The metalepsis will not be wikified

Tuesday, 17 March 2015 — 5:17am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Music

Amber Jacquemain (Kate Miller-Heidke) and Toby Kramer (Roderick Williams) in Sunken Garden (2011-2012), a 3D film-opera by Michel van der Aa with a libretto by the novelist David Mitchell.

For the conscious mind can be set aside and subdued by the emotions, but in a dream world all is logic.
— Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

One can hardly reproach a reader entranced by the stories of David Mitchell, sold on his aesthetic games and primed for every fresh display of his metafictional tricks, for failing to suppress a squeal of delight on cashing in a ticket for the oldest of loyalty rewards: the recognition of a familiar face. Or in Mitchell’s case, notorious as he is for threading his characters along a washing line of transmigration, not a face but a dislocated name, a clue to a persistent mind and memory. “Fifteen pages into The Bone Clocks,” Kathryn Schulz says of his latest novel (which begins in 1984), “I sat up so fast I clocked my own bones—skull against ceiling, in the low nook where I was reading. [The protagonist Holly Sykes] had just mentioned that, as a child, she had been cured of the strange voices in her head by a visit to one Dr Marinus. Mitchell fans will recall that Marinus is also the name of the doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. When we meet him in that book, it is 1799.”

The recurrence of characters across a writer’s oeuvre is nothing new; Schulz acknowledges Shakespeare’s Falstaff as a precedent, and we could say the same for Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, the other patrons of the Boar’s Head, whose encounter with the titular king of Henry V is all the more reverberant if you recall from the earlier Tudor plays their rapport with the young Prince Hal. But Mitchell’s signature devices, the transmigration of souls and the porousness of the border separating narrative from lived reality, dramatically expand the range and flexibility with which a character occurring in one story can be thought of as identical to a character in another, joined by a continuous sense of self.

This is a trick he plays both within his novels and across them. Often our only clue is a name, but as with the early Soviet cinema, the meaning is in the cut: we are ever only who we are in the instant we are living now, and our past or future selves are not the same embodiments of drives and experience, yet we find it intuitive to think of them as part of the same coherent personhood, its growth implicit in the abruptness of difference from one discrete stage to another.

How did you get from there to here? This is what Mitchell entices us to wonder about his players at every turn, and when Neal Brose, the neurotic financial lawyer in Ghostwritten, shows up a school-aged popularity racketeer in Black Swan Green, where we first meet the avatar of adolescent peer pressure Hugo Lamb, who returns in The Bone Clocks as a sociopath making his way up the Cambridge elite and is soon recruited into a secret society of predatory immortals by Elijah D’Arnoq, a rifler from the Chatham Islands implied to be the descendant of a churchman in Cloud Atlas who meets with the crew of the Prophetess, whose first mate Boerhaave sails into Nagasaki as a young midshipman in The Thousand Autumns aboard the Profetes—presumably the same vessel, though you will have to ask the staff of the museum ship preserved in a Californian harbour espied in Cloud Atlas by Luisa Rey, the crime writer who calls into Ghostwritten’s Bat Segundo Show (not to be confused with the literary podcast by Edward Champion where Mitchell has appeared as a guest several times)—you see his method at work, lapping waveforms on top of each other in search of an emergent resonance, a drone. The people, the families, the sailing ships—they are the same, yet not the same, and we read into their histories from not only what we see but what we don’t.

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Raging bishop

Friday, 16 September 2011 — 12:26am | Adventures, Board games

On Saturday I attended the London Chessboxing Championship, which was more or less what it said on the tin. For those unfamiliar with the emergent hybrid sport, there is chess, and there is boxing. Every bout alternates between successive rounds of speed chess and boxing until one of the contenders secures a checkmate on the board or a knockout in the ring (along with the usual victory conditions for resignation or time).

It should be no surprise that chessboxing’s promoters sell it as a perfect biathlon of mind and body. Chess has an ancient mystique of intellect about it even among those who barely know the game, and boxing is far and away the most story-rich of sports. Both activities stand as cultural paragons of some indefinite struggle of individual mastery. And the combination is hardly arbitrary: the boxing forces the chess to be played under conditions of high adrenaline and extreme physical fatigue, imposing a test of mental stamina quite unlike any other.

