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Kids in America – Gore Vidal, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin

August 17, 2015

Ok, ok – the first line of Tales of the City tells us Mary Anne is 25, and most of the other characters in the book are that age or older. But, c’mon – kids, yeah?

A couple of things I meant to say in my last poofter-books blog: On the back cover of Dancer from the Dance, novelist and critic Edmund White is quoted saying the book “accomplished for the 1970s what The Great Gatsby achieved for the 1920s … the glamorization of a decade and a culture”. Bollocks. A sub-editor should have replaced “accomplished” and “achieved” with “did”, and what the writers have in common is their foreboding about what the future held.

And: It amused me to find, in The Lost Language of Cranes and a story in The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, a reference to Anais Nin (a writer Netty and I have discussed before) living in a squalid “walk-up” (New York slang for a high-rise without a lift). David Leavitt wrote Cranes a few years before he edited the anthology but I’m guessing he noticed the reference in Gary Glickman’s story (Buried Treasure), and I’m guessing Glickman had read Cranes before he wrote his story. Or maybe all that’s irrelevant and it’s common knowledge among the Gotham glitterati that Nin once lived in squalid walk-up. Anyway.

Maybe that walk-up is where Gore Vidal schtupped her.

Yes, I have the shitty TV tie-in edition of Tales of the City. Bah.

Yes, I have the shitty TV tie-in edition of Tales of the City. Bah.

Vidal’s The City and the Pillar wasn’t “the first gay novel”, but I’m guessing it was one of the first to be a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. “The world-famous novel of unconventional love”, according to the front cover of my 1978 edition, bought secondhand in London (“Anne St Lawrence, 20 November 1984, London” scribbled on the first page). Vidal’s third novel was originally published in 1948 but the book we read today (and I read in London 20 years ago) was Vidal’s substantially rewritten version dating from 1965. Most obviously and most famously he rewrote the ending.

The title  is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God in the Bible because they were all homo n shit (or “lacking in hospitality”, if you adhere to modern Christian interpretations. Modern Christians are SO funny). It’s the story of Jim Willard, a not-terribly-affluent late-teens country boy who is in love with Bob Ford, a dirt-poor late-teens country boy. As America nudges its way out of the Depression these two share a weekend of forbidden sensuality in a shack by a river, before Bob moves to New York to look for a job on a boat. Jim, who is insistent that he is not queer or homosexual at all, then spends a number of years being very queer and very homosexual and even “gay”, once the novel’s action moves to New York in the last years of World War II. After years apart Jim, who vaguely comes to terms with his sexuality, encounters the love of his life once again. But Bob is now a married man – and let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

Vidal is – was – is magnificent. I’ve just realised I almost certainly own more of his books than any other writer, although that’s mostly because he wrote so many. The only thing about him that annoys me is his insistence – and he carried it to his grave, in 2012 – that we’re all bisexual. We’re not, as the science is increasingly indicating, and as Vidal’s own novel demonstrated decades ago. The City and the Pillar is the story of a young gay man. He might not like being called queer, or homo, or even gay, but that doesn’t stop him being sexually attracted only to men. Vidal might not have seen it but I, and plenty of other readers, certainly do.

The other slight glitch is Vidal’s refusal to acknowledge the autobiographical elements to the story. He may have done this later in life – they are so obvious – but in his afterword to 1965’s rewritten version, as well as his pallaver about bisexuality, he was adamant it was not autobiographical. Most of it isn’t, but Jim’s love for Bob is clearly a reflection of Vidal’s love for a boy called Jimmy Trimble, who died at Iwo Jima in 1945. Vidal’s 1996 memoir Palimpsest (in which he claims to have schtupped Anais Nin – and Jack Kerouac, actually) dwells much on his unrequited love for a long-lost teenager – the last of many, many photos in the memoir is of Trimble’s gravestone.

