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TIME PILOTS – commentary on Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One”

readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

FAR OUT! – commentary on Michael Sussman’s novel “Crashing Eden”

edenDo you believe everything you hear? Joss was a troubled teenager before ever telling his psychiatrist that his bicycle collision with a random car door was “meant to be.” He is the child of upper-middle class professionals who attends a private high school in multidimensional Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he also grew up angry and defiant, and he just got out of two years lock-up in juvie for setting the neighbor’s house on fire. His meeker younger brother killed himself; a tragedy over which the father has fallen into dissociation and the mother has become an irreconcilable bitch who holds Joss responsible. Yet, in the hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered, Joss feels euphoric, spiritually renewed and he has begun to hear the OM.

The OM is the primordial vibration of the universe. It sounds like a cosmic choir chanting and could anciently be heard by all humans, before the mythical fall of creation. To this point Michael Sussman’s novel Crashing Eden is still a fairly phenomenological YA drama. We are not sure yet if this is a journey into myth and the supernatural, or the story of a depressed kid having a psychotic break.

The psychiatrists seem to have a clinical grasp of what’s wrong (or too right) with Joss. They explain that the OM is an auditory hallucination brought on by Joss’s state of manic bliss. Euphoria and delusions of grandiosity are common to mental patients Joss’s age. Joss’s belief that he has developed special powers, coinciding with the anniversary of his brother’s suicide, is likely a function of Joss’s mind protecting itself from sadness and guilt. Is Joss’s life changing experience of the OM going to be real within the context of the novel, or a maddness through which Joss will exercise his grief? The author will make a choice for the reader about what kind of novel this is going to be – a story about mental illness and family discord, or a sci-fi, superpowers fantasy that will suspend all physical rules to deliver readers beyond the universe to the feet of God. Because Joss believes that something universally significant is happening, and his conviction is about to be substantiated by a series of stupefying narrative events:

Event: Earth is hurtling toward intersection with a vast black hole in outer space, portending the end of the world.

Event: Joss encounters a pair of grad school scientists who have built a wearable device that amplifies the OM. They also enlist Joss in distributing the devices to young people everywhere, in the hope of saving the world by re-syncing it with the primordial vibration of the universe.

Event: the human mission to restore honestly and goodness to the world angers God Himself, who irrationally rains down catastrophic blizzards, earthquakes, and plagues.

Final Event: Joss teams up with the grad students, the ghost of his dead brother, and other friends who have developed supernatural abilities. Joss and company fly as spirit bodies through the black hole to confront God and talk-therapy Him through his attachment disorder related to his own mother abandoning him thirteen billion years before.

Anyone who took a high school English class is probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith, described as the willing suspension of disbelief. This refers to a reader’s willingness to accept a fictional imagining of the world (or world’s) on the author’s terms. Crashing Eden raises a question about the point at which fantasticism in speculative fiction breaks the readers willing suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi and fantasy stories freight a lot willingness before the cover page is ever turned, and, of course, suspension depends entirely on the individual reader’s cooperation.

There are a couple common ways the fantasy in a genre story gets broken. 1.) The RULES of the Impossible World are implausible in the real world, e.g. the wizard about to cast his death curse conveniently has a heart attack and dies. 2.) The RULES of the Impossible World are inconsistent, e.g. only a wizard can do magic until a non-wizard steals the magic wand. Despite other weaknesses, Crashing Eden actually passes both of these tests. After the on the level looking early chapters, Sussman wends a fairytale path, but there are no early conceits, no limits on the contrived reality that prevent the story from traveling beyond the beyond. So why does Cashing Eden not entirely work? In the druthers of your humble reviewer, its gradually elaborate fantasy simply gets too far out.

If the issue is not broken disbelief, perhaps we could call it cognitive estrangement from the breadth of Sussman’s fantasy world. We can still give up on a story if at some intangible juncture its fantasy proposal feels pointless. Too fantastic. Too weird. There are no doubt other readers for whom legends given authenticity, superpowers employed to punch-out God, and the undisputed existence of God at all, is an exhilarating reading experience. And Sussman deserves credit for giving young readers a positive parable about redemption, healthy self-forgiveness, and celebrating ethics of peace while never ennobling a particular religion. The book is also slyly funny and the teen hero is complex. To my taste, I would have liked the novel to continue in the direction of teen-with-a-mental-problem, and the fantastic parts to be something Joss subconsciously invented as a recovery tool. A little more science and not so much fiction, please. In words attributed to sci-fi author Damon Knight: “Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Weird Wonderland, not good.”

