On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20

Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.

The Fine Line Between Original and Nonsense

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and it never ceases to amaze me how good she is at crafting original sentences and plots. She has fast become one of my favorite authors. Each book shocks me with how completely different it is from the last.

Anyway, that’s beside the point of this post. I’ve also been reading a lot of first-time writers in an online critique group. Conventional writing advice says to convert cliché and boring descriptions to precise, original ones. This post is going to be about how this advice can lead people astray.

To me, it is better to have a cliché description that is correct than some original bit of nonsense that actually leaves the reader more confused. It is really easy to fall into this trap, because flowery language can sound really good until you think about it (and whether it is the “right word” as Twain put it).

I won’t embarrass anyone by using a real example, but these are pretty easy to come up with. On the first draft, Writer has the sentence:

I wanted to punch him with every fiber of my being.

Writer recalls the advice and decides to take this vague, cliché statement of feeling and “show rather than tell” a more specific and original description. After a few revisions, they are proud of the new version—confident in its detail and originality.

My balled fist seethed with fury, a red flare arcing from my evaporating essence toward Bob. The hum of rage deafened my senses to a pulp of what I used to be.

Hold on. What is going on here? We’ve gone from simple cliché to overly melodramatic. First, we should ask ourselves if this level of drama is necessary. Maybe the correct solution was to just delete the whole sentence, because it was clear from context that the character wanted to punch him. If not, maybe the correct solution was change it to “I wanted to punch him.”

Whenever you start to change things, you should ask yourself: have I made it more correct or less? This question must override any concerns of originality. Rather than draw a reader in, incorrect flower language can push a reader away. This is the point of this post. Sometimes the more original phrasing can be nonsense. It’s a fine line (as we’ll get to in a second).

What does “evaporating essence” mean? This is one of those things that sounds fancy on the surface but is nonsense once you try to think about it. What does “deafened my senses” mean? It is another fancy but partially incorrect phrase. Only one sense can actually be deafened, and though in some circumstances this might work, why not use a more accurate fancy word like “enervated” if we’re going the nonsense route. “What I used to be” isn’t the proper ending. It sounds semi-deep but it’s incorrect and confusing grammar at best and nonsense at worst.

What’s scary is that there are probably first-time writers out there who read these two and would pick the second, when it is clear to me that the original cliché is infinitely better. The cliché gives a “correct” description whereas the creative description is a mess of nonsense. It sounds better, like something a sophisticated writer would write, but no great writer would let that nonsense through the editing phase.

This is going to sound mean, but when agents say they can tell in a few paragraphs if a book is going to be any good, this is the type of thing they’re looking for. A trained eye can easily tell the difference between this fancy nonsense and good creative writing. First-time novelists might think they’re imitating how a professional does it, but they can’t tell the difference yet.

Since the Olympics are on, here’s an analogy. Many people watch gymnastics in awe and think certain routines are absolutely perfect, yet the trained eye of the judges still find over a point in deductions. One must train the writing eye to see the nonsense descriptions even if they sound fancy.

I’ll just caution anyone considering self-publishing in the face of massive rejection by the publishing industry that the rejection may be for this reason. Some people choose self-publishing and hire excellent editors and do it the right way for the right reasons. Self-publishing because it is the only way to get something bad out there is the wrong reason (and glancing through Amazon’s self-published stuff tells me that more than a few people have chosen to go that route for the wrong reasons).

Now let’s look at some original ways to describe things that are not nonsense. This is where Margaret Atwood comes in. She is so good about this. She is inventive with her language, yet the descriptions are correct. They enhance the reader’s experience rather than confuse them.

The orange tulips are coming out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me.

She makes an original comparison of the tulips to a returning army. The simile is apt and vivid, making it a good one. It puts clear images into our minds, and she reinforces the idea with adjectives that help tailor the comparison toward the elements she wants us to think about. This is a correct way to do original description.

But then it gets even better, because she doubles down on the simile and keeps it going. The main character greets the army of flowers, and she imagines her own building caught in the war. She can’t help them, though.

This conceit is almost too much for mere flowers, but the consistency in tone and image help it cohere into a truly original description that hasn’t gone over the line into nonsense. Context would help here, because the main character is aging and can’t kneel to do her proper gardening. The sadness in the image helps give the reader some empathy for how the character feels, and her inability to help the army enhances her feelings about her inability to help the flowers.