A Boy’s Own Story, on the other hand, is undeniably autobiographical. It’s one of the few of Edmund White’s books that I enjoyed (and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading) – its sequel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, is as good, while the last in the trilogy, The Farewell Symphony, is enjoyable, but arguably a slide (and not properly edited – it’s maybe three times as long as its predecessors). The three books that precede his trilogy – Forgetting Elena (about Fire Island, apparently), Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Caracole, are worthy but dull and confusing, while the only post-Symphony book of his I’ve read – Jack Holmes and his Friend – is terrible.

A Boy’s Own Story, though – the book that hid beneath my seat at an early-‘90s Amy Grant concert in Melbourne – is superb. It is among the finest pieces of gay fiction I’ve read. Set in the ‘50s (White is 20 years younger than Vidal), it is the story of a teenage boy with a bit of a sex life – there is “cornholing”, there are hustlers, there is a very queasy threesome – and a clear understanding that he is attracted to men, and men alone. In The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard doesn’t want to acknowledge his identity, and at one point even tries to have sex with a woman, but ultimately he knows what he likes. White’s unnamed narrator understands that his attraction to men is societally unacceptable, and he tries to do something about it – seeing an astonishingly dodgy therapist – but he knows what he likes, and he knows what and who he is.

White’s narrator is self-aware, and predatory, and slightly creepy. He is as aware of his liking for books as he is of his liking of men – and in ‘50s America neither of these would have been considered healthy. There is guilt and there is paranoia, there is a desire to change the unchangeable, but coursing beneath these negatives is a confidence that comes (pardon the pun) to its head (pardon the pun) in the book’s last pages. That the cost of this triumph is the betrayal of a relative innocent (although, look, “relative” is, um, a relative term) has always sat a little awkwardly with me. And I’m not sure about the narrator’s icky obsession with finding a rich daddy figure to control and abuse. Nevertheless, this was one of the first, perhaps the first, pieces of gay literature I read, and my god it’s good.

There are those who would say Armistead Maupin doesn’t deserve serious consideration. They would say Tales of the City and its sequels are amusing enough but qualify only as “popular fiction”.

And look, they may have a point, but … Actually, you know what? Fuck off.

I have enjoyed all of the books I’ve read so far for this individual mini-challenge (or maxi-challenge, maybe, except that sounds like a feminine hygiene product) but none of them has given me the joy Tales of the City did. I’d forgotten how good a writer Maupin was at the beginning, in the ‘70s – having read his three post-millennial Tales novels in the last few years, I knew how good he eventually got. It was an unexpected pleasure to read about these characters, back at the start of it all. Some of the things people gripe about – the “product placement”, as it would be called today – chafes, and some of those references are incomprehensible (do new editions of Tales have “notes”, like Penguin editions of Victorian novels, explaining outdated cultural references?). But some of the other objections – particularly the Dickensian criticism that he relies too much on coincidence – are rubbish. The City and the Pillar is excellent. A Boy’s Own Story is excellent. Neither of them is huge fun. Tales of the City is.

Tales is also interesting in its depiction of gay men at a particular point in time. Maupin is gay, obviously, and Michael Tolliver – Mouse – is arguably Maupin’s main character throughout his nine Tales novels – and, especially in the later books, a reflection of Maupin himself. Unlike Vidal’s Jim Willard in the ‘40s, unlike White’s narrator in the ‘50s, Maupin’s Mouse is shamelessly, proudly, riotously gay. There are emotional hangups, sure, mostly concerning romance, but hey – this was the ‘70s, and everybody was having a ball, and nobody gave a thought to the cataclysm that was to come.

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In which Netty reads Houellebeq’s Atomised and wonders what’s French for “not my cup of tea” …

July 29, 2015

So when you think about France, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, jaunty berets, the River Seine, Champagne, cheese, the Champs D’Elysee … so basically, landmarks and the culinary. All the usual clichés.

Not necessarily someone you'd expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with ...

Not necessarily someone you’d expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with …

Andy says it was his idea to read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, but I do recall I was equally enthusiastic – the French author having been reasonably high up my to-read list for a while now. (It’s a pretty long list.) I was under the impression – not incorrect – that he was the enfant terrible of modern literature in that country; to my mind a French version of, say, Will Self. Or Chuck Palahniuk. I was sort of right – Houellebecq, to this reader, lacks the dark, sly wit and audacious verve, respectively, of the former pair.