 

SIMON 2.GAY – commentary on Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda”

simonSimon has a millennial age secret. He is gay and he is not ashamed of it. A 17-year-old suburban white kid with close friends and a chummy, functional family, Simon is not so fearful about being socially ostracized. His Gen Z size worry seems to be that people he already trusts to accept homosexuality will make his coming out a “big deal.” What is at stake for gay Simon in a post-acceptance era is that his differentness from the hetero default will eclipse the adult identity he is still in the process of constructing, and that people who would otherwise completely approve of his sexual preference, will appropriate their associations with him for their personal agendas.

As a coming-out novel, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written with soaring emotional intelligence by Becky Albertalli, approaches the subject rather different than the kind of young adult material of my 1980’s teen years. If there were coming-out stories, I did not read them. What I remember is clunky afterschool TV specials like What If I’m Gay? and The Truth About Alex. In both of those stories, which intended to present an affirming message about homosexuality, a high school jock’s closetedness is exposed through accidental circumstances, unleashing havoc on girlfriends, families, and sympathetic friends. In subtext, coming-out was audacious and reckless. Were teenagers of the era ready for The Truth? Where I grew up the only thing these specials produced were homophobic punchlines in the locker room.

Closeted Simon, growing up in present-day suburban Atlanta, has been engaging in an anonymous online romance with a mysterious boy from the same high school, going by the faceless moniker Blue. Simon is not a jock but a theater kid with a popular personality. A less popular and more awkward classmate, Martin, happens upon a school library computer display of Simon and Blue’s private homosexually revealing emails, which Simon accidentally forgot to close. Martin is not even homophobic, but he is a conniver and he threatens to abuse the secret unless Simon helps Martin get the attention of a female friend who is way out of Martin’s league. When the girlfriend does not show romantic interest, Martin posts a vulgar, fake coming-out confession on behalf of Simon to the high school’s gossip blog, and also hints at outing Blue. Simon might try to deny the gay truth, but instead our Twenty-first Century hero reluctantly accepts it an opportunity to start coming-out publicly. Some taunting and humiliation comes down from the jock clan at school, but mostly what is unleashed on Simon is a series of embarrassing endorsements. A dozen straight kids make a point of saying they support him. His BFF’s pick out guys they think are boyfriend prospects and squabble over who got to be first told. Teachers stand on guard for bullies. A lesbian couple hugs Simon and hands him their phone numbers. One girl reassures him that Jesus still loves him. Simon tolerates the undue attention, but he worries that the hullaballoo will somehow collaterally uncloset Blue. Will he lose Blue after his own carelessness with the library computer has set off a chain of events that might include schoolmate’s being so determined to embrace gay people, they will shortcut Blue coming-out on his own terms?

In Simon’s generally enlightened middle-class suburbs, one coming to terms with one’s identity can be just as scary, or risky, or embarrassing as it ever was. Albertalli has released a version of the coming-out story that updates the order of consequences. Simon is not ashamed of being gay, but he anticipates the unfairness of people coming to know him as that one thing. Before he has even had any real sexual experience, he will be redefined as his sexual preference. As Simon writes to Blue, “Do you ever feel locked into yourself? …Sometimes it feels like everyone knows who I am except me.” If Simon comes out, will his would-be allies receive him as he truly is, or will they impose some new version of himself he does not even know yet? Simon, version 2.gay ?

What is so fresh about the Simon character is that as he experiences typical teen rites of passage, he is also emotionally mature enough to recognize sexual preference as one part of himself. “I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.” Albertalli is suggesting that all teenagers reach a stage at which the adult they are struggling to find within feels like a secret identity. That every teen feels like the person they are perceived to be is a disguise over the person they actually are. That it is a universal experience to come-out as someone other than who family and peers recognize. “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out feeling like Simon. Because if they don’t recognize me, I don’t recognize myself anymore.” Albertalli’s suburbs are progressive, but imperfect.

Progress has another modern consequence, as demonstrated by people in Simon’s orbit who use his sexual identity like an invisible token that can be invested into some other enterprise. As when Simon describes his coming-out to his family on Christmas morning:  “I guess it’s about what I expected. My mom’s asking about my feelings and my dad’s trying to turn it into a joke. Alice is getting political…” What Simon intuitively fears is that his differentness is something other people will treat as an object that may be taken from his hands. And it is. Martin, a kid who cares about his own gay brother and marches in a Pride parade, selfishly outs Simon on the gossip blog thinking that while it might be embarrassing it would be relatively inconsequential. Simon has to chew out Martin: “You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This was supposed to be mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it… You took that from me.”

