Outliers: Missing Pieces

Cover of OutliersTitle: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publication Date: 2008

LC Classification: BF637.S8G533

Okay, so I’m leaving tomorrow and have another book to write about that I actually care about, so I just want to pound out something quickly about Outliers. This will be short. It’s a book meant to popularize certain ideas about statistics and success. Specifically, Gladwell is interested in how unpredictable circumstances make success possible for certain people. He uses examples including the Beatles and Bill Gates.

I know that there are lots of people who actually know about statistics and sociology and so forth who have lots of problems with this book.  The math that it takes to really understand such things is not really my strong point; every time I try to do any statistics, I always have to look things up and practice for a while before doing it for real. So I haven’t really internalized those things well enough to critique the book on those grounds, although I did notice that in many places throughout the book he doesn’t do a real statistical analysis, but rather compiles a list of people he finds significant and shows some similarities among them.  How they compare to less-successful people in similar fields isn’t really covered, so I don’t put much stock in most of the mathematical parts of this book. So when Gladwell claims that the Beatles were successful because they got lots of practice playing in Hamburg, I don’t question the usefulness of this experience for the Beatles, but I wonder about all the other bands who played in Hamburg.  Surely they didn’t all become the Beatles?

There is an exception to this: his observation about athletes born at particular times of the year having greater success, which I was able to confirm with my resident collector of baseball statistics.

Mathematical foibles aside, there are some things in the book that I found enjoyable, persuasive, or at least interesting.  I enjoyed the first chapter, which points out that even small structural decisions, like the date that begins the school year, arbitrarily privilege some people over others.  Gladwell claims that it takes ten thousand hours of practice for someone to achieve expertise, and while I’m not sure that he proves this is the case, I’m always up for someone pointing out that people who are good at things tend to be people who have practiced a lot (and that whether this happens depends both on dedication and on the luck that brings opportunities about).   I found the analysis of high-IQ individuals interesting, although it operated from a lot of assumptions that I didn’t think were necessarily warranted. Gladwell assumes that the reader respects IQ as a valid measurement, and introduces the idea that some people with high IQ’s don’t enjoy great financial success as if the reader is supposed to be shocked by this.  (The reader is not shocked.)  There’s a comment in this section which  implies that the best colleges are the ones chosen by students with high IQ’s, which is certainly not a measure that it would have occurred to me to use.  And then there’s the part where he laments that the math professors whose interactions with Chris Langan went poorly would have reacted to him more positively if they had known he was good at math—maybe they would have, but that’s…kinda bad, if true?  Anyway, the point of this section is that academic success depends on social skills, the acquisition of which is linked to socioeconomic class. I knew that, but it’s a nice takeaway for the popular audience of this book, although in the context I don’t know how seriously people will take it.

The bit about the bankers had similar strengths and weaknesses.  Gladwell writes about Jewish lawyers in New York in the twentieth century, and how their exclusion from the most prestigious fields of law ended up in their favor when the types of law that were considered valuable in society changed.  Gladwell has a lot to say about this, but what was interesting about it is that, in a book about how success depends on circumstances which are often out of our control, this is the only place that he explicitly discusses discrimination and marginalization.  (There’s a little bit about class privilege when he discusses Chris Langan, but he isn’t explicit about how this is systematic, so it’s just about Langan and does he deserve success for his mental gifts even though he is kind of a jerk.)  But in this one place in which marginalization is discussed, it’s so that Gladwell can show that there exists a situation in which it can be an advantage.  And that’s compelling and enjoyable, of course, because he turns it into a triumphant underdog story, but it forecloses the possibility of his discussing how opportunities are made available to people on the basis of privileged characteristics.  Almost all his examples of extraordinary success are white men, and that’s definitely not a coincidence.

This exists in the same book in which Gladwell explains feuding towns not only by means of their culture but by recourse to the culture of their ancestors in Scotland and sheep herding or something; there was an opportunity for him to discuss how culturally-sanctioned violence perpetuates itself, but he has to find some economic cause even if it is a bit of a reach, because he is an economist.  So it’s not surprising that he’s reluctant to take on systematic social biases, but it’s a pretty major piece missing from his analysis.

So yeah, there are certainly criticism to be made here.  I do, however, admire Gladwell’s ability to make this stuff accessible and engaging.

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The Locked Room: Meaning It This Time

New York TrilogyTitle: The Locked Room (Book Three of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1984

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Okay, so I’ve fallen way behind here, but I think it would be a good idea to finish up with the New York Trilogy so I can move on with my life, yes? I have plenty of other books waiting for their posts.

So. The third book in the trilogy is The Locked Room.  I’m still not sure of the reason for the title.  The plot shouldn’t surprise anybody who has read the first two books in the trilogy, but it manifests itself a little differently here.  A nameless, first-persoon narrator is asked to act as the literary executive of Fanshawe, who is his vanished childhood friend, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in many years.  Fanshawe’s wife presents him with this decision and ultimately, for some reason, falls in love with him.  So this sounds like a very different setup from the weird surveillance/detective stuff of the other two books, but it really isn’t.  The narrator is the bewildered detective, tailing Fanshawe and using his writing and everything he’s left to try to come to a better understanding of him. Fanshawe, like Black/White in Ghosts is actually watching the narrator and has set up this weird constructed situation in which the narrator is forced to live.  The real difference between this book and the other two is that it’s more detailed and more—maybe not more realistic but more twentieth-century novel realistic.  If you know what I mean.  The characters in this book are people with pasts rather than ciphers representing the idea of a character and the position that character is in.  They still don’t have futures, really, but, you know, one thing at a time.

Despite having a slightly better-defined personality, the narrator of The Locked Room  is just like the protagonists in the other two books in that he comes to identify with Fanshawe, to be overshadowed by his presence, and to resent both that overshadowing and the way that Fanshawe’s existence seems to determine his, the narrator’s, possible actions.  Just like the other two protagonists, he insists on a final confrontation, which results in destruction.

So this book is where the things that seem mysterious in the other books are somewhat explained.  It almost feels as if the first two books were written by the narrator of this one, as drafts for this book in which he was not yet able to articulate the entire story.  Finally, in this book, he is somewhat more explicit.  That is not to say that this is the book in which characters (or readers) break free of their existence as text-bound beings. When the narrator picks up Fanshawe’s manuscripts to examine them for potential publication, he has the strange impression that he is, in fact, carrying Fanshawe’s corpse: “I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street.  Together, they were as heavy as a man.”   He is to evaluate whether the work is worth publishing, and to destroy it if it is not.  Because he identifies Fanshaw with his work, he is uneasy about the latter possibility:

There was no difference in my mind between giving the order to destroy Fanshawe’s work and killing him with my own hands. I had been given the power to obliterate, to steal a body from its grave and tear it to pieces.

If they narrator, who knew Fanshawe before he had begun writing anything, cannot draw this distinction between author and work, then the public, who is also the fictive audience for this work, is certainly not able to do so. Because Fanshawe’s work only comes to light when his body has vanished, he cannot be known other than as the author of these works.  The narrator is careful to push us into this position, alluding repeatedly to our supposed familiarity with Fanshawe’s imaginary oeuvre.  (“Everyone knows what Fanshawe’s work is like.”)  Even Fanshawe’s wife/supposed widow, Sophie, who was never allowed to read the work prior to his disappearance, realizes that the pile of papers in the closet represents him and feels that it is interfering with her relationship with the narrator.

If Fanshawe is explicitly text, so is the narrator; the book we are reading is presumably the book that he writes about throughout, the biography of Fanshawe. So he’s not just a text, he’s a derivative text.  And of course, there’s the same identification with his target that we saw in the two other books of this trilogy.  Ultimately, the narrator publishes Fanshawe’s books, marries Fanshawe’s wife, parents Fanshawe’s child, lives on Fanshawe’s money, and is known for his relationship with Fanshawe.  And, just as in the other books, he develops a resentment toward his doppelganger that can only be resolved in seemingly arbitrary violence.  There is physical violence carried out against someone who is not actually Fanshawe but, you know, good enough, and there’s the violence of the destruction of a text, the very text which appears to hold the answers.