Or maybe’s it my old bete noir – the whole “lost in translation” thing (for the record, Atomised was translated by Irishman Frank Wynne, who shared the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for this work.)

But I suspect not. Because there is something else that springs to mind when one thinks about all things Francophile – and that is Satre-styled existentialism. There’s more than a bit of that going on in these pages. But, you know, they’re French. It’s in their DNA, non?

Actually, Sartre has been tossed around by Andy and me as a possible ANRC candidate for a few years now. He usually ends up getting rejected – by me – on the grounds that it’ll be too hard. I attempted to read Nausea at high school but gave up. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d tried to read it in English (boom! tish!)

OK, so we’ve established Andy didn’t like the book, and didn’t even hate it enough to like it. You can read his hilarious put-down here. As for me, I wouldn’t say I particularly liked it either – I found it quite dark, unremittingly bleak, incorporating an extremely pessimistic world view and devoid of hope for mankind in the future. Now, that is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me – after all, I am a HUGE fan of The Cure – but this novel left me feeling a bit depressed. For about a nanosecond – I’ve always been a glass half-full kinda gal. But if you’re not, either don’t read it, or up your Xanax prescription before you do. Which does kind of defeat the purpose.

Interestingly, Houellebeq’s mother Lucie Ceccaldi, from whom he is estranged, published her own book in 2008 (Atomised, his second novel, was published in 2001) to publicly correct perceived wrongs in the latter about the character she believes to be based on herself.

It appears she’s not off target on that assumption. Because Houellebeq has not only given one of his two main protagonists his name, he has also given the character his own back story. And in Atomised, the mother “character” (who shares Houellebeq’s mother’s surname) does not come out of things smelling like les fleurs, to put it mildly. In fact, she’s a selfish, pleasure-seeking narcissist only too keen to offload her two young sons in pursuit of her own desires. Houellebeq skewers 1960s hippie culture, its forebears and its offspring at every given opportunity throughout these pages. Some people go to a shrink to sort out the mess of their upbringing; others air their family’s dirty laundry among the pages of a book. No prizes for guessing into which camp the Ceccaldi/Houellebeqs fall …

Back to the book then. It is essentially the story of two half-brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clement, set against the backdrop of the mid-to-late 20th century, and then, in the epilogue, casting forward into the future. As the novel opens, Michel, a fortysomething molecular biologist at the forefront of his field, is having something of a mid-life crisis, so he takes a year off his position to “think”. His older half-brother Bruno (they share the same mother), a divorced ex-schoolteacher, is also in the throes of a mid-life crisis, one which he is handling in the more traditional way.

The brothers, both of whom were brought up by their respective grandmothers – Michel by his paternal grandmother, Bruno by his maternal grandmother – do not meet until it is engineered by their parents when the boys are in their mid-teens. Extremely different in personality, theirs is an uneasy, yet consistent brotherly relationship.

Neither man has a successful personal life. Michel is essentially asexual, not having lost his virginity until his 30s, despite having had a great, largely one-sided, unconsummated teenage love affair with Annabelle, who reappears in his adult life. Bruno, meanwhile, is a sex-obsessed libertine who rarely has his interest reciprocated, despite the number of new-age sex camps he attends – until he meets his match in Christiane. But by this advanced stage of the book, the reader can guess – correctly, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler – that there can be no happy endings for these characters.

Late in the novel one character tells Michel: “In the end, life breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, or how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humour … there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. You might say, after that, there’s only death”. And therein lies the raison d’etre of this novel: essentially, that life is fucked, people are fucked, and we’re all going to die. That’s it – it’s a joke without a punchline.

I don’t know – call me a perpetual optimist, but I prefer at least a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then, as Andy points out, Atomised gets all weird and meta and futuristic and science fiction-ey, and the reader learns the truth about Michel’s life’s work in molecular biology and where science may eventually lead the human race.

