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Nov. 17th, 2010 @ 03:53 am how to read marshall mcluhan's groundbreaking understanding media without a headache
Current Mood: angryangry
Current Music: The Buggles - Video Killed The Radio Star
1. Negate every assertion McLuhan makes, so "The electric light is pure information" becomes "The electric light is not pure information," and "...technological media are staples or natural resources, exactly as are coal and cotton and oil" becomes "technological media are not staples or natural resources; they are nothing like coal and cotton and oil."
2. Remove all references to Jung, studies performed in "primitive civilizations" in Africa with no supposed exposure to then-contemporary Western culture, and observations about the fundamental nature of 1960s-era technology that are no longer true (e.g. television being a "hot" medium partly because of the absence of interactivity).
3. Pretend he actually makes the case for all the assumptions about the relationship between media and content he expects you to intuitively accept as true.
4. Marvel at how wise Bizarro McLuhan sounds, despite having little left to say.

Guys, I am trying to give McLuhan the benefit of the doubt. I am trying to engage his ideas on his their own terms, trying to reconstruct his reasoning from his perspective, rather than just dismissing them out of hand. (I'm also forcing myself to keep in mind that the television, radio, and film he is talking about, in the 1960s, are a different beast than the television, radio, and film I grew up with, as all of those media evolved directly in response to the theories in the book.) But it's pretty hard when so much of it, from his assumptions to his logic to the reasoning behind his logic, is built on observations about media that are utterly alien to my understanding of technology and how people interact with it. It's like he's writing about some kind of parallel universe, about some alien species that consumes media through a pair of faucet taps and drinks information through a straw.

The idea of "hot" media like television being more information-dense than "cold" media like film, for example, and therefore being more passive to process--whoa. I love metaphors as much as the next guy, but are we talking about a television or a microwave oven? Shining light through a strip of film may be different on a technical level than blasting light into your eyeballs via a cathode ray tube (and McLuhan expounds on this for quite some time), but an image of a galloping horse is an image of a galloping horse. McLuhan insinuates that no, the way you perceive that horse is very subtly different, and will drastically affect your perception of horse riding and horses in general. But he provides no evidence to back that assertion up, nor does he even try to explain why it might be true.

And while it's an interesting thought that the "unintended consequences" he talks about, in which the format of a medium itself, not the content, shapes how people think, McLuhan never makes much of a case for it--he just assumes you will accept it as obvious. Which it isn't. Watching Con Air in a movie theater isn't fundamentally any different than watching it on cable.

Perhaps it's telling that technology has changed so much in forty years that a relative newcomer to the field of media studies not only cannot intuitively accept McLuhan's assertion that the medium is the message, but finds the idea utterly bizarre. Did we really need computers to invent cybernetics? Did we need the Internet to invent crowdsourcing? Would T-Pain not still be producing formulaic, predictable dance rap if Auto-Tune had not been invented? The message is a deliberate social construction. The medium is just a shiny circle of metal.

Mere things are not agents of change; all technology is merely the manifestation of ideas. Outside of video games, there are no fucking tech trees.

(I'm sorry, you can't research Parliamentary Democracy. You don't have two points in Musket Level 2 yet.)

Then again, maybe I'm just bitter because I grew up with older people telling me that a) TV is going to turn America into Brave New World, b) books are intellectually engaging while television turns people into passive consumer vegetables, and c) it was my generation, not theirs, who would end up as couch potatoes. All of those lessons turned out to be lies. Not just lies, but dangerous lies. And now that I've found the source of those ideas, it's disappointing that their author does not make a coherent case for them.

Maybe I should put down Understanding Media for now and come back to it once I read some of the things his contemporaries were saying. kezinge advises that McLuhan makes a little more sense if you consider he was responding to Maoists and to Foucault. Not really within my research interests, though...
About this Entry
toroko
Sep. 25th, 2010 @ 01:27 am syllabus: the ensmartening
Current Mood: bouncycaffeinated
Current Music: Bomani Armah - Read A Book
I am fed up with being constrained by the limits of my understanding, on a non-technical level, of the fields in which I work. Being able to write and code has ceased to be sufficient--how can I create anything new if I do not really understand what it is I am creating? What role it will play, what purpose it serves? So the next step in my education has begun.

