Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Y’all, I just went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them yesternight, and it delighted me so much that I have to tell you all about it.

This is far and away my favorite Potterverse movie.  I admit that’s chiefly due to the fact that the other 8 have the book-depiction-versus-movie-depiction conflict; the Tale of the Three Brothers might be the only part that I love without any qualms whatsoever because it’s done with such incredible artistry, and in such a fantastic storybook style.  So your mileage may vary.  Since I’d avoided the trailers and pre-film hype, it’s fair to say that I went in with no expectations whatsoever.

…okay, that is not quite true.  Anyone who has talked to me about Harry Potter at length knows that I find the similarities of Dementors and Lethifolds – thin black shroud creatures, one a soul-eater and one a body-swallower, both repelled by the Patronus charm – to be fascinating.  I also find the concept of the Nundu (breather of plague, destroyer of villages) to be utterly terrifying.  You could make feature-length movies about all three.

This movie had neither Lethifolds nor Nundu, which would be more disappointing if it hadn’t amused me so much.  I was probably That Obnoxious Person Who Laughs Too Loud to everyone else in the theater, which leaves me wondering if headcolds or Sudafed render the world more hilarious.  

It’s tricky to say why I laughed so much without spoiling it.  The hijinx of the animals themselves?  The differences between wizard and no-maj (ie, Muggle)?  The dance between the sexes?  All that, and more.

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The niffler deserves every bit of screentime he’s got.

First off, there are the characters.  Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander is criminally adorable: so winsome and earnest about caring for magical creatures, so cool-headed in the face of dangerous Erumpents or wizards or Things That Should Not Be, so talented at cleanup in the aftermath.  Cedric Diggory has nothing on this Hufflepuff.   

(…Can I say that?  I know, I know, nil nisi bonum mortuis, but really.)eddie redmayne newt.jpg

Katherine Waterston as (Porpen)Tina Goldstein is the Hermione of this story, sort of; she also does the Harryish “oh hullo, Person in Position of Authority; I came to tell you something which really was important but you seem to be doing something at least….three times bigger…” thing and getting into trouble.  She has her own share of earnest care, especially for [spoiler redacted].

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Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein is a show-stealer, and at first I thought I’d hate her (a pretty, curly-haired Legilimens who flirts by putting clothes on?  Mary Sue alert, y’allll), but then she went and made cocoa, helped drive the metaphorical getaway car, and cunningly disguised said getaway car with “Oh, this?  It’s…ladies’ things, d’you want to see?” which made me guffaw.  My favorite sort of pretty girl is the one who keeps her composure and disguises her competence when necessary.

Dan Fogler, who plays no-maj Jacob Kowalski, is a brilliant foil to Newt Scamander’s understated “ah yes, recapturing magical creatures, how quotidian” bit.  He has all of the childlike wonder, the Muggle’s confusion, the fellow needing just a bit more exposition to grasp the unbelievable things he’s seeing, who then takes everything in stride with panache.

I’d say this movie is essentially lighthearted, though there’s the shadow of both wizard extremists (Grindelwald), Muggle fanatics (the New Salem Philanthropic Society and its witch-hunting goals), child abuse, and secrecy-obsessed Magical Congressmen all about it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is kind of a misnomer.  Kind of, because the textbook is about where these creatures originate, rather than the hunt you have to go on if they escape from your magical suitcase.  But then, Fantastic Beasts and Where Not To Set Them Loose (Namely, New York, Because Of Course It Is) (btw, Magic Repression is the Literal Worst; Behold the Reasons Why) is just a tad unwieldy, so I can’t really blame them.

Further thoughts on magic repression, Undetectable Extension Charms, and magical America to come later, when they’re less likely to need a spoiler alert.  In the meantime: go see the movie!  It’s fantastic.

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Review: Luci Shaw

Every once in awhile, I find a new author (of prose or poetry, whichever) and decide to get as many of his or her books as possible, then read them in a great flurry to form a very clear concept of that writer’s style.  

It usually backfires, because I put off even the activities I enjoy, and fail to read them until they’re all due back at the library.  My tsundoku works against me and I end up reading, like, 2 books of a potential dozen.  