Look, I’m sure this book is someone’s idea of fun, to quote the aforementioned Will Self, but it wasn’t mine. But, you know, whateves. Books can be a crap shoot sometimes. C’est la vie.

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Atomised – Voulez vous doucher avec Andy ce soir? Non? Pas pense

July 26, 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning Atomised was my choice. I’d read a bit about the writer, renowned as a politically incorrect, misanthropic, misogynist writer with a taste for filth and the grimmer, grimier outposts of continental existentialism. Maybe we’ll hate it, I said to Netty, maybe we’ll hate it but maybe we’ll enjoy hating it. Maybe we’ll LOVE hating it! What fun!

Meh.

Funnily enough I think the Irish do a much better job of having fun with the grimmer, grimier outposts of continental existentialism than the French. Ireland, funnily enough, being where Hollaback or whatever his name is lives. Or was living when my edition of Atomised was published.

Yes, making fun of people’s names is racist and cheap and offensive – and more importantly, unoriginal. But I’m afraid, once again, you’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a fuck.

atomisedAtomised is the story of – oh Christ, do I even have to do this?  So it’s half-brothers who first meet in late adolescence (I think). One of them turns out to be some sort of extremely clever sciency sort of person with a totally fucked-up personal life. The other one turns out not to be some sort of extremely clever sciency sort of person with a totally fucked-up  personal life. By which I mean he isn’t sciency, but he does have a totally fucked-up personal life.

Michel (Oh goodness! Someone else has that name! Who was that again?) is the extremely clever sciency one, and that’s all you need to know about him. Bruno is the not-sciency one and it’s Bruno’s fucked-up personal life that gives this novel its single redeeming feature. Not for the reason Hoolahoop intends though – the sexual debaucheries and depravities Bruno stoops to (or imagines himself stooping to) are supposed to show modern humanity in all our excretal, meaningless, content-free humiliation. What they actually show is that once in a while the French write something just amusing enough to keep their readers interested. Or just interesting enough to keep their readers amused. Either way: just.

And then, in his novel’s closing pages, Hackensack decides he’s a science-fiction writer. Really? No. Fuck off, merci.

It’s conceivable that I might have responded more positively to Hobblestock’s ,most highly regarded work if its cover, at least the cover of the edition that I bought secondhand for ten bucks TEN FUCKING BUCKS THAT’S A FUCKING PINT FOR FUCK’S SAKE didn’t feature a picture of a semi-naked naif (or possibly nymph, or possibly nymphomaniac) wearing a pair of extraordinarily unfashionable underpants and boasting a pair of quite possibly quite decent (if you like that sort of thing) knockers, nipples obscured by the book’s title. Conceivable, in that not-remotely-conceivable sort of way.

I didn’t hate Atomised. It isn’t worth hating. I even got some vague. perverse pleasure out of some of it. But to be frank the French (do you see what I did there?) made a more substantial contribution to world literature with Ca plane pour moi = and Plastic Bertrand was Belgian, and he didn’t even sing the song. Which is the sort of wry meta-existential fact (if “wry meta-existential fact” isn’t an oxymoron) (actually no, it’s just bad English, sorry) that leaves me with a smile on my face. Something I’m afraid Haagendasz, or whatever his name is, did not.

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Andy reminisces – Holleran and Leavitt

July 16, 2015

So to stop myself drinking wine from 7 in the morning (this is a pissweak joke by the way, there is no chance of me drinking wine before 8 in the morning) I’m re-reading a heap of the “gay stuff” I read 20-plus years ago. First up:

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

In his introduction to 1994’s Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories editor and writer David Leavitt quotes a young friend: “It’s the first gay book most young gay American men read, and I can’t think of another that’s done as much damage.” They were talking about Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, a novel about gay New York in the mid-’70s, and while the reaction is extreme I can see where they’re coming from (Leavitt has a good old crack at the novel elsewhere in his introduction). The book focuses on Sutherland and Malone and their lives in the gay clubs and bathhouses and on the beach (and dunes) of Fire Island in the years after the Stonewall riots and before AIDS. Malone is a stunningly handsome young man, while Sutherland has a small dick and can only get his jollies in the loos at Grand Central Station. This for the most part is the basis of Leavitt’s criticism of the book – sex (or “love”, as Holleran curiously styles it) is available only to the beautiful and those with big schlongs.