Not so clear is whether the chess takes a toll on the boxing. Andrea Kuszewski has argued that the most cognitively taxing part of the game is the rapid task-switching, which demands superb emotional control; indeed, chessboxing may prove to be exceptionally well suited to training one’s aggression management. In theory, a good chessboxer has to box with the ability to play chess very shortly in mind. (In practice, as we will see, this is not necessarily the case.)

The London event at the Scala was reportedly the world’s biggest night of chessboxing to date, with five bouts on the card drawing a capacity crowd of 1000. Before the first match, my own estimate was 400-500 spectators on the floor with many more in the balcony and VIP lounge, but the audience swelled as the night wore on and the official count became more plausible. One of the organizers called it the largest live audience on record for a game of chess, though I believe Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky drew similar numbers in the Piatigorsky Cup (Santa Monica, 1966), and that’s only the record in the United States.

Nevertheless, the sport shows signs of rapid expansion, filling a former cinema palace kitty-corner to King’s Cross that doubled the capacity of its previous venue in Tufnell Park. There are rumblings that talks have begun to bring chessboxing to Royal Albert Hall next year, presumably to catch some of the Olympic spillover, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Lipsett’s diarist

Friday, 2 September 2011 — 8:36am | Animation, Canadiana, Film

Over the past week I’ve been attending a number of sessions at the London International Animation Festival. The LIAF has been around since 2003, but this is its first year in the Barbican Centre, where it comes at the tail end of a summer celebrating the art of animation.

July at the Barbican saw a retrospective of Studio Ghibli’s films, which I was shocked to discover never made it to British shores until 2001. Being a kid who remembers precisely two films from his toddlerhood, one being the Cantonese dub of My Neighbour Totoro (the other was The Land Before Time), it continues to astonish me that the childhoods of my peers were Miyazaki-free until Spirited Away. Also running at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 September is Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a gallery exhibition spanning 150 years of global animation history that I’ll have to write about another time. My readers in Canada will be happy to note that the exhibition’s next destination is the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, where Watch Me Move will run from 8 October through Christmas Eve.

All digressions aside, I really must commend the LIAF’s outstanding curation. In the out-of-competition programmes alone I’ve found some classics I had hitherto missed like the Russian masterwork Hedgehog in the Fog, which grounded a session dedicated to cut-out animation past and present, and discovered some new and instant favourites. Two that stood out for me, both selections from last year’s SIGGRAPH conference: Mobile by Verena Fels, a crowd-pleasing shuffle of animals on wires reminiscent of Pixar’s For the Birds; and The Wonder Hospital by Shimbe (Beomsik Shim), a surreal descent into what I’d best describe as a funhouse of cosmetic surgery.

The piece that I want to draw attention to here, however, is Les journaux de Lipsett (Lipsett Diaries). It was presented as the fulcrum of a session dedicated to the oeuvres of its director, Theodore Ushev, and its subject, the 1960s Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Ushev himself was in attendance as one of the LIAF’s featured guests this year and told the audience of the many coincidences behind his latest project. Here’s one: when Ushev moved from Bulgaria to Montreal, where he has been based since 1999, he stayed in the same building that housed Lipsett for most of his life—until the latter committed suicide in 1986, aged 49.

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Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études

Saturday, 23 July 2011 — 10:12am | Classical, Computing, Music, Pianism

I’ve been aware of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard for a long time, but only in the past few days have I decided to try the layout for myself. Like any cognitive realignment pushing against the momentum of a lifelong habit, the initial adjustment process has been slow and occasionally punishing. When you are acccustomed to the fluidity of the keyboard as an invisible extension of the mind, it’s terrifying to find it amputated and clumsily reattached. I expect this overwhelming self-consciousness to be the norm someday when future generations willingly trade in their limbs for more dynamic cyborg substitutes.

Up to now, the closest I’ve come to this awkward stumbling was when I attempted to train my left-hand dexterity on Charlie Parker melodies I would normally play with my right. A kind of impotence, really: I was willing myself to do things that I was used to executing at dizzying velocities with ease, but my body just wouldn’t respond. The trick, I discovered, is to force yourself to slow down, clean up the suddenly naked particulars, and not rely so much on your established ‘chunks’ of muscle memory. My left hand is still a shambles, mind you, but as the lesser automaton it invents the more colourful passages.