But there are differences between this and the other two works.

First, there’s Sophie. She’s not actually unprecedented, but there are differences.  The closest character is Virginia in City of Glass, who is married to the younger Peter Stillman but does not have sex with him. She does, however, kiss Quinn.  If we consider Peter as one of Quinn’s many doubles, then there’s a similar dynamic—becoming the romantic rival of someone that one almost is.  In this book, of course, it goes further.  The narrator immediately falls into a relationship with Sophie and marries her, at about the same time that he assumes all other parts of Fanshawe’s life.  The book strongly implies that this is intentional on Fanshawe’s part—that, in essence, he has made the narrator a gift of her.  There is an anecdote early on in this book in which Fanshawe, the narrator, and Dennis, a boy from a poor family attend a birthday party. Dennis has not been able to bring a present, so Fanshawe gives Dennis his present to give to the birthday boy.  In the end, of course, this result is the same.  This is presented as the key to Fanshawe’s personality.  There’s an uncomfortable—no, an outright creepy—resonance between that moment and the way that Sophie is handed off.  She’s not the only sexual connection between them—there’s also a scene in which they take turns with the same woman in a brothel, and a throwaway moment in which, as children, they want to spend so much time together that they ask if it is possible for them to be married when they grow up (is this the transitive property of Sophie?).  The thing is, Sophie is a character with at least a little personality of her own, less flat than most in this series, but she’s still a pawn in the larger game.  This bothered me, and it’s my least favorite part of this series.

Then, there’s the appearance of characters with the same name as the characters in the prior works. Sophie’s grandfather is Paul—is that Paul Auster, or just a coincidence?The detective hired to track Fanshawe is Quinn, and he suffers a similar fate as the Quinn of City of Glass, disappearing.  Later, when the narrator is in search of Fanshawe, he ends up tracking a man named Peter Stillman, having decided that Stillman is in fact Fanshawe.  When he catches up with Stillman, he  tells him that he, Stillman, is actually Fanshawe and that names don’t matter, and proceeds to attack him (the narrator loses this fight).  So Stillman has a similar bundle of functions to those seen in City of Glass; he represents a blurring of identities among people outside the narrator’s consciousness, and the arbitrariness of language to separate these identities, but he nonetheless continues to insist that he is not Fanshawe.  That these characters turn up again is significant mostly insofar as it helps to create the feeling I referenced above, that The Locked Room can be read as the narrator’s final draft of the story told in the other two books, the one in which he is finally able to bring himself to tell this story in a less abstract way.  So the odd role that Stillman played in the earlier novel, for instance, can be attributed to his experience with the narrator here, and many of the other things and people that continue to appear can be understood in that way.

And then there’s the ending.  In City of Glass and in Ghosts, the protagonist seeks a truth which, in true postmodern fashion, he is not able to reach.  In The Locked Room, the answer to his questions is in a notebook (a red notebook, of course) which is is given at the end of the book. Perhaps, then, in this more realistic setting, the answer can be found and revealed! It’s here before him! But no. He destroys it.  So the reader is of course denied the answer as usual, but for a different reason. Here, it’s not because the answer doesn’t exist but because the narrator does not want the reader to know.  So we end, not with the sense that we are lost in an unresolvable world of words, but with this rather violent reminder that the narrator (or the author?) is all-powerful and decides exactly what we see.

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Ghosts: Try It Again, with Less Reality

New York TrilogyTitle: Ghosts (Book Two of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Ghosts is the second book of the New York Trilogy, and at around seventy pages, it’s the shortest of the three.  In many ways, it resembles City of Glass.  Each book has as its protagonist a detective/writer who is assigned to follow another man, whom he does not understand.  In each case, those who assign the case are shadowy and impossible to contact, and in each case, this task of watching someone else ends up being the protagonist’s undoing.

Ghosts has a somewhat different denouement, but the most obvious difference between the two works is really stylistic.  City of Glass featured a set of characters whose names change hands  over the course of the novel and don’t clearly belong to anyone. The characters in Ghosts get to keep their names (with a few exceptions), but the names they are given are somewhat interchangeable.  The detective protagonist, Blue, is observing a man named Black on the orders of the mysterious White.  Blue was trained by Brown, who is now retired, and has come to this point in his career after capturing the embezzler Redman, and solving a case involving the amnesiac Gray, who after losing his memory took on the name of Green and remarried his original wife, who also changed her name from Mrs. Gray to Mrs. Green. Blue would like to be more like Gold, who has pursued the case of a mysterious dead child for years, even after his own retirement, but is instead stuck tailing Black on this meaningless mission he has been given.

What is this, I said to myself, a game of Clue?

Well… not exactly, because after all a game has an unambiguous ending with clear winners and losers, and yet it does almost feel like a game.  Auster does make more of colors than simply using them in the names, pointing them out at odd moments that made me wonder whether it was specific to this work or whether colors are always mentioned in this way but I am simply more sensitive to them because the naming scheme is so odd.  But, maybe because I spend, ahem, a non-trivial amount of time playing and thinking about board games, it was difficult for me to stop thinking of it in this way once I had begun. It’s fairly common when discussing sessions of games to refer to players by their player color, especially when one does not know them well or is not interested in them as people so much as a series of moves on a board.  As far as this goes, it is a somewhat reasonable way of considering the relationship between the reader and the characters in this book.  Of course, if you think about it carefully, all fictional characters consist of a series of actions performed in a space with clear boundaries, but the naming conventions of Ghosts underlines this reality. We have insight into only one position, Blue’s; that is the one which we are, figuratively, “playing.” We get to know Blue fairly well, because we live in his head, but our main concern for him isn’t exactly his fragile psyche so much as  what he should do next.  All around him are characters who take certain actions which he needs to predict so that he can react properly, but he’s rather bad at that.  To be fair, of course, some of them behave in ways that are also surprising to the reader. There are no clear victory conditions that we can understand, so of course their actions remain obscure to us. What is clear, however, is that Blue does not win.

Of course, there are some limitations to this reading. The characters are not competing for the same goals but all seem to have distinct victory conditions.  Some are allotted more moves than others, and some seem already to have left the game.  Blue appeals to Brown for assistance, but is refused because Brown will  no longer participate.  Gold has decided on his own that he only cares for this one case.  And by the end of the game, we learn that there is collusion between two of the players, or rather, that one player is controlling two “pieces.”

Still, if that doesn’t quite work, it does point out the reader’s distance from the story. City of Glass gave us a protagonist whose psychology we could consider, even if we didn’t fully understand it. It felt like something that, strange as it was, was happening to people in the world.  Ghosts takes almost the same story, with some trivial differences (Blue is a detective turned writer rather than a writer turned detective, the ending is different and more detective-y, etc.), but removes some of the plot complexity, turns the characters into ciphers, and generally flattens it out into an  example of the genre. Meanwhile, the story adds things like Blue’s reflection on the meanings of colors.  So, although the earlier story was already fairly unsettling, this one makes it even more so by stepping back. The relationship to other texts is still there, but now it’s all about Walden.  Blue’s character arc is at least partially about learning to read Thoreau.  I haven’t read Walden, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the work it’s doing in this text, but… certainly it can be said to simplify?

In any case, there’s a refusal to get under the surface of the characters.  As Blue doggedly tries to plumb the depths of Black’s character, he spends most of his time watching Black reading, and reflects that this is essentially the same as doing nothing, until eventually he begins reading himself.  In a way, watching someone read is the ultimate experience of alterity; the person that you are observing is having an experience of which you absolutely can know nothing. Strangely, and much like Quinn in City of Glass, Blue is for some reason unable to simply give up and go home.  There is no obvious reason he should stay; he’s getting paid, but he could just as easily get paid for doing the type of work he prefers. There’s no coercion, either. Instead, he stays at his post, long after he’s realized that he is the victim here.  He comes to identify with Black, because he is trying so hard to get inside his mind, by doing the same reading and by watching him, and finally, by breaking in and reading the notebook in which Black has been writing with a red pen (there must always be a red notebook of one type or another). In the end, all he really learns is that Black and White are the same. He’ll never understand either one of them, and his only recourse is to violence. Even reading the notebook doesn’t help—he recognizes that he already knows what it contains.

