Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Air, by Geoff Ryman

Originally uploaded by Man_Overboard.
Ryman is one of those "cool" authors engaged in speculative fiction, one of the very first authors to make use of the hypertext abilities of the internet in the writing of his novel, 253. The number refers to the number of passengers in a standard tube train in the London Underground. The novel was first published online, and included hypertext links from one character to others with some sort of connection. So, reading could be by jumping from one character to another, or going sequentially from seat to seat. It has been published as a proper book (with courier font) but I have yet to read it. One day.

I have now read Air, however. This had a brilliant premise, was on the whole really well executed but unfortunately fell flat right at the end - perhaps he didn't quite know how to finish it off, although I have a very simple suggestion: there was just a bit too much hokey mysticism in the last 30 pages.

Kizuldah is a tiny hilltop village in Karzistan, a remote country located between China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was the very last village to go online: the year is 2020 so of course the internet has developed somewhat - it is accessed as an always on, ubiqutious virtual reality. Unfortunately, on the day of it being tested, it came as a bit of a shock to some of the inhabitants. Old Mrs Tung died in the arms of the central character, Chung Mae, and her spirit, character, identity flowed into Chung Mae's body. Thereafter, whenever they shared emotional states, there would be a battle for control between them. Somehow, through this process, mae is enabled to see into the truth of other people, both as to their past and their future.

The novel is ultimately about the impact of this new technology on the old established ways of Kizuldah: our hero, Mae, who was in the fashion game anyway embraced the new ways. She's a marvel, in the way she thinks things through, and plays on the emotions and guilt of the western world, to which she now has access, for the better of her village. Self interest is never her motivation, not that everyone can recognise that. Some of the technology is a bit wack: there is a talking dog, which has a remarkable ability to talk about smells, but isn't very happy with what has been done to him. Weirdest was lunch, the talking soup. I'm not sure I could eat something that said to me "We are designed to provide full vitamin and other protein content undminished by death or cooking. Think of us as the perfect form of happy nutrition."

Of course, life goes on, so there is a lot about life in the small village, of Mae's neighnours, her family. At one point, I thought that Ryman was heading towards banality, when Mae has an affair with her neighbour. It looked like she was going to be put to a choice between the two men, as if that was still the only option available to a modern women, but he sidesteps this problem rather neatly.

There is the inevitable showdown between the old and the new, when the combination of Mrs Tung's memory and the best computerised weather prediction equipment combine to convince Mae there is going to be a flood which will wash away her village. She tries to warn everyone, but do they pay any attention? Hell no: "you have been spending too much time in Air, you need to get out more, we think you might be mad" is the general reaction.

My favourite episodes, however, revolve around this teenage girl Sezen:
Oh, this was a filthy house. Perhaps Hatijah was a bit simple. She offered Mae roasted corn. Not with your child's wet shit on it, thought Mae, but managed to be polite.

The daughter, Sezen, stomped in barefoot for her fitting, wearing the dress. It was a shade of lemon yellow that seared the eyes. Sezen was a tough, raunchy brute of a girl and kept rolling her eyes at everything: at her nervous mother, at Mae's efforts to make the yellow dress hang properly, at anything either one of the adults said.
And yet it is Sezen who turns out to have the best ideas for Mae's fashion business and, once she gets some recognition from Mae, becomes fiercely devoted to her. Mae, in turn, recognises the obligation that devotion places upon her; she has, in effect, become Sezen's mother and lives up to the role honorably.

There's a bit of humour: Ryman calls his bank manager Mr Saatchi Saatchi, and has a format war just like today's between Windows and Linux - his is between the UN and "Gates".

The book has won science fiction writing prizes, but to call it science fiction misses out a big chunk of what this book is doing, in its commentary on relations between the developed and third worlds, within the community (which has its own tensions, thanks to being comprised of a number of races and religions), between individual people, and on change. It is really really good!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Revelation? Turn it up!

Every so often, when I'm feeling a bit stir crazy (and three weeks of solid marking does that to me), I like to take a pile of music, give Webster the weekend off, rent a nice car and drive sedately through the country side. Just getting away was so important that when people asked me on Friday where I planned to go, I didn't actually know. I'd made no booking, but the thought of the culinary and cultural delights of Christchurch beckoned. I might finally get to Akaroa, I thought. But then, I'd promised myself that I'd go back to Lake Te Anau to see how it had been in the 20+ years since I last visited. I decided that when I was finally behind the wheel of the car, I'd let the weather dictate the weekend: nothing would be more miserable than stodging around a lake in the rain, whereas Christchurch would still be bearable.