It takes a lot of work to write this way. Atwood came up with a fascinating and original description of tulips, and then took the time to make the entire passage reinforce the simile and shed light on how the main character felt. Too often writers think that originality means taking a cliché and then using a thesaurus to merely replace the boring words with less common ones. This often leads to nonsense.

Literature, Genre Fiction, Pulp, &c.

I’ve been working my way through Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I have this really bad habit of reading negative reviews on Goodreads while reading a book. If I love the book, I can make fun of the idiots who “cant even right gud.” If I hate the book, I can commiserate with the brilliant like-minds who saw through the crap. The negative reviews of this novel got me thinking about a few things related to genre.

Some people claim all the 80’s geek and pop culture references make this a trashy genre novel. Some say it even stoops to pulp fiction levels. Some call it nostalgia. I want to first show why this isn’t a good argument, but then I want to try to clarify how I define these different types of books.

We start with the excessive references. I don’t think Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow would be considered genre fiction or pulp by anyone. It is a monster of literary fiction if there ever was one, but the novel is full of pop culture references (from a specific period). The purpose there is not nostalgia or to make it “more entertaining” or whatever else the negative reviews think Cline is doing.

I’ll cover my bases here and say that I don’t think that Cline’s use of pop culture is the same in intent or effect as Pynchon, but the fact that such literature exists shows that one needs a more complete argument than the mere use of pop culture references. Is Infinite Jest genre or pulp fiction? What about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay? This technique has been used in literary fiction for a long time with great success.

To me, the term “genre fiction” merely refers to a novel that stays strictly within the accepted genre conventions. This means the plot follows a known formula. In modern days, the characters fit into a few tropes, and the tenor of the prose is pitched at a certain level.

This means that something like “romance” genre fiction could be extremely well-written and explore serious literary issues and be worth everyone’s time to read (I’m thinking of something like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady). Genre fiction doesn’t automatically mean pure fluff and vacuous entertainment; genre means it follows a formula, and these formulae have a lot of give to them.

I think a lot of people conflate genre fiction with pulp. Pulp fiction, as I see it, is pure fluff and entertainment. It is often poorly written, not as a matter of definition, but mostly because the authors of this style need to pop out a large number of words per month in order to make a living. Pulp is pretty much a subset of genre fiction, again, not as a matter of definition, but because it is easiest to write quickly if you follow a formula.

To recap, genre fiction can be literary, but it can also be pulp. Genre fiction doesn’t tell us much about the quality of writing or redeeming characteristics or depth or content. Someone could spend a life reading high-quality genre mysteries without encountering pulp.

And before continuing, I don’t want to place value judgment here. I’m not saying it’s “bad” to read pulp. You probably won’t contemplate your own mortality, but escapism is healthy in moderation. No one thinks working sixty hour weeks with no vacation is healthy. It’s sort of weird that people think reading only heavy literary fiction with no fun mixed in is healthy. So go relax with a fun novel every once in a while when you feel that urge to veg in front of the TV.

What I think I’m trying to say is that often times there is a ton of crossover between all of these things, and it isn’t easy to tell. The one certain takeaway is that pop culture references do not make something pulp. Pulp is pop culture but not the other way around. In fact, if there are lots of references, it is probably a metafictional device, and this pulls you clear out of pulp.

That being said, I think Ready Player One actually is pulp, because the references do seem to be purely nostalgic. The book has few themes, and all are thin, classic good/evil tropes. I’m not sure I can call it genre fiction, because I can’t pin a genre down. I guess it falls into dystopian fiction. I don’t often hear this referred to as a specific genre, but it clearly has a form: one person, in a horribly oppressive futuristic world, must fight through a series of trials to take down the oppressor.

This wasn’t meant as a book review, but I’ll end by saying Ready Player One is pure entertainment through and through, and it really works at this level. I don’t recall the last book I enjoyed this much. It is so much fun for people around my age who grew up the geek. I highly recommend it if that sounds interesting, but don’t expect anything deep to come from it or you might be leaving one of those one star reviews.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 11

Today we’re going to look at the prose of J. M. Coetzee. He is a South African writer and is known for his controversial topics. His 1980 work Waiting for the Barbarians is about a town magistrate that takes on disturbing power by preying on the fears of the people about an incumbent attack by the barbarians. This novel is now seen as an eerie and accurate premonition of the events in the U.S. after 9/11 that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the forfeit of our freedoms in the name of safety.

The novel I actually want to look at is his more recent 1999 novel Disgrace. The main character is a disgraced English professor who loses his job after having sex with a student under dubious circumstances. He moves in with his daughter in the countryside to recover from the affair and try to turn his life around. While there, the two suffer a brutal attack coming from lingering apartheid tensions.