At the end, the story dissolves, and the narrator simply shrugs: “I like to think of Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China. Let it be China, then, and we’ll leave it at that.”

To like or dislike such a book really seems beside the point; the most I can really say about it is that it adds something to the possible readings of City of Glass.  How separate are the three books of this trilogy?

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City of Glass: Not My Real Name

New York TrilogyTitle: City of Glass (Book One of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

“My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.”

Oh, postmodernism, you are so simultaneously inarticulate and hyperarticulate.

City of Glass is the first book of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which seem to be concerned with postmodernism and mysteries; I’ll be writing about the other two shortly.  The story is told from the point of view of Daniel Quinn, a mystery writer who decides to try his hand at actual detective work (no, this is not a good idea). The book really is about Quinn, whose identity is strange and confusing, and about how it intersects with language and writing and his interpretation of the world.

Quinn is unusual in a few ways. First, he lives in a state of almost complete isolation. The book mentions early on that his wife and son have died. This fact is not fully addressed, even though allusions to in surface at unexpected moments throughout the text, and it seems to profoundly influence Quinn’s behavior in ways that are not analyzed or acknowledged.  His total willingness to give up on everything in his life, as well as his reaction to the families he encounters in the book, can be read as the manifestations of grief, but this is never made explicit.  But his isolation goes beyond the loss of his family. He has cut off contact with all his friends, abandoned his initial aspirations of writing poetry and essays, and instead writes mystery novels under a pseudonym which is arranged in such a way that he does not need to have any contact with his publisher.  He lives, therefore, under conditions of almost complete anonymity. He has no connection to any human being nor to the place where he lives.  He lives in New York and goes out to walk in the city in order to empty his mind: “By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere.  And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.”  Oddly, the geography of the book is actually quite specific; the thing that makes it nowhere is just Quinn’s perception that it does not really matter where it is.  The same thing applies to people, however—it does not matter who anyone is, including Quinn himself.  This becomes clear when one considers his relationship to his many pseudonyms.

This is the second, and perhaps the most important, notable characteristic of Quinn.  He experiments with pseudonyms as if they were drugs.  He writes mystery novels under the name of William Wilson, with a hero named Max Work, and early on, the novel plays a little bit with Quinn’s relationship with these two characters.  He believes that he does not closely identify with either of them; he regards Wilson “with deference, at times even admiration” while not getting to close to him.  Work, on the other hand, seems to be in some ways a replacement for Quinn.  He is the one who actually interacts with the world, while Quinn withdraws further and further into his solitude. He sees Work in some ways as an avatar: “It was not precisely that Quinn wanted to be Work, or even to be like him, but it reassured him to pretend to be Work as he was writing his books, to know he had it in him to be Work if he ever chose to be, even if only in his mind.”  At the beginning of the book, Quinn seems on an explicit level to understand that he is not either of these people, but as the narrative progresses, he becomes very angry with a woman who feels indifferent toward one of the mystery novels with Wilson’s name on the cover.  In the meantime, he is taking the activity of pretending to be Work to an entirely new level by going so far as to take on a case.

But these are not his only pseudonyms. Rather, as the book goes on, he takes on more and more.  Above, I compared the pseudonyms to drugs; this is becomes the effect of each one on his consciousness is described, and they seem to influence his admittedly bizarre behavior. One of the first to appear is Paul Auster.

…okay, yes, this is very strange.  It’s pretty common to think about the character as a stand-in for the author (just as Work seems to be), but for a character to pretend to be the author by falsely assuming his name is strange and somewhat unsettling.  This gets even stranger, as a character named Paul Auster actually does exist in this novel, and is probably distinct from Paul Auster the novelist. I think.

Anyway, Paul Auster is a pseudonym which Quinn has thrust upon him; he receives several phone calls for a detective by that name and eventually agrees to take on the case.  (Strangely, the Paul Auster who appears in the novel turns out not to be a detective at all; this is part of the novel’s refusal to answer any questions about what is really going on in the plot.)  Quinn feels that he gets to know the Paul Auster that he is more as time goes on; he notes early on that he does not know who Paul Auster is, but after the appointment with people who expect him to be Paul Auster, he begins to recognize the effects of this name upon him: “The effect of being Paul Auster, he had begun to learn, was not altogether unpleasant.  … he no longer had to walk around with the burden of his own consciousness. By a simple trick of the intelligence, a deft little twist of naming, he felt incomparably lighter and freer.”  Assuming a different identity with different expectations attached to to is very freeing for Quinn—this is not surprising, but it seems that what he is trying to escape is not necessarily the painful identity of Daniel Quinn, widower, but the very fact of stable identity in the first place. He assumes more pseudonyms later in the book. In the later chapters, he sits down to talk to the elder Peter Stillman and uses a different name each time. In the first encounter, he uses his actual name of Quinn, which is reduced to a rhyming game.  Later, he calls himself Henry Dark, which is the name of a fictitious source Stillman fabricated for the purposes of his academic writing (!), and finally, he uses Stillman’s own name, or perhaps his son’s. Of course, since both Stillman and his son are named Peter Stillman, this is ambiguous, but Henry Dark is also ambiguous—Quinn suggests that he might be a different Henry Dark, other than the one who does not exist.

But in fact, all names are ambiguous.  Quinn’s encounter with Peter, the younger Stillman, is disturbing partly because Quinn’s dead son had been named Peter.  Peter tells him that he is the last of the Stillmans, but also insists repeatedly that, “I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name.”  As it turns out, though, nobody has a real name.  Names and identities are exposed as completely arbitrary because they are interchangeable from one character to another.  Ultimately, Quinn sheds all names and all public recognition of his identity to live in an alley. Ostensibly, this is because he is not getting a response from Peter and Peter’s wife/guardian Virginia, but his response seems totally disproportionate to his experiences.  He does not actually pay attention to the building which he is theoretically staking out; instead, he focuses on other matters, like the color of the sky, or his need to train himself to live without eating.  This is where Quinn’s identity totally dissolves.  He cannot reclaim his apartment, he cannot cash his check, and eventually he simply disappears, just as Peter and Virginia Stillman have before him.

So experimentation with alternate identities and different names seems to be a destructive life choice. But it’s not only Quinn’s name.  Nobody, as I mentioned above, has a real name.  The production of Henry Dark has already been discussed, but this idea shows up in the book in several other ways. Because Stillman apparently locked Peter up in the dark as a child, in order to see whether he would develop some kind of natural, human language, there are many references to wild children, and to the Tower of Babel, which was the subject of conspiracy theories by the fictitious Dark. Note that this means that Stillman invented Dark as a writer, so that he could put forth some conspiracy theories without claiming to believe them or taking responsibility for them in any way.  This gets tangled up with his theory about Don Quixote, who he claims was actually the author of his own story, but who behaved bizarrely in order to convince other people to write it down and promote it.  Oh, and of course Humpty Dumpty, that emblem of the arbitrary nature of language also shows up.

So what does this all add up to? Well, in good old postmodern fashion, it’s difficult to make it add up to anything.  It’s very clear that names do not identify nor do they distinguish people, which suggests that language is a muddle.  The Tower of Babel part of this is a desperate attempt to make language mean something and is shown to have a really high human cost.  The argument here isn’t so much that language is confusing and ultimately just a toy, but rather that language is very dangerous and if you mess around with it, you might lose your ability to interact with reality.