But that fate has been averted, more or less, with Luci Shaw.  I discovered her in trying to find poems about Petoskey stones (which, as you may recall, I adore hunting on the Lake Michigan shoreline).

shaw-petoskeystoneTurning up Polishing the Petoskey Stone: what a boon!  There’s only one poem about Petoskeys in it, but the book’s introduction explains why that title was chosen.  Shaw’s friend showed her how the fossils could be buffed on anything – one’s blue jeans, the arm of a chair, the fabric of a car door interior.  After a road trip’s-worth of rubbing at a stone, the resulting sheen made Luci consider God, polishing each one of us individually; our particular sorrows, joys, dull moments, energetic evenings, manic Mondays are all part of the process of making us shine forth.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone astonished me with its wisdom and imagery.  Every other poem, if not every single one, provided illumination of God’s work through a wealth of natural pictures: frogs, shells, the view from an airplane window, circles, blood.  So much of it provided new and weighty illustrations about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

I eventually recognized that the sub-headings within were not simply section titles but the titles of earlier collections.  Polishing the Petoskey Stone contains poems originally published in Listen to the Green, The Secret Trees, The Sighting, and Postcard from the Shore.  Not all of them, but about two-thirds.  

Likewise, a handful from The Secret Trees turn up in The Green Earth and Water Lines; accompanied-by-angelswhole sections of Water Lines in Water My Soul; various selections from this and that book in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.  Where there is any overlap of theme, there will be an overlap of poems. 

And yet, the introductions to each book, the occasional endnotes, the different structure, and the fact that good poetry is worth re-reading and rumination all add up to a complete lack of regret for getting them all out.  

I tried to read in order, more or less, but the strictures of time and the MelCat system mean that I read certain later books earlier on.  Harvesting the Fog is a later book – published in 2010, not the 70’s or the early aughts.  I didn’t care for it half as much, as it seemed more concerned with simple description than with embodying the intangible.  

I still have six books of hers to read, and 4 more to track down and read thereafter, but I doubt they’ll change my judgment of Shaw: carefully observant, fresh and evocative, somewhat familiar in subject and tone to those fond of CS Lewis (while different in form).  I commend her to you all as a poet who will refresh your soul.

Review: Silverlock

A couple of friends recommended this book to me, so I was excited to pick it up and start it.  It’s a fun blend of different classical stories, settings, and characters.  By the end, I was glad to have read it; there were some rough bits in between.  

A. Clarence Shandon, the eponymous Silverlock (so called for the streak of white in his hair), is clearly Eustace Clarence Scrubb all grown up.  Unfortunately, traveling through the Commonwealth of Letters does not improve him as much as being dragoned by greed and un-dragoned by Aslan.

…possibly I am biased by the fact that he narrates.  This being so, one sees all too far into his head.  He is often driven by the basest motivation, including a bit of rather misogynistic skirt-chasing, and that’s distressingly clear throughout.  The remove of a third-person narrator might have helped.  As it stands, I didn’t really have the chance to develop much sympathy for him before his vices made me dislike him.  

The enjoyable part is the land where he ends up.  In the Commonwealth, he meets with such classical figures as Circe, Little John, Beowulf, Job, Pangloss, and some Whynnyms; he travels from the shore, to Sherwood Forest, down Watling Street, by the chapel of the Green Knight, and past Gitche Gumee (! my Michigan heart delighted in that).

So as a pastiche, it’s fairly good.  Shandon is helped along by Golias, a composite of every single well-traveled bard out there: first, to survive; second, to help an asinine fellow get his girl back; third, to start off for the spring of all inspiration (a path that goes through Hell, so Shandon’s lucky Golias had his back).

(Golias, being a bard, sings a lot of songs.  These are rather fun, except that I’m terrible at making up tunes as I read, so they weren’t quite as fun for me as they could have been.  However!  At one particular point when Golias saves Shandon’s butt, I’m preeeetty sure the song he sings scans about the same as one of Tom Bombadil’s favorites.  It was an apt spot for it.)

Each scene of the picaresque was assembled nicely, and altogether it fit cunningly.  But Shandon’s journeys only ever serve to make him glad to be alive for himself.  He does not turn outward, glad to be of service to others.  When the story finishes, he’s been changed, possibly even grown a bit…but so far as I can tell, he remains a man-shaped dragon.  

Review: Sully

This past weekend, family members that I don’t normally get to see were in town.  Aunt Judy suggested that some of us see a movie and then get lunch together.  “Do you want to go see Sully?” she asked me.

“What’s it about?”  All I could think of was Monsters Inc., which didn’t sound like something Aunt Cindy would join Judy in watching.

“Oh, you know.  It’s about that pilot who had birds fly into his engines so that he had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson.”

