Friday, November 02, 2007

Still more entertainment

I read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick this week. He's the (departed) guy maybe most broadly known for writing the stories that got made into Blade Runner, Total Recall, Paycheck, and Minority Report, and more recently, you probably didn't see A Scanner Darkly and Next.

This book came out in 1962. It's the alternate present of America in 1962, 15 years after the Allies lost World War II (owing to, among other things, the assassination of FDR). The west coast is run by the Japanese, the east coast is run by the Germans, and the middle of the country has become a shadow of its former self. It's well-depicted and eerie. More than that, it's a novel about the Tao and about living inside and outside the flow of the world. It's also a novel about art, where the characters all seem to be reading an alternate history bestseller, banned in the Nazi countries, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts the Allied victory in World War II. It's also a stylistic tour-de-force, with each focus character narrated and talking in their own dialect and from their own peculiar points of view.

This truly appears to be my year of the novel. I also picked up a novel omnibus by Ursula K. LeGuin. If anybody has some more recommendations, I am all ears.

Vince brought up recently that our reading lists do not intersect much because I read a lot of fiction and he reads a lot of non-fiction. I love stories. I don't necessarily learn facts from them, but consider this: facts are true, but often irrelevant; theories are relevant, but often untrue. That is my philosophy of science, cribbed from a linguistics professor in undergrad. One day he was trying to explain a fundamental problem with Chomsky's linguistics and he put it this way: they keep trying to extend the theory to cover more and more cases, but by doing that, they lose the power of their original generalizations.

This appears to be a fundamental problem of the pursuit of knowledge: knowing how important the details are. This is so important that researchers routinely eliminate as many details as possible, by controlling the environment. To find important implications, you have to match valuable behavior with significant control.

Living as a human being, perhaps fortunately, does not provide us with similar control of our environment, with similar eliminations of variables, except perhaps to the insane, the Wall Street executive, the alienated... but I repeat myself. Instead of tearing our lives into constituent parts, I am convinced we try to tell ourselves a story with some integrity, some unity of action. And reading fiction, or even non-fiction stories, I think, gives us a chance to respond to our world, to another human being, not with a little part of ourselves, but with our hearts in our teeth, our minds engaged, our blood pumping through the pages. I have rarely been shaken or moved by non-fiction, or rather, by arguments. But I want to be moved when I read. I want to be someone else when I'm done.

Madeleine L'Engle said recently about Harry Potter that there's no underneath to the stories, and I think there is something to this. The Harry Potter books are interesting depictions of flawed heroes, and they are epic and fun, grand and entertaining, but ultimately, they are not meant to shake you up the way I'm talking about. They do not point to deeper meanings, do not exploit the power of ambiguity. They are safe. Impotent. Sterile. I hope for JK Rowling's sake that instead of writing the Harry Potter encyclopedia (she is currently suing a website that plans to make a similar product with her characters) and getting stuck in the safe world, she sits down with her pen and her knife, and creates a new story with a few more razorblades sticking out of it.

If you watch TV, point yourself toward the other best show on television. Yes, yes, there's Heroes, which you should still be watching (first season on DVD, quite poignant and epic, dangerous and potent), but the antics of the cheerleader have gotten boring, and the dead hand of the painter that depicts the future is choking the plot. All in all, things are a bit tedious at the moment. So why not watch a show about a dude who brings people back from the dead.

It's Pushing Daisies. In Pushing Daisies, Ned, a pie-maker in his mid-twenties, has been living with a strange power for more than a decade: touch a dead thing (animal, person) once, and it comes back to life. But touch it again and it's dead forever. Also, the catch, if the reanimated thing is not returned to death within a minute, something else dies in its place.

The backstory: when the guy was ten, he discovered his power when his mom died by accident, he brought her back to life. His girl-next-door's father died when, 60 seconds later, he hadn't returned his mom to death. Then his mom touched him anyway, and she died again, this time permanently. Afterwards, Ned's dad sent him to boarding school, but he never forgot Charlotte Charles, nicknamed Chuck, the childhood sweetheart whose father he had inadvertently killed.

The front story: Ned, now a full-time pie maker, falls in with a private investigator. The PI solves mysteries by talking to the dead for 60 seconds, using Ned's ability. Charlotte (Chuck) gets killed on a cruise and Ned goes in, ostensibly to touch her and solve the mystery of her death. But when she comes back to life, he is unwilling to see her dead again. So, 60 seconds go by and a grave-robbing funeral director nearby dies in her place.

Charlotte (Chuck) and Ned fall for each other instantly, but they cannot touch, or Charlotte will die. Nevertheless, they make the most of their second chance together, and therein lies the story. It is completely spell-binding. It's an urban fairy tale, still more evidence that the geeks have won. It is by turns surreal and kooky in the extreme, darling, hilarious, philosophical and heavy, and heartbreakingly romantic and beautiful. And, I just saw the episode where they do a They Might Be Giants song, which, unexpectedly, is germane to the content.

You can watch the show online if you like. ABC's player contains all the episodes to date; just click on the link that says "Watch Online Now."

Last off, here's a Radiohead concert in two acts. If you want to hear what they're all about, get it while it's hot. It's from Berkeley in 2006, so they play stuff from most of their catalog, including their newest album, excluding their first album. One thing that might impress you is how different the songs sound, even though it's always and only been the same five guys. They are a bit paranoid about contemporary Western society, but I for one am glad that someone is. It's dense, poetic, symphonic music.

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