If you think about it, this is an odd argument for a book to make, but City of Glass is very conscious of this.  The Quixote matter shows this. The most important artifact in the book is Quinn’s red notebook, in which he records his observations. At the end of the book, the notebook is revealed to be the source of the narrative, but by bringing up this conspiracy theory about Don Quixote, the narrative induces the reader to be suspicious about such claims.  Who is the narrator? There is a narrator, who is separate from Quinn, and actually reveals him(?)self at the end in a conversation with Auster-the-character, in which the latter’s failure to take action on Quinn’s behalf is condemned.  “He will be with me always,” remarks this narrator.  This is a curious outcome in a story in which Auster-the-character looks a lot like a less tragic version of Quinn, with a surviving wife and son and an ability to resist getting sucked into these strange experiences, especially where characters and authors are both conflated and kept separate in such a strange way.

What does it all mean? Nobody knows, nobody can knows, and those who try to find out are punished.

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The Sketch Book: Literary Tourism

Cover of The Sketch BookTitle: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Author: Washington Irving

Date of Publication:1820

LC Call Number: PS 2060 .S54

A warning—this post is about as personal as I intend to get on this blog. That doesn’t mean it’s incredibly personal; maybe slightly more so than my post on American Gods, but just—well, as Neil Gaiman would say, contains me.

So this is the kind of person that I am—I planned a trip up into the Catskills, which by the way are beautiful and totally worth visiting—and I decided to prepare for this trip by reading some Washington Irving, because what or who is more closely associated with the Catskills than Irving is?

So, I picked up The Sketch Book, which I’d actually read twice before, so I should have known that this was a slightly silly thing to do, because most of the stories are about Irving’s travels (or his narrator, who perhaps isn’t exactly Irving) through England. Still, it includes Irving’s most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle”  and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which are pretty firmly rooted in the Catskills, along with a couple of others that take place in a very American, very East Coast setting.

As a descriptive work giving me access to the landscape from another viewpoint at the same time, this (or at least, the American parts of it) is very effective. I hiked along the escarpment until I got to the site of an old hotel, gone now, overlooking a grand valley, full of trees of every color, through which the Hudson flowed and the shadows of clouds floated, a favorite vista of the Hudson River School of painters, and I read from “Rip Van Winkle”

Panting and fatigued, he threw himself, late in the afternoon, on a green knoll, covered with mountain herbage, that crowned the brow of a precipice.  From an opening between the trees, he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland.  He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the  reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands. On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the  impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun.

This is a little later in the afternoon than it was for me, but still—it looked almost exactly like that, and that’s an astonishing feeling for someone who comes from a region which most of the books are not about. It’s even more amazing when you consider that Irving refers to the Catskills as “these fairy mountains,” precisely because “every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains,” and yet, these changes are predictable enough that we were able to go there and catch them.  Reading about a landscape, and then hiking through it, is a pretty remarkable experience for me—it makes both the landscape and the story more real, as if I were able to have the same experience or at least perceive the same things as another person.  (Generally, my outlook tends to be more Blakean: “The fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees.”)

Of course, what’s curious about this is that it seems to be almost exactly the opposite of the effect intended.  Irving calls his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, rather than his own name, a decision which tends to disclaim the stories included therein, and the two stories which are the most concerned with this area have another layer of distance added to them, as they are instead attributed to the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker, who seems himself to have been something of a folklorist and picked them up from the people around him.  Surely there is a little irony in the fact that Irving’s most famous works are these two stories for which he went to such trouble to avoid taking responsibility, stacking them under layers of pseudonyms.

I will note, however, that the presence of a supernatural or apparently supernatural element seems to trigger this desire—“The Spectre Bridegroom” also invokes the possibility of the supernatural, and is attributed to a traveler Irving meets in an inn. This is the case even though in both “The Spectre Bridegroom” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the spooky occurrences are logically explained by the end of the story. In “The Mutability of Literature,” our narrator has a long conversation with a cranky old book, without resorting to such stratagems, but it it is made clear that this is a dream.  The rest of the stories have no supernatural element.

In any case, it is quite clear that Irving is very interested in America and how it is perceived, so that although “The Voyage,” which comes early in the book and describes his journey to England, claims that by traveling over the Atlantic by ship is sufficient to erase all ties with the United States and give Irving a “state of mind peculiarly fitted to receive new and vivid impressions,” he includes some American stories and is, in fact, constantly referring back to his native country.  One of the first essays in the book is “English Writers on America,” in which he laments the lack of good writing which would, in his view, properly represent the United States to the British.  This essay is almost the definition of American exceptionalism, even while it, somewhat hilariously, claims that the US is or can become free of national prejudices (and this claim follows on the heels of Irving’s complaint that British scholars ought to study important things, like American society, rather than unimportant things, like the history and society of countries in Africa and Asia.  This is pretty racist, right? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is pretty racist.).  In any case, his American perspective shows up elsewhere: in “The Angler,” he remembers his somewhat hilarious attempt to follow Izaak Walton’s fishing advice in incompatible American streams, when he meets up with a Welsh fisherman who reminds him strongly of the philosophy of The Compleat Angler.  And of course, as I’ve noted before, the two most famous stories of this collection, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” are very strongly rooted in a very specific region of the American countryside.  Well, I haven’t quite discussed “Sleepy Hollow” as much as “Rip Van Winkle,” but it is similar in that respect, although it’s not quite as close to where I was!

There are two more pieces in this book about America—specifically, they are two interlinked pieces about Native Americans.  The first is called “Traits of Indian Character” and  is an essay, while the second, “Philip of Pokanoket” is the story of that particular individual (probably known to my fellow board gamers because of the existence of a somewhat controversial wargame titled King Philip’s War).  These  two pieces are a curious blend of racism and anti-racism.  Irving buys into several stereotypes and Eurocentric assumptions about Native Americans, starting out by describing “the North American savage” as “ stern, simple and enduring; fitted to grapple with difficulties, and to support privations.” Irving certainly isn’t free of the temptation to paint romantic pictures of The Noble Savage, and he really lets the US government off the hook, but at the same time, he also advocates for their better treatment and astutely points out that they have been described “by bigoted and interested writers” and that these prejudiced accounts had done a great deal of harm in the lives of the Native Americans: “The colonist has often treated them like beasts of the forest; and the author has endeavored to justify him in his outrages.”  Irving goes on to argue that the white colonists have not respected the rights of the Native Americans, that the vices often ascribed to them are in fact those created by their status in white society (or lack thereof), that their reaction to adversity is critiqued not because of how they react but because of who they are, and that to criticize Native Americans for reneging on treaties is in fact the height of hypocrisy.  He gives a sympathetic account of King Philip in which he deplores the bloodshed perpetrated by the white colonists.  Now, while doing all this, he certainly doesn’t express himself in a way that a social justice advocate would find free of error, and he reveals his biases when he talks about “civilization,” and when he treats them, essentially, like Tolkien’s elves at the end of both pieces—noble beings who will soon, alas, be gone from the world.  That part isn’t great. But it’s still remarkable to find such a sympathetic treatment and such awareness of the damage done by racism in a book published in 1820.

Irving also writes quite a bit about what he thinks of British character (“John Bull” is interesting and I truly don’t know what to make of it), and especially about traditional British Christmas, which seems to really fascinate him.  I suspect him of fabricating some characters for convenience when he writes about this, but that is neither here nor there. What is interesting is that Irving’s tourism, too, seems largely informed by his reading.  He writes about visiting libraries and looking at books in “The Art of Book-Making” and “The Mutability of Literature.” This is a way for him to think about literature in general. I was amused to find that the latter includes moment in which Irving laments the proliferation of writers brought about by improvements in technology:

Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. …  Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters.  The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to     monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity; that the fountains of thought have not been broken up, and modern genius drowned in the deluge.  But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints.  They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river— expanded into a sea.

This is an argument familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the debates over e-books and self publishing.  Obviously, it’s older than that.

