Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book Triad: Superheroes, Cthulu, and some fiction

Guess what!  We're still doing the Book Triad segment! This time, we'll be looking at

Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy by Graham Harman
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
Superheroes!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films by Roz Kaveney

Reviews after the break.

Weird Realism by Graham Harman.  Graham Harman's book on object oriented ontology and H. P. Lovecraft is one that lends itself to high concept descriptions. For lit theory buffs, it's Roland Barthes' S/Z, with structuralism switched for OOO and S/Z for an assortment of "The Mountains of Madness" type stuff. It's using OOO to justify a close reading of Lovecraft. It's using Lovecraft to demonstrate what OOO can be applied for. And, as befits any OOO discussion, it can't be summed up by a list of its parts--or qualities. The book is divided into three parts. The first and last parts are oddly similar, as the first is Harman giving a quick run-down on OOO, Lovecraft, and the principles of literature he'll be looking at (Cleanth Brooks and reading without context, Zizek and the trouble with paraphrase,Harman's own formulations from the Quadruple Object, Aristotle on the difference between comedy and tragedy). And the third goes through them again, in a slightly more detailed fashion gleaned from the study. The brunt of the book is the major part, wherein Harman does close readings of 100 passages selected from eight Lovecraft short stories. Graham's point is immediately graspable; OOO, in his version at least, is all about how we can never grasp something in its entirety, how something of its qualities and the object itself always recedes from our comprehension. And Lovecraft's writing, likewise, is predicated around things beyond our ability to apprehend, let alone comprehend, from unnamable colors that corrupt their surroundings to (one of Harman's favorites) a Cthulhu idol that both resembles and does not resemble a blend of octopus, man, and dragon. As someone who prefers close text readings, I can relate to Harman's approach, and I'm grateful to see a thoughtful application of OOO; one of my ongoing objections to new theories is that they seem more interested in saying what's wrong with the old theories than actually showing how the new ones apply, but this book is one big application. It has its downsides, though, and they're the ones you'd expect going through 100 close readings. Namely, things do drag a bit at times, and Harman does repeat himself somewhat. Be prepared for a lot of instances, for example, where Harman demonstrates exactly why a passage couldn't be written in ordinary language by writing the passage in ordinary language. It's part of his argument against paraphrasing in literature, and towards the value of OOO for literature, but it's still rather tedious. Mostly, though, his passion for the subject comes out---it's clear Harman is having fun with this book. I'd recommend it for those interested in how OOO can be applied, or lit folk with a Lovecraft interest. I'm inferring this, but I get the sense that Harman sees this book as a companion piece to The Quadruple Object--it's the application of the methodology that book portrays.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway.  Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, is a story about a 1950s clockwork doomsday device that has been re-appropriated by an immortal madman bent on shaping the world in his image. But mostly, it's a story about the nature of family, and the nature of truth, told in a pulp action comedy style. (Or it's a pulp action comedy with trappings of deeper themes about truth and family. I can't decide.) Joe Spork has turned his back on his father's criminal enterprises to follow instead in his grandfather's footsteps, as a repairer of antique clocks. His life takes a turn, however, when he's tricked by Edie Banister, an elderly former international spy, into repairing and activating the aforementioned device. Quite large portions of the early parts of the book are given up to describe Joe's and Edie's respective pasts. Joe's grown up in his father's shadow (a kind, boisterous shadow, but a criminal mastermind nonetheless) and we see how his attempts to back away from that lifestyle have pushed him into a corner. Edie's past is more an adventure romp. In what's pretty much a 50s James Bond sequence, she goes undercover to kidnap a French scientist from an evil South Asian dictator. As I said, the book has two prevalent themes, family and the nature of truth--whether the world would be a better place if people understood the truth about their actions and why they did them--but there's also a question of the role of morality in the context of modernity. This is personified in the Ruskinites, a group of inventor scientists who believe in the uniqueness of each invention and the process of perfection over the attainment, in the face of a world moving toward mass production. The book is filled with little snippets like the Ruskinites, and they all manage to work and flow together--to a point. While I was reading the book, I felt it was similar in style to Pratchett and Neal Stephenson--a nice pedigree. Like Pratchett, Harkaway does a good job combining humor with just enough gravity to give his characters some meaning and depth. And like Stephenson, the book is bursting with big ideas and boldly executed scenes. He doesn't quite reach either of them, though, and the book is very good, but doesn't quite stick its landing. Joe does the opposite of the heel turn, and it's not entirely convincing; the love interest is edging towards the Mary Sue (which is odd, since other female characters, notably Edie, are pretty fully there); the whitewashing of "old-style" gangsterism is a bit much, sometimes. That last point can be excused since it's largely there as part of the morality/modernity issue, but the old/new split seems a little exaggerated at times. At any rate, those are tiny quibbles; I had more fun reading this book than nearly anything else I've read over the past year.