Aided by reading lists graciously compiled by technology historian kezinge and media theorist virtualstar, today I set out to the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to acquire some Real Fucking Knowledge to replace my current set of Pretentious Undergraduate Bullshit Cleverly Pretending To Be Real Fucking Knowledge. It's not enough to be familiar with ideas like "the medium is the message" and "the signifier and the signifier are one." If I am going to be working with these ideas, I need to understand them, explore them, contest them, discuss them, not just toss them around like beanbags to see if someone better read than me will catch them. It's not just about getting into Media Lab. It's about knowing the big picture about what the hell I am doing, and finding inspiration in it. My CS degree taught me the what and the how, but it frustrates me how little I know about the when or why. And I'm tired of being one of those name-dropping, walking-Wikipedia, hedge-scholar intellectual poseurs who knows everything he knows only in broad summary. I want to actually know what I'm talking about.

The first step to knowledge is acknowledging your own ignorance. In this case that meant looking for it in the wrong fucking place.

Read more...Collapse )

These are the books I obtained today. The very incomplete syllabus for a graduate-level course in New Ways To Think About Video Games. They are not decorative. They will not sit on a bookshelf until I get around to them, like the ones yuppies purchase to display in their TV cabinets as conversation pieces. Their ideas are going straight into my head, where they shall careen like brakeless bumper cars crashing about in the dark until I discover something new about them to talk or write or code about. Someday, hopefully, all this research will help me achieve my lifelong goal of telling a story in a way that's never been tried before, a story that would suffer if it was told any other way.

Titles in red are ones I am still looking for. If you just happen to have a used copy you'd like to give or sell me, I'd be immensely grateful. Suggestions for addition to the reading list are also welcome!

GAME DESIGN

  • Brathwaite, Brenda; Schreiber, Ian. Challenges for Game Designers.
  • Crawford, Chris. The Art of Game Design. A classic from the legendarily batshit founder of GDC. It's been out of print so long you could get engaged for less than it'd cost to get a copy. But YAAAAAY IT'S ONLINE. "For truth! For beauty! For art! Charge!"
  • Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on Game Design. Chris Crawford is a Lunatic Genius: Electric Boogaloo. (Or, rather, Chris Crawford Has Been Designing Games Longer Than I've Been Alive: A Retrospective.)
  • Dille, Flint; Platten, John Zuur. The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design. Possibly the only game writing textbook in existence, much less the ultimate.
  • Salen, Katie. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The theoretical grounding to Schell's practical knowledge. Coined virtually all the current academic terminology on the subject, and is worth a purchase for that alone. Let's face it, I don't have any real business talking about "ludology" until I've read about it from the source.
  • Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Fat. The mother lode of applied game design theory, apparently. Praise for this book transcends the hyperbolic.

HISTORY
(Thanks to kezinge and retch)

  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin; Aspray, William. Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 2nd ed.
  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry.
  • Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922. About the early history of radio. How is this relevant to video games? Well, it provides a useful reference point in understanding how new technology is invented, improved, and adopted relative to the zeitgeist of the era in which it is created, which will help me contextualize future readings on that subject. Also talks briefly about the beginnings of geek culture, apparently!
  • Kent, Stephen. The Ultimate History of Video Games--The Story Behind The Craze That Touched Our Lives And Changed The World. I'm told it's like David Sheff's better-known Game Over, except broader. And 500 pages long.
  • Kushner, David. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. If Sheff and Kent's massive flyswatters are the macro, this book is the micro--the tale of the young game company that came to define every stereotype of game developers in the '90s, and ultimately subvert them. I especially want to read this one because I've heard it is told from a game designer's angle, focusing on new technologies and experimentation with gameplay elements instead of the more typical business and historical-cultural perspectives.
  • Levy, Stephen. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.
  • Montefort, Nicholas. Twisty Little Passages. Already read this one! Simultaneously an unprecedentedly thorough history of text adventure and a groundbreaking exploration of interactive narrative's unique place as a medium of expression. Montefort's bibliography is a major source for this reading list.
  • Sheff, David. Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped An American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, And Enslaved Your Children. Despite the absurdly sensationalist tagline, this is a pretty well-regarded history of the video game industry from the 1960s to the early 1990s. I read some of this book at retch's place and it was pretty fascinating.