Recalling the good old 80’s again, I am reminded of a friend who was forced out of the closet at age fourteen when his father caught him messing around with another boy in a tent. Not only did the father make the remainder of his teen years a torment, he became a pariah among his classmates and community. No doubt ostracization still happens to gay and genderqueer kids, but the queer stigma in most American places is fortunately becoming relic. Simon is less concerned with people disliking him or being violent towards him, than he is in being defined by his society in a way that is both narrow and manipulable.

My initial reaction to the Simon novel and its adjacent movie adaptation was: Hasn’t the teen coming-out thing been done enough? But, in fact, I am hardpressed to find a story about a teenage protagonist coming-out actually made into a major studio film. Even if the accomplishment is tardy, teenagers will love Love Simon’s thoughtful humor. The screenplay is a loose adaptation of the book, and cleverly executed given that the source material is about 1/3 epistolary (those email exchanges). It successfully regenerates most of the same dramatic beats with excellent young actors. It does not quite arrive at the post-acceptance angle portrayed in the novel. Instead of peers looking out for Simon, the movie’s drama leans on alienation, misconception, and, like the old days, making the gay teen seem responsible for his own victimization. Although, at the end Simon’s classmates rally around him. And Simon’s relationships with his parents are more fully realized. The movie was emotionally touching and I recommend it.

Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a radical coming out novel. Because what is more salient now in our culture is not gay-or-straight, but the lingering requirement of a person to have a static sexual identity at all, or the requirement that one should have to articulate one’s sex life to the whole homo sapien demos. These issues are still confusing at a time when people are, for the most part, accepting of homosexuality, and people who are publicly unaccepting often become social pariahs themselves. Tolerance, fortunately came to sound too patronizing, and today in America acceptance might be said to imply cis-chauvinism, even when the accepting party’s intentions are good. Because knowing what sort of sex partner another person prefers, or knowing whether the person considers them self only male or female, is no longer an acceptable method of knowing the person. As it reads in one of Blue’s emails to Simon, “You can memorize someone’s gestures but you can never know their thoughts… people are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.”

 

 

 

 

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TIMES THEY ARE A WRINKLING – commentary on Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Winkle In Time”

7567On the occasion of a major motion picture adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time 56 years after its publication, I decided to tesser through the fifth dimension back to 1962 to learn about the novel’s apparent durability among middle-grade literati. What I discovered is a mid-generational artifact wedged right between the 60’s feminist movement and McCarthy era preoccupations.

Meg is a twelve-year-old science nerd and bullied weirdo at school. However, at home she is the fulcrum of her weirdo science nerd family, including her unusual five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, who hides his amazing intellectual gifts from other children. After Meg’s father, a physicist, mysteriously vanishes during a top secret experiment, a trio of intergalactic ferry-like women – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit – arrive offering to help find him. They lead Meg, Charles Wallace, and a teenage friend, Calvin, on a dangerous mission to rescue the father, and introduce the children to the Tesseract, a method of space travel that involves folding (or wrinkling) time. From a luminous spot in the cosmos, the children are shown Camazotz, a dark planet shrouded by a malevolent cloud called The Black Thing and inhabited by people whose minds are controlled by IT. The authoritarian IT, is a disfleshed, mechanical brain, imposing total social conformity among Camazotz population. IT also holds Meg’s father prisoner. Meg and the other children are the only beings capable of traveling through The Black Thing to Camazotz, and risk being indoctrinated into ITs ethos of homogeneity. Through Meg’s journey two major themes emerge, the indicated one, appointing a young girl as progressive protagonist and hero of individualism, the other a subtextual bulwark of anti-communist zealotry and prevailing conservative values.

Meg begins the story as a hesitater and social outcast among her peers. Because she does not fit it, she is considered stupid, (a missummation also applied to Charles Wallace). Although, the three missuses celebrate Meg’s differentness and individual gifts, ultimately saving her family and the world from galactic evil is something she accomplishes alone. They provide the vehicle of the Tesseract, the mission, and the encouragement, but Meg’s strongest tool is her inner ability to overcome self-doubt. That is the novel’s timely, broad-minded wrinkle.

