Review Of Marina Julia Neary’s “Saved By The Bang”

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Saved By The Bang Marina Julia NearyA few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.

Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.

Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, … Continue reading →

The Red Pill, Feminism, & The Missing Synthesis

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The Red Pill Reddit

“Perhaps all philosophy boils down to the simple fear that the universe has no need for us: men. I mean, because women are, in a strange sense, more essential to Being than we are…We build machines, create tribal languages in philosophy — like little boys with secret codes in their clubhouse — to get back at the universe because she has failed to give us a function. All our works, male works, will perish in history — history, a male concept of time, will vanish, too, but the culture of women goes on, the rhythms of birth and destruction, the Way of absorption, passivity, cycle and epicycle.” – Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale

“The weakness of men is the facade of strength; the strength of women is the facade of weakness.” – Lawrence Diggs

“I believe every word that man said because it’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” – Space Ghost

Introduction: ‘The Red Pill’ In The Feminist Context

Of all grating human tendencies, I’d argue that the wont towards simplification to be among the most retrograde. Forget violence- it’s been on the outs for thousands of years now, and will be quite unrecognizable in the next few centuries. Forget bigotry- it’s little more than personal immaturity made visible, and at times rewarded. Forget whatever -ism that happens to be ‘in’ right now, for people are too fickle — and their attentions too limited — to celebrate or deride a cause for more than a few decades at a time. Yet simplification is a human constant, splitting, as it does, political spectra into a neat (and illogical) 50/50 divide, corralling ideas into contrapuntals, and apportioning the whole world, really, into the dullness of ‘sides’. To get this to work, you only need one thing: myth. And to get it working for a while, you need to have myths on both sides, as well as people dumb and insecure enough to believe them.

Just think, for a moment, of all the deeper truths such systems occlude: how the vast stores of human ignorance have kept the big picture (whatever it may be) from materializing. This is to be expected, for there’s something in the brain — a survival mechanism, perhaps — that encourages human beings to simplify even when it’s inappropriate. Sure, black and white is great for the jungle, where quick decisions rule, but consciousness did not evolve for higher-order thinking: this is merely our proximate use of something with far more distal causes, thus entangling logic, instinct, and emotion into thinking patterns that have the imprint of none of these things, but share, by being so diluted, all their weaknesses. Thus, in recent decades, there’s been a backlash against the least credible of these innovations. And, unsurprisingly, one of these is the excesses of gender/sexual politics, and the odd, asymmetrical demands this has placed on human conduct.

So what’s the problem, exactly, and what have been the proposed solutions? It’s simple, really- to borrow that abused word. Feminism … Continue reading →

On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

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After a LONG time out of print, Library Of America finally released Countee Cullen’s Collected Poems a couple of years ago. To those who know literature, this was a big deal- mostly because Cullen is one of the 3 or 4 greatest black poets to have ever written, even as (as per all great writing) he was quite free from the stereotypes of ‘blackness’, or whatever other limit artists typically impose upon themselves. An almost Constantine The Great-like Christian- just note the syncretism of the titular poem- he never gave a simple answer on politics, religion, or race, even arguing with Langston Hughes that he was above all a poet, first, and a black man second. In other words, while Hughes would sometimes dip into mere agitprop, Countee Cullen was less interested in canned answers- nor did he think that he necessarily had them in the first place. This made for mysterious sonnets, strange messages, and of course- having modeled himself on the Romantic poet John Keats- great lyricism, witty lines, and memorable inversions:

For John Keats, Apostle Of Beauty

Not writ in stone, nor in mist,
Sweet lyric throat, thy name;
Thy singing lips that cold death kissed
Have seared his own with flame.

Although I’d argue Cullen had a number of truly great poems, it is really “Heritage” that is special- on a deeper level- in my own life. I recall how, as a kid, after I’d decided to start reading with purpose, I first came across Countee Cullen’s work in a Harlem Renaissance anthology. I was 16 at the time and really had no knowledge of what made for good writing. Yet there was the feeling that Cullen’s work was somehow better than most of the pieces being represented. It was more subtle- it took quite a few readings to really know what was going on, even when the poems felt simple. The book featured small pieces, mostly, and while they ranged from good to great, it was really “Heritage” that made me want to UNDERSTAND poetry- as well as learn how to craft my own. My guess is that it simply came at the right time. I was intellectually maturing, I was getting ready to leave my Orthodox Christian faith, and I was- by way of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, among other works- diverging from the limits of ‘my’ world into the boundaries of another’s. And while there were many poets greater than Cullen that I’d initially sampled- John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane- they were completely inaccessible to a child. They are, for lack of a better term, more or less useless when first learning the craft- unless one realizes that their work is something to be conquered in time, and not merely put aside. Yet Cullen didn’t need to be awaited. He was always there:

Heritage

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from … Continue reading →

“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very suburban types it featured, replete with a sprinkling of ‘artsy’ moments that … Continue reading →

Lance Armstrong And The Lie They’ll Come To Love

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Now that the Lance Armstrong ‘controversy’ is dying down, cycling — they say — is ripe for a renewal. This means new races, new competitors, and, yes, new rules; a fresh way of looking at things. The last two decades (perhaps more) — they say — have been quite shameful. There was no wont towards fairness, no sportsmanship, no real inclinations but that of ego, name. That’ll pass — they’re sure — because our basic human instinct is good, and overpowers the more selfish drives that got us into this mess in the first place. Maybe, but there’s just one nagging problem. Lance does not believe he cheated — at least not really — and they say that he says that he’s still the winner of 7 Tour de France titles, despite being stripped of such years ago, with most public opinion comfortably against him. Yet he persists, for the rules — they NEVER seem to say — are, were, and will not ever be too clear, if not on this point, specifically, then on what the surrounds mean in the long run, over a much deeper context.

Now, is Armstrong merely a psychotic: that is, a man utterly divorced from reality, causal relationships, and the like? Perhaps. More likely, however, is that Lance Armstrong understands the situation he was in a little better than most, and can’t quite reconcile the word “cheat” with what he first saw, in the mid-90s, quite possibly railed against, then dutifully accepted. He has said that cheating was rampant as soon as he came into the sport, and he is right. He’s claimed that cheating is rampant, still, and if you know anything of human nature — much less culture — and recognize the billions and billions of dollars that get pumped in and pumped out of a sport like this, what with the bicycles, supplements, spare parts, and international branding, with every con artist, CEO, thug, petty gambler, and politician hoping for a score, and with so many hands mixed up in so many pockets: well, to assume that cheating, big AND small, is an exception rather than the norm is not just naive, but unforgivably stupid.

This was, Armstrong argues, his inheritance, and, unsurprisingly, few want to buy it. In their perspective, whether they realize it or not, context is meaningless, and individual choice — like individual freedom, responsibility, and those mythical, now-tattered bootstraps — trumps all. It’s a wonderfully American myth, and one that mirrors everything that Americans wish were true, and most, for all we know, believe to be true. Yet there’s obviously more to this ‘thing’ than Armstrong, because while he may be a bit loftier of a con in a network of a million smaller cons that get manufactured every single day in the name of sportsmanship, he is also the first in line, the most visible, and therefore the most unconscionable. It is his (not their) affront that matters, for it is he who violates a … Continue reading →