This did not sound promising.  How could a feature-length film be made out of an event that presumably took fewer than five minutes?  No wonder it was shorter than Florence Foster Jenkins and The Light Between Oceans.  I decided to join my aunts, if only so they wouldn’t have to wait 20-40 minutes for me to finish watching a longer movie.sully-poster

…so to begin with, you can tell that I either didn’t hear, or forgot, that the events of this movie actually happened my last year of undergrad.  My roommate pointed out – after asking what rock I’d been under so as to miss this when it went down in 2009 – that deplaning takes several hours when the Coast Guard and police dive teams get involved.

More than that, when you’re the captain responsible, the moments feel like hours.  Sully captures both the worst-case scenario – both engines out, a plane dead in the air, everyone having to utilize the exit doors, inflatable raft, and life preservers after ignoring the attendants’ safety lecture – and the best-case scenario: every single person getting off the plane intact, being taken to shore, and receiving medical attention if needed.

Also depicted:

– the people on the flight.  A wheelchair-bound grandma, picking a snow globe from the gift shop for her granddaughter.  An older man, his son, and the son’s friend, all of whom are desperate to get on the flight for a long-awaited golfing trip.  A woman and her baby girl, sitting beside a solicitous gentleman.  People who are sleeping, people who look sick, people who are excited.

– what might have been.  Captain Suhlenberger, Sully for short, has episodes of imagining how it could have gone if he’d turned this way or that.  He envisions distressing New York anew by crashing into another skyscraper – especially poignant to watch this past weekend.

– the real-world fallout.  Did he make the right choice?  Sully wonders throughout.  The world hails his water landing as miraculous, while the airline and its insurance agents question whether he might have made it safely back to the runway at La Guardia, plane intact.  Algorithms in plenty, as well as pilots put through a simulation, seem to indicate that he could have, and thus should have, made that turn.  What, then, becomes of his career?  Of his 40 years of flight?  This last aspect gripped me the most, as it is entirely possible for someone to put forth the most profound effort, to remarkable results, and still be fired or vilified for it.

Despite my expectation that Sully might be an hour and a half of boredom, I was profoundly moved by its depiction of reality.  Theatres are glutted with superhero movies, stuffed with explosions, full of sound and fury and signifying little.

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Talking of: if you watch only one Tom Hanks movie this year, please don’t let it be Inferno.

It was good to see the collateral damage kept to a minimum for once.

It was better to see the air traffic controllers, the Coast Guard, the police divers, and other emergency response teams assemble for their work of helping, rescuing, and fixing.  In a world full of accidents and mechanical failure and wicked designs, we need the reminder that such men and women are bound to serve when everything goes to hell.

It was best to see Sully taking the fate of 155 souls as seriously as a pilot ought, keeping them all as safe as possible.

Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

Review: Technopoly

As in my post of last week, I am in the position of reviewing a book long after I first read it.  However, after reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly last March, I reread it in May, took copious notes on it in June, and still have it to hand for further consideration, because this book gave me so very much to ruminate upon.

Having stumbled over the book’s prologue while idly Googling the story of King Thamus and the Egyptian god of invention Theuth, I wondered how I had never heard of this author before.  Postman wrote at least seventeen books about the nature of education, how various technologies and media can contribute to (or interfere with) it, and the effect this all has on humans, particularly children.  The bulk of his work and writing occurred between 1960 and 1990, and Technopoly was published in 1992.Technopoly

All of this is to say that, though Postman analyzes a technological landscape over twenty years old, so much of it still rings true that the man seems somehow prophetic.

His thesis: technology appears to be a friend, but does not give us time for reflection on potential losses before it changes the world.  As scientists and inventors strive to make life easier, healthier, and longer…technology begins to usurp the place of our critical thinking and our consciences.  It is so intertwined with modern life that most of us have difficulty finding a distant enough vantage point to see what consequences, secretly intended or unintentional, may follow.  As King Thamus tells Theuth (or Thoth), “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  The king referred to writing, distinguishing memory and wisdom themselves from the recollection and appearance of wisdom which writing would make possible.

Basically, technology can be used for good or ill – but once the tool is in the culture, it will change it: not just here or there, but throughout.  For example, a culture that can produce written records can – eventually will – shift away from having an oral tradition.  Hurrying toward what is ahead, the inventor does not necessarily examine all these implications, all the ways his invention will change the world – nor do those using it ask, typically.  Instead, everyone emphasizes their hope for all the good this invention will bring.  The culture thus conspires against itself: the onlookers cannot know how this novelty will change their existence, nor that they might well end up on “the losing side” of a technology.

