Thompsoning

tumblr_oh8286wvu11r0z5aoo1_540I’ve been rereading Hunter S Thompson because ‘tis the season.

“Let’s face it – the yo-yo president of the U.S.A. knows NOTHING. […] This is never an easy thing for the voters of this country to accept. No. Nonsense. The president cannot be a Fool. Not at this moment in time – when the last living vestiges of the American Dream are on the line. This is not the time to have a bogus rich kid in charge of the White House. […] Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? […] They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up […]. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us. – they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis.”

– Hunter S. Thompson (on GWB)

Nobel Prize 2017: My picks.

So we now live in a post-Dylan world, a world where Bob Dylan won literature’s highest award. Maybe Buchi Emecheta didn’t do enough Chrysler commercials? Read Björn’s excellent appreciation if you want to see why Dylan might have won it. The overwhelming whiteness of Mr. Zimmermann might have contributed (or else, why not award Caetano Veloso, who truly revolutionized a country’s music, who was jailed, exiled and is still a respected voice in the political conversation of his country. Read his excellent memoir for details), it wouldn’t have been the first time. After all, the last black winner of the Nobel Prize was Toni Morrison, and the last black African winner was Wole Soyinka. The last winner for engaging with oral tradition was Dario Fo, a writer, like Veloso, who was politically active, powerful and a significant voice. Fo died the day of the award, and one wonders how soon after his burial he started spinning in his grave. Anyway. Because I’m probably not doing the Nobel Picks next year (here is this year’s edition), given that WHO KNOWS what Danius and company will do next, here are already my picks. As Björn has pointed out – with this award, how can the Academy refuse an award to any art form that involves writing of some kind? The picks are all excellent artists who, in a post-Dylan world, might receive the award.

1. Michael Haneke. Haneke, narrowly beating out Tarantino and Malick, is cinema’s best living writer-director. You could argue this with me but you’d be wrong. Sure, there are others, but Haneke’s movies are finely crafted, complex, brilliant pieces of writing, politically, emotionally, philosophically resonant. They don’t hold up on the page, because they are written by one of the finest living cinematic minds, with the cinematic resolution in mind, but neither do Dylan’s songs, so that’s clearly not a criterion.

2. William Michael Griffin, Jr., better known under his stage name Rakim. So there is some argument that Dylan invented something truly novel in the American tradition, but no new musical invention has been as transformative as rap, which allowed black artists to fully reap the fruits of their own musical inventions. Rakim’s work with the art form is historically significant: he is something of a link between the classic beginnings and the more fluid, broadly skilled shape of the art form today. Rakim’s influence on the shape of rap – and the shape of music in general cannot be overstated. It would have been silly to give the award to any musician, but Rakim would have been a better, more interesting choice than Bob Dylan. In the post-Dylan years to come, when the academy looks for worthy candidates, Rakim is hard to overlook, although, with black candidates, the Academy has a history of being uniquely talented at overlooking black people.

3. Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51. Suda51 is a video game creator of genius. A true master of the art. In a post-Dylan world, it would be stupid to overlook video game writing, as this art form will be one of the most valuable and important contributions to the creative arts in the near future. Jesse Singal recently wrote about how video game writing appears to be graded on a curve, and he’s not wrong. However, the achievements of the greats of the genre, though you couldn’t really print them, are standout achievements. They are made with the medium in mind -there is no way to pin Suda51’s creative energies to the printed page. But the Nobel Prize in Writing Things has liberated itself from mere books. Suda51, however, is very young, despite the size and excellence of his work. He has also not been as influential on the genre as some older writers. Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango and Psychonauts is brilliant and influential, as is Sid Meier, inventor of Civilization, not to forget Ron Gilbert, who was involved in the creation not just of some of the most important adventure games (Secret of Monkey Island, Zak McKracken) but also scripted the software that was used for many of them. I picked Suda51 because I think he is one of the most brilliant people working in video games, period, a creator of lesser influence but more genius than any other creator I mentioned here.

Looking forward to a bright and lovely future for the Nobel Prize in Writing Things, kind of. Additional question: should coding count as writing? Because, man, do I have some worthy candidates for the Nobel Prize in Writing Things.

Dylan 2

One curious aspect of Thursday’s bizarre decision is the fact that Bob Dylan’s lyrics are, in Romania, translated by Mircea Cartarescu, who is slowly becoming one of those perennial Nobel candidates himself, rumored every year, high up on the Ladbrokes list, losing to a singer who likes simple rhyme schemes and stealing from blacker and poorer artists. I mean, “inventing a form,” of course. My bad. Cartarescu is a bit sad these days, expecting as he does the Nobel prize any day now. It’s becoming a bit embarrassing, tbh. 14666063_1225403344148560_8719303579896981442_n

Nobel Disagreements

So the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement has been pushed up. According to a post at a forum that I used to be a member of (and that you should consider joining?), it is NOT because of a disagreement.

So the late date isn’t because of any disagreement within the Academy?- Absolutely not. It’s a purely mathematical ritual.

Well. 1) I believe in the old tabloid adage that denial of disagreement is confirmation of disagreement and 2) I’d like to think one of them went 12 Angry Men –  So here is a possible way this went down (I apologize in advance. My computer keeps dying and my email accout is possessed. This is good distraction):

Sara Danius: “So I assume we all agree? It’s another white/European/comfy writer? Who wants to write the commentary. I mean “she’s a master of short stories” was pretty good.” Academy members mumble agreement. “What about this one? We can start with the words “memory”, “Europe” and “History,” right? Ok Let’s vote.”

Voting. One “no” vote. Danius, upset: “Who did this?”

Suddenly, from the back, a rebel Academy Member says: “Well, maybe this time we shouldn’t pick an unoriginal European?”

Shock, as outrage, noises ensue. One yells: “How will we recognize excellence if it’s not white and comfortable? Vi har högt i tak but enough is enough!”

Another one takes out a color chart “But I learned that everything darker than this” -points to ochre- “is not a real writer!”

A small man yells, very self-satisfied: “WHO is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”

Rebel academy member sits silently. He leans forward: “I’m just saying, have you read these books – ?” and pushes literally dozens of non-European Nobel worthy candidates across the table. Paperbacks, hardcovers, knocking over a glass of water (and the customary can of surströmming, I assume)

This generates more outrage: “What’s wrong with you?” “How do you even pronounce that?” “What kind of name is “Tsitsi”?”

Rebel academy member keeps calm, shrugs. “Look, I don’t know. We used to do this differently, just like two decades ago. When’s the last time we awarded a Wole Soyinka? Is it Wole Soyinka? Look at all these writers. I just don’t know about this European/pale/bland/genteel fellow we picked again this time.”

Chubby academy member gets up, puffs his cigar, after dipping it into spilled surströmming. “Hey, pipe down. Le Clèzio travels a lot. Isn’t that enough? Munro was Canadian! And so easy to read! If anything we need more Europeans!”

Another one gets up: “Coetzee is African AND Australian! We are so diverse!”

Rebel academy member: “Have you read Zakes Mda, he –

Academy member interrupts him: ” – wait! Aren’t there white South Africans? Maybe this is a good compromise? Marlene van Niekerk is good!” Looks around into disapproving faces. Sits down, redfaced.

Chubby guy gets up again: “Look, buddy, I think you made up half these names. We have enough foreigners here as is. I’m telling you, I can easily tell a good European writer from one of those silly ones from half a mile away!”

Rebel takes out two printouts. “Well, I have two pages here, one from a recent winner, one from an African novelist who we’ve shunned so far, and who should have won it.” Looks at chubby guy, who’s probably a historian, you know how those guys are. Rebel academy member reads a page of Munro aloud without attribution, and afterwards reads a page of Achmat Dangor. Holds up both printouts.

Chubby guy, chomps on cigar, grinning. “Ha.” Points to Dangor. “That is clearly the better writer.”

Rebel academy member reveals the truth. Silence. A cigar can be heard dropping to the floor.

Nervous head of the committee says “Should we vote again?” This time, two no votes. The room groans.

Quietly, Sara Danius says: “I guess we need more time. Let’s send Per out and say it’s some mathematical snafu.” Everyone nods. Danius speaks into an intercom. Pauses. Presses button on intercom again: “Bring us the complete works of Philippe Toussaint. And that Romanian fellow.” Academy members relax. Maybe this will work out after all. Somebody puts on ABBA. An assistant is sent to Systembolaget to get some booze.

Again, I apologize. My Nobel Prize picks are here, by the way, if you’re interested (although they don’t, uh, contain Zakes Mda, Tsitsi Dangarembga or any of the other writers mentioned here).

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Wilson, Kai Ashante (2015), The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8524-6