MEDIA THEORY
(Thanks to kezinge and virtualstar)

  • Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. I am already a fan of Bogost's criticism and essays, so I'd read pretty much anything he writes. He is also the world's foremost only authority on newsgames and the potential of games as agents for political and social change, and a good reason to consider applying to Georgia Tech's Digital Media M.S. program as well.
  • Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design.Misleading title: this is apparently not a standard game design book but a set of personal and ethical reflections on the nature of gaming by the senior creative officer of Sony. Appears to be very widely read in the industry for some reason.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. If you've ever been asked "Is the medium the message?" and bullshitted an answer, you really need to be thwacked over the head with this book. And then you need to read it.
  • Mitnick, Kevin D. The Art of Deception. Seminal text on information security by the world's most infamous hacker, particularly because it has very little to do with defeating technical security measures and everything to do with exploiting human interactions with technology.
  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. According to kezinge this book is the main reason why parents used to tell their kids that TV rots their brains. "Go read a book!" they'd say, not realizing that reading is an equally sedentary activity. When I grew up, it was, "Kevin, stop playing video games and come watch TV." It's about time I understood why.
  • Kidder, Tracy. The Soul of a New Machine.
  • Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Eeeeeee so excited to begin reading this one. A forward-looking evolutionary history of prose, as written by a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech with an academic background in literary theory. This book is kind of a big deal right now.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet.
  • Turkle, Sherry. “The Subjective Computer: A Study in the Psychology of Personal Computation,” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 173–205.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, 2nd ed.


SEMIOTICS
(Thanks to virtualstar)

  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Awkward yet influential postmodern philosophy essay comparing the experience of reading to the experience of having sex. Cited relentlessly in papers about interactive narrative, as it provides a useful and well-known model against which the experience of playing a video game may be compared. Montefort all but fetishizes on citing this work. Which I guess is appropriate, given that The Pleasure of the Text is reportedly pretty fetishistic in itself.
  • Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Ever hear art and literary theorists argue about the distinction between signifier and the signified? This book is where those terms were first defined. I am told that digital media breaks a lot of traditional assumptions about how media is perceived, so I should learn what they are. (It's amazing how the human brain interprets out of the many layers of abstraction, a series of electromagnetic pulses representing a sequence of numbers representing a set of instructions representing movement vectors for a three-dimensional ordered set of points representing a series of polygons projected into a two-dimensional space represented by a rectangular grid of rapidly flashing lights, sixty times a second, as a single continuous experience. And to think cinema blew the semioticists away.)
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation.
  • Eco, Umberto. Theory of Semiotics.
  • Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge.
  • Foucault, Michel. Order of Things.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics.


ART, DRAMA, AND FICTION

  • Barkan, Seth Flynn. Blue Wizard Is About To Die! Self-proclaimed first published anthology of poems about video games. Expensive.
About this Entry
dd2guy
Jun. 14th, 2010 @ 12:21 am <form /> / f(x)
Current Music: FLomid - I Will Buy You A New Life (Everclear acoustic cover)
Tags: ,
Had the option of going to trivia/karaoke night or Tom Curtin's gig tonight. Contemplated each, then went to Barnes and Noble and splurged $40 on books instead.

Sometimes a dude just needs to hole up and chill. I am a dude.

The lonely, neglected writing part of my brain is too tired to do the obligatory nerd boast about my purchases, so I'm going to outsource that duty to a popular technology magazine.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Love him or hate him, Foer's a strong player in the market these days, and it's not hard to see why! One look at this book just screams "quality." Laminated with a clean military-grade polymer finish, the plastic on the cover feels sturdy, not cheap. Love the high-impact book jacket design too! The pages are flip with amazing ease, and the edges feel warm and grip easily with each turn. Rounded cuts by artisan bookbinders mean you'll never prick your finger again! A must buy.