 Superheroes! by Roz Kaveney.  Operating from an impressive wealth of knowledge, Roz Kaveney argues for the value of the superhero comic, in terms of the notion of the superhero, and the ongoing, continuity-based narrative. The book is divided up into seven chapters. Chapter one is a general discussion of superheroes, in which Kaveney touches on a number of different aspects, including but not limited to her own experience as a reader, the comic book in comparison to the sagas of the opera, the differences between Marvel and DC, a general history from the Golden Age to the current moment, and other superhero perspectives. The rest of the chapters all focus more narrowly on specific topics. Chapter 2 deals with her chief claim that comics should be studied as valuable long term narratives, with a thorough analysis of Brian Bendis' Alias. Chapter 3 continues in that general direction with another "thick" work that is more specifically about the nature of superhero comics: Alan Moore's Watchmen. Chapter 4 looks at long-term runs, with features on Miller's Dark Knight Returns, Busiek's Avengers Forever, and Morrison's New X-Men. Chapter 5 is on reboots and company-wide events, including DC's Crises and Marvel's Civil War. Chapter 6 argues that comicbooks have significant influence on developments in other mediums, by tracing the outputs and influences of Joss Whedon. And the final chapter considers the superhero movie, up to Elektra (perhaps not the best end point). I'd like to say that Kaveney's book is accessible, but as someone who's been reading comics for nearly twenty years, my opinion on the matter is a little suspect. I can say that chapter 2--which dealt with the comics I was least familiar with--discussed Alias in such a way that I was never in the dark. The caveat to accessibility is that those exceptionally familiar with comics may occasionally be waiting politely for the recap to end so the argument can continue again, but it's such a nice argument that it isn't much of a burden. It's scholarly level investigation and research, without getting bogged down in sources and theories. I think I might seek out other stuff by Kaveney, based on the strength of this book.

That was a mountain of text, wasn't it?  Especially for Harman's book.  I've been reading so much OOO over the past few months that it actually came as a bit of a shock to me that Weird Realism is the first full book I've read of Harman's, a man regarded as one of the founders of OOO and all things object-based. It's a bit like starting Roland Barthes with Roland Barthes, or starting Buffy with "Zippo"; important writer/work, but the instant at hand is a bit of an in-joke.  It felt very thematically appropriate, though, to go from Thacker's Horror of Philosophy into this.  And I know some friends who dismissed the book on the grounds that it is clearly a theoretical game of sorts, with Harman writing about something he thinks fondly of, rather than pushing OOO to its limits; honestly, I liked it all the more for that.  It's rare that you get a theory book so focused on something the author clearly finds interesting, and has a lot of enthusiasm for.  It's fairly close to my own preferences in this sort of writing, and the fact that it all comes with an endorsement of close reading just makes things better.  The further I get from Angelmaker, the more the disappointment looms in my memory.  It had some absolutely brilliant moments to it, but there was still a lot that just didn't work.  It's a "your mileage may vary" sort of thing, where the varying is determined in large part on how much you're willing to buy the "gentleman crook" sort of character.  It pushed me a bit far in this regard, personally; apparently, I can accept a global doomsday device built on mechanical bees, but if you want to convince me that you can get to be the head of a criminal underworld by being a very nice bloke, I'm going to be very, very skeptical.  Superheroes! is the sort of book I wish there was more of.  It's not miles from the existing comic book criticisms online, but it demonstrates what you can do with that level of expertise and a book-length space to develop an argument.  Other reviewers have pointed out that it has a good number of factual errors, which I'll admit I didn't catch on a first reading.  I'm a lot less willing to grant Marvel credit for political discussion in Civil War than she was; what I remember most about the event is how comically supervillainy Iron Man's side acted.  (If you're cloning your best friend to create a living weapon, you're probably on the wrong side.)

You may notice there was a gap between this book triad and the last bunch.  Part of that is simple holiday break, but a larger part is just because I've started reading books on my new iPhone.  Fiction is much easier to get a hold of than nonfiction in this regard (or at least, it's cheaper), so my nonfiction reading has been languishing.  When this book triad thing is dedicated to two nonfiction and a fiction, that's a problem.  Well, not a problem for me, really, as the constant stream of fiction titles has been great.  But a problem for my many, many bookreading fans.  I'll try to improve, honest.

Later Days.

No comments: