Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review of Paul Hoffman's Left Hand of God Trilogy -- Postmodern to the Gills

A lot of times when you encounter a truly original book, it's something you either love or hate -- generally, there's not much middle ground. For me, when I read Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God trilogy, it was definitely love -- one of the most captivating pieces of epic fantasy I've read in a while.

In a sense, my reaction surprises me. What's original about Hoffman is not so much his plot as his style, which strikes me as specifically postmodern, filled with pastiche and metafiction and oddly self-conscious author-narrator moments (although thank the gods Hoffman doesn't step out onto the stage himself), things I typically hate about postmodern novels.*** 

Anyhow, The Left Hand of God struck me as so innovative that I immediately sought out all the reviews I could find on it. Apparently my reaction of mooncalf love-eyes was not shared by a majority of critics -- the official reviewers were atrociously harsh (including one head-scratching comment that Hoffman's book seemed like it was written by a focus group), and the fan reviews were a mix of awe and exasperation. Strangely enough, virtually no one commented on Hoffman's very sophisticated take on religion, and absolutely nobody seems to have noticed the postmodern-ness of his style. Instead, people either griped about his main character, Thomas Cale, or Hoffman's world-building. So, without further ado . . . .

Narrative Style & World-building
Hoffman's world-building does something quite unusual, and apparently quite annoying: he frequently real-world place names and jumbles them all together into vaguely European landscape. Readers will recognize tons of place names (such as Memphis from Egypt, Lyons from France, etc) that, within the storyworld, make so sense geographically. But at least Hoffman sticks to a relatively European geographical mishmash . . . until, just to be an ass, he randomly inserts a "Mississippi River" right down the center of his European-geography. Granted, that made me laugh out loud for the sheer audacity of it, but that's the kind of things other readers complained about

What seems to go unnoticed, though, is that kind of pastiche makes a lot of sense according to a postmodern style. In narrative terms, Hoffman tell his story using a third person omniscient POV, which is basically the default in epic fantasy, but Hoffman's unusual in that he has his narrator often take distanced, even ironic, stance towards the events being narrated. As such we get frequent things like this: "Cale was wrong about X, as it turned out, although his reasoning was sound."

What results is a persistent drollness that could be quite annoying, but it does permit two things

  1. Much more freedom for narratorial & general commentary than permitted in most epic fantasies
  2. A questioning of the textuality of the entire fantasy we're being asked to read -- a feeling only reinforced by all the real-world references/half-plagiarism inserted into the piece. One thing that most secondary worlds can't do is provide direct real world allusions, and that lack is the primary foundation of Tolkien-esque subcreation. Hoffman takes that rule and smashes it all to pieces, thereby creating a sense of contingency within his fiction common to the most metafictional of postmodern authors.
    1. Of course, Hoffman does write somewhere at one point "this is all exactly as it happened," but it's hard to tell it that's also tongue-in-cheek or if he's just not following through on the implications of his own narrative style.'
Another contributing factor to the postmodern feel is the metafictional "preface" to Bk3. It's pretty clear that Hoffman wrote it in a snit against the critics of his first book -- one otherwise sympathetic fan reviewer described this preface, accurately enough, as follows: "One guess might be that it was a case of the author becoming firmly ensconced up his own arse." Again, I didn't mind it, which surprises me, but so it goes. 

I thought Hoffman pulled it off, mostly, because I adored his miserable little shithead of a main character, Thomas Cale. Hoffman manages to capture a difficult adolescent blend of resentment, self-pity (half of it justified), trauma, self-aggrandizement, and superhero kick-assery that I thought quite a remarkable achievement. Maybe that just indicates how self-absorbed I was as a teenager, but there you have it.