Idoru by William Gibson: A welcome addition to any geek's bookshelf, Gibson once again does not disappoint. At two megamolecule ink resolution, perfect bound with 200 horsepower high performance glue, just holding this thing in your hands gives you a feeling of raw power. Tough on insects, easy on fingertips, the book's gentle heft makes pest control a breeze. The battery life is not too shabby, either--I can open this book for hours at a time and not once have to plug it into the wall.

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi: A great read! Smooth, crisp, high-contrast slab serif fonts make the text incredibly easy on the eyes--even in daylight! The 394 machine-cut pages have a pleasant new book scent to them, like fresh Chinese noodles, and offer a whopping six megabytes of read-only data storage in a compact 1.2kg package. Comes in three sporty colors! Recommended.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami: The best thing to come out of Japan since Yukio Mishima! This anthology's revolutionary slim, modular, ultra-portable design is sure to make it a hit among book retailers. Clear, crisp text, cutting-edge thermally activated binding, and support for a variety of functions guarantee that you will be using this book for years to come. Also the stories inside are fucking beautiful.

Coming soon: an unboxing video! Watch me slowly, pornographically remove the books from the four layers of packaging inside their box. (You know, the big, shiny box super-expensive paperback novels like these come in.)
About this Entry
dd2guy
Feb. 21st, 2010 @ 03:18 pm stolen pomes from the poet tree
Tags: ,
Yesterday I did a volunteer shift at my church's ridiculous ridiculous annual used book sale (paperbacks for $1.50, hardcovers for $2!). I am in the midst of a minor theological struggle about it right now, since Jesus pushed over tables when he saw people selling stuff on consecrated ground, and the very same building where the pastor preached to us the virtues of not giving in to temptation (we are in Lent) became a temporary marketplace just hours later. But if they are hypocrites then I am also, because after a mere 45 minutes of theological wrestling I was down there hauling an armful of books to the counter. I am a bad Christian.

So, as if it would make things better, when it really makes things worse, I am going to illegally pirate some of the poems I bought today, from the January 2007 issue of Poetry. Viewing these poems does not constitute fair use and you will be arrested shortly. Please enjoy them while you wait for the authorities to arrive. Read more...Collapse )
About this Entry
dd2guy
Jan. 10th, 2010 @ 06:15 am riding down the lane, snuffing tobacco-weed, sipping on juniper and turpentine
Current Music: The Gourds - Gin and Juice
O, have I maidens in the sitting room,
Be getting on, for they depart not 'fore
The cock is risen, six at morn, so what
Or whom be done? Confound thine chamberpot,
or chambers thine. My fob-sack brims with skins
Of noblest lamb; my knaves garment their knobs
With prophylactic raiments similar!
So extinguish the torches, gates be shut
As well. But what? What, ho? The love with which
We plow our seed be not thine truest love,
but that which be for garden implements.
So light thine pipes, dear sirs, with tinctures green,
Knave up, dames down; lend ears, and bounce to this!
About this Entry
megadance
Dec. 16th, 2009 @ 06:21 am bitches of the galaxy no longer
Current Mood: angryfuck yeah
Current Music: Fluitisma & Van Tijn - 15 Miljoen Mensen
Once in a blue moon 4chan creates something that justifies its horrible, disgusting existence.

Like this thread from /tg, for example. Guess what sci-fi species they're talking about.

hint: it's not wookieesCollapse )
About this Entry
dd2guy
Sep. 23rd, 2009 @ 03:39 am color wheel round and round
Current Music: Perique - then i
Tags: ,
An unintentional secret: I'm a big fan of interactive fiction. Always have been, since the days pure text adventure started to fade and point-and-click adventures weren't quite point-and-click. The genre has never truly died; it's merely gotten more niche and more literary. It's been thirty years but you still see phrases like "You see a maze of twisty little passages, all alike" on T-shirts and bumper stickers, and a small army of writers are still cranking out this stuff. Regrettable that the general public lost interest in the genre before it really came into its own because some of the stuff that's been written since puts even the early '80s classics to shame. Modern IF...not so much a game genre, anymore, as much as a hybrid of gaming and fiction in its own right.

Take Photopia, for example. (Play it in your browser! It's longer than most IF games but still short.) The praise for this game has been hyperbolic, sometimes distastefully so, and the essays on its influence absurdly pretentious--if I hear the world "ludonarrative" one more time I'm going to have to throttle someone--but no one can doubt that it has had a huge impact on games as a medium for storytelling, as opposed to just "games" in the pre-computing sense of the word, and has created many of the interactive storytelling tropes we now take for granted (like menu-based dialogue, and NPCs telling their stories by playing the game). The story wouldn't edge out something like House of Leaves for brilliant experimental fiction, but it is unquestioningly very good, and if you are a fan of IF or don't generally enjoy video games, you will find it to be an unusual and amazing treat.

Why haven't I written any IF yet? Given that it's the most direct intersection between computer games and traditional fiction, it seems like something I was born to do.

Hmm.
About this Entry
dd2guy
Sep. 14th, 2009 @ 06:16 am introverts en masse
I guess I should write about my day, huh.

(Even though it's over, and a new one has already begun. Stupid off-kilter unemployed sleep cycle.)

The Brooklyn Book Festival was pretty neat! I guess I was expecting something like a trade show or a convention, what with Brooklyn having a huge and storied literary scene, but it turns out it was both bigger and more laid-back than I expected. (And free! And almost completely outdoor!) I've never been to an event this big and this crowded with this chill of an atmosphere. Lots of tents set up over folding tables in the plaza outside the courthouse, which is pretty small by New York standards, with a couple eight-wheeler trucks opening up into stages for invited authors to talk about their books, and maybe half a dozen hot dog stands patrolling the perimeter. It felt like a county fair crossed with a library.

Hello, sir! Would you like a copy of our new self-printed alternative literary magazine? (Watch the staples, they're sharp.) Our editor is sitting right over there, next to that little lady with the ice cream cone and the baby carriage...

It was kind of reassuring to discover that novelists can be pretty boring people. I got there late so I missed all of the big-name panels (Jonathan Lethem! Jonathan Safran Foer! Paul Auster! The guest list reads like my bookshelf!), but the rest of the writers would bore you to death if you hadn't read their books. One of them was responding to a question on why so many of her books took place in New York with a long, rambling monologue about brownstones and pizza parlors and how she felt about living in the city, and another three were talking to each other about how the iPod takes something away from the experience of listening to music because unlike a boom box it doesn't project a sense of space. It felt like the International Blogger Symposium on the Deliciousness of Cheese Sandwiches. Perhaps these details would please their fans, and reveal insights about the context of their novels, but I always thought the purpose of a panel was to come away enlightened about a subject, or take away a new perspective, and I don't see how these panels achieved that. I'm sure these people could have come up with something witty, intelligent, and interesting if they had prepared something ahead of time, but I guess that just because people are eloquent on the page doesn't mean they're eloquent in real life. I mean...look at me. :(

(p.s. i would totally write an entry about how cheese sandwiches are delicious)

Otherwise, the festival pretty much belonged to industry folks. Big publishers, little publishers, workshops, fledgling trade associations (I didn't know poets had a union!), bookstores...The Strand was there, as was Forbidden Planet, but most of their catalog looked like discount inventory they were just trying to get rid of...