wildeepsThis book is very good. Very good. Unbelievably so, for a debut. An exceptional novel. Now, somewhere to the left or right of this paragraph will be a picture of the book under review. I considered not including one, but then, upon ordering it, you’d see it anyway. The cover is awful. Tor is doing a lot of things very well, many of which involve the editorship of Ann VanderMeer. Guessing from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, cover design isn’t one of them. This book looks tacky and cheap (the book as object is nicely produced, however), but any guesses based on the cover regarding the book’s content would be way, way off. This appears to be Kai Ashante Wilson’s first novel and what a novel it is. For a fantasy novel, it is fairly short, but no line, no page, nothing is wasted within its covers. This is a truly masterful novel. Not: “a great fantasy novel” – this is a masterful novel with a fantastic setting. Look, there is a tendency to judge genre texts on a curve. That’s how I end up praising Brandon Sanderson‘s excellent work – its immediate compatriots are not Otessa Moshfegh, Sinan Antoon or A.L. Kennedy, but Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Peter Brett, and Sanderson’s intelligence, inventiveness and productivity put him above these writers. So if you like epic fantasy, read Sanderson. If, on the other hand, you don’t like it, many of his books won’t be enjoyable for you. Kai Ashante Wilson’s novel is just plain good, whatever awful ideas may have driven this cover design. There’s no “if you like this sort of thing” here because everybody except those who will only read hyperrealistic fiction will enjoy this, and those guys can go to hell anyway. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is smart, it is written with a keen intelligence, and an enormous care for words that is too rare in contemporary fiction. Wilson draws on a broad literary tradition, but closest, I think, are writers like Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany and James Kelman. Not that I think he drew specifically on those writers (the Kelman in particular is a bit of a reach), but the way his book approaches speech, dialect, power and bodies reminded me of them. As the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement is approaching (my (terrible) picks here), Wilson can remind us of what we need to be praised in World Literature and that’s not the precious little miniatures by unoriginal little Frenchmen. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wilson Harris write work that, with exquisite literary skill, interrogates questions of language and power, and unlike writers like James Kelman (who should be on Nobel lists) and László Krasznahorkai, who address similar questions with at least equal skill, writers outside of Europe can address them differently, with a different, much needed perspective, especially given the lack of imagination and empathy in European (and American) politics today. Kai Ashante Wilson is no Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but his novel makes me excited to read more. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is excellent, important and deserves a better presentation by Tor.

Already, Wilson has surpassed work by American novelists like Michael Chabon, whose Gentlemen of the Road (I talk about it a bit in my review of The Copper Promise) is a surprisingly close analog. Yet unlike Chabon, Wilson’s novel isn’t a simple version of “fun and games with Leiber and Burroughs” – he draws, with some specifity, I believe, on novels like H. Rider Haggard’s She and Beckford’s Gothic classic Vathek, as well as on the towering literary figure of Samuel Delany. While Chabon, who has written beautifully on the value of genre writing, clearly brings to bear a great love and understanding of the genre, Wilson’s achievement is greater. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a novel that manages to have a fantastic setting that is both essential, and strangely irrelevant. Yes, there is an adventure in it, with a properly suspenseful finale. There are the characters you’d expect from adventure fantasy, gruff, funny, taciturn, irate. There are characters who like to talk and characters who are mysterious and brooding. There are fantastic beasts, Gods and monsters. Yet Wilson is in no way interested in doing the “worldbuilding” that is common and expected of fantasy. The world the novel is set in feels complete and entirely coherent, but it is not alien to us. The way we know this is Wilson’s use of language and dialect. The majority of the book is written in a clear, elegant, yet ever so slightly off-kilter English. It is hard to put my finger of it, but in recent fiction, I do think Samuel Delany comes very close to Wilson’s extremely deliberate English, which carefully modulates register ever so mildly. Sometimes it switches to poetic, sometimes it is more precise, sometimes it appears to be citing genre expressions, sometimes we are offered a very modern, clear tone. Yet this is not what is most important. The clincher is Wilson’s use of AAVE, or African American Variety of English, in his novel. The novel’s protagonists are, in modern parlance, of color. They are marked as black by other characters in the novel, but importantly, while the world of the book is not North America today, the characters employ different varieties of current African American slang, from “Nigga” to what is known as “th-fronting” where /θ/ is pronounced as [f] (“stremf,” in the novel, for example, for “strength”). Writers of fantasy, or just fiction in fantastic settings do frequently use today’s dialects of English to signify something about a culture. Many fantasy writers opt for some version of faux Irish dialect sometimes, for a certain kind of simpleton. What Wilson does is substantially different. The dialect he uses is so strongly connected to a specific culture and a time (ours, some details about the dialect are rather current) that it is hard to see it as just signifying any old kind of dialectical speech. What’s more, Wilson ties it to race.