As it turned out, my mouth got the better of me: as I was handed a coffee, I announced the next one would be in Riverton. Choice made. Budget really came through for me on the car front: instead of the Corolla I'd booked, they upgraded me to a Diamante. It was a bit of a nag (some beeper went off to remind me it was time for a rest before I'd got to Gore) but was otherwise magic: a 6 CD changer, big speakers and the ability to be immensely loud without vibrating the vehicle off the road were its main advantages. Even better than home, where the proximity of neighbours means that I can't really get things cracking on the stereo. It is a little odd, but over the past two or three months, I have fallen off the music-listening habit: my office radio has turned into a wireless and tunes in the morning moan on NatRad rather than the hip Emma Dish, I have hardly put a CD in the player and have been to a total of, what, two gigs since August.

So, the weekend turned out to be a nice re-connection - on my return to Dunedin, I drove up George Street with the windows down, and Lamb's "Til the Clouds Clear" coming to its stormy crescendo and sounding absolutely amazing - as did the entire album (their Best Kept Secrets). I'd played it a couple of times at home, but on a fairly subdued sort of volume, and it hadn't made any kind of impact. I don't know what inspired me to take it with me, in fact, but it benefitted the most from being turned up LOUD.

As for the trip - I did get to Riverton, via Otautau, for a mini pilgrimmage to see my Grandmother's house. Man, that town is looking sad - I remember it being a good wee town, all the shops occupied, it even had a jeweller, which is not bad for such a small place. The jeweller's shop is still there, but has been abandoned. So too have half the other commercial premises. It was good, however, to see my Uncle George's old place, the 4-Square, looking very spruce. The soundtrack for this stage of the trip was nearly all girls - Martha Wainwright, Laura Veirs, Keren Ann, Cowboy Junkies, Portishead and Patti Smith. Fantastic!

The point of Riverton was that I was going to New Zealand's second best cafe, the Beach House, for coffee. Not to be: it was more restaurant than anticipated. Nothing else was happening in Riverton, so I settled in for a glum night at the Globe backpackers and bar, where I appeared to be the only occupant. The drumkit and "open mic" sign were the product of someone's delusion. Huh! Was I wrong. By about 9, the place was hopping - old timers, young local fellows, blokes from the big smoke (that's Invercargill in these parts), hot unobtainable girls, me: I had a great time. I'm sure open mic nights can be pretty dire, and if anyone was to pick a place to have a dire open mic night, it would be Riverton. They'd be wrong. For four, maybe five hours, different groups would coagulate around the instruments and produce old skool hit after old skool hit. Every single one of the singers was better than anyone on NZ Idol - and one just blew me away, doing Come Together and some love song I didn't recognise. I got into a conversation with this girl, Jenna, who was convinced I looked like her brother - it was only the next day that I realised she might be right: Southland is jam-packed with my relatives. The night came to an end when the jukebox got switched on.

Saturday, the soundtrack in the car switched to blokes: American Music Club, Decembrists, Arcade Fire, Joy Division, Nitin Sawhney and Pavement. After Otautau, I was really fearful for Tuatapere, as it was pretty dead when I was there last. In a heroic move, it has reinvented itself as the artistic community of Western Southland - every second shop seemed to be an art gallery of some sort. I was horribly disappointed that the sausage shop was not open: not much of a sausage capital if they can't open the shop of a Saturday! Ooh - and now I have been to New Zealand's deepest lake, Lake Hauroko. I drove up 30 k of metal road, verified there was indeed a lake there, and left. That's me - while I may be the world's greatest couch potato when I'm at home, when I'm travelling, I travel. I'm terrible at spending time at places, or at spending money to participate in activities. So that's why I drove all the way in to Milford Sound, had a beer, and left. Mind you, I think the real point of going there is to take a boat, and I wasn't there in time to do so.

Te Anau has, of course, grown - quite peacefully it seems, with a rather more low key vibe than Queenstown has. And that's where I was today, briefly: lunch in Arrowtown (another place I've been saying I must go to, and I was again horribly disappointed to see that the dairy where I made a small fortune by taking in empty soft drink bottles I'd "found" behind the dairy has become a building site) before driving to Glenorchy. I think that has to be one of our most spectacular drives, and the weather really turned it on, so it was at its best. I'll probably take Webster and go back and spend some proper time there. Soundtrack for today's mission was Joy Division, the Waifs, Dresden Dolls, Ghost Club, Lamb and Johnny Cash. Magnificent.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Russians Are Coming

The most outstanding experience of my recent trip to Toronto was my visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, despite most of it being closed for the major redevelopment of the showing space they have underway. I still managed to spend nearly a whole day in the Catherine the Great Exhibition, which was largely borrowings from the Hermitage - although I suspect there might have been the odd item from Catherine's Summer Palace, which is apparently well worth a visit and all.