Incongruously set in the meadow of bookstores, literary magazines, and independent publishers was a small section devoted to the New York Comic-Con, at which TopatoCo had a table. I confess that despite my literary aspirations this was the main reason why I went. I got to meet Jonathan Rosenberg, who draws Goats, and Jeffrey Rowland, who draws Wigu and Overcompensating. As these three webcomics have been part of my daily routine for quite a few years now, it was a pleasure to meet the people who make them. Jon is pretty much what you'd expect--he looks like any random New York barfly, which makes sense considering how much of Goats takes place in bars--and, well, I've read Overcompensating and I used to hang out on Dumbrella, so I kind of knew what to expect from Jeff the Cowboy Poet. Jeff recognized my nick from the Dumbrella forums! And he gave me a random high-five on the way back to the subway. I did not think J. Rowland could get any more awesome but oh snap he totally did. And I think Chris Hastings was there, too, but I'd never recognize him without the ninja mask and the doctor's coat.

There is always a profound awkwardness to first meeting someone you know online, but have never met.

Halfway through my time at the fair, I heard a snatch of song I thought was a little familiar, and naturally I brushed it away as a coincidence. But as I got closer to the courtroom--wait! Is that--no--it can't be--yes! It was Jonathan Coulton! Performing "IKEA!" It turns out he lives in Brooklyn! It's funny, I've been listening to his stuff for so long (before he did that ending song to Portal) and I never even knew that he lived around here, much less gone to a live show. It was a lot like the live performances I've seen of him on YouTube, except...three-dimensional.

...Yeah, I need to get out of the house more often.

Considering that I was there with maybe a thousand people who like the same books, read the same webcomics, and listen to Jonathan Coulton, some of whom looked like they were in the same cohort, it's kind of sad that I didn't meet anyone besides a handful of minor web celebrities. Then again, I guess the thing about people like me is that they're...like me. That dude, curled up with a book in the corner, or surfing the web, invisible.

also, i held a picnic for most of my neighborhood friends in prospect park and no one came.
About this Entry
dd2guy
Sep. 10th, 2009 @ 09:23 pm it's not easy to be illuminati
Current Mood: patriotic
Current Music: Reuben Kee - Legend of the Solid Snake
Tags:
I have been reading Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost at the library. At over 1,300 pages, printed in 12 pt font on pages that could wrap a dictionary, tackling this book has been no small endeavor. I have spent about five afternoons in the library reading it and I've just barely finished the first 250 pages. I guess when you get a sixty-eight-year-old icon of contemporary American literature going on his magnum opus (which he never finished, by the way), no editor, publisher, critic, or nagging faerie of common sense is going to stop him. Mr. Mailer was going to finish that book, damn it, whether it took him five hundred pages or five thousand, and sod all cares if anyone had the patience to read it!

And it is, to be fair, absolutely epic. In a way that only a 1,300 page CIA novel written on extra large paper can be. An Amazon.com review says, in its defense, that it reads like an express train. It does--it's written in plain, vernacular conversational English; in fact, some of the finest prose in plain, vernacular conversational English ever penned by a contemporary author--but that train just happens to be the Trans-Siberian Express. Going to Awesomegrad. With transfer service to Holyshitvosk. For days and days and days and days.

And unlike other works in English of similar length, not a single word is wasted. Sure, you could write about the CIA for less--lots of authors do it. Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler do it with startling prolificness. Their pulp predecessors have done it enough to keep every used bookstore in America a fire hazard for the next few centuries. But this book isn't just about the CIA. This book isn't just about a couple of badasses, and Cold War intrigue, and conspiracies and plot twists and explosions and the usual potpourri of spy novel tropes. No, this is a deeper, more personal, more introspective look at the Agency and its half-century history, an intimate look at the peculiar variety of people who make it their way of life. It's about the American aristocracy, the tiny old-boy network of Puritan and American Revolution descendants to which the Bush and Kennedy dynasties belong, which paradoxically exercises great influence over a society their ancestors founded on the absence of nobility, and its awkward alienation from the other 99.9% of America it is sworn to protect. It's about Watergate and the Kennedy assassination and Operation Paperclip, but it's more than these things; it's not just a bunch of spies playing cat-and-mouse with assassins (there is surprisingly little of this so far). It's about living these things, making them your personal responsibility, living up to destiny and legacy and heritage and all those things America prides itself on being free from. It's more than history, it is the story of nobles in a land whose founding document abolishes nobility, the story of a colonial power exercising colonialism to defend its principles, the story of people put in the uncomfortable position of eliminating the privilege that put them in power. It is about a bureaucracy-bogged, high-minded, alternately romantic and boring Cold War era CIA that is neither good nor evil but firmly both, a far cry from the omnipotent conspiracy or society of assassin superheroes depicted in the rest of popular culture.