However, Irving’s interest isn’t limited to general observations about literature.  Instead, he engages in an early form of fan tourism, looking for a landscape that is familiar to him from literature; specifically, he wants to hunt down scenes from Shakespeare. He spends some time in London looking for the Boar’s Head Tavern and is delighted to find a painting of it.  He visits Stratford and tries to believe everything that people tell him about their connections to the life of Shakespeare and the relics that are there.  His interest in Shakespeare is certainly different from mine—he’s really interested in Falstaff and puts a lot of stock in the deer-poaching story—but it’s clear that this is an author who means a lot to him and who has provided at least some of his reason to travel, and that he sees scenes from Shakespeare and from descriptions of Shakespeare’s life as he visits these places.

There is something nicely symmetrical about this—me, reading The Sketch Book to enhance my travels in the Catskills, while The Sketch Book details the relationship between Irving’s reading and his writing. While it’s true that Irving will never mean as much to me as Shakespeare obviously does to him (sorry, WI), I enjoy this additional similarity between my reading and my experience.

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The Parent’s Assistant: Cheerful Child Labor

Cover of The Parent's AssistantTitle: The Parent’s Assistant: Or, Stories for Children

Author: Maria Edgeworth

Publication Date: 1865 (well, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but the version I read was the version which was published in 1865)

LC Call Number: PR4640 .E25

(The edition pictured is not the one I read; rather, I used the tenth volume of Edgeworth’s Complete Works, which also included her comic dramas.)

This is a collection of short stories and some plays, first published in this form in 1865, intended for the moral instruction of children.  They have some literary merit of their own, but also are fairly upfront about their ideological content.

It is very strange to read these stories in the early twenty-first century, because Western ideas about the shape of a child’s life have changed dramatically.  The heroes of Edgeworth’s stories include a few schoolchildren and one upper-class girl, but most of them have jobs.  Edgeworth is totally fine with this.  It’s curious to think that she is contemporary of William Blake, who is absolutely scathing on most subjects, particularly including child labor.  But Edgeworth’s children don’t work in Blake’s nightmarish industrial urban world.  Instead, they are mostly rural children who tend to work in informal roles or in family businesses.  A few are servants, but for the most part, they need to look around and find something to do on a day to day basis. Work is seen as a normal part of family life, and children are encouraged to always work diligently; that’s really the moral of a lot of this moral instruction. In Edgeworth’s world, children who work hard are honest and happy, and are generally rewarded in one way or another, and are often contrasted with children who are lazy or dishonest and generally end badly.  Edgeworth seems to see education as valuable, but not in the way that we see it. Compulsory education does not yet seem to be a thing in the world she describes.  However, the characters in these stories, and their families, try to send them to school when they have a little extra time and money, or to make sure that they teach each other to read and write.

Let it be noted in passing, of course,  that the existence of propaganda stressing the importance of work suggests that not all children were very enthusiastic about this in real life.

There are several interesting characteristics of the work that the children perform.  In “Lazy Lawrence,” a boy named Jem needs to raise a certain sum of money so that his mother will not have to sell his horse to pay the rent.  He finds some work gardening for a local lady, who appreciates his diligence and steady work, but eventually she mentions that she wishes she had a mat for people to wipe their feet on and the ones she ordered don’t appear to be coming.  Jem’s entrepreneurial spirit awakens and he goes home and, through trial and error, devises a method for weaving a mat out of reeds.  When he delivers it to her, much to his surprise, she pays him for it, and requests that he make more.  He does, and improves his skills in the process, and she has what appears to be essentially an early Tupperware party in which she helps him sell his wares to her friends.  There’s a lot going on here, but two points are especially interesting. First, the idea that children are not only workers but actually entrepreneurs; instead of thinking of child workers as exploited and powerless, we see one here as creative, intelligent, and with agency over his own work. Second, the economic principle here is not exactly one of market-driven fair exchange.  Instead, there is an element almost of charity or at least an interpersonal element.  While it is clear to the reader (or at least, the twenty-first century adult reader) that Jem has created something valuable through the sweat of his brow and therefore deserves to be paid, his own lack of such an expectation is seen as laudable rather than naïve, and his benefactress is seen as very generous, both in her willingness to pay him for his work and her help in finding more customers, who are also seen as generous.

So what we are looking at here is not exactly the logic of the market, but rather an aspect of the social fabric which appears to include money as a matter of course.  (In the meantime, of course, the titular Lazy Lawrence falls in with bad company due to his idleness and ends up stealing money and having to be reformed.) Economic exchanges are not rooted in desire for goods or money, nor in the shrewdness with which a person can evaluate the economic landscape, but rather this ideal of neighborliness.  This happens not just in this one story, but over and over again throughout the collection.  In “Simple Susan,” the law comes into it, with the rather cynical idea that the law can always be manipulated to favor one person or another, and that maintaining fair relationships requires not well-written laws but people of good will to interpret them.  In “The Basket Woman,” two children spend their day putting rocks under the wheels of carriages which need to stop on a hill, so that they don’t roll backwards, in the hopes that travelers will pay them.  Work of this kind might be seen as a form of begging today, but it seems to be perfectly acceptable work in the context of the story.

Edgeworth also encourages hard work by rejecting the notion that luck can ever bring success.  In “The Orphans,” four orphaned children support themselves through home crafts while living (with permission) in an abandoned castle ruin. I should note that this is less romantic than it sounds; in fact, it’s rather unsafe, as the chimney falls down at one point and kills their goat.  There is an old woman in this story nicknamed Goody Grope (I do not believe that this had any sexual connotation at the time), who is a treasure hunter and thinks that there are valuable buried artifacts hidden somewhere in the neighborhood. She never finds any, and lives her life as an impoverished but optimistic beggar.  The children, however, stumble upon some old coins in the castle by accident, and send them back to the castle’s owner.  This ends up causing them a lot of trouble, due to a dishonest agent and plot complications, although eventually they are rewarded for their honesty, although of course Goody Grope attributes all this to their good fortune.  Edgeworth pushes this even further in “The Little Merchants,” which features the lives of two boys, one of whom is the son of a gardener and learns to sell vegetables at the market, while the other is the son of a fisherman and sells fish.  Edgeworth argues that fishing is a poor trade because it is too luck-dependent.  If she likes to eat fish, then this is certainly a little unfair, but the idea is that the fish will come to you, or not, and on a good day, the fisherman can knock off early because he’s already caught what he needs.  Meanwhile, the gardener must carefully cultivate his produce and his customers.  It turns out that the gardener teaches his son, Francisco, that he must be honest when selling the vegetables in order to keep his customers and his reputation as an excellent produce vendor, while the fisherman teaches his son, Piedro, that it is most important to be sharp and shrewd and to get the most that he can.  Obviously, Francisco ends up making many friends and doing well in life, while Piedro slips into a life of fraud and petty crime for which the narrative duly punishes him.  For Edgeworth, this is a direct result of their beliefs about luck.  Precisely because Piedro believes that success is the result of good fortune, he thinks he can escape the results of his dishonesty, and that he does not need to make any long-term plans.

So Edgeworth’s stories embody a fairly conservative attitude about work, and one that, as I noted above, is completely disconnected from the images that generally come to me when thinking about child labor.  In part, she is describing an economic system that doesn’t really exist anymore, since the world has changed so much.  I know that I don’t want to live in a world in which orphaned children are expected to support themselves, but it is certainly interesting to notice how the prevailing ideology (again, at least in respect to Western children) has changed.

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Anime Reviews

Okay, so here’s the thing. I’m not very knowledgeable about anime. However, I’ve recently realized that I’ve actually seen more than I thought I had, and it occurred to me I’d like to keep track of them, and perhaps even of what I thought of them.  In any case, there are a few people with whom I’d like to share this, so…

I’m using a mostly three-point rating system for this: Great, Good and Okay.  Okay isn’t necessarily the lowest possible rating, though; if at some point I see something I totally hate, I reserve the right to add “poor” to the list, and possibly not to watch the entire thing.  But so far, even the series I haven’t really cared for have had some redeeming qualities.