I won’t give more away, but a hallmark of Coetzee’s writing is how much he packs into so little space. This novel is short, more like a novella, yet it contains more plot and emotional content than many 90,000 word novels. And this is where I’d like to start with his prose. If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend taking one or two days to go through one of his novels. The bare and exposed prose breaks every rule we’ve been taught, yet it suits his subject matter perfectly. It is unlike anything I’ve read. I can’t even compare him to other people.

To set the scene, the professor has just called Melanie, the student, at her house. Her mother answered and has left the phone to get her.

Melanie—melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one.

‘Hello?’

In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. But he is in the grip of something. Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either.

The first segment is the professor’s thoughts. Part of the slimness of Coetzee’s writing comes from how he slides into and out of the head of the main character with no frills. No italics. No “he thought” to punctuate and emphasize what is already obvious. I like this style, and find some writer’s overemphasis on pointing out character’s thoughts as needless distrust of the reader’s comprehension.

The punctuation through this segment is brilliant. It also allows Coetzee to do away with excess words that the professor wouldn’t be thinking anyway. It flows quickly like actual thoughts would. It’s word association rather than something logical.

Then we get to the actual words. He notes the rhyme between Melanie and melody. But the brilliant thing is calling it a “meretricious” rhyme. This word does so much work in the passage. On the face of it, he wants the rhyme to be deceiving because he doesn’t want a melodic girl but a devious one. The word meretricious doesn’t merely mean deceiving though; it has the archaic meaning “of, like, or relating to a prostitute,” exactly how the professor views the student in that moment.

In four sentences, we, as readers, feel so much. We get to watch how the professor thinks about this student. We watch how his mind turns things around. We see how he starts to justify his actions to himself. In context, these four sentences give us a sense of revulsion at the main character’s true self that we wouldn’t get from a mere surface description of the act. There’s something deeper and more disturbing about the scene playing out this way.

After she answers the phone, the point of view shifts out of his thoughts, but things only get worse. Now we see that he understands that what he is doing is wrong. He understands that he needs to leave, but the narrator joins in on the justification. He’s out of control. She’s out of control.

As a reader, we start to feel helpless. Even the narrator is pushing the act along, and we learn that we cannot trust the narrator to show us the moral condemnation we hope for. We want to shout, “No! He does own himself! Stop making excuses for him. Lust is not reason enough to lose control of one’s actions.”

Shakespeare is quoted with “beauty’s rose,” reemphasizing the fact that the English professor knows his stuff, but it is more significant than that. This comes from Shakespeare’s first sonnet, and this is the first scene to start the plot of the novel. The full sonnet is about an older man who self-destructs under his selfish and gluttonous ways. That brief phrase “beauty’s rose” is a deep foreshadowing into the rest of the novel.

This is what makes Coetzee such an experience to read. His sparse prose strikes immediate emotional response into readers with no analysis necessary. But upon a deeper reading, we can find a shocking amount of extra information layered in through precise word choice.

Year of Giant Novels Part 7: 2666

I don’t remember how I learned of the existence of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When it released in English in 2008, it took the literary establishment by storm, winning multiple best book of the year awards. But even so, I’d wager that most people haven’t heard of it. I know I paid attention to these things in 2008, but this wasn’t when I heard about it.

When I started the novel a few weeks ago for the giant novels project, I wasn’t convinced of its greatness. The novel is broken into five large parts, and each of these is broken into little page-length segments. There aren’t any chapters apart from these segments. These little vignettes read almost like Baudelaire stories, and indeed, Baudelaire is quoted at the start.

The first part follows five academics who study an obscure writer. They get into little love triangles and fights with each other. The stories certainly build into a coherent part, but I didn’t really see the point. There was a strange allure that kept me coming back, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything that struck me as particularly interesting or compelling.

The next two parts go off on seemingly unrelated sets of stories. I got 350 pages in, and I started to lose my grounding. There didn’t appear to be any central glue to these disparate stories. I again was reminded of Baudelaire, because something like Paris Spleen is a collection of unrelated vignettes that combine together to give a wider portrait and worldview.

When I thought in these terms, a few threads appeared. Two ordinary people quickly turn to disturbing violence when they beat up a cab driver. An artist’s self-portrait involved a gruesome chopping off of his own hand. A disturbing boxing match. Murder. Violence. The whole of human history consisting of beating each other to death over the dumbest things.

These segments made their appearances so quickly and sparsely so as to almost not be noticed in such a grand and complex novel whose plot revolves around other ideas. But they came and made their impression, and the magnitude of what they pointed to started to weigh as I approached Part IV.

I’m not sure anything can prepare someone for Part IV of this novel. Part IV is essentially 300 pages of graphic depictions of murders of women that all happened in the town of Santa Teresa, Mexico (though fictional, it is based on Juarez, a real place in which over 370 women have been murdered and 400 more have gone missing since the 90’s). To read 2666 is a powerful and changing experience because of this section.

I think we have to take a step back and consider Bolaño’s achievement here. He could have just published Part IV as the whole novel, but no one would read it. I know I would have gotten through the first few, and then put the book down as a tedious and gruesome exercise. But as I’ve pointed out, Bolaño works on your subconscious for those first three parts, and he gets you mentally prepared to experience it. It is a brilliant move to put this section in the middle like this.

The final part gives the reader a chance to decompress after the experience. I wouldn’t say it ties up loose ends or becomes happy or anything. It more gives the reader time to digest and reflect on the horror.

The novel is not a genre mystery where the murder cases get solved. In a sense, this would be offensive to all the victims and their families who don’t get closure in real life. It doesn’t offer solutions. I’d see this as giving false credence to the politicians who oversimplify issues like this and offer clean solutions that can never work.

The book remains complex and difficult, and in doing so, presents the problems and issues in the only mature and realistic way conceivable. This makes it art. The novel is a testament to what great art can be. Tidy, easy stories can still move you, but it takes novels like these to change you. It’s a reminder that “literary” and “experimental” doesn’t have to be synonymous with dull and unengaging. Sometimes breaking the traditional form is the only way shock someone into understanding what you are trying to say.

PC Game Hidden Gems and Some That Aren’t

I had trouble coming up with a succinct title for this post. I wanted to go through some underrated games and some highly rated games that weren’t very good, because it’s been awhile since I’ve done any sort of game review post.

Tactical RPG’s

Underrated: Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice has a similar combat system to XCOM. It initially got some very poor reviews because of this comparison. Many called it XCOM-light or a less deep and easier version of that game. This is an unfair comparison, because most of the strategy and depth comes from the other part of the game.

Massive Chalice has you set up bloodlines from your characters. You know a bunch of traits and character flaws of the characters, and then you must marry them to produce children. There are so many factors and risk/rewards that must go into this.

Do you retire your best fighter so that in 20 years you have several of his children on the battlefield only to find out he couldn’t produce any children? Do you risk a sharpshooter with an alcohol problem staggering around the battlefield? Do you trust the numbers given to you by an overconfident person?

This game might not get you the 200+ hours that many put into XCOM, but put it on ironman hard mode and you’ll be in for a tough challenge. It has a lot of character and humor too. The initial hate it got was unwarranted.

Overrated: The Banner Saga

I know I’ll get hate for this one. This game has overwhelming positive reviews. I think they are unwarranted. This game claimed to have the big three things I’d look for in a game: great story, great art, tactical strategy.

It had one of those; the art is fantastic. I thought the story was thin. It mostly felt like a series of excuses to get to the gameplay. Travel, camp, stop at a town, sometimes drama, repeat. It is very Oregon Trail-like in this respect. I wanted something more than an excuse to be fighting, and that’s all it felt like to me.

The gameplay itself is quite poor. There is a tactical aspect, but it is largely irrelevant. Whether you collect resources or not, you’ll be fine. No matter how you level or play the characters, you’ll be fine. No matter how you position, you’ll be fine. Once I found this out, I stopped trying, and just attacked from wherever I was and won.

But the most important part where this game failed for me was how separate everything was. Story-driven games need to integrate that aspect into the gameplay for a rich and seamless experience. The story and the gameplay were completely separate, which created a disjointed play experience.

Roguelikes

If you are a longtime reader, you’ll know this is kind of my genre, so I’ll do two underrated games. For the most part, it takes a ton of time and feedback to make a great roguelike. This means most aren’t really worth sinking time into unless they are well-known. Here’s two that are well worth the time despite not being talked about as much.

Dungeonmans

This is basically a humorous version of the famous Tales of Maj’Eyal (ToME). To be fair, ToME is a more complicated game, but I think Dungeonmans improves on the ToME idea in several important ways.

First, it has a simpler skill tree system. This makes it more manageable for people who don’t want to spend 100 hours just learning what the different things do. It also has less classes/races, again, an improvement.

