a different way of pushing back the dark

At what point is being preachy okay?

I just finished The Last Light of the Sun. I managed to avoid anyone else’s opinions on it except for a brief glimpse, while adding it (on a whim; I’m hardly diligent about it) to Goodreads, of a review which bore, at its top, three stars. Only those I saw, but (as always happens if someone tells me what they thought of a book beforehand) I spent the remaining half of the book trying to figure out what that reviewer, and thus some percentage of those who’d read the book, took issue with.

True, Kay doles out more than his usual helping of fragmentary sentences. I recognized the moments he chose to use them, though, as attempts to push meaning rather than description: it’s just so. Much. More. Insistent when you chop it up. But I don’t condemn that sort of thing, and care little for the grammar nazis among us. I think what people stand to take issue with is less the fragments themselves but what he uses them to forklift over into nigh on every page: preachiness.

I don’t say that entirely without fondness. Quotes like this:

We like to believe we can know the moments we’ll remember of our own days and nights, but it isn’t really so. The future is an uncertain shape (in the dark) and men and women know that. What is less surely understood is that this is true of the past as well. What lingers, or comes back unsummoned, is not always what we would expect, or desire to keep with us.

and this:

It happens this way. Small things, accidents of timing and congruence: and then all that flows in our lives from such moments owes its unfolding course, for good or ill, to them. We walk (or stumble) along paths laid down by events of which we remain forever ignorant. The road someone else never took, or travelled too late, or too soon, means an encounter, a piece of information, a memorable night, or death, or life.

and this:

It is in the nature of things that when we judge actions to be memorably courageous, they are invariably those that have an impact that resonates: saving other lives at great risk, winning a battle, losing one’s life in a valiant attempt to do one or the other. A death of that sort can lead to songs and memories at least as much–sometimes more–than a triumph. We celebrate our losses, knowing how they are woven into the gift of our being here.

…And so a different truth about human courage was played out among those trees. A truth we resist for what it suggests about our lives. But sometimes the most gallant actions, those requiring a summoning of all of our will, access to bravery beyond easy understanding or description…have no consequence that matters. They leave no ripples upon the surface of succeeding events, cause nothing, achieve nothing. Are trivial, marginal. This can be hard to accept.

…sounds preachy, I know. Is preachy, really. And as someone with a great deal of contempt for organizations, religious and non-, telling me how to think, I know I should mind these passages. But I don’t. I appreciate them. I’ve said it before–moments where we are told how things are are my favorite parts of Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction. So why does he get a pass? Why, when I simmer with fury over the pastor/preacher/minister at my grandmother’s funeral absconding with the memory he leeched out of me at a pre-funeral memory-leeching session to then use in his own damn sermon, as if he had been there which he most surely was not, is one Canadian writer I’ve never met allowed to tell me how life is, in no uncertain terms? Why don’t I gnash my teeth at his use of “we,” even?

I’m not some ninny of a fangirl who thinks she knows the guy, or has come to know him through his fiction, so that’s not it. Nor am I deluding myself into thinking this is a specific meaning I alone am taking from the words–read them, he’s bald in his assertions, no subtlety to them.Things happen and this is how we react to them. I can’t stand people assuming they know what I will do or say, and I don’t even mind him doing precisely that here with his use of “we.” But maybe that is part of it–the group he’s addressing, readers of historical fantasy, doesn’t tend to congregate or even to see each other much. We certainly don’t have lobbyists wheedling for our interests in a boardroom somewhere, nor do we have casually offensive billboards plastered all over the country’s highways. He means the “we” of humanity, but the only people who are going to see it is this relatively small group of self-selected nerds.

And sure, maybe that engenders an unhealthy sense of superiority. I don’t feel it, but then here I am spending the wee hours of the morning writing about this, so maybe it’s there and I’m too close to see it. But the fact is he’s not forcing anyone to swallow these things he’s claiming as truth. He’s not demanding people get together and talk about them, or donate to force the words down poor people’s throats in order to receive necessary food and water in a far-off place. He’s “just saying”–to use the passive-aggressive phrase I loathe so much. He’s entwining these statements about life in a thinly-veiled story about the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen, yes, but he never pretends it’s real.