There was a dual theme to the exhibition: the way in which Catherine co-opted art to make her Great, but also the way in which she pushed Russia to take its place in the international cultural scene by bringing in lots of foreign expertise. The former wasn't just acheived by having pictures painted of her which made her look in control of a nation. Oh no - take, for example, the picture she had painted of the firing and sinking of the entire Turkish navy. Unlike today, where they'd have embedded journalists capturing the entire event for instantaneous wordwide transmission, artists had to be available to make paintings of important scenes. In a cock-up on the artist front, no-one was actually present and painting to record this momentous event. So - she had them re-enact the whole thing. Then there was the Bronze Horseman - the statue of Peter the Great she had made (which involved moving a 4 million pound rock to form the plinth!) but cleverly captioned in order to make it appear she was his natural successor. She wasn't of course: she was plucked from obscurity, married well and when her husband ascended the throne, had him killed and took his place. Such events might make one wish to make it very clear that one belonged on the throne.

I've read enough Russian lit (starting with Dostoyevsky through to 20th century novels) to know that the French language has been something of an embarrassment to the Russians at times - it was a discomfiting sign of an elite when to be elite was deeply unfashionable as well as a suggestion that simply being Russian wasn't quite good enough. So, it was of particular interest to learn that Catherine had as much to do with importing French language and thought into Russia as anyone - in her effort to modernise the Russian state. This process involved her in becoming one of the biggest collectors of art of the time, in introducing a neo-classical style to Russian architecture, in adopting the theories of people like Voltaire in her governance. I think the thing that most astonished me about Catherine was that while she was busily trying to gain control of all of Europe, gathering in all this art, keeping up a longstanding affair with Potemkin and so on, she wrote and wrote and wrote - books, codes of conduct for her armed forces, an entire legal code...

One of these days, I really must overcome my hatred of mosquitoes and actually go to St Petersburg: its a plan that has been on the back burner ever since I started reading Dostoyevsky.

In the meantime, my book group has taken on a fairly major reading project for our summer hiatus - War and Peace. There have been a couple of influences conspiring to make it the right time for me to read it - I have been reading about the new translation put out by Penguin, particularly the complaint that Briggs has cast it in 21st century idiom and cut out all of Tolstoy's literary flourishes. According to my Joyce lecturer, Tolstoy was playing around with some of the same sorts of ideas that Joyce deployed in Ulysses, but from what I've been reading, the Penguin translation has simply ignored any such flourishes in the interests of just telling the story. And then there was a fairly savage attack on the Constance Garnett translation in a recent New Yorker article: hardly a new thing, as Nabokov made an industry out of attacking her translations. Still - all credit to her for managing to translate 70 volumes of Russian prose and almsot single-handedly bringing it to the attention of the American reading public.

But it leaves me in a quandary: the ideal would be a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and, as I thought must be the case, they are indeed working one up: for publication in a year or so. In the meantime, I have succumbed and bought the Penguin version, to go alongside the Oxford World Classics version (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude - approved of by both Tolstoy and the Guardian as being the most authentic). And it appears that one of my colleagues has a Russian made film of war and Peace, one which comes in at a whopping 24 hours. Nice.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

I loved this movie, one of two coming of age movies (the other is C.R.A.Z.Y.) I have seen recently. The title refers to something the central character, Frank (Owen Kline) worried about every time he went to the aquarium as a child: the whale and the squid always seemed to be fighting and the whale would always win. The same dynamic applied in his home life: Dad (Jeff Daniels) is one of those English Profs who has been at it a bit too long, so that he's always "right" and rather insufferable with it. He's had a few successes as a writer in the past, and hasn't quite caught up with the fact that he's no longer relevant. So, he gets to be nicely dismissive of such minor works as A Tale of Two Cities ("one of Dickens' lesser works") and those condemned to teach it in high school, as well as lording it over his family. There is an interesting comment on the IMDB about Dad - who is based on a real person, the father of the director (Noah Baumbach): the claim is made that the father is so self involved that he'd see the film as homage, rather than attack.

Frank buys into his Dad completely: he can do no wrong. So, there is no conflict in his mind when his parents split up, this split is possibly because Mum (Laura Linney) is becoming a success in her own right as a writer. Frank wants to stay with Dad and Mum is the home wrecker. It really is hard to know one's own father, and this film is Frank's getting a more accurate take on who his father is. Ironically, it is when father and son are at their closest - both falling for the same girl, Lili (our very own Anna Paquin) - that this process finally takes hold.

The other family member, younger brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) has trouble from day one as a result of the split, as he doesnt have such a dogmatic view of things. Whenever he is with one parent, he misses the other. It doesn't help all that much when it turns out that his mother has started something with his tennis coach, so poor young Walt is left to feel pretty much on his own.

The one thing that was a bit strange about the movie was Frank's entry in a school talent quest: I'm not sure exactly when the movie was set, but given that he had a copy of the Pink Floyd record, it seemed just a little bit unbelievable that he could get away with not only playing Hey You, but getting the school prize for writing it. Shades of his father, however, in trying it on!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I had some odd looks from people when I was reading this; apparently neither tractors nor the Ukraine are commonly given much attention in my social circles. I, of course, was reading it because it was longlisted (and should have been shortlisted) for the Man Booker.