Still, there's a few things that suggest a certain laziness on Hoffman's part. I'll just note a few, although none of these marred an otherwise fantastic book for me:
  • Cale's sickness ("soul-murder"????) was never really explained, nor why exactly he flees to Switzerland in Bk2. Both are basically plot conveniences.
  • The final book ends not with a bang but a whimper -- a not-quite-but-still-ridiculously-close-to-it deus ex machina. Not Battlestar Galactica-level, so I can live with it, but it was deflating.
 Random characters I loved
  • Vague Henri was awesome.
  • So was Deirdre Plunkett.
  • Artemisa Halicarnasus deserves an A+
  • I even really grew to like Arbell Swan-neck and Conn Materazzi.
  • And, of course, IdrissPukke (based on the sayings of Schopenhauer) was a delight.
***Thomas Pynchon, Don Delilo, Salman Rushdie, and John Barthes are, for my tastes, the poster children of cringe-worthy postmodern novelists. Admittedly, I do love some novels categorized as postmodern -- Eco's The Name of the Rose, Tim O'Brien, plus all of Vonnegut.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Harlan Ellison passes . . . .

Oh no . . . just saw on the SFRA listserv that Harlan Ellison, one of my top 5 writers of all time, died earlier today. 

I first encountered him in the first collection of short stories I ever truly loved, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder, edited by David G. Hartwell. The story was "On the Downhill Side." It struck me as only so-so, but it was enough -- or Hartwell's headnote was enough, perhaps -- to have me seek out Ellison collections at the library. . . . and I remember being blown away by Approaching Oblivion (particularly Ellison's introduction, "Knox," and "Silent in Gehenna") and Deathbird Stories, including "Pretty Maggy Moneyeyes," "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," and "The Deathbird." 

After that I relentlessly sought out every Ellison story I could find. Since this was before the days of Amazon (and I was too poor to buy books anyway), looking for an Ellison collection was basically the first thing I did whenever I walked into a new public library.* Then I buckled down, saved my pennies, and finally got The Essential Ellison: A 35-year Retrospective, a collection of his greatest hits -- including "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," other favorites of mine.**

I've never encountered another writer who wrote with so much rawness and pure intestine-seizing anger. A rather raw youth myself, full of libertarian individualism and anti-religious ire, Ellison was like ecstasy.

When I re-read his best stuff a few years back as an adult, I did so with some trepidation, worried that he might not have held up over time. But he did. His absence leaves a large hole in the field of science fiction.

* I did the same thing with Stephen R. Donaldson works and, if you can believe this, books on table tennis.
**There's now an updated 50-year retrospective out.

Teaching NON-HUMAN SUBJECTS: Monsters, Ghosts, Aliens, and Others

So, thanks to a retirement within the department, a General Education literature course called "Nonhuman Subjects: Monsters, Aliens, Ghosts, and Others" open up . . . and my application to teach it was accepted. 

I'm surprisingly excited to teach this course -- "surprisingly" since, while I like teaching, I don't like it nearly as much as I like research. Hence much of my reading over the last month has been to familiarize myself with monster theory and, of course, reading a bunch of relevant texts (particularly those ghost stories I mentioned in my previous post). 

Anyway, I've developed a pretty nifty looking syllabus (I <3 multimodality), but here's the reading list:

  • Beowulf, translated by Seamus Haney
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage
  • Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, edited by J. Paul Hunter
  • Crane, Stephen. "The Monster"
  • Hill, Susan. The Woman in Black
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Canterville Ghost and Other Stories
  •  Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated by Corngold
  • Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,
  • Lovecraft, H. P. “The Call of Cthulu,” “The Rats in the Walls.”
  • Pohl, Frederick. “Day Million.,” &   Levine, David D. “Firewall.”
  • The Host (2006), directed by Joon-ho Bong—rentable on Youtube.com
  • District 9 (2009), directed by Neill Blomkamp—rentable on Youtube.com
  • Cleman, John [essay]. “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster.’”
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. [essay]. “The Monsters and the Critics.”
  • Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome [essay]. “Monster Studies: Seven Theses.”
Some hapless English department also made a post for my course as a means of helping enrollment. Here it is!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ghost Stories

So, after really liking Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, I've made a foray into other ghost stories. Currently most of the way through M. R. James's work. Although it kinda reminds me why I never got into ghost stories in the first place (the "weird" factor just isn't intellectually interesting enough for me), I did have an odd de ja vu experience while reading "Casting the Runes." First, I was just predisposed to like this story -- the villain is a warlock who goes crazy after having his paper on alchemy rejected via peer review. Right up my alley, right?