That’s why I’m still plugging away in Dvorak. It may be slow-going at first—this post you are reading now is taking an eternity to punch in—but within minutes of playing with it, you begin to perceive all sorts of qualitative pleasures that simply don’t exist in QWERTY-land. It’s like switching to an Apple Macintosh, complete with the moment of epiphany where the cultishness of the already indoctrinated looks reasonable all of a sudden. (Or so I’ve heard. Having been a Mac user on and off since the age of five, I can’t really say.)

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Oprah, Oona: the miseries of Franzenfreude

Wednesday, 1 June 2011 — 5:29pm | Comics, Literature, Television

There’s a passage in Generosity: An Enchancement, Richard Powers’ novel about genetics and creative writing, that transports us to a prominent talk show from Chicago:

It’s less a show than a sovereign multinational charter. And its host is, by any measure, the most influential woman in the world. Her own story is a remarkable mix of motifs from American creative fiction, from Alger to Zelazny. Say only that she has grown from an impoverished, abused child into an adult who gives away more money than most industrialized nations. She has the power to create instant celebrities, sell hundreds of millions of books, make or break entire consumer industries, expose frauds, marshal mammoth relief efforts, and change the spoken language. All this by being tough, warm, vulnerable, and empathetic enough to get almost any other human being to disclose the most personal secrets on international television. If she didn’t exist, allegory would have to invent her.

Powers calls his daytime doyenne Oona, but we all know he’s talking about Oprah. Here we find our scientific-literary novelist in the fine, familiar predicament of engaging with an outside world where corporate global brands are king. Allegories of real folks are tacky things, but when you pen a Chicago novel about finding the genetic basis of happiness in the anaesthetized age of mass media, there’s no detour around the Oprah problem: you’re writing her into your damned book.

(I’m not sure how well it goes. Generosity is eminently likable, and its Clarke Award nomination earlier this year is one of many reasons why you should pay attention to the Clarke Awards, but there’s an overall sense of Richard Powers for Beginners about it next to the depth of his earlier work.)

Here in the telly-impervious literary fortress of Nick’s Café Canadien, we don’t pay much attention to Ms Winfrey. My impression of Oprah has never been terribly positive: as a consumerist behemoth that uncritically promotes junk science and bad medicine while throwing its financial weight behind the overweening cult of self-help, it has often come off to me as a malignant alien presence from another world. I’m reliably informed, however, that as of last week the twenty-five-year gravity well of The Oprah Winfrey Show has finally pocketed itself into its own precious singularity.

Days earlier, Jonathan Franzen delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College that has since appeared in The New York Times (best read alongside Edward Champion’s notes on the abridgment), the latest variation on Literary Man’s perpetual anxiety over technology’s commodification of human passions. Franzen’s argument—that the casual comforts of the Facebook “like” and the easy requital of our device relationships have inoculated us from experiencing true and hurtful love—came bundled with the delicious irony that we’ve come to expect from everything involving the reluctant superstar of American letters. Scarcely a month ago, The New Yorker ran a magisterial essay of his about scattering the ashes of David Foster Wallace on the island of Robinson Crusoe only to hold it hostage behind the paywall. “Like” The New Yorker on Facebook, said the ransom note—or else.

The timing may be coincidental, but the parallel—rather, the perpendicularity—isn’t lost on those of us who absorbed everything about the Winfrey-Franzen feud of 2001 with unhealthy fascination. Here’s the story: ten years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected Franzen’s outstanding novel The Corrections for the Book Club segment of her programme, something that even her most bitter critics have to admit has been a marvel for moving volumes of contemporary fiction. Shortly after, Franzen voiced his discomfort with being marketed under the Oprah sticker, leading Winfrey to rescind the book selection along with Franzen’s invitation to the show.

You can imagine the media frenzy. High-profile literary scuffles are like classical music riots: we don’t see enough of them these days, and when we do, it’s comical yet reassuring to discover that other people care about this stuff. And here we had, in one corner, an inspirational figure of tremendous accomplishment and national renown; in the other corner—well, Oprah Winfrey.

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