Maybe I would mind if he took away the fantasy element and was writing about Finn Mac Cool or King Alfred (rumored to be the inspiration for the Arthur legends). Maybe if Steven R. Lawhead had written this way in Byzantium I’d have loathed it, instead of loving it as I did. (Lawhead, back of the book notwithstanding, writes nothing like Kay. Nothing grand or transcendent; just diligent in his descriptions of a world he clearly researched a great deal.) Maybe if by-the-book evangelism had fizzled and died 500 years ago, instead of taking root to thrive and fuck up the lives of countless people nowadays, I’d more open to philosophical discussions with Christians willing to treat the fables surrounding their treatises as fables instead of god’s own truth. Maybe I’m only going to listen to you tell me how it is if you tell me stories, or if I trust you.

Maybe I only trust people who tell me stories.

And maybe the people balking at The Last Light of the Sun will only take their statements about life attached to a false grounding in reality. “Don’t tell me this is how the world works if the world is fake.” As if things would ring any truer if Kay were talking about Vercingetorix, or the old woman next door. The idea that you know what it is to live their lives is as fantastical as Alun’s faerie forest. But maybe these naysayers haven’t come to that realization yet. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’d be happier hearing this stuff at vacation bible school.

Except, oh wait, they don’t tell you this at vacation bible school. I was kicked out for reading the first book in The Fionavar Tapestry instead of making popsicle-stick-and-glitter candle holders for some sort of Christian craft hour. Guess whose message stayed with me?

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ribbons

There is a Billy Collins poem (which can be seen here, messily, if you scroll down until you see lots of italics: http://meandbillymcgee.blogspot.com/p/my-essay.html ) which proposes that everyone goes where they believed they would go, post-death: “you go the to place you always thought you would go / the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.” I always remembered those lines, if not verbatim than in sentiment, and would occasionally think to myself “well I’d better think up something good.”

I attended a seminar on active shooters in the workplace recently and it was as bleak as one would expect. Run, hide, or fight. The first two were obvious; the last, a recent development to national protocol post-Sandy Hook. Now we’re telling you to fight, the policeman said. “But won’t we get shot?” asked the audience. “Some of you will, yes, but at least it won’t be all of you,” was his grim answer. We gulped and nodded.

The presentation was full of photographs of practical applications of common office objects intended to keep us alive a little longer. Desks piled against doors. Fire extinguishers hoisted into the air in ambush. Feet pressed against the base of the door, in push-up position, body kept low to avoid the spray of bullets from an angry shooter unable to gain entry in the traditional fashion.

One of the objects the pictures kept returning to were belts. Belts wound around the compression mechanisms in the tops of doors to make them shut smoothly and silently–or in this case, to shut and not open again. Belts looped around door handles and then hauled hard to the side, gripped tight by a panicky hand, again to avoid the spray of angry bullets but also to hold shut a door without a lock.

Seeing these, I thought of Billy Collins’ poem, and of the common representation of souls in video games ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PWC6vUext0 ) as nebulous floating ribbons, twisting up through trees or fingers to the sky, to dissipate. And I thought, I would want to be a ribbon of force. Winding my way into the muscle of an imperiled climber about to lose grip and tumble a climber over a cliff–I would hold the fibers tight. Ingraining myself in the leather of a belt flung over a door handle as a blank-faced idiot with a gun tries to force his way into a classroom to pulp everyone inside. I would make the belt hold.

I thought of my dissatisfaction with zombies as objects of horror–what I find so unfulfilling is their rendering into mere blindly antagonistic meat the lives we spent so much time and effort living. At least ghosts in stories have a purpose. An intent. I am much more concerned with the purpose and intent of my life than the meat I wear through it, recent renaissance of physical activity notwithstanding.

Forget the meat, then. Forget the limbs or the letters or the financial bequest I could send somewhere. I would be a ribbon to hold someone together when they needed it most. That would be something worth doing.

river of stars!

Hey! Guy Gavriel Kay came out with a new book! I stumbled onto this by accident while trying to google up a map for The Last Light of the Sun. (Not shipping the book with a map? Come on! I know times are tough, but I NEED my fantasy maps!) It came out quite recently, in fact: The AV Club reviewed it last week. I hate reviews because I wish to know nothing about the book before I start, and I stopped reading once it started going into plot, but I’m going to quote their first paragraph for you, because you’ll listen to them:

In a culture where Game Of Thrones is supplanting The Lord Of The Rings as the model for fantasy storytelling, the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay demand more attention. His novels, like George R.R. Martin’s, are historically based, tragic, feminist, and subversive of the accepted forms of high fantasy. Kay’s skill is in taking well-known premises, usually historical, and using them to build tragedy. Two good friends and better men get forced into fighting one another thanks to the rise of extremist religion during the Crusades, or one man falls for a powerful woman even as she conspires against all his patrons and friends. His characters are typically heroes, in that they are smarter, wiser, kinder, and stronger than their contemporaries, but they are never typical fantasy heroes in that they can change the course of history. They are subject to more powerful forces, and those forces are unkind.