Maintaining that technologies reflect and create the ways people perceive reality, Postman sets out his definitions (by description) of tool-using cultures, technocracy, and technopoly.  Tool-using cultures use tools – many or few, simple or sophisticated, beloved or held in contempt – to solve problems of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world (e.g., art, politics, myth, ritual, religion).  The tools are determined and directed by the culture, thus they generally do not attack the dignity or integrity of it.  Rather, the culture is unified in belief (possibly theocratic), which provides order and meaning for the people within it.

He does list some tools which can intrude on cultural beliefs – the stirrup, the clock, mills, matches, and rifles – so I think those can be tied to the rise of Technocracy.  Here, tools are central to the world of thought.  Technocracy disdains and subordinates, but does not destroy, social or symbolic traditions (partly because it’s too new to change venerable phenomena like elder wisdom, regional pride, or social structure; partly because it’s busy doing other things).  Postman notes that Western technocracies were rooted in the clock, the printing press, and the telescope: three tools which changed the fabric of how society organized time, disseminated many new ideas to all sorts of new readers, and how men viewed the cosmos and their place in it. Listing off various natural philosophers-become-scientists, Postman avers that the precision of man’s knowledge of the cosmos “collapsed [the] moral center of gravity,” causing “the psychic desolation of an unfathomable universe.”  Even so, the believing scientists remained faithful, concerning themselves with learning and truth, not power or progress…until Francis Bacon came along.  Thereafter, people came to believe that knowledge was power and continuing progress was possible, while their belief in God was shaken if not obliterated.

More inventions, more factories, more production, faster communication…generally, people learned how to make this all happen, but didn’t spend as much time asking why.  And so western society approached Technopoly: a totalitarian technocracy, wherein efficiency, objective data, and unambiguous calculation is valued more highly than human judgment, human dignity, or the complexity of the unmeasurable.  “Lacking a lucid set of ethics and having rejected tradition, Technopoly searches for a source of authority and finds it in the idea of statistical objectivity.”  Thus ideas are reduced to objects, abstractions are ranked, and realities which were never meant to be reduced to numbers – human intelligence, a student’s understanding of a subject, beauty, ability, how people regard political candidates, etc. – are flattened and simplified until they fit into such boxes.

Postman acknowledges that a certain amount of generalization or oversimplification is necessary for everyone, given that we are awash in information: the sorcerer’s apprentice, with only a broom against the flood.  But in the past, some institution (familial society, religion, etc.) provided the framework for belief and understanding, dictating what was of greater or lesser importance.  Technocracy unraveled that moral and intellectual coherence, and now such institutions, and such overarching structures of belief, are held in suspicion by the Technopoly-addled.  What do they have instead?  An incomprehensible universe, and an unending river of data sans context.  Data management becomes the driving concern – again, not asking why this information or that must be preserved, but only caring how.  “Information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

So.  Having been alarmed by the way in which society regards the universe as incoherent, the vicious cycle of bureaucracy, and blatant reductionism, what can we do?

Postman’s response – he admits that it’s not really a solution – is that, at an individual level, we must cling fast to the narratives and symbols which quicken us and organize our thought.

At a societal level, schools are probably the best arena for improvement. The curriculum therein tends to have some coherence and connectedness, and presents ideas or attitudes that can permeate “a person with no commitment, no point of view, but plenty of marketable skills.” Or so we hope. Since it’s unlikely that religion, love of country, or emotional health would be used to provide structure for students’ knowledge, something else must do so.  Postman suggests “the ascent of man” – the idea that “humanity’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge.” The arts and humanities can be joined with science “to gain a unified understanding of nature and our place in it.” Instead of excising anything religious, a study of religious systems can (apparently) help tell “the story of humanity’s creativeness in trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance, and disorder.”

The sudden influx of quotations probably displays my feelings toward this approach: I can’t actually summarize it and keep a straight face. I agree that it’s valuable for our culture to have a nontechnical or noncommercial concept of education, but I don’t know that this approach to learning would be able to overwrite society’s years of emphasis on education as the means to achieve material or financial success; after so many years of people asking “How?” I don’t know how to convince everyone to ask “Why?” instead.

Postman also recommends teaching as much history as possible – not only the history of political events, or of each school subject, but of history itself. This, he hopes, can help illuminate why we know the things we know, whence our ideas and sensibilities issue, and how cultures change. He urges that different theories be propounded if not endorsed or established: “To teach the past simply as a chronicle of indisputable, fragmented, and concrete events is to replicate the bias of Technopoly, which largely denies our youth access to concepts/theories, providing only a stream of meaningless events.”  Which has always been my problem with understanding history: why bother remembering distinct events if I don’t understand the point of them?  Postman agrees with that: “The worst thing we can do is present [facts] devoid of coherence.” Rather, we should go beyond the event into larger concepts, theories and hypotheses, comparisons and evaluations.