This seems a bit harsh to me. While Leavitt grudgingly acknowledges Holleran’s irony and mockery he plays it down a bit much. The whole novel, it seemed to me when I first read and perhaps even more so on re-reading, is a critique of gay New York’s obsession with sex and beauty. An affectionate critique perhaps, but critique nonetheless. At one point in the novel Sutherland decides he’s going to act as Malone’s pimp, not apparently needing Malone’s say-so to transform his friend into a hustler. And later still Malone himself becomes increasingly disenchanted and disheartened by the scene he’s a star of.

Most disturbing, given the cataclysm that we now know had already begun when this book’s characters were getting their thing on in the mid to late 70s, is its prescient focus on the dual obsessions of sex and death. “I’m beginning to think cancer is contagious,” one character writes to another early on. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, about the same time a group of New York doctors started treating young gay men for kaposi’s sarcoma; they published their research three years later, in 1981. I’m sure the “contagious cancer” reference is merely a literary flourish on Holleran’s part, but I still remember my shock on first reading it long ago.

Leavitt’s point, and it’s a fair one, in criticising Dancer from the Dance was that gay men do not just live the sorts of lives Malone and Sutherland lead – trawling clubs and parks and saunas for sex, on their knees in train station dunnies, obsessing about their looks and their dicks. For many gay men this is and was as far from their reality is it would be for a straight married dude. Leavitt wanted to illustrate that through the anthology of stories he edited, and he succeeded. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories was not the first collection of its kind, but its publication in 1994 did feel like a bit of a watershed moment. And it’s a terrific collection, taking in legends like Isherwood and Forster,Edmund White and Larry Kramer, as well as a handful of straight writers who were happy to write about gay characters (Ann Beattie, William Trevor – although Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband, funny as it is, jars a little with the slightly homophobic depiction of a predatory gay couple). It also contains some devastating stories about AIDS, including one by Kiwi writer Peter Wells. There are a few misfires, most obviously some of the irritating pomo guff from the late 80s and early 90s, but for the most part re-reading this collection was a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Leavitt’s first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, inhabits a very different New York to Dancer from the Dance. it was published in 1986 and while it’s not a novel “about” AIDS the risk of illness and death hovers over the lives of the gay characters. Most obviously, though, it depicts a reality about the lives of most gay men that is almost completely absent from Holleran’s vision; gay men might be gay, but they are also members of families, sons, brothers, sometimes even husbands and fathers. Bars, clubs and sex are aspects of their lives, but they’re not central. As such it was quite refreshing after the dusky murk of Holleran’s (albeit slyly mocking) gay Gotham. And while it might sound irrational there’s something wonderfully rewarding about the lack of resolution at story’s end – all of the storylines, and the characters themselves, are to some extent left in limbo. We’re left to imagine their fate for ourselves.

It was a bit of a relief to re-read these, books I first read in my 20s, and not be disappointed. They are excellent books, and I’m glad I chose to spend my time reading them rather than hoeing into the cab merlot by mid-morning.

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Andy reminisces – 21 books, 21 years on

July 12, 2015

I was made redundant a month ago (don’t worry, I was and continue to be very very happy about this). One of the things I decided I would do to stop me getting up at 7 and opening a bottle of wine was read some of the many, many gay books I read in London around 1993-95, when I came out (late bloomer). And then, with typical self-indulgence, I decided I’d blog about them too. So that three people could read about it.

The things you find in a copy of a book you haven't read since you lived in London in 1995... both these clubs, Substation and GAY, closed a few years ago.

The things you find in a copy of a book you haven’t opened since you lived in London in 1995… both these clubs closed a few years ago.