Oh hell yes.

bullies are not bees

When I was little, I was a maverick at handling bees. My mother had told me to stand still and wait for them to go away, and I did. One time, when a group of us and two mothers were visiting the botanical gardens, all of us kids ran on ahead, laughing and yelling, down a tunnel of exploding blossoms–pink, white–and around a corner. And into a maelstrom of bees. It was like something out of a horror movie: bees everywhere, saturating the air, getting caught in your clothes and your hair. The other four kids started to shriek and run. I held still. I was terrified but I held very still, my arms frozen out to either side where they’d been when I was running, my mouth clamped shut. I backed slowly away, back around the leafy corner with its mushroom clouds of blossoms. I was not stung. My mother peeked around the corner–the others behind us, sniveling and wailing–and looked down at me. She said it would work and it had.

But she said the same thing about bullies, and it doesn’t work. Just don’t respond and they’ll get bored and go away. They’ll leave you alone. They won’t sting you. It doesn’t work. I am a few years shy of 30 and I should not be bothered by bullies. But when they crop up I flail and rage, exactly the way my friends did in the torrent of bees, exactly the way I was told you shouldn’t. But I hate them.

Now that it’s warmer I cannot run alone. There are lousy fucks out there. They sneer and jigger. It doesn’t matter that I ran a half marathon, that I built my arches back up, or that I’m no longer the pastry spokescartoon I grew up looking like. I’m just a vagina with legs to point and laugh at. Two days ago I did intervals, ten 300m all-outs with 300m jogs in between, on the beaten-down once-there-was-a-factory-here track in the neighborhood. Three teenagers had parked on the bleachers smoking pot and I never looked them in the eyes, not once, because it engages them, like feral dogs. But it didn’t matter. Their heads followed me all the way around, and though I tried not to hear what they murmured every time I passed them, one of them–an overflowing boy, built like a melting pile of slushee, a bullseye for diabetes if ever there was one–announced, clearly and loudly, “Ick.” I did not respond. “I mean look at that, it’s just gross.” My pace took me away before he could elaborate. I don’t know what it was he found so gross. My sweat, my muscles, my lack of makeup? My blotchy face or the flesh under my arm? The fact that I was using my body while his rotted? Who the hell knows. But he’d planted his barb and they sauntered forward, to the middle of the soccer field in the center of the track, to hoot and stare at me from there for a few laps before they went home, fleeing rain that granted me blessed solitude.

Or yesterday. A textbook redneck with cutoff sleeves and a rusty popped pickup truck waited to pull onto a main drag–blocking me from crossing the intersecting street, waiting as I was–until I looked him in the eyes. I looked everywhere else first. The sky, pretending to grimace at the weather. Down the street, checking for other traffic. There was no one. It was just him. And when his waiting stretched so fucking long that to continue to wait would be a kind of cowing before him, sure, I looked him in the eyes. And he leered with a couple of his remaining teeth and stuck out his tongue and floored his shitty car onto the main drag and away.

There are others. There are always others. Bros that launch their beer bellies into half-hearted motion as they cross the crosswalk as I’m running the other way, snerking “Hurr hurr, I’m running too!” Teenage boys–barely teenage boys, 13 at most–snickering from their porch steps, “Keep burning those calories, bitch!” I would love to say I let this stuff slide off me but I clearly don’t. I am consumed with rage. “Boys will be boys” is bullshit. These little wastes of life should be pounded to pulp for everyone they ever stripped with their stupid horny judgmental trained-by-porn-to-expect-goddesses-with-their-legs-spread-around-every-bend eyes.

But no one does. I don’t, certainly. I run faster. It’s just like Japan, really. I can do nothing in the face of this bullshit but run away from it. And if three thousand miles wasn’t enough, no distance is ever going to be.

feast your eyes

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What was it my doctor told me? Oh right. I had collapsed arches. Especially my left foot–landslide o’ flesh. I should just accept it. Wear arch-supporting orthotics and ugly, clunky shoes for the rest of my life. What’s that, you wanted to start training in those crazy barefoot shoes when you get better? Don’t make me laugh, girl. You’ve got crap for arches. You’re always going to have crap for arches.

I BUILT THEM BACK UP, MOTHERFUCKER.