Within the same pages a second, less forward-looking theme lurks. The nebulous Black Thing is slowly encompassing planet Earth, as it has to completion the less resistant planet Camazotz, a name which happens to rhyme obliquely with communist. Citizens of Camazotz live in identical suburban houses, where all children play games in unison and parents fearfully obey an average routine. The Black Thing suppresses individuality itself, replacing its importance with the false bliss of social equality. Camazotzians are not starved, or deprived of civil rights. Sameness, civic efficiency and the provision of equal economic resources are depicted as worse deprivations. “[Meg] held on to her moment of revelation. Like and equal are two entirely different things.” Children of Camazotz are bereft because they have been absorbed philosophically by IT. The literal brain IT takes over independent thought making a person not just part of IT but turning them into an IT, and IT takes over Charles Wallace’s mind. Depriving Charles Wallace of self-determination is described as an act hate, so Meg resolves to give Charles Wallace what ITs vacuous equality cannot – love. That is, nonsectarian Christian love, which is moderately referenced throughout novel.

Besides Economic Liberalism and Christianity, there are other quaint ideological convictions touted. Intellectualism is a bogeyman as demonstrated when Charles Wallace, the most erudite of the children, falls into ITs mind control most easily because he has the arrogance to think he can defeat IT with logic alone. Meg’s father admits to irresponsible scientific exploration of the Tesseract – “we’re children playing with dynamite” – a reference to nuclear weapons. Also, L’Engle’s composition has a formal, fairy tale cadence that was perhaps the culture of children’s books in 1962 – a lot of dears and darlings and Faaathers.

This brings me, in brief, to the 2018 movie version. The adaptation is successful in imagining a fantastic special effects vision of the novel, distinguishing the characters, and abandoning some of L’Engle’s passé ideology. The movie seizes on the spirit of Meg learning to take pride in being an individual and turning her anger, stubbornness and impatience into strengths. And the filmmakers grow L’Engle’s feminist seed into an inclusive and multicultural universe. There are some deficiencies. The acting is broadly terrible, and L’Engle’s Christian sentiment has morphed into New Agey child-of-the-universe-summon-your-inner-light platitudes that feel drippy. But the best parts of the movie would not exist without the best parts of the original novel.

On the whole, A Wrinkle In Time is a novel from which young people will still draw relevant positivity. It is a story about a girl possessing the ability to solve problems with interior powers even the immortal, interstellar traveling women do not have. Maybe its 1962 first-world triumphalism does not hold up, but the message of children, particularly female children, learning to respect themselves is enduring.

FINNEGAN’S FAKE – commentary on Flann O’Brien’s novel “At Swim-Two Birds”

atswimAt-Swim-Two Birds is simply Flann O’Brien’s novel about an Irish student novelist writing a novel about an unfinished novel. Do you twig? The student’s spare-time literary activity includes spontaneous composition of the story of a lazy novelist who’s misused characters, drawn largely from Irish folk legends, animate and conspire to write their own novel in which their creator is tortured and tried for his abuses. In between the folk legend sections, O’Brien’s young author is browbeaten by his middle-class uncle who criticizes the student for his seeming disinterest in studying.

Metafiction may be a particular taste, as is toiling through O’Brien’s long adaptations of Irish verse and writing styles. I confess I wanted give up on this book early on, it was so bewildering. But sticking with O’Brien’s mythical fantasies and stream-of-conscious writing came to feel rewarding. Once I gave up on my inclination to understand every reference to Irish myth or modern Dublin slang term, I was able to absorb that O’Brien created something of epic imagination and wit, even while abandoning all writerly responsibilities toward character and plot. I’ve never been able to slog through the impenetrable language of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the style of which O’Brien appears to imitate or parody. Maybe At-Swim is Finnegan’s Wake lite. I know I’ve never before successfully read an Irish novel like this, or finished one feeling as edified. O’Brien’s humor is wicked, and his gifts for description and prose are extraordinary.

MEET ME UNDER THE WHALE, commentary on Brian Selznick’s novel “Wonderstruck”

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Wonderstruck is a six-hundred plus page juvenile fiction novel that might only take kids an hour an a half to read. That is because much of it is told in picture book form (Although, I found myself revisiting the artwork again and again.). Wonderstruck is two stories. Ben, a ten year old deaf boy runs away to New York City, following a trail of clues to find his abandoner father. Ben’s story is set contemporarily and told via traditional paragraphs. In the companion story, Rose is a ten-year-old deaf girl in 1927, who runs away to New York City to find her distant mother. However, Rose’s adventure is told entirely through the author’s mimetic pencil illustrations. The two journeys lead both characters to explore and hideout in The American Museum of Natural History. Eventually their timelines cross. Ben and old age Rose are united through their mutual interests in the same animal habitat diorama – a means of storytelling weaving art and science, life and imagination. Likewise in the last section of Wonderstruck, words and pictures, become interwoven.