For my own part, stuck in my unfashionable Christian beliefs and morality system, it’s clear that human-centered solutions cannot fill a spiritual pit.  Technology cannot cure its own disease.  Practical decisions cannot solve moral quandaries.  There can be no experts in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making, because individual people are not problems to be solved.  If the great danger is to become Adolf Eichmann – the Holocaust organizer who was indifferent to the fact that the timetables and logistics he oversaw were part of the deportation and killing of millions of people – then our defense is to care more about our actions and their consequences, especially the effects on our fellow man.

This is similar to Postman’s final conclusion: that to resist Technopoly, we must be loving resistance fighters.  We must understand that technology is a product of a particular economic and political context; that all technology carries with it “a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing;” and that all technology demands examination, judgment, and control.”

My corollary: Keeping an “a epistemological and psychic distance from any technology” requires an understanding of, and respect for, the dignity of the human soul.  Distrust of technology will not change our society, our culture, our world so much as love for our fellow man.

Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Last August, T. Everett recommended I read The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, saying “Have you ever wondered what Harry Potter would be like if it were about Hermione instead?”

I hadn’t wondered this, because of Ann Margaret’s excellent stories on that very premise – except that, okay, I had, because those still revolve around Harry and his path as the Chosen One.  So the question becomes, “What would Hogwarts – and Hermione – be like without Harry’s shenanigans?”

If we took Rachel Griffin’s Enlightenment as the answer, it would be “Largely the same; other shenanigans would arise to fill the gap.”  There are, in fact, so many shenanigans springing up that the whole 360 pages or so comprise five days, assuming I counted properly.

However, Rachel and Hermione, and their respective worlds, are dissimilar enough that the question of Granger-sans-Potter remains unanswered.  Rather, we are presented with a whole lot of other questions, answers, and characters, including:

– Rachel, a wizard girl of Noble Blood, with an eidetic memory, a strong work ethic, an unyielding compulsion to obey adults (until she tries really really hard and breaks said compulsion), a devotion to her father which must eventually be transferred elsewhere, and complete religious ignorance…but I’m getting ahead of things.  By dint of memory and effort, she flies very well. She remembers everything she looks at, though there were too many instances of Let Me Stop And Review The Picture In My Head for my taste (though I must concede their purpose: to help her see past magical obfuscation). She is super concerned with Who Likes Whom.

– Siegfried, an orphaned dragon slayer who often exclaims “Ace!” while hoarding his gold and food (so much so that he doesn’t know to buy an extra set of clothes), and whose quixotic ideas move the narrative forward, if haltingly.

– Nastasia, a Russian princess…of Magical Australia, for whatever reason.  She has a Bag of Holding, a violin, several skills which I have forgotten, a deeper commitment to the rules than even Rachel has, and the blessing/curse of having Visions when she touches certain people.

Many other figures crop up, though their development is flimsy.  Honestly, a lot of it reads as flimsy: the number of talents every single character has, the fact that a “girl reporter” is under threat of death, the amount of improbable things figured out by a bunch of 13-year-olds, the rapid escalation of threats interspersed with a lot of concern over dating.  The names – Gaius Valiant, Salome Iscariot, Dr. Mordeau, to name a few – are either super-literal or the reddest of herrings; I’m betting on the former.

Still, a few subtler details await development by the margins.  For one, individual takes on magic and magical worlds are generally diverting, and this world is no exception.  The American wizarding school, the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, explains how the colony of Roanoke went missing: the school’s founder turned it into a floating island, safe from the eyes of the Unwary (this world’s Muggles).  Magical familiar animals, music, and particular materials (including wands of metal and jewels) contribute to one’s magical abilities.

One of the most intriguing facts is that Rachel Griffin, Devourer of Library Books, is ignorant of all religious information – to the point where she doesn’t understand why a broom would be branded a “steeplechaser,” or what a friar is, or what the winged statue in the forest might be.  The dramatic irony involved might carry on through another book; given the visions, Morningstar references, and discussions between a prophetic raven and a miniature lion, I expect some kind of celestial showdown in the end.  Hopefully it doesn’t get too preachy.