Some of Wilson’s characters speak a variety of AAVE, and they are seen as black. Black not as color (although skin color is a topic of conversation), but more importantly: black as a cultural and colonial signifier. The book’s plot is about a group of, I guess, mercenaries, paid to escort a carawan of rich people (a culture clearly Arab inflected) through a dangerous area. A significant portion of the novel is set in an Oasis, where the mercenaries are treated with disdain. Not just by the rich merchants, but also by the fort soldiers (known as “fo-so’s”) who also speak in AAVE. Thus, we hear complaints like “Naked-ass bush savages. Shouldn’t even let they ass up in here.” I reviewed, a while ago, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia fantasy novels set in a kind of African mirror image to the usual fantasy worlds. Durham, like his genre compatriots, treated class and race with a broad and imprecise brush, but the exciting element of his book was the way he upended the usual home/invader paradigms. Usually, the “normal” people are English or European, the invaders dark, black or Asian (even outspoken liberals like Tad Williams cannot escape this). So that’s what Durham did and for the genre it was set in, it was nice and well done. Kai Wilson’s view of race is closer to the complicated worlds of Toni Morrison. From the acidic treatment of race and colorism and self hate in The Bluest Eye, to the densely colored conflicts of Paradise, which famously starts with a black/white conflict but then turns interior, Toni Morrison (a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Prize, unlike that French exploitative tourist of limited linguistic gifts Le Clèzio) has written one of the sharpest treatments of race in English outside of Africa (where racism is a frequent topic among the many writers the current Nobel academy does not consider white enough or genteel enough for a Nobel prize). The world of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is, like ours, a world dense with conflict, but Wilson has removed all the nonlinguistic specifics and replaced them with an Oriental fantasy world. This is doubly important. It allows him to display some conflicts relevant to us on a canvas that does not distract us, and makes us see causalities that we would otherwise link differently; it also drives home a point about how, much like orientalism, as Said many decades ago has stated so accurately, is a way to structure knowledge about the “oriental other”, so are certain accepted fictional and linguistic strategies.

Prof. John Rickford has called AAVE “spoken soul” and closed his landmark study of it with the following remark:

“True, the vernacular has been abused. […] But we must reclaim it. We must stop importing this shame that is manufactured beyond our communities […]. We must begin to do for language what we have done historically (in some cases only very recently) for our hair, our clothes, our art, our education, and our religion […]. The crucial thing is that we hold the yardstick, and finally become sovereign guardians and arbitrators and purveyors of our culture.”

Otherness, identity and shame loom large over this novel and the focus is not just race, but also, in equal measure, queerness. I haven’t touched on it because this is a brief review I am typing during a lunch break, but queerness is important here – two of the protagonists, the most physically strong and masculine, have a sexual relationship. Wilson builds on Delany’s sexually charged fantastic fiction set in the world of Neveryon, and like, Delany, also on a large tradition of gay literature that was sometimes explicitly gay, and sometimes more implicitly so. To me, the secret-but-passionate love affair between the two men recalls novels like Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund or E.M. Forster’s Maurice. If the (recalled in a memory) moment when the two men admit their mutual attraction doesn’t make you think of Alec climbing up to Maurice’s window, I can’t help you. To get back to my point: the central concern is with otherness and self, both in terms of race and sexuality. Famously, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of alterity do not include animals (I believe there is a very readable critique by Derrida) – but scholars have used his approach to also discuss animals and animality. For Levinas, the self, the “I,” is created in a confrontation with a “Thou,” a you. Building on Martin Buber, Levinas rejects Buber’s concept of reciprocity in that encounter. The Other, for Levinas, is completely, radically, Other. The encounter with it creates both an ethical responsibility and, with E.S. Burt, a sense of self. You cannot kill, because killing is an encounter with a face (cf. Abraham & son). Not so with animals. Yet Wilson offers us something else. Not an animal, but a leviathan, something that is inherently other, so much that it is capable of shifting and changing realities. Many of the characters’ actions are about dealing with yourself, with who you are, what role you are expected to fulfill and how to cope with all of that, but the book’s big showdown is a literalization of an encounter with an Other for two people whose sense of self is complicated and tender. It asks of them to fully embrace who and what they are, and it shows how dangerous that is.

It is impossible to convey how well crafted this book is. The brevity itself is an example of formal mastery, as is the density of allusions and theoretical and philosophical ideas. The careful writing, the extraordinarily deliberate and beautiful prose, it is really all very good. The prose easily beats the one written by recent Booker nominees or winners (*cough* Barnes *cough*), for example and when I say easily, I mean it. Hard to believe that this is Wilson’s first long piece of fiction. What he managed here is enormously hard to do, and even harder to sustain, but I am hoping for great things from this amazing writer. One would hope that the label “fantasy” would not mar his reception, because this book is just plainly excellent literature, among the best novels I read this year, but the presentation by Tor certainly does not help. Not just the terrible cover, the comparison to mediocrities like George R.R. Martin (good fantasy writer, mediocre writer overall) in blurbs on the cover also suggests a bad direction. Kai Ashante Wilson is an unbelievable writer, period. He is part of a coterie of excellent young African American novelists that include Colson Whitehead, the incandescent Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson. If you’re tired of the pale literary culture that brought you Jonathan Safran Foer, “The Help,” Ayelet Waldman and a million trite MFA products, read these writers. Read Kai Ashante Wilson. He’s on fire.

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