Nagging Narratives: Stories of the Year

Some stories are like other worlds we visit for a little while. Some climb in our minds and manipulate our thoughts. “[O]ur brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story,” writes David Wong of Cracked.com, so it’s no wonder that some stories are so powerful. These are the ones that haunted my head this year.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is easily the best movie of the year. As I wrote elsewhere, the hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of his previous movie, Primer, was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voice-over, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music.

Spring Breakers

Another collage-like experience, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is as beautiful as it is bewildering. Its heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

The book of the year is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books). Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Also worthy of mention are Year Zero by Rob Reid (Del Rey/Ballantine), Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner), the nonfiction The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking) and Present Shock by Doug Rushkoff (Current), and the reissued, 20th anniversary edition of Vurt by Jeff Noon (Pan Macmillan).

Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.

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We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)

Lauren Beukes’ Tangled Timeline of Transgression

“The problem with snapshots,” Kirby Mazrachi thinks, “is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it” (p. 319). Kirby is one of the girls in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books, 2013), the disturbingly beguiling novel of the summer. Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

Harper’s havoc reaches roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s a tangled mess of totems, trauma, and one who got away. As Harper puts it, “There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random” (p. 324). Beukes had her own method, mess, and snapshots to deal with while writing. She has a murderous map, full of “crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates…” She told WIRED UK, “It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls is set in my current home of Chicago, which gave me both a history lesson and a feeling of familiarity. The differences among the decades in the story are as interesting as the use of usual local terms like “Red Line,” “Wacker Drive,” “Merchandise Mart,” and “Naked Raygun,” the latter thanks to the one that got away, the spunky, punky Kirby Mazrachi. It’s one part murder mystery, one part detective story, one part science fiction, and another part love story, but it’s all subtle, supple, and masterfully handled.

1993 is the latest year Harper’s House will go. That’s also the year that Michael Silverblatt of the Los Angeles Times coined the term “transgressive fiction,” a term that aptly describes Beukes’ novel. Silverblatt used the term to describe fiction that includes “unpleasant” content such as sex, drugs, and violence, and coined it in response to the censor-baiting controversy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage, 1991), Patrick Bateman’s nearly choked conduit into the world.

Transgressive FictionIn Transgressive Fiction: The New Satiric Tradition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) Robin Mookerjee discusses Ellis, as well as many other literary forebears of Beukes and The Shining Girls. From mock epics like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the perversions of J. G. Ballard and Nabokov to the cut-ups and borrowing of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, on up to contemporary deviants like Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and Ellis, of course.

Mookerjee discusses these writers’ novels through the Menippean mode of satire, in which the transgression is total rather than individual, a literary style that “opposes everything and proposes nothing,” as Mookerjee puts it. For instance, in American Psycho, whether Bateman is brushing his teeth or slicing up some hired young thing, his tone never changes. The effect is indirect, general not specific, and pervades the book’s ontology as a whole.

It’s also notable that Transgressive Fiction seriously considers many works of fiction that have often only been vilified in the past, and Mookerjee does it with both conviction and an even hand.

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Here’s the trailer for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls [runtime: 1:01]:

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The Stars Look Very Different Today

I was just becoming aware of music in the late 1970s. My grade school soundtrack consisted of a Disco Duck compilation and every KISS record I could get my hands on. They were my first favorite band, the first records I bought with my own money, and my first concert experience. As I now know, there was a lot more interesting stuff going on in the music world, but at eight-years old, KISS’s comic-book, glam rock was just all right with me. I’ve been an avid music fan ever since.

In Rob Reid’s Year Zero (Del Rey/Ballantine, 2012), aliens have discovered cheesy Earth-music like I liked, but they found it via the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter. The year in question is 1977, and since then, alien listeners have copied and shared so much Earth-music as to bankrupt the entire Universe. Now they’ve traveled light years to Earth to try and make good. You see, of all the ways that alien technology and culture are advanced beyond our own, the making of music is not one of them. Aliens suck at music, while we rock like no other.

Year ZeroLighthearted and fun in the way that John Scalzi’s Red Shirts (Tor, 2012) is, Year Zero is an intergalactic send-up that lands close to home, and where the Red Shirts premise runs thin by its end, Year Zero feels franchise-ready. While Scalzi only tackles Star Trek (or science-fiction television shows, if we’re being liberal), Reid is able to skewer many more foes in 350 pages. Music snobs and gadget geeks get theirs, but the main targets are copyright enforcers and the whole damn music industry.

In the late 1990s, Reid founded Listen.com, which launched the Rhapsody music service in 2001, so he knows a bit about licensing fees and convoluted copyright laws. His knowledge of the subject matter shines throughout Year Zero. I don’t want to give it all away, so I’ll just say that if you’re interested in any of the above, you should read this book.

