Monthly Archives: June 2012

Column of the Infinite

I was musing the other day about how “Eli, the Barrow Boy” is possibly the definitive Decemberists song because it has star-crossed lovers and death by drowning and Victoriana and a Doleful Ghost, which reminded me of one of the things I often come round to thinking about as both a consumer and creator of Art. It’s one of those “there are two kinds of people” constructions that’s nonsense as soon as you give it any real scrutiny, but as wrong-but-useful models go, it’s at least an interesting place to start meditating.

So, broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach creating and building a body of work. The one most people tend to admire more, at least at a glance, is the one typified by David Bowie and Neil Gaiman and the late John M. Ford, where the creator reinvents their work (and, perhaps, self) with each new project, rarely or never covering the same territory twice. This is very ambitious, and impressive, and unquestionably challenging; and the three examples there are certainly among my heroes and inspirations. My hat’s absolutely off to folks who can manage this protean, dynamic, ever-progressing approach.

But there’s also what I’ve come to think of as the Brancusi school, where an artist returns again and again to a handful of subjects to ring changes on them and explore new permutations on old themes. And I’ve come to realize that I have just as much admiration for creators who follow this path, the ones who wear their obsessions on their sleeves. My grandfather was certainly one of these – quite possibly a Brancusi follower in