Bug Eyes

Science fiction and horror are close kin.  Once relegated to the cheap rack of “genre fiction,” both have now developed considerable literary sophistication, perhaps in the wake of their ability to bring in money.  I used to attend used book sales.  Two of the big ones in central Jersey were the Bryn Mawr sale, held just outside Princeton, and the even larger Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale.  Both were springtime events and highlights on my calendar.  I always had a list with me when I went, but there were also so many books I’d never heard of and that looked fascinating.  One such book was the science fiction anthology, Bug-Eyed Monsters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg.  The garish cover was half the appeal, and, well, monsters go without saying.

Although I’ve mostly moved to the horror end of the spectrum, there were some good stories here.  Bug-eyed monsters were a staple of 1950’s sci-fi, gracing the covers of pulps, often menacing women with their tentacles.  Some of the tales here share that kind of wide-eyed wonder at the sheer power of imagination, while others are much more subtle.  Monsters, of course, lurk between genres, bursting into consciousness when something unexpected is discovered.  They also have strains of religious awe associated with them.  That’s obvious in a couple of the stories as well.  Since I’m trying to read through my own books while stores are closed, I decided to spend some time with my monsters.  The problem with story collections, however, is you can’t discuss them all in the short format to which I limit myself here.  Besides, some of them I didn’t like.

Monsters deserve to be treated with respect.  In the “golden age” of sci-fi they were often played for titillation.  Most of the monsters in this collection are from outer space.  Some are homegrown, generally in the scarier tales.  We are afraid of those who are different.  Monsters, as more than one of these stories indicate, can be more humane than humans often are.  It’s no surprise that they tend to represent the foreigner, the person whose culture and appearance are different than our own.  Titillation apart, these narratives often ask us to stop and consider what might happen if we really did listen.  Would we not improve ourselves if we could learn from those we fear?  In these days of government-approved xenophobia, perhaps we should dust off our copies of the old genre fiction.  Even in those days we were encouraged to be open minded like our monsters.

Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.

Human HU

In these times of extreme xenophobia, we desperately need to understand those who are different.  When my brother recently shared his discovery of The HU’s album The Gereg, I was at first a little concerned.  That deep-seated childhood evangelicalism suggests anything that unfamiliar is bound to be satanic.  How unfamiliar?  Mongolian throat-singing unfamiliar.  Songs sung in Mongolian, unfamiliar.  Album art that could be heavy metal.  I’d never come across anything like it.  I suppose it’s a natural, knee-jerk reaction to say anything so unfamiliar is potentially demonic, and it shows just how paranoid a culture can be.  We think of 1950’s America as “the norm.”  I wasn’t alive then, but I’ve seen pictures.  Buzz cuts still give me the willies.  I trust Mongolians more.

I don’t know if The HU is a deliberate play on The Who or not, but the word roughly translates to “human.”  Like many ancient practices, nobody thought to write down the origins of throat singing.  Traditionally it was what Inuit women did when men were out on the hunt.  Like many aspects of hunter-gatherer society, it fascinates.  Some cultures reported that when Christian missionaries came, with their cultural imperialism in tow, they suppressed throat singing.  It looks like I wasn’t the only one raised to be suspicious of that which is different.  I learned, however, of my own cultural biases.  I learned that ones’ own assumptions must be interrogated.  If humanity is to survive, we must learn to try to understand one another.

Although the actual roots of throat singing are lost in unwritten times, I strongly suspect it has a religious, or if you prefer, spiritual, origin.  When women gather it isn’t the same as when men consolidate power and institutionalize violence.  I’ve read that when women rule there is a strong impulse to cooperate, to suppress aggression.  Men can learn this.  Indeed, as those white, male missionaries took up their positions in far-flung parts of the globe they spread the idea that men alone held the divine right of, if not kings, priests.  Conversion, you see, is seldom gentle.  Making the world in your own image, if you’re a man, runs into certain obvious problems right away.  HU means human.  When I feel the cold paranoia of my own government creeping up on me, I cue-up the soundtrack of my life.  I’m no longer a young man, and I don’t fear the different as much as I used to.  I need to hear something different, something human.

Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.

The New Purple

Those of us who grew up Evangelical hold an unusual place among our liberal peers.  We’re often able to peer around, over, and under that wall that has been built between those who want a faith-based nation and those who want a free one.  Angela Denker is a fellow traveler on this road, and her book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a useful roadmap.  Some of us fall further from the tree than others, but one of Evangelicalism’s more endearing traits, when taken seriously, is the love of those who are different from you.  That love is often forgotten in the political rhetoric daily whipped into a froth by an unstable president being used by his party to install agendas that hardly fit the moniker “Christian.”  That’s why books like this are so important.

I confess that reading studies such as this make me uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because my Evangelical past haunts me worse than any ghost, but also because Denker is clearly right that basic humanity is being left in the garbage as battle lines are drawn up in what could be a great, diverse nation if a leader were determined to work for unity.  I recently wrote about lunar landings.  Kennedy was a Catholic who had to work to bring a nation together around a common goal.  Instead of tearing the country apart for his personal aggrandizement, he pointed to the moon.  Sure, there was a xenophobia concerning the Soviet Union, but at least in this pocket of the world there was a sense that we should work together.  When religion entered politics with Richard Nixon and his followers, a deep rift opened up.  The two topics you were never to discuss—religion and politics—were now in the same bed.

Red State Christians is an extended road trip on which Denker interviews people who largely fall under the Evangelical umbrella.  Some of them are Catholic.  Some of them are Hispanic.  Some of them are less concerned with social issues, but are hard-working laborers often overlooked by the Democratic Party.  The resulting pastiche is one in which Americans are cast not in sharp relief, but rather with the hazy edges that are a far more accurate way of understanding human beings.  Many, it becomes clear, elected Trump out of fear, or out of fear of his opponent.  These aren’t bad people, but they are people afraid.  This wasn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important one.  And those who want to work for a future that might include realms beyond the moon might find this work a small step in the right direction.

Live Long

Maybe you went through it too.  In your teenage years the fascination began.  Before you knew it, you had a stack of them tucked away, each well-thumbed and ogled over.  Guinness Books of World Records, I mean, of course.  We’re captivated by extremes.  While working on a fictional story the other day, I started wondering about longevity claims.  The Good Book suggests that once upon a time a century was the equivalent of becoming a teenager, and people were acting like teenagers well into their eighth or ninth centuries.  Modern scientific analysis provides an alternative narrative, putting upper limits at 120, with only one verified, and disputed, case putting someone over it.  Curious, I looked at Wikipedia.  Two pages (at least) address the issue, one on human longevity tout court and another on verified claims.  Since the lists include home nations, I began to notice a pattern.

The verified records tend to feature the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  The unverified Russia, Latin America, and Western Asia.  This disparity struck me as perhaps a bias concerning the source of reliable information.  Not only affecting longevity reports, concerns about reliable data impact all our sources of information.  I’ve written about internet resources before, but here I’m mainly worried about the bias of “first world” records as opposed to the records of less developed countries.  Not only that, but in the case of longevity claims, those born in outlying areas—beyond the reach of official government recorders—are suspect when compared to those kept by city dwellers.  We tend to trust our own kind, especially when it comes to extreme claims.

Like John Mellencamp, I was born in a small town.  Official records, comfortably handwritten, indicate when and where that happened, to the nearest day.  (Birth is a process, of course, and doesn’t always obey conventional human time-marking practices.  Organic events are often that way.)  The fact of the existence of other people indicates that they too have been through this in some form.  The event was marked in the way of local custom.  It’s locally true.  I knew a doctor trained in Sweden.  She couldn’t practice medicine in the United States for fear of what boils down to competing forms of belief.  Xenophobia in medical practice extends to other areas of human knowledge as well.  We are taught to trust the information given by our own authorities, but not those of other cultures.  I’m suppose to accept that without question, but I wasn’t born yesterday.