen.  I would have preferred to have seen more speculation on what the events meant for American identity, or more background on everyday life in the period; instead, Larson takes a few creative liberties.  I don't have anything against such liberties, but they seem so artificial.  Take, for example, the descriptions of Holmes' and his victims' emotional states when no one else was around to leave such a record; I don't mind Larson putting words in their mouths, but when those words are occasionally ridiculously over the top, it detracts from the book; another example is the deliberate obscuring of one of the fair's participant's name so that the its eventual presentation (George Ferris) becomes somewhat obnoxious.  It's compelling information, and Larson's a good investigator, but this forced melodrama makes everything seem less an important moment in history and more a soap opera.  And it's not that there's anything wrong with gravitas or soap operas--they just don't go great together.

Alien Phenomenology marks the sixth book I've read with Ian Bogost listed as an author in the past three years.  One of us is clearly working very hard, and I have a suspicion it's not me.  I should mention that I do realize that this Triad comes a long, long time after the last one--nearly a month in fact.  I read Mark of Ka in a two days, and Alien Phenomenology in about four, so--as you may guess from the process of elimination--the blame lies with Devil in the White City.  Part of it is entirely my fault, but I feel certain the book shares some blame as well.  Every time I went somewhere--anywhere--I forgot it.  Spending the day in the office?  I leave it at the foot of my bed.  Going to work in a coffeeshop?  It's buried under a stack in the office.  I've never had a book that was so consistently not where I wanted it to be when I wanted to read it.  And beyond that--it's 400 pages.  With all the scholarly dedication in the world, if a book is going to be both nonfiction and over about 250 pages, it'd better be pretty darn compelling, and Devil in the White City is not that.  Honestly, I think that part of the problem is the divided focus.  Because of the alternating chapter of the book, you're bound to either find the World Fair stuff more interesting or the serial killer stuff more interesting (my roommate found the serial killer stuff the most interesting; I preferred the world fair parts, and started locking my door at night).  Either way, since the two never really overlap, that means there's about half of the book that you're finding markedly less interesting, and that's a problem.  I had pretty high expectations for Devil in the White City and Secret of Ka, and both let me down--one, from rather overwrought writing, the other from underwhelming plot twists.  For Alien Phenomenology, on the other hand, I had rather low expectations (sorry Bogost) and was very gratified to find something that was both interesting to read and theoretically useful.  Books, hey?  Never know what you're going to get.

Later Days.

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