But I continue on with the story, and I realize it's striking similar to an academic horror novel I once read, Publish and Perish. Well, I look things up, and sure enough, the author's note admits to using James's original story as a pastiche. Strikingly appropriate, of course, but it's odd the connections you see if you keep on reading long enough.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

If you're an academic, please don't write like this. Ever.

Cultural Studies is a nice field of study, but damn, they can be awful, pretentious, and self-indulgent writers. Examples from one article that I'm now not going to bother reading all the way through:
  • "The prowling and lurking, interrogating, and transmogrifying textual (re-)composition of monsters is deconstructive, abjective, and intertextual."

And, under the theory that no Foucault reference in an introductory clause can be too convoluted or verbose, we get the following anti-gem:
  • "Writing after, and thus chasing, Foucault's prowling, knowledge-altering (and mutating) monster . . . ."

And, in the "Short sentences and more rigorous main verbs, academics, dammit!" category, we get:
  • "The conundrum that emerges from the friction between, on the one side, the scrutinizing and destabilizing intellectual disposition of literary theory and, on the other, the metonymic and representational mode of the anthology to represent a theoretical field selectively is compounded, I would argue, by the cultural and aesthetic – the deconstructive – nature of the monster. "

I'd like to say such writing is a relic from the 1990s, but this came out just this year. Blurgh.***

 *** Actually, I remember back in grad school a professor telling us a story about a French-to-English translator friend of his. The translater friend had said, "The hardest part about translation is transforming French academic waffle into crisp clean English propositions." Personally, as some may suspect, I have a very Tolkien-esque view of the French.  :)

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Fiction Reading List: 1-1-18 through 5-31-18

So, back as an undergrad and an MA, I used to keep detailed reading lists of my reading for a semester, just as to keep track of my productivity. I eventually got out of that habit, and it actually became impractical during my doctorate -- I "read" so much literary criticism, often simply gutting the book for the main ideas and arguments, that it's not quite fair to give such books a page count. (At least with fiction you can be assured my eyes have diligently gone over every page.)

Well, I managed to do a productivity report for the first 5 months of 2018. I'm not counting any non-fiction or literary criticism, of which there was a fair bit. Here are just normal books (including some C.S. Lewis) that I've read:

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate, 350 pg.
N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky, 350pg.

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn 600 pg.
Brandon Sanderson, The Well of Ascension, 800 pg.
Brandon Sanderson, The Hero of Ages, 700 pg.

Blake Charlton, Spellwright, 300 pg.
David Gemmel, Legend, 300 pg.
Paul Kierney, The Ten Thousand, 350 pg.

Paul Edwin Zimmer, The Dark Border (2 vols): 750 pg.
John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, 150 pg.
Paul Kearney, The Ten Thousand, 350 pg.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls, 450 pg.
Lovecraft, H.P. The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories, 400 pg.
Walton, Evangeline. Above Keri-Is and Other Stories, 150 pg.
Laura E. Goodin, Mud and Glass, 350 pg.

L. Frank Baum, The Lost Princess of Oz, 300pg.
L. Frank Baum, The Tin Woodman of Oz, 250 pg.
L. Frank Baum, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, 200 pg.
L. Frank Baum, Tik-Tok of Oz, 200 pg.
L. Frank Baum, Rinkitink of Oz, 200 pg.
Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 150 pg
Roald Dahl, Twits, 100 pg.

Jonathan Strahan, Lou Anders, editors. Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery, 500 pg.