All the Young DudesAround Year Zero, Mark Dery was coming of age in the era of glam. In All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters (2013), bOING-bOING‘s first ebook, Dery outs the closet heterosexuals of that decade. Just a few months before I attended that first KISS show, Dery witnessed Mott the Hoople live. It was July 9th or 10th, and an 18-year-old Dery joined Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson on stage for the chorus of “All the Young Dudes.” Like so many P2P-networked music fans, Mott the Hoople and David Bowie shared “All the Young Dudes.” Who owns the song (in every way that  the word “owns” can be thought of) is a topic of deep debate, and Dery posits his own argument herein, as well as exploring the nuances of both versions.

Either way, the song is about alienation, not that of actual aliens or necessarily that of sexual castaways, but of suburban youth. Bowie proclaims in the BBC documentary, Hang On to Yourself (1996):

You’re given the impression that nothing, culturally, belongs to you, that you are sort of in this wasteland, and I think there’s a passion, for most people that have an iota of curiosity about them, to escape and get out and try and find out who one is and find some kind of roots […] All I knew [was that] it was… this otherness, this other world, and alternative reality, one that I really wanted to embrace; I wanted anything but the place that I came from (quoted in Dery, 2013).

Having come up in the outer colonies of Southern Californian suburbia, Dery was one of those Young Dudes, and this piece exemplifies the kind of writing he excels at. He’s always had a keen eye for the culturally curious, but lately his writing has taken on a more personal tone that lends it a humanity and a humility it once lacked. All the Young Dudes is a small victory for both Dery and bOING-bOING.

After seeing KISS in 1979, I won tickets to see them again in a look-alike contest. I was dressed as Paul Stanley. I had the wig, the make-up, the boots, the fake chest hair: the whole glam to-do. My dad, who’d dutifully gone with me to see them months before, offered me a choice between going again or the money his ticket would cost. To his visible relief, I took the money. When you’re eight-years-old in the suburbs of the late 1970s, ten bucks is another record, another long trip out of that world.

Vintage Vantage Points: Steampunk and Such

I’m not much of a collector. I move too much to lug around vast amounts of anything except books, but in the last few years I’ve amassed an archive of Omni Magazines. For the uninitiated, Omni was the weird precursor publication to magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired. It also serves as a bridge between the old order of science fiction (i.e., space ships, interstellar exploration, cold-war oppression, etc.) and the brink of cyberpunk (i.e., networked computers, chip implants, nanotech, etc.), the latter of which emerged during the periodical’s print run (from October, 1978 to Winter, 1995). I hoard and read Omni for the same reason I read old computer books, hacker histories, and science fiction at all, for that matter, and I’m not alone.

Omni Magazines

Besides the sheer historical function of my stacks of Omnis, which provide an archive of thoughts hardly thinkable now, one of the reasons I enjoy digging through them is the alternative futures featured in their pages. Omni often asked Big Thinkers of the time for predictions. Most of the target years for these prophecies have come and gone, so looking back to look forward is fun, funny, and informative. For instance, in the January, 1987 issue, David Byrne is among 14 thinkers asked about technology 25 years ahead, in 2007. Some of the others include Bill Gates, Timothy Leary, and George Will. In the retro-future sprit, Matt Novak’s Paleofuture, another great source of alternative futures, posted Byrne’s pessimistic predictions in 2011.

Vintage TomorrowsLooking back to look forward, speculating about what might’ve happened had history taken a different turn is largely the premise of steampunk. Sometimes called allohistory, sort of a retro version of design fiction, it’s all about exploring an alternative take on how things have happened. In Vintage Tomorrows (Maker Media/O’Reilly, 2013), James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson, a historian and a futurist respectively, take their opposing backgrounds on a journey through steampunk culture. Though usual suspects China Miéville, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow all show up in its pages, Vintage Tomorrows is less about the literature and more a global, ethnographic exploration of the whole culture. The gadgets, the costumes, and the reasons are all here in a highly readable, adventure-style form. Oh, steampunk is serious business, but fun is a big part of the focus. “Steampunk strikes me as the least angry quasi-bohemian manifestation I’ve ever seen,” says Gibson, “For god’s sake, it’s about sexy girls in top hats riding penny-farthing bicycles. And they’re all sweet as pie. There’s no scary steampunk.”

With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from my dissertation advisor Barry Brummett’s talk, “Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You Small,” delivered on October 3, 2012 at our own The University of Texas at Austin [runtime: 4:34]:

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You might think collecting outmoded, outdated magazines is silly, that looking back to look forward seems completely wrongheaded, but, as Henry Jenkins points out in the foreword to Vintage Tomorrows, Christopher Columbus sailed west to get east. Looking back to find paths not taken can yield interesting results. New lands await.