And it's also the story of a guy at a desk. The protagonist, Harry Hubbard, and his CIA colleagues are not core operatives. They are not badasses. Hubbard has never been outside the United States, and despite his self-defense training he can barely fire a gun. They are analysts. They sit comfortably at the office, or in their sprawling ancestral estates, under false names and false careers, sorting information and analyzing data. It's a comfortable, boring job. We get a glimpse of the secret nightmares of men and women who devote their lives to lies and secrets and never get the smallest peek at the big picture of what they are doing, the folks who push a button and read the next day that a foreign dictator has been assassinated. They participate in boring high society stuff and have affairs and messy divorces, and isolate themselves from the rest of the world in little islands off the coast of Maine. They have coded conversations over the phone with old friends and colleagues about each others' love lives. It's bizarrely mundane, for a lifestyle so alien from the rest of America that the rest of America seems alien to it. And then everything goes up in flames, and all of a sudden that mountain of privilege is an exploding trash heap, and they're sitting in a shitty run-down hotel room in Moscow (this isn't a spoiler, it's in the first few pages) crying softly to themselves...

You get the sense, with this massive tome perched in your lap, that despite the accessible prose you are reading something of the same majesty and import as an Egyptian obelisk. Like Henry V in Massachusetts English.

In the entire first chapter there is no mention of the CIA or the plot or any of the characters. There is not even any mention of Hubbard himself, aside from his narrative voice. The entire first chapter is about an island in Maine, where Hubbard's family has lived for generations, and the natural beauty of the mountain and the forests and the wildlife, and the fond memories Hubbard's ancestors and neighbors had growing up there, and the quiet, hardworking lives of ordinary middle-class Americans living along the coast. It is, in a very Calvin and Hobbes sort of way, a paean to New England, and the enchantment that led the Native Americans (and later Hubbard's ancestors) to come live there, a natural history starting from prehistoric times and moving forward until the present. It seems totally extraneous, almost Melvillian, until the first plot point comes barreling along and then bam--you realize that nothing that happens in the one hundred pages before Part One begins in earnest makes sense until you understand why Harry so loves an America he barely understands. Not until you've gone through an entire short novel's worth of context-building--something that would be tedious by any other author but is transcendently, heartbreakingly beautiful in Mailer's gently soaring prose--do you realize why it's there. And then Mailer takes everything you've read, all of this gorgeous language, some of the finest in contemporary American nature writing, up there with the works of Whitman and Thoreau, which he reveals to be a manuscript of Hubbard's memoirs, and literally flushes it down an airport toilet. And then the real story begins.

This is the kind of novel you have to be Norman Mailer to write.

Mailer writes in his foreword that he didn't set out to write a novel about the CIA--there are already too many of those. Instead, he wanted to write the novel that actual high-level CIA operatives couldn't write, for security reasons--a book about what it was like to be CIA, and the kind of person who would be compelled to make that decision in the first place. He spent a couple years doing research, reading a huge number of books (the bibliography is like thirty pages) and talking to friends of his within the Agency, to make sure that everything felt exactly right. While Mailer wasn't privy to national secrets, and emphasizes that the events in the book are fictional, he says the focus of the book is to capture the experience of being CIA. And not just any CIA employee, but one of those truly oldschool upper-crust CIA types, of living as a rich white American government type by heritage as much as by choice. Whether he succeeded or not is something the subject of his books is probably not privileged to speak about. However, word of mouth says this book is on the official CIA recommended reading list--which, considering its daunting 1,300 page size, must count for something. And while I doubt the target audiences for these two things intersects very often, if you have played Metal Gear Solid 2, it is impossible to read through this book without hearing Harry Gregson-Williams's distinctive Snake motif in your head. Though Harlot's Ghost does seriously what the Metal Gear Solid games did in over-the-top parody, and the characters have far more ordinary (for extraordinarily wealthy values of "ordinary") careers than Snake's romanticized warrior-badass Jack Bauer job, those same themes of martial heritage, responsibility, identity, patriotism, and destiny resonate quite deeply. Far more so, even, than the duty-and-honor Tom Clancy novels and movies that serve as the first two MGS games' inspiration. This is not A Few Good Men. This is something with a legacy far more profound.