There was a cerebral angle to my coming to terms with my sexuality as a 20-something, mostly because I was a wanker and thought I was intellectual, like. Also I was a huge reader. These elements overlapped, particularly once I was in London and free of the pretty much fascist tendencies of the area of rural Victoria that was my home during the early ’90s. (Given the recent reaction of the Gippsland Times, my first employer in those very same early ’90s, to Nationals MP Darren Chester’s astonishingly brave (and very surprising) decision to announce his support for marriage equality, “pretty much fascist” seems still pretty much accurate.)

I will admit that reading about my homo brethren, at the time, was probably a gutless distraction, for a while, from actually, er, “interacting” with them…

Not all of the books I’ll read date from exactly 21 years ago. I still remember buying Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story at the long-gone Angus & Robertson on Swanston St on March 13, 1992, and later depositing it beneath my seat at the Melbourne Tennis Centre as I watched the Amy Grant concert I was in town with friends to see. Why was I buying Edmund White novels and attending “contemporary Christian music” gigs on the same day? Your guess is as good as mine.

There are one or two books I’d like to think I read in London but know I didn’t buy until I was back in Australia – things like Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded, as well as David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes, purchased secondhand with a dollar rather a pound figure scribbled on the first page. There’s some bleed either side of that 21 years, but these are all books I read during my formative years as an outish, proudish gay man.

All terribly self-indulgent, and nobody’s going to read it, and I might not even bother finishing it, but it might give me a basis for something more substantial a bit later on. It’ll just be me banging on, although Netty’s more than welcome to put in her two bobs’ worth if she wants to.

Entry 1 in a day or two.

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In which Netty tries to come to grips with Babel-17 – and the whole sci-fi genre in general …

July 1, 2015

Well, obviously this wasn’t my choice. I say obviously, because as regular readers (all three of ‘em! Haven’t made that joke for a while now!) know, Andy is the one who does regular laps of the sci-fi pool, while I merely sit on the side and occasionally dip my toe in the water.  

A late 1980s artist's impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later ...

A late 1980s artist’s impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later …

Although I must say that at the behest of my blogging partner-in-crime, I am a lot more comfortable with this genre than I used to be. I may have even been mildly enthusiastic when he suggested American author Samuel R. Delaney (He’s gay! He’s black! He writes sci-fi! His best book is 900 pages long! Errrr …)

Actually, we could have read Dahlgren (the aforementioned book), but instead we settled on Babel-17 – a shorter and sweeter option at 192 pages. My copy is part of the well-regarded Gollancz SF Masterworks series, which publishes reissues of “important” (I don’t know who judges what makes the cut) sci-fi books from 1950 onwards. I reckon I’ve read about half a dozen of these now; I have even enjoyed them. Which just goes to show, you can’t always judge a genre by its cover …

I am probably more sympathetic towards Babel-17 than Andy, maybe because my expectations aren’t that high. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – it’s not, and I note that it won the prestigious Nebula Award (for best sci-fi novel of the year, that year being 1966, in this case). However …

It took me a while to get into the swing of reading sci-fi, but what I found helped immeasurably was not attempting to try and understand everything that is going on. Sometimes you’ve just got to let the words wash over you. Well, that was the key for me, at any rate. That, and suspending one’s sense of (dis)belief. 

The timeframe of Babel-17 is unspecified, but presumably it is set several centuries from now. There’s a 20-year-long intergalactic war going on between the Alliance and the Invaders. The Alliance have been intercepting communications from the enemy that they believe to be a code, which keep cropping up before major, catastrophic accidents believed to actually be incidents of sabotage. They solicit the services of a galaxy-famous poet and linguist specialist Rydra Wong, who soon ascertains that the dispatches are in fact a language, dubbed Babel-17 (geddit?)

Here’s where things get a bit complicated – the whole novel is based on a non-linguistic concept known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “that language actively shapes perception and mental processes” (I am quoting here from Adam Roberts’ introduction to my copy of the novel). The character of Wong, who speaks multiple earth and extraterrestrial languages, also displays telepathic tendencies; she becomes a conduit for Babel-17, which takes over the minds of its users, as she deciphers it.

Oh, I should also mention that Wong, as well as being a famous poet, is also astonishingly beautiful and an experienced space captain. And she’s only 26. And therein lies one of my big problems with this genre – or my scant acquaintance with it – the portrayal of female characters.  