My parameters:  These are series I’ve watched in full.  As of the initial posting of this blog, I’d seen them all on Netflix, but I’ll add to this post as I watch more series on other streaming services, as Netflix seems to have mostly given up on anime. I’d watched a couple series (Angelic Layer and Haibane Renmei) before this, but that is long enough ago that I don’t feel comfortable writing about them in this way, and there are a couple series that I watched for a while and didn’t finish (Naruto and Bleach. What?).  Editing it now (March 2014), I’ve added some series on Crunchyroll.

That said, as I indicated above, it doesn’t follow that all these shows are still on Netflix.  In fact, after I started working on this but before I finished (October 1), most of them disappeared.  So, this list  no longer has practical application as far as Netflix is concerned.  I have to admit that I am disappointed about this.

One more point: I’m a somewhat idiosyncratic person and my opinions are specific to me. I watched all of this stuff with another person who might have different opinions about all of these.

I intend to keep updating this post.

Baccano!
Scenario: Well, okay, it’s a little difficult to figure out what is really going on here, but it’s set in 1920s New York (it looks more like Chicago, actually, but whatever), with gangsters, some of whom are immortal.  A lot of the action takes place on a train, the Flying Pussyfoot, which is rumored to be under attack from the infamous Rail Tracer.  This doesn’t sound too confusing, but because the story is told out of order, it takes a while to piece it together.
Pros: Well, I really enjoy the difficulty of this, the time you spend figuring out exactly what happened and why you saw what you did, earlier.  It makes it, not so much a show about weird immortal gangsters and disturbing serial killers but a show about figuring out what is going on. I like that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the story itself is best described as zany; there’s plenty of intrigue going on, but how seriously do we take any of it?  There are two characters running around who are perhaps the most pure comic relief characters I have ever encountered, but all the other characters are also peculiar and somewhat exaggerated. Oh, and the music is great.
Cons: If the above description sounds too silly or too “concept” for you, you’re probably right; it’s a pretty weird show.  Oh, and there’s lots of violence. The Rail Tracer is fairly disturbing (there’s a train murder scene that, um… um), plus there is Ladd, who takes a woman around with him everywhere because he plans to kill her later. So, this is my warning about that.
Verdict: Great.

Beast Player Erin  (NEW)
Scenario: Okay, I don’t want to have too many spoilers here. Let’s see… There’s a kingdom in which the Shin-Oh, a female monarch, holds political power, while the Taikoh (which often seems to be translated as Duke?) has the military power. Wars are waged using Tohdas, large creatures which seem to remind a lot of people of dragons but which are very alligator-like in their temperament and behavior, while the creatures associated with the Shin-Oh are Ohjus, which are giant beasts with the bodies of large birds and the heads of wolves. That’s the context, but it takes a while for the show to be about that. It starts out with a focus on the daughter of a woman who cares for the Tohdas. The mother is a Person of the Mist–in essence, she’s a racial minority–and Erin, her daughter, has the green eyes and green hair that mark her as being of that heritage. The political situation, the nature of these animals, and the personal lives of these people all intersect in troubling ways.
Pros: Erin is a great character. She’s remarkably intelligent and determined, but still a believable character; she deals with things that go wrong in her life in a realistic way and while maintaining her personality. And it’s a great personality; she’s a cheerful and enthusiastic person who cares about things and as an audience, we care about her too. She grows up over the course of the series. The political situation gradually becomes more important as we learn more and more about the it and the role of the Tohdas and Ohjus. Most of the other characters in the show are also pretty interesting people and it’s enjoyable getting to know them. The plot is complex, and while things happen slowly enough that some time skips are necessary to cover everything that happens, the benefit of this is that as our perspective gets wider, everything is quite naturally folded in to what we already know. The ending is the closest to a totally satisfying ending that I’ve seen in one of these shows so far (endings are hard).
Cons: I dunno, I don’t think there are many weaknesses to this show. It does start out slowly, but that’s for good artistic reasons. There is a strong contrast in the feel of the show from the beginning to the end as it gradually gets darker, so it could be misleading for people, I guess. Again, though, taken as a whole I think this is well justified. There are some conflicts toward the end of the show that aren’t explained to my satisfaction (the whole Ia-lu/Kirik thing), and Daimiyah never makes a lot of sense to me. Also, the series is hard to explain. Is that a knock?
Verdict: Great.

Darker Than Black
Scenario: There are people called Contractors who have special powers, but whenever they use them, they need to “pay the price of their contract,” which takes the form of weird compulsions.  Contractors don’t generally work independently; rather, they are employed by governments and secret agencies.  There’s a lot of conflict among them and the show is largely about shifting loyalties and the place of such people in society.  There is also some focus on a government agency which keeps track of contractors and stops them when they get out of control.
Pros:  The art is very nice, and the plot includes lots of intrigue, which is fun. It’s really about the milieu, though; exploring the meaning of contractors’ existence and figuring out what disaster predated the plot.  I especially enjoyed the episodes which featured unusual contractors who broke the rules and explained something about the world.
Cons: I didn’t find the characters that interesting; the main character is kind of an unreadable stone wall, and many other characters either have a short tenure on the show or just seemed flat to me. The most interesting character in the show is probably November 11, a British Contractor whose loyalties are uncertain, but he only shows up so often.  I also didn’t find the ending of the show very satisfying.
Verdict: Good.

Eden of the East
Scenario: A young Japanese woman visits Washington, D.C. and encounters a young Japanese man who suffers from memory loss and appears very suspicious in several ways. Back in Japan, we find that there is a some mysterious scheme to give certain people, called Seleção,  a large amount of money so that they can enact whatever scheme they want to use to improve society. It’s a contest; the losers are killed.
Pros: Now that’s a scenario, and the show does a really good job of developing this story over what I think is exactly the correct number of episodes.
Cons: Basically, this was a show that was really well done but failed to make a deep impression on me. Part of that is probably because the characters weren’t highly compelling to me, which looking over these reviews appears to be something that I care about more than I thought I did. I didn’t buy the love story, either, but I’m difficult to please in that respect. I was also slightly annoyed that the ending of the plot happened in movies which needed to be sought out separately.
Verdict: Good.

Gankutsuo: The Count of Monte Cristo
Scenario: This is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in a weird, science-fiction universe. Unlike the original novel, the count is simply evil, and the action focuses mostly on Albert.
Pros: This is a pretty interesting idea, and I really like it when well-known works are retold in different contexts.  The character design was mostly good (except for Mercedes, who looks like some kind of blow-up doll), and I enjoyed the relationship between Albert and Franz.
Cons: By making the Count a literal demon, the story loses some complexity.  It also increases the focus on Albert, who is kind of whiny and tedious; I’d rather have focused on almost anybody else. Eugenie? Franz? Mercedes? Yes, yes, yes.  Not only that, the Count’s openly evil behavior makes Albert’s attachment to him both inexplicable and frustrating. One more complaint: the notable thing about the art in this series is that patterns on clothes and hair seemed to move separately from the characters. I don’t think this is a inherently terrible idea; it is slightly distracting but fun. The problem is that many of these textures are just ugly. Albert has some horrible black-and-gray plaid thing of which he seems to be unaccountably fond, and the eye keeps being drawn to it because it’s shifting around and ARGH.
Verdict: Okay.