Maurice Sendak once said, ““I don’t write for children. I write–and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Wonderstruck is a fun, intertextual odyssey for the mind and the eye. There are also difficult circumstances of disappointment and death that the characters confront together. It is life illustrated for child and adult.

 

 

All Things Concentered- book review of ‘ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR,’ by Elizabeeth Brundage

brundage3Consider All Things Cease To Appear a work of literary merit that happens to begin with a murder suspect ruminating on Emerson and an ax in the skull of the protagonist. In other words, author Elizabeth Brundage eludes the general classification of a novel into Genre Fiction or Literary Fiction.

Genre Fiction usually gets divided into romance, horror, mystery, et cetera and then subdivided into cross genres and further complicated taxa. Literary Fiction is both difficult and easy to classify because it resides in the category of books with no category. Literary Fiction is for sale in the section of your book store where the fog never lifts, its shelve hanging unfastened between the land and sky. Is All Things Cease To Appear a mystery/thriller, a romantic/horror, or a literary fictive with genre elements? Here, context serves as an inside-out metaphor for the content, the imaginary hinterland Brundage creates.

The setting is Chosen, New York, an insular working-class town. George and Catherine Clare, intellectuals from the city, have moved to a house on a foreclosed dairy farm, also the site of the previous family’s tragic self-destruction. While George attends his new position as professor of art history at a nearby college, Catherine forgoes her career in art restoration to become restorian of the spooky, decaying property. She hires the teenage Hale brothers, a sad but bighearted trio, to repaint the exteriors, although she is unaware the house was last the Hale’s home until they were orphaned by their father’s violence and mother’s murder?/suicide.

George Clare teaches study in the Hudson River School of landscape painters, specifically George Innes, whose nineteenth century works were intended to be both observably captivating and spiritually experiential. Meanwhile Catherine Clare is experiencing her own metaphysical shift. She relies on the Hale boys and other new local friendships to navigate passage through her collapsing marriage and creeping ennui. George turns out to be a character perpetrating frauds, betrayals, and violent acts with sociopathic artifice, which culminates in his becoming the prime suspect in Catherine’s gruesome murder.

In its breadth, All Things tells the concentric history of two abused mothers who meet similar tragic fate in the same house at different times. Like any good novel, the story is rich in comparative elements, but referring to Brundage’s elements as ordinary pairings and opposites seems inadequate. Counterpoint might be a closer descriptive (Catherine plays Chopin on piano!), in the sense of independent melodies composed into one harmonic texture: Catherine is the abused mistress of the house, but the ghost of her lost predecessor, Ella Hale, continues to traverse the creaky stairs; the Hale boys still consider the house their property, and yet they are dispossessed from it; the Clares and the Hales are two families at different times appearing, concentrating, and disappearing.

These contrapuntals reflect the novel’s central philosophical platform: reality is a place where morals and meaning are uncertain concepts; time is an ebbing and disappearing focal point; life is a composition of light and darkness- like an Innes landscape that balances land and sky into a vague frontier where all things blend until ceasing to appear. Brundage performs context and content in counterpoint as genre motifs are blended with literary themes and superb prose. In this scene Eddy Hale, working outside Catherine’s house, is both a de facto permanent occupant and a frequent voyeur looking in from the outside:

“Maybe she’d come out to hang the wash. He’d watch her back, her arms reaching up, her elbows as knobby as a garden snail’s. Across the fields that had been his grandfather’s and his great grandfather’s before that, the wind spoke to him. Wait, it said… Now Catherine’s daughter was sleeping in his old room. He wouldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t tell her what had gone on in that house, how his father would come after them, turning over chairs and tables, how his mother would cry up in her room or sometimes sit in one place shaking just a little, like somebody who was scared.”

 

I suppose genre readers could find themselves disappointed to be led into a four hundred page murder mystery that neither provides a competent detective nor concludes with certainty about who is guilty. It is a risk for Brundage to write a beautiful novel wherein beauty and love depend on the unseen, and the success of heroes and demise of villains depends entirely on implication. As Brundage writes- in fog certain things, certain colors become important. Like Innes’s intention that observers of his paintings would have their souls see what their eyes could not, Brundage shows readers that the division of genre and literary fiction, like lateral time and universal logic, is mere optical illusion.