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 100 pg.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 200 pg.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 200 pg.
All in all: 8,750 pages of fiction read. So, about 60 pages per day over the course of 150 days from January through may. The bulk of this has been read during the first three months of that period -- the latter period saw a lot of time devoted to writing and reading literary criticism, which hasn't made this list.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Oh, the Fun of Searching Through Old Fanzines

Argh. So, thanks to the MLA International Bibliography, I recently saw an article on Poul Anderson's medievalism by well-known Tolkienist Richard C. West.** It appeared in a 1973 issue of a small fanzine called Unicorn. Amazingly enough, the U of A library had it as a bound volume, so I mosey on down here . . . and discover that the bound volume has all the issues of Unicorn EXCEPT the one I'm specifically looking for. 

Well, interlibrary loan, you are now my new best friend.

**West, Richard C. "Medieval Borrowings in the Fiction of Poul Anderson." Unicorn 2.5 (1973): 16-19.

Monday, May 14, 2018

And in the unexpected e-mails category . . .

Just received one from a professor in Belgrade (!) who asked me a question about Saul Kripke's modal semantics. I imagine this guy thought to contact me cuz of my article on possible worlds theory in Fastitocalon last November, but yeah, I kinda had to redirect the poor fellow on his particular question. I took a course of formal logic as an undergrad, plus a brief informal seminar on modal logic, but all that was way back in the day.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

End of Kalamazoo

So, after four sessions plus a business meeting here in Kalamazoo, I'm at the airport and ready to go home. This has probably been one of the most -- if not the most -- productive conference I've ever attended, and that includes meeting Stephen R. Donaldson during ICFA a few months ago. As I sit here, I've been ruminating about the biggest takeway. Even more than hearing many great papers, I suppose, was the chance to meet Tolkienists in person -- but even that deserves some expansion, I feel.

It's one thing of meeting Tolkienists whose work I've long admired*** . . .  but also another thing to meet Tolkienists whose names I recognized but whose work was only vaguely known to me. Tolkien Studies is such an incredibly large field, with several new books and essay collections being published each year, that as a poor hapless grad student struggling to finish his dissertation, sometimes you just have to ignore, or merely skim, some of the newest stuff. It's a sanity-saving device -- you can't keep absolutely as up to date as you'd like when you're writing, so you tend to gloss over those scholars only tangentially related to your own interests. But Kalamazoo has helped me put faces to some of those names, and that'll help to raise my awareness of their work. It's one thing to know that a book has recently been published on Topic X -- another thing to recognize how the immense amount of work-hours being put into these projects but other people. And now if I see an article by John or Jane Doe, it'll make a greater impression now than it did before.

*** and having dinner with them!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Action packed last 24 hours in Kalamazoo


So, got in at 3 am this morning -- that's the first bit of news (although, given the time zones, it was "only" midnight according to my internal body clock).

Went to the first Tolkien panel at 10:30 am, hearing papers from Dimitra Fimi, Kris Swank (who teaches at Pima C.C. in Tucson, apparently!), and Yvette Kisor. Then came my panel at 1:30 pm . . . and a rollicking good time was had by all. Andrew Higgins and Jane Chance (!) gave good papers, and my paper was . . .well, stimulating? Let's call it stimulating. It certainly spurred a fair number of questions / pressure points during the Q&A. Basically, I was explaining why Boromir got a raw deal in the text and why his thymotic qualities are being undervalued both by the text and by Tolkien scholarship alike. It's kinda tricky to make such an argument, as I'm arguing that Boromir isn't as good as someone like Faramir but that his perceived vices are not really vices. Well, not very many people seemed convinced, it seemed, but the discussion was quite lively nonetheless, and I came away with a number of argumentative points that needed sharpening.

Then, after the panel, the really big stuff happened.

At least for me, at any rate -- afterwards, I found a small group of Tolkienists, who couldn't have been more friendly or more welcoming, and spent the next 6 hours chatting with them about all things various and sundry. Had some free wine which the medievalists were giving away. Went to a lovely local Indian restaurant for dinner. Now's it's 9 pm eastern time and I'm exhausted. Too much excitement, and now it's time for bed!