Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Galactic Pot Dealer

A lot of people view Philip K Dick as a hack writer; and yes, there is a lot of merit to the argument. NF himself has been quoted a few times saying something to this effect. Mostly, the type of people who hold this view take writing as a craft very seriously and on a lower, sentence-by-sentence level, PKD is very hackish - no doubt about it. (A wonderful, perhaps apocryphal incident involves someone looking at a remarkably low quality pulp fiction journal and wondering who'd ever read it, to which PKD retorted that he was one of those who wrote it.) In fact, it's a common complaint against science fiction and fantasy writing in general, held presumably by those in the literary fiction camp, who are very self conscious about what they're writing - sometimes so much so that they go to great lengths to make their prose rather ugly and/or purposely un-self conscious. 

However, there are times when PKD breaks through his self limitations of uninspiring writing, vapid dialogue and plot-twists-of-varying-degrees-of-efficacy. One may wonder how much of it is a mere law of large numbers (he wrote 44 novels - at least once every year) and how much is truly great writing. 

As someone who's read more than his fair share of PKD, NF was taken aback at rereading a classic - The Man in the High Castle - an alternate history so well realized that it's hard to believe that it's by the same writer who wrote The Man Who Japed or Galactic Pot-Healer or Game Players of Titan or several other really forgettable works, whose plotlines NF has dutifully forgotten, with only murky, vague, not-so-agreeable remnant impressions. 

However, when PKD does manage to make magic happen, the impact is enormous. NF has powerful memories of reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik and A Scanner Darkly - incredibly high quality fiction - all of which NF enjoyed thoroughly. He's more confused about his later writing - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer - he didn't enjoy them so much (the latter particularly), despite their undeniable literary merit.

All this is also curious because it shows that a description on a lower level (sentence-by-sentence level hack writing, which PKD is guilty of) can be totally overturned or may be wholly inadequate to describe the same system at a higher level (the big, complex philosophical themes that PKD often writes about). Indeed PKD's oeuvre, when viewed from this higher vantage point has much more merit than a lower level description based on mere literary qualities will suggest.

This "phase change", so to say, is common in physics and is by now a firmly established part of modern science where it goes by the name of emergence. Lower level descriptions don't segue continuously into higher level descriptions. That's why knowing physics doesn't automatically make you a good biologist. That's why phenomenology is not reducible to morphology. That's why David Foster Wallace said "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." 

NF would like to see some emergent literary criticism take shape, where the critic pays close attention to which level in the overall hierarchy the writer is being critiqued at. Perhaps an $n$-tuple of scores may be assigned to each writer, ranging from lower to higher levels. PKD will get really low scores for lower levels but high scores at higher levels to compensate for mere bad writing. A similar fate awaits Dostoyevsky, though he will outscore PKD at all levels (a uniformly better writer in a mathematical sense). This however, is not the same as multidimensional scoring, though the operation will be mathematically similar. 

Will this ever be a part of mainstream literary criticism? Will you want lit crit to be done this way? Is this a regressive way to look at literature? Is it even desirable? Won't the ghost of Robin Williams haunt your dreams yelling Carpe fuckin' Diem

Not sure, though PKD could definitely tell an engaging story where it was being done all along until some misfit stumbled upon this alternate reality on the very last page.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Even Pitchfork Swears By It

In a brilliant, incisive, all-over-excellent piece, the incredible Rob Sheffield celebrates Kid A's 15th birthday in Rolling Stone. Here's the full article: How Radiohead Shocked the World: A 15th-Anniversary Salute to 'Kid A'.

It's a terrific essay and thank heavens that much like pornography, you know great writing when you see it.

Examples: Here's the confusion that swept over devoted fans:
Whether you loved or hated Kid A, it gave undeniable entertainment value. All through the miserable fall of 2000, the debates raged on. Is it a masterpiece? A hype? A compendium of clichés? Will it stand the test of time? Why aren't "Knives Out" or "You and What Army" on this album? Where'd you park the car? Is Al Gore blowing it on purpose? Why didn't the umpires toss Clemens after he threw the bat? Where's "Pyramid Song"? Who let the dogs out? When is the second half of this album coming out — you know, the half with the actual Radiohead songs? How did they get away with that in Florida? Is this really happening?
Understandably, there was initial bewilderment and backlash: 
The funniest review came from Select, the best Britpop mag of the era: "What do they want for sounding like the Aphex Twin circa 1993, a medal?"
However, only Radiohead could pull it off:
That was part of the romance of loving Radiohead — this band always did have a tendency to over-egg the pudding. I mean, if the trees you're singing about are "plastic," you probably don't need to add that they're also "fake," least of all in the title. But it's that hyper-adolescent overstatement that makes the "fake plaaa-haaastic trees" line — and the song title, and the song — so emotionally powerful. "Fake Plastic Trees" would have been easier to take if it had been called "Green Plastic Trees" or "Blue Vinyl Trees" or something — more subtle, more adult, more intelligent. But it would have been a lesser song... 
At that point, it seemed like Radiohead were the only Nineties band left who still wanted to be a Nineties band —
The entire article glows with several such rare gems and has been casually, effortlessly sprinkled with deep observations about the then ascendant alternative scene.

Do read the whole thing.

(Those who know NF personally, are probably aware that he's a massive, massive fan of Radiohead in general and Kid A in particular. Indeed it was Kid A that personally got NF through six weeks of his only foray into real life inside a Fremont cubicle. (He'd listen to it on a loop and would often gaze longingly at the clock, willing it to tick faster.)

Sadly though, Radiohead is his only favorite band he hasn't seen live yet. (GY!BE check, Mogwai check, Pixies check.) Circumstances seem to be conspiring to make this permanently so. Boo.)

This is how journalism is meant to be. Read the piece and feel its pulse. It's alive and it'll kick some serious ass yet.