The story was quite a simple one. An old fellow (Nikolai) is lonely after the death of his wife, and his daughters (Nadezhda and Vera) aren't much company - they rarely visit and don't get on with each other anyway. So, he hooks up with a woman (Valentina) from the old country (Ukraina): she, shockingly, is a buxom, blowsy 36 to his 84 who explodes into their lives "like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside".

If it was just your typical Russian bride scenario, then there wouldn't be that much to this, but Lewycka gives it much more depth. There is a lot of the history of the family, and the impact of WW 2 on them, which caused them to be uprooted from the Ukraine and taken to forced labour camps in Germany, where unspeakable things were done to the older sister. And, yes, there is a history of tractors - they are given credit for an economic revolution in the Ukraine, and the writing of the history seems to get more important to the father as things start to unravel.

But the central story is about Valentina and Nikolai - there is something skilful about a writer who gets us to see that Nikolai had fallen in love with Valentina, just as his daughter recognises he has as well. Naturally, the daughters initially see Valentina as a gold-digger, but through time, that view becomes more qualified, particularly for Nadezdha. Valentina has come into the UK with her own dreams of what to expect from her marriage, like a nice house and car - no Skoda!, and the reality turns out to be rather different. So, we see her processing the reality, and getting more and more disillusioned, but nonethless clinging to this chance of a new life. It is sad, but at the same time, Lewycka makes it into a darkly comedic tale, as we see Nikolai and his daughters uniting against Valentina's efforts to stay.


I can finally come clean: back when she was in My So-Called Life, it was just wrong for me to admit to an interest in Claire Danes, given that she was, in both real life and in acting life, in her mid teens. But, dammit, she had an edge, even then, so watching the programme was a guilty pleasure. I haven't seen many of her more recent works, although I did see Igby Goes Down and, of course, Romeo and Juliet.

Of the younger set of actresses, she'd be one of my favourites, along with the always great Samantha Morton, so it was pretty much a given that when she teamed up with Steve Martin (as Ray) for his Shopgirl, I'd go along. The movie turned out to be pretty lame, to be honest. One of the central storylines is about their (so-called) relationship, but it is never explained to us what he sees in her or why, of all the young women in town, he selected her for his attention. All we get to see is that he approaches her at the glove counter of Saks, buys some gloves and (thanks to his position as a computer mogul) finds her address and sends them to her. Just a little bit creepy, yet she's into it - when he suggests a posh dinner, she says yes without hesitation. Maybe it was the care he took in saying he had no intentions beyond dinner - liar! She ends up falling for him anyway. Maybe it was supposed to be the result of poor self esteem or depression on her part - but, old as he is, he's still a multi-millionaire.

Of course, when you compare Ray with the other "man" in her life, the completely inept Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), then Ray, who at least has a clue, looks good. But why are her choices so stark? I never got the motivation of either of them, and it didn't help that Ray was so emotionally detached. Sure, I can understand wanting to be with Claire Danes, or Mirabelle - who has some interesting qualities, in that she makes sellable art in her spare time, drives a deeply unfashionable vehicle and reads serious novels - but he never ever shows any kind of excitement at the opportunity. Hell, I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven, and it would show in everything I did. At the very end, there is a small moment of insight - that a man of his age couldn't keep up with someone so young, but shit, he didn't even give it a proper shot and she still went with him for a while.

So, it was weird, seeing Martin acting like an emotional retard, no humour, nothing - despite the fact that he wrote the thing. The best line went to Mirabelle: he is making some sort of plan for her next birthday, since he failed to do much about this one. She says "By then, you'll be dead."

As for young Jeremy, well he's just a very odd young man: he latches on to Mirabelle in a laundromat, and within a short space of time, she's asking him "Are you the kind of person that takes time to get to know, and then once to get to know them... they're fabulous?" At least he had the wit to say yes. But, oooh, they have a cringeworthy friendship - he really doesn't have much of a clue about getting along with people, let alone dating. She's kind to him however, even if a little creeped out, and suggests that he needs to do something to develop a personal style. Of course, he has a cool job, he designs logos for amps used by musos; allowing for him to take a life-changing trip with a band as their roadie. When he returns, he's a new man.

But the story is really about Mirabelle, as you'd expect from the title - her impact on these two men and her finding her own path through life, away from being a bored glove seller to finding something a bit more meaningful. Despite the flimsiness of the story, and the problems I've mentioned with the two leading men, Claire Danes as Mirabelle was just great, the sort of girl I once hoped to meet - a curious mixture of confidence, fragility, warmth, humour, melancholia, tenderness. Someone on IMDB says she plays the role with "breath-taking accuracy" - I know exactly what was meant.