If nothing remains of our post-colonial empire but this one staid, magnificent tome--look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair--I will consider it a fitting monument to all that the government of these United States has achieved.
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dd2guy
Aug. 12th, 2009 @ 04:52 am k-on: the later years
Current Music: Gomu - おっくせんまん!(Okkusenman)
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Sun: 62. Kevin: 0.

Yesterday I got a graphic novel in the mail! Solanin, a one-shot manga by Inio Asano. It is about a group of friends in their twenties, fresh out of school, unemployed and penniless in Tokyo in the middle of an unprecedentedly terrible recession. They strike a difficult balance between their dreams and the demands and responsibilities of new adulthood: Meiko is supporting her live-in boyfriend Taneda through a soulless office lady job, Taneda struggles with his job as a part-time illustrator, Kato hates how he looks in a suit but needs a desk job to pay tuition for his sixth year of school. What brings them all together now is what brought them all together in the first place: in college they were a band, they were members of the music club; they played all these awesome shows and rocked the fuck out and had Dreams and Ambitions and the future was dazzling and glorious in front of them. And now they're still meeting twice a week and still banging away at the same old instruments, but seriously, what for? No more school festivals, now, no more student concerts--they don't play live anymore, they're not good enough to record. They do it because it feels real, because it's a connection to their past and their dreams, but the moment they put down that bitchin' '76 Fender they're back to the world of photocopiers and convenience store aprons and perverted salarymen, of looking for work and lying around in their dingy little apartments all day and watching the money run out as everything they've ever wanted to be, whatever it is they want to be, if they ever find it, vanishes into thin air.

My, doesn't all this sound familiar.

What's really fascinating about the art is that none of the characters are drawn to look particularly heroic or attractive. Unlike the Scott Pilgrim series, which elevates the role of the post-undergrad everyman to that of a superhero in an epic cosmic struggle, the protagonists of Solanin are ordinary people. Dorky, lovable, idiosyncratic ordinary people, but ordinary nonetheless. Their doubts and fears over whether they'll ever have a future as a band are accentuated by the fact that none of them look like rock stars. The frontman wears a ridiculous pair of Buddy Holly glasses, his groupie girlfriend has freckles, the bassist is obese, and the drummer looks like he'd be more at home in a metal band; these guys are the total antithesis of JRock. They lack verve, style, and confidence, and their ambitions are plagued by doubt; when they talk about what they do, they look and sound like a bunch of close friends throwing around one of those impossible pipe dreams that they know they'll never actually do. And yet, whenever they get together and play...they are transformed. The rock-out faces these guys put on look like portraits from the Cleveland Hall of Fame. Six days a week Taneda's just a goofy dork with bad posture and low self-esteem, but put a guitar in his hands and he channels Hendrix. Draw away all their doubts and fears and insecurities, and these guys are the face of absolute sincerity. A sincerity priceless, magical, and transcendent--it makes them, for a brief moment, so much more than who they are.

Even if, as they constantly fear, they're really not all that good.

I read the whole thing in one go. I can't say more about the story--which is excellent--without spoiling anything, but it's pretty evident that whoever sent me this manga knows me very well. Someone must have read through it one day and thought, "Hmm, this reminds me of something erf_ wrote in his livejournal." I certainly had that feeling every five or six pages...

The return address on the envelope is in Columbia, Maryland, and the sender is simply marked as "CHEN." I assume, then, that this is a random gift from Heather, Cynthia, or Eric. Whichever one of you it is, domo arigatou! I enjoyed it a lot.
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dd2guy