Dungeonmans has a randomly generated overworld. This makes repeated playthroughs more interesting than going the same places in the same order like in ToME. It implements an interesting persistence mechanic too. This makes the game beatable for more casual players (but there is an “ironmans” mode for the hardcore permadeath fans).

Longtime fans of ToME might not find what they want in this game (though I did!), but I highly recommend this game for the roguelike-curious who are scared off from giant learning curves like ToME.

Sword of the Stars: The Pit

This is one of the only truly modern roguelikes out there. It is hardcore in the most classic sense of the genre except for ASCII graphics. The game consists of pure dungeon diving. You go to the bottom of the pit to win. What makes the game so great is its inventory management.

Planning ahead and conserving weapons and understanding enemy movement is the key to success. Unlike Dungeonmnans, there is a good chance you’ll never win this on Normal mode (and there are still three difficulty levels above that!).

You have to become really good at the game to succeed. This takes patience and effort. This is what people like about roguelikes. If this sounds terrible, then this game isn’t for you. When you start, you will think the game is too hard to beat, but people who are good at this game can win on Normal more than 90% of the time. It’s not too hard—it’s you.

There is a “recipe” discovery mechanic that is pretty tedious, and this game gets a lot of negative feedback for it. I agree with that aspect of negativity, but it is a small matter that shouldn’t ruin the game.

Strategy

Overrated: Unity of Command

This is a small title, so I’m not sure it’s “overrated.” I saw it pop up numerous times while searching for good PC strategy games. The player reviews tend to be very good too. I could not get into this game at all.

The concept of the game is to advance your front in specific battles while not losing access to your supply line. I’ll admit the concept is clever in how realistic a scenario this is.

The simplification of the war strategy game genre down to its essentials makes getting started easier, but I didn’t find it deep or satisfying. It uses weird turn limits to artificially increase difficulty (more like a puzzle than a strategy game). Randomness plays too big a role as well.

Underrated: Endless Legend

I’m not sure this qualifies as an underrated, because Rock, Paper, Shotgun named it 2014 Game of the Year. Still, the player reviews remain mixed and often negative, so I’m going with “currently underrated.”

This is a 4X strategy game similar to the Civilization franchise. Unlike Civ, this has a fantasy setting on an alien planet. The art is stunning. The backstory for each faction is buried within the game play. This is the type of integration of story and game I was referring to above.

Each faction plays differently. You can choose to enter tactical combat if you wish or you can auto-complete the combat. The large-scale strategy is almost endlessly deep (you see what I did there?) from what to research, whether to build up cities or expand outward, making alliances, spying, attacking, defending, trade routes, trading, marketplace, completing quests, exploring, assigning heroes, and on and on. Any fan of PC strategy games that hasn’t checked this out is really missing a gem with this one.

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.

I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.

The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.

We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.

Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.

While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.

This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.

Here’s a sample:

Replies to Against Theory, Part 2

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him on the blog, and he is one of my favorite philosophers. Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made. For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent. H.P. Grice is one person in this camp. There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory: “Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?”

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning). How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such. We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation. It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc. This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory, because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students. It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that. First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article. Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding. It’s sort of like saying: do math, no wait, stop formulating a theory, just manipulate the symbols, what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

Next they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author” (this was discussed last time). Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here). This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant. When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things. The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Well, I think I’m done with this series of posts for now. I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting. For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints. On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 7

Today we’ll examine something I think Ethan Canin does well: description. Description is one of those things that is very hard to get right. I think this is because it is difficult to notice when someone has done a good job. Bad description jumps out; good description goes unnoticed.

Everyone notices an overwrought passage that contains strange similes and metaphors and goes on forever trying to paint as explicit a picture as possible. The story breaks to set the scene. This is a case of show-don’t-tell-itis. The reader ends up skimming to find the story and gets nothing out of all the work that went into the description. Or the reader that suffers through it gets bored.

For this reason, I’ll make the first rule of description: show as little as possible without sacrificing useful information. This is counter to what most of us have been taught, but one carefully chosen detail can tell the reader more than a whole page of useless ones.

Ed wore Reebok’s to the party. Does that detail tell us anything? Probably not. Tina picked up on Ed’s Saucony Kilkenny XC5 minimal running flats as soon as he entered the party. Does that tell us something? Maybe. Ed is a runner? Tina knows enough about running shoes to identify these? We’re getting somewhere now. This example isn’t great, because most people won’t be able to visualize the shoe. But you should see the point that describing because you feel you need to or that it makes the scene “more realistic” is not a noble goal. Describe with purpose.