I mean, kudos to Delaney for making his main character a female captain, putting her in charge of a largely male crew, and sending her out on a space mission to grapple with the various conundrums surrounding the mind-bending Babel-17, and in the process somehow managing to bring an end to the crippling interstellar conflict (which is all-too-neatly resolved and packaged up by the novel’s end, another major quibble of mine). Oh, and during the journey she also finds love with a rival who may or may not be the real enemy. I mean, really? Now, I might be a cynic and/or a pedant, but I would have expected a bit more than a white-picket-fence ending for our brave heroine.

Maybe I’m reading (boom! tish!) too much into it. Maybe I should accept the (many) plot improbabilities and just go with the flow. Because Babel-17 is first and foremost an entertaining romp with some fantastically fun characters. The night Wong spends in Transport town with an out-of-his-depth customs officer while she is assembling her crew is riotous. Later, a touching camaraderie develops between the crew, who have unwittingly co-opted the services of an onboard saboteur who not only threatens the mission but could also cost them their lives. On face value this is a journey that is not going to end well. But then – oh. I already pre-empted that, didn’t I? Dang. 

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that sci-fi (like heavy metal) is a prejudged genre like no other. The people who say they “hate” sci-fi (and I used to be one of those people) are unlikely to have read much of it, or maybe even any at all. And herein lies its issue as far as attracting new readers. I can say with confidence that were it not for Andy’s influence, I would not have read any sci-fi. But I am pleased that I did. I reckon it makes us a little less ignorant and a little more likely to give thought to what lies beyond both space and time. And that can only be a good thing.

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Babel 17 – Andy is a little lost for words

June 29, 2015

A few years ago Netty and I went to a Melbourne Writers Festival event featuring China Mieville and Alastair Reynolds. I know why I was there, although I have to say I can’t really remember why Netty was. At some point during the discussion Mieville namechecked Samuel R. Delaney as an influential boundary-breaching writer of science fiction who happened to be gay and infused his writing with a sense of his queerness (as I say, it is a few years ago, and I do paraphrase, perhaps a little too liberally). I decided then that at some stage Netty and I should read some Samuel R. Delaney, and, this year, we finally got there.

And we maybe should have got there with Dahlgren after all.

Dahlgren, apparently, is Delaney’s masterpiece. It’s also colossal, and has been compared to Gravity’s Rainbow. Given that neither Netty nor I responded with huge enthusiasm to Pynchon in Year One of the Challenge, Gravity’s Rainbow parallels did not sit, well, so we opted for something shorter and more accessible.

babel17Babel 17 is certainly shorter than Gravity’s Rainbow. And it’s probably more accessible than The Crying of Lot 49, or whatever lot it was. But it’s not necessarily any more rewarding for all that.

There were a couple of things I really, really liked about this book – there’s a scene early on involving a customs officer and a succubus that is superb – and there was almost nothing that I hated. But it was such an awkward, weird mix of things – high-concept scifi on one level, a literary novel “about” language and linguistics, but also a pot boiler paying more than lip service to the American tradition of scifi as intergalactic Western-cum-hardboiled crime yarn – and none of this really sat well together. In fact mostly it just doesn’t work. As a lifelong scifi fan I can look at the work of the English writer John Wyndham – someone who has since been sneeringly dismissed by many – and comfortably say, Soz, Sam, John was doing way better than you well over a decade earlier.

Delaney can write superbly – there are stretches (shortish, admittedly) that make me wish he’d refocused his literary intentions. But there are swathes of it, chapter after chapter, where characters talk like pantomime pirates and behave like extras in a pretty terrible episode of Star Trek (and keep in mind that, in my book, most of Star Trek was pretty terrible).

I’m afraid I can’t be bothered writing much more about this book because meh which means less than 500 words which is kind of wow. Those slivers of brilliance might just tempt me, under certain circumstances, to read some more Delaney. But Babel 17 (was it 17? maybe it was 49. maybe I got the numbers mixed up) left me very disappointed.

Meh.

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