Altogether, it’s a story that’s mostly drawn in Crayola colors – but here and there are shades in between, shadows implying that something deeper may come.  The concept is better than the execution; by the end of the narrative, I wasn’t certain what Rachel’s “unexpected enlightenment” actually consisted of.  Hopefully the next three installments can answer the questions this book left hanging, and further illuminate the reality (and history) of the Wise.

Review: Choke

This post might easily be titled “Reading Regret: Addendum,” because this book is so regrettable that I fully expect you to ask “Why, exactly, did you even read it?”

To be honest, I keep asking myself the same thing and coming up short.

Here’s why I started: I have watched Fight Club a few times with various groups of friends.  By the third viewing, I was less concerned with the plot and more interested in the philosophy behind the movie. Given that so many people watch it and discuss it, what are they most likely to take away from it? What sorts of ideas did the original book contain? Was it most concerned with making something meaningful of one’s life, or satisfied by fighting overweening consumerism with bloodsport, adrenaline, and mayhem? Was there anything true in the book, or was it all metaphysically suspect?

I decided to get it out of the library, found that it was already checked out, and elected to get another of Palahniuk’s novels instead of waiting for Fight Club.  Which was silly, because Choke sat on my shelf all summer, and autumn, and winter, and I finally cracked it last week.

So much for why I started. The very first words are “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother,” and I ignored them, which means any unwanted gunk in my brain is my own dang fault.

ChokeIt’s easy enough to read; swallow a couple chapters and you’ll probably be a little curious about what happens in the other 47, even if you choke occasionally on some nauseating detail or other.  Victor, the deadpan snarky narrator, goes back and forth between describing his messed-up childhood, his abhorrent job, off-putting sexual encounters (his own and other people’s, as he is part of a sex addicts anonymous program), the hours spent visiting his mother (afflicted with dementia, such that she forgets to eat) at St. Anthony’s nursing home, and the revolting way he goes about getting more money for said home’s fees: purposefully choking at restaurants so someone else can swoop in, be a hero, and thus feel responsible for him forever (which apparently extends to sending him money periodically.  I’m not sure what it says about me that I found that the least believable part of the book).

That summary makes it sound better than it is.  The non-linear narrative remains engaging enough to see one through, and just as one becomes thoroughly grossed out by one anecdote, Victor turns to describe something else.  Which is about all the positive spin I can put on it.  The most sympathetic character is a recovering masturbation addict who sublimates his compulsions into collecting rocks to assemble into some kind of erection edifice.  This book is Pandora’s box, except that instead of hope being shut inside at the end, you’re left with an ambiguous cessation of action.  It’s everything I disliked about Catcher in the Rye, but far more sordid and gruesome.  The congenital is not made congenial by making the pubic public; it’s just taking the dirt from its proper place in the garden and hurling it all over the coffee table, the kitchen, the bed.

Somehow, that approach feels significant; despite my disgust I wonder if it represents some aspect of reality, putting a finger to the pulse of what people believe in society today.  There’s the conversational prose stuffed with informative tidbits.  There’s a discussion about misogyny springing from misandry: how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy[?] …I mean, in a world without God aren’t mothers the new god? The last sacred unassailable position. Isn’t motherhood the last perfect magical miracle?  There’s a despairing rejection of religion, a blasphemous treatment of the specifically Christian, and so much emphasis on the carnality of flesh, all the filth that issues from it, and all the disgusting ways it breaks down.

I read Choke trying to understand whatever people might believe this, people with abusive childhoods and compulsion-riddled adolescence. But mostly I came away wondering if I’ve actually met people as hopeless as this.  I came away full of pity for both Palahniuk and anyone bearing a passing resemblance to his creation, because this does not treat men like men: it treats them like animals, and then argues that this is preferable because knowledge brings pain.

There is no such thing as altruism here, no redemption, nothing noble or lovely or of good report.  There is nothing admirable, just lust and gluttony and reveling in the foulness of what is foul.

If you want to learn about the diseases killing you and everyone around you, read WebMD.  If you can’t think of the word you want but insist on trying the first that comes to mind, read a thesaurus.  If you want to ruminate about the possibility that nothing good can exist without the risk of something bad, read Brave New World.  If you want to contemplate “a life based on doing good stuff instead of just not doing bad stuff,” read “The Weight of Glory.”  If you want paradoxes, read Chesterton.  If you want to muse about a past that cannot be remade, read “The Road Not Taken” or The Great Gatsby or Brideshead Revisited or An Artist of the Floating World.

Basically: whatever it is you seek, find it anywhere but here.