This brings us to the second rule: make the details serve more than one purpose. Often people think of description as the way to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. It can serve many other purposes in addition to this and often multipurpose description keeps the story moving.

Here’s an example. Take something simple like describing snow (I’m in the middle of NE Snowpocalypse 2016). Someone who has show don’t tell ingrained in them might try to give every painstaking detail as accurately as possible. But this isn’t non-fiction; it’s literature. The same exact thing can be described in multiple ways, giving different moods.

Maybe the character is falling in love, so she sees the beauty in it. The sun hit the ice crystal dangling from the pine, breaking the light into a dozen shimmering rays. The gentle snowflakes danced among the light. Blah, blah, blah. As you see, you can use words like “shimmering,” “gentle,” “dance,” “light,” “sun,” etc to emphasize the joy of the character.

The same exact scene could be described by an angry character. Harsh light glared off the frozen surfaces. The snow plunged relentlessly and suffocated everything like an infinite, oppressive mask. Okay, so maybe that got a little depressive or melodramatic with words like “harsh,” “glare,” “plunge,” “suffocate,” “oppressive,” etc. But I merely wanted to illustrate a point. There isn’t one objectively accurate way to describe anything.

Now you see why good description is hard to spot. You don’t have alternate versions to compare it to, so you’ll read right over it and not realize the carefully chosen details. The details will evoke the right feeling, but you didn’t read a version that didn’t evoke those feelings to see how well it was done.

Obviously this can be taken too far, and you’ll start to produce abstract, experimental prose poetry. Striking the right balance is hard, so let’s examine how a pro handles it. Here’s a passage from For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin. The main character was kissed by his best friend’s sister. Note how the description doesn’t come as a block. Details are woven in and out of thoughts and actions so that the story doesn’t stop.

He would leave Marshall reading a book on the porch and then set off rambling along the shoreline, not sharp in his thinking until he had passed two or three curves on the great spits of sand and the house had long ago vanished behind the dunes and the low stands of trees. She lived constantly in the center of his thoughts. He would try to think about his plans for the rest of the summer, but his eyes would conjure up her forthright gaze; he would try to listen to the clap and rumble of the surf, but would instead recall their conversation together on the porch, and then the kiss, and then in return her enigmatic scolding.

Note how the use of “clap” and “rumble” suggests a rough ocean, which imitates the turbulent emotions he feels. The curves of the shoreline mimics the winding thoughts in his head. The girl lives in the the center of his thoughts, and he stands in the center of a vast nothing.

Canin could have spent a page writing a description of the beach, and then continued with the story. We would have gotten a much more vivid picture in our minds, but that would have been boring. Instead, he chose a few sparse details of description that added to the mood, and then wove them into the action.

Here’s an early passage (pg 17) from Carry Me Across the Water. Many writers describe a ton of physical traits of their characters. Here we see a hyperfocus on one tiny detail that draws out characterization.

Walking up the front path to Jimmy’s building, Kleinman took a yarmulke from his back pocket and set it on his head. It wouldn’t stay in place: maybe God knew. Since boyhood, yarmulkes had never stayed—something about the shape of his cranium: an irreligious skull. He still had plenty of hair, though—thank his mother’s father for that. He laughed and pushed the yarmulke down on the crown again. He was trying to start off on the right foot with Claudine.

In that amount of space, we could have gotten a description of his size, hair color, age, body type, clothing, etc. But that would have given us much less information than focusing on the action of putting a yarmulke on.

First, it was in his pocket. He is putting it on to make an impression. This tells us he cares much more about what Claudine will think of him than wearing it. We see that he was raised Jewish, because he’s had the problem of keeping it on since boyhood. We see that he’s basically always been irreligious. He’s well-educated enough to know that hair genetics is passed through your mother’s father. He has the ability to laugh at himself as he fumbles with the yarmulke. Etc.

If you want to read more, I’d highly recommend Canin. His subtle use of description to create moods and characterization is excellent.

Year of Giant Novels Part 2: Don Quixote

I’ve made it into Part 2 of Don Quixote. I’ll fully admit upfront that it has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading. The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.

In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation. This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.

The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different. How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us? This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.

Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.

This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1, because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book. Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled. As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.

Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2. Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character. Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.

You have to know a bit of real life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction). In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.

But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2. Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists.

He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!). These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality, because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.

These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.