Ghost in the Shell
Scenario: This one is pretty famous, but basically: it takes place in a cyberpunk future world in which many people have become cyborgs to a greater or lesser extent.  The main character, Kusanagi, works for Section Nine, which is an elite crime fighting unit.  There are lots of versions of this, but what I did was watch the movie first, then the TV series, which was split into two parts.  There are different plots in each of them, but they’re all weird cyberpunk things.
Pros: Okay, so the movie is one of the few anime things that’s gotten much scholarly attention, and I’d like to say I like it more on those grounds, but it turns out.. well, let’s not get ahead of myself. Here are some things I liked.  First, it does some interesting things from a science fiction point of view, including pointing out that the cyborgs don’t own their bodies.  Second, there are the Tachikoma, which are these cheerful, spider-like AI robots who spend most of their time talking philosophy and trying to make sense of their own existence.  It’s hard to follow these arguments in spoken form, but it’s still pretty endearing.  Third, the semi-villain of the first TV series is fairly interesting, although I wouldn’t say I totally understand him.  Finally, it is nice to have a female protagonist for a story like this, although this is somewhat undermined by the fact that all the characters around her are men, not to mention the ridiculous outfit they have her wearing.
Cons: The vagaries of alphabetization may have already made this clear, but I watch with someone who enjoys this spy-story stuff much more than I do, so.  This kind of plot isn’t the kind that’s most interesting to me.  I also don’t really care for the art; it seems kind of stiff and two-dimensional compared to a lot of the other series I’ve seen—this is probably a technology issue.  And seriously, Kusanagi’s outfit is ridiculous.
Verdict: Good.

Fullmetal Alchemist
I definitely need to write more about Fullmetal Alchemist, right?
Scenario: Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, are alchemists who attempted forbidden human transmutation and as a result, Ed lost his arm and his leg, while Al lost his entire body, but is still alive because Ed attached his soul to a suit of armor.  Ed joins the military as a State Alchemist, so that he can have better access to the research that might allow them to get their bodies back. Instead, they end up uncovering a conspiracy and a lot of other weird and frequently disquieting stuff. The world is loosely based on Weimar Republic-era Germany, but has a distinct steampunk flavor to it, with advanced mechanical technology and lots and lots of trains.
Pros: Well, let’s see. I think the most obvious draw to this is the characters; the main characters are appealing in ways I’ve discussed elsewhere, but most of the minor characters are very interesting, too—Hughes probably belongs in some kind of Anime Character Hall of Fame, but I also love Sheska, the absent-minded librarian (what?); Izumi, the fierce hippie teacher; Ross, who is put in charge of managing the Elrics and treats them with motherly concern; Marta, the wronged and disillusioned veteran who has thrown in her lot with Greed; Pinako who… is Pinako, and, uh, some of the male characters too, I mean, Mustang is interesting even if he is more or less a study in Traditionally Masculine Emotional Suppression, and you could try reading some depth into Armstrong, but even if you don’t, he’s hilarious.  Even the homunculi become interesting as the series goes on, especially Greed and Lust.  All these characters are given plenty to do, which is to say, the plot is also quite engrossing. This is partly because one is invested in these characters and really cares what happens to them, and partly because there are strange and mysterious things happening on both a political and a metaphysical scale.  But there’s more to it than that. For one thing, the things that the Elrics learn about human limitations and underlying principles of the world feel really hard-won and important, even if they’re difficult to articulate outside the context of the show. For another (and this is quite important to me, even if I did put it at the end), the show does some really interesting things with disability and trauma and what war means and what adulthood means.  Blake Charlton says that fantasy is the literature of disability; FMA is the example through which I make sense of this.
Cons: Well, it’s all a bit much, and if you don’t accept the show’s invitation to become deeply emotionally involved, you’re certain to raise an eyebrow at how very dramatic everything gets.  There’s lots of violence in the show, and it can be kind of hard to watch at times. Also, I had some issues with the ending which you can read about in some of my many posts. I didn’t really like the explanation of what is on the other side of the gate, and the final resolution was frustrating and worrisome to me.
Verdict: Great. At least, Lives In My Brain Forever isn’t really a rating I want to give, so “Great” is the closest approximation I can come up with.

Last Exile
Scenario: Two children, Klaus and Lavie, are couriers in the midst of a war which is fought by factions in airships.  An independent airship, the Silvana, has a mysterious captain named Alex who seems to be  involved in an agenda which is not immediately clear. Klaus and Lavie end up in charge of a young girl who appears to be the key to it all.
Pros: It’s set in a world that is very appealing to me. Much to my surprise, I turn out to quite like steampunk milieus; I guess it’s just fun to think about alternate technology.  The intrigue and the initially mysterious nature of the war drew me in to the series.  Also, I like the art very much. It has an old-fashioned, almost watercolor look to it.
Cons: The plot didn’t really live up to my expectations.  The setup was fun and the characters, especially Lavie, had a great deal of immediate charm, but they didn’t really develop in an interesting way over the course of the series. The story got bogged down in a love triangle that wasn’t very compelling to me, and the later episodes just didn’t live up to the promise of the first.  By the end, I was mostly watching for Dio, and then his character takes a turn that isn’t fully explained, which was frustrating.  The ending, also, made no sense—I do not mean that it didn’t fit the characters or the series, but rather that I couldn’t understand what had happened. That’s not usually a good sign.
Verdict: Okay.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (NEW)
Scenario: Kyon, a totally ordinary schoolboy, sits in front of the new girl, Haruhi, who is both eccentric and extremely pushy. She is disappointed that to find strange things happening around her, so she ropes Kyon into a club and also invites three other students to look for espers (that is, individuals with ESP powers), aliens and time travelers. It turns out she has a talent for attracting strange people and events.
Pros: I think that “zany” is the right word to describe this. It’s pretty funny; Haruhi isn’t likeable, but she’s certainly interesting, and I love the conceit that everybody knows about the thing that she’s looking for except for Haruhi herself. Kyon is an entertaining narrator; his resigned, world-weary snarkiness ends up actually being funny, perhaps partly because we are not totally sympathetic with him. Emotionless Yuki and cheerful, untrustworthy Koizumi are also pretty fun–and then there’s Tsuruya. The plots are–well, some of them are better than others, but ultimately I’m not even sure the plot is the point. The show is very clever in its awareness and little jabs are common anime (and other) tropes, several of which I’m actually able to pick up on by now.
Cons: Okay, a lot of people will complain about Endless Eight, which is an eight-episode Groundhog’s Day-type plot in which events are repeated over and over, but I won’t, because a) the payoff made me laugh, hard, and b) I will never get tired of tired of the conversation between Kyon and Yuki in which this is revealed. I did have a problem with the way that Mikuru is treated, especially by Haruhi–she’s the “cute girl” and Haruhi manipulates others by groping her, physically forces her into sexy costumes, casts her the love interest in a movie, etc–some of this is pretty clearly sexual assault and it’s played for laughs, which doesn’t make me happy. At least Kyon knows better, although he’s not especially helpful. The other criticism that needs to be mentioned is that the episodes are in some apparently random order that makes no sense, but I used this page to make sure I watched them in the right order, so they made a little more sense.
Verdict: Good.

Mushi-shi
Scenario: Ginko is a mushi master, which means that he travels the countryside solving the problems caused by mushi. These are small creatures which behave a little like spirits, causing odd things to happen which disrupt people’s lives.  For the most part, each episode is independent from the others; Ginko is the link between them.
Pros: This is a beautiful show. The art is the best I have seen in any anime, and  you get to see a lot of the Japanese countryside, which is quite stunning.  The stories themselves are quiet, full of interest but not large in scale, and often thought-provoking. While things that happen as a result of mushi infestations are certainly strange, they affect ordinary people and thus end up showing us something about life (or love, or family, or responsibility), but never in a way I’d consider heavy-handed.  Ginko is wonderful—compassionate, insightful, fallible, and comfortable with himself.  He’s a reassuring person to spend time with, and to be perfectly honest, I’d really love to see more male characters who, like Ginko, value empathy, humility and a sense of proportion.
Cons: If you’re looking for an action-packed adventure show, this really isn’t it.  One could also criticize the show for romanticizing whatever vague historical period it is supposed to occupy (Samurai Champloo, in my reading, is actually making this criticism, though perhaps not of Mushi-shi specifically).  Or one could notice the use of Gilligan’s-Island style technology; it is kind of hilarious when Ginko uses a makeshift microscope.
Verdict: Great. And now I need to find a way to watch it again.

Samurai 7
Scenario: This is an anime series based on the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, but in a science-fiction setting.  However, the series does not follow the film exactly; it adds characters and continues on after the plot of the film has ended.  The plot is this: the war has ended and the merchant class is now the most powerful.  Bandits are attacking villages full of peasants and forcing them to pay them rice. One village decides to send its water priestess, Kirara, to hire some samurai to defend them.
Pros:  This is probably the most cinematic anime series I have ever watched; great care is taken with the visual composition, the fight choreography, and the music.  As I haven’t watched the movie (I want to, but haven’t yet), I can’t say for sure how much of this is carefully imitated from scenes in the movie, and how much is originally composed. In any case, it’s very well done, although there are some episodes later in the series when the art doesn’t look quite as good. Much of the series is about the interactions among the samurai, which are very interesting because they are very different from each other and have all joined the group for different reasons.  Most of them are interesting themselves—there’s not too much you can say about Kyuza, and Heihachi is a bit difficult to understand, but I could certainly write at least a paragraph on each of the others.  Gorobei is probably my favorite, but Kanbei is the most important, and seems to have the most subtleties to his character.  For one thing, I enjoyed how the series implicitly allowed some space around Kanbei’s sexuality through some of his interactions with Kyuza and Shichiraji; a viewer can’t assume him to be straight, gay, or asexual, although he does say, “My heart dried up long ago.”  The film, as I understand, focuses mostly on the battle, while the anime series goes on to explore the political stuff that happens afterward.  I enjoy it, but others may not.
Cons: Well, purist fans of the movie may be annoyed by the changes, but I’d have to watch the movie to really understand why they might be objectionable.  There are certainly a lot of characters here—not just the samurai, but also the village folk, and there are quite a few aristocrats and then you get into the Guardians and the farmers who work for them.  It gets a little tricky to remember all the names, but it’s pretty impressive how distinctive each character is. The series also doesn’t quite seem to know exactly when it should end—I’m okay with the not-entirely-conclusive ending, but its timing is somewhat awkward.
Verdict: Great.

Samurai Champloo
Scenario: Uhh.. okay, so Fuu is a waitress, and she’s wants to find someone (the samurai who smells of sunflowers) and she somehow manages to rope two drifters with highly developed combat skills into coming along to help her. One is Jin, a taciturn ronin with a murky and questionable past, and the other is Mugen, a loudmouthed street punk. They have a long way to walk and spend a lot of their  time stopping in various villages where they try to get enough money to keep going, and usually end up getting mixed up in something shady that happens to be going on there.  Jin and Mugen don’t really care about Fuu’s quest and really just want to fight each other, but on the other hand, they don’t have anything better to do than follow her around.
Pros: I’ve mentioned before that this seems to me to be an answer to shows like Mushi-shi—it is not even remotely interested in realistically representing the Edo era, or any era, but it does explode some of the idealized images of old Japan by showing a seamy, violent place in which laws are flouted and many people live underground lives.  I enjoy this.  Fuu, Jin and Mugen aren’t highly engaging characters in which I became immediately invested, but they are characters who one enjoys following around if only because it’s fun to watch them and see what they do.  The show is often very funny in a way that sometimes stems from pure silliness (for instance, the baseball episode) and sometimes is a little more character-based.  The art is a very different style from what I’m used to seeing. People are drawn a little more realistically but there’s also less of an attempt at three-dimensionality. I wouldn’t want everything to have this art style, but it works very well for this series.
Cons: There’s not a really strong ongoing plot; it’s more episodic.  Also, amidst all the violence there are a couple moments that are still bothering me, including one from the first episode. There are some ridiculous caricatures, including one of a secret Dutch immigrant who is depicted in his homeland, sniffing tulips in front of a windmill (but then, everything is so broad in this series that I’m not sure this is really offensive).  On the whole, if you read the pros and thought that the series sounded enjoyable, that is pretty much what it is.
Verdict: Somewhere between good and great.

Soul Eater
Scenario: Out in the desert, a strangely… cute… Death runs a school for humans who can transform into weapons, and maesters, who wield them.  Several crises arise, which must be attended to largely by students and teachers at the school (Death himself is unable to leave the premises).
Pros: Actually, maybe I don’t quite have the knowledge and authority to say so, but this really, really strikes me as a spoof of action anime in general.  We’ll see if anyone else thinks so. Black*Star is definitely Naruto, and there’s a moment that would appear to reference the common saying among fans that a certain character needs a hug, when Maka hugs Crona at a crucial moment.  And Crona, well, I could easily see how people could be annoyed by hir (Crona’s gender is ambiguous), because zie can be fairly whiny, but here’s the thing: Crona is a very good depiction of a rejected/abused child, who can’t immediately overcome the trauma that zie has experienced.  In fact, the series really ended up to be about confidence and maintaining one’s psychological control in difficult circumstances. Even the final battle is really just about staring down one’s fears.  This is interesting and I kind of enjoyed it, although it is weird. Also, I really enjoyed Stein’s monotone voice in the English dub.
Cons: Haha, kind of what I just said, right?  Whiny Crona, excessive wackiness, a focus on characters’ psychology although they are not psychologically deep characters, and a very weird final battle that’s hardly a battle at all.  But, see, it’s fun.
Verdict: Good. (possibly only okay if not for Crona and Stein, but you know).

Trigun
Scenario: In a world somewhat resembling the Old West, a reward is offered for one Vash the Stampede, for reasons that aren’t really clear.  He turns out to be a person who unintentionally causes the destruction of whatever town he visits, but this appears to be mostly the fault of the people who go after him for the reward; Vash is nonviolent but doesn’t care about property damage.
Pros: While this scenario turns out to be less interesting than it sounds, actually, there is a character called Wolfwood, a cynical priest who is skeptical of Vash’s philosophy and carries around a giant cross which is also a gun.  He turns out to be pretty funny, and oddly, the plot only moves forward when he’s around. Plus, I enjoyed his voice and his nose. There were also two female characters from whose perspective most of the story is told, so that’s kind of nice, even if Milly isn’t that interesting (I do kind of like Meryl).
Cons: I was generally disappointed in this series. It was hard to get into; in fact, I can basically do without the first six episodes or so, which were just about Vash acting wacky (and, in one case, uncomfortably stalkery).  Vash was kind of annoying to me; I enjoy goofy characters but it is nice if they have a personality beyond that. When you get beyond Vash’s goofy surface, all you get is angst, and not too much of an individual personality.  I also didn’t care for the art; this is partly because the series is quite old and the technology wasn’t as good then, but, well..  Vash’s philosophy isn’t well-explained, and I didn’t find the ending satisfying at all (I’m pretty sure it didn’t solve anything).
Verdict: Okay.

BONUS: Avatar: The Last Airbender:
Yes, this is an American show, so it isn’t really anime. But it was one of the first shows I watched on Netflix, and I liked it very much, and I wanted to write about it a little.
Scenario: There are four kingdoms corresponding to the traditional elements, except that the Air Kingdom has been destroyed, and the Fire Kingdom has been attacking everyone. Each group has its own style of magic/martial arts.  The Avatar is supposed to balance things out, but the most recent incarnation is a child and has been trapped in an iceberg for the last century or so.  He and his friends have adventures and eventually fix everything.
Pros: This is a really fun show. I like the characters a lot, and in particular, I enjoyed the diversity among them.  For instance, Toph is blind and Aang is a vegetarian and neither of these things is treated as strange.  But even that aside, there were lots and lots of interesting characters—to be honest, I think Iroh was really my favorite, but there are lots of good choices.  The world is also a fun one to hang out in, and the way animals work was amusing to me.
Cons: Well, there are moments when the show kind of reminds you that it is a kids’ show, and Asuka isn’t a very believable character. But seriously, this show does not have many flaws and is highly recommended by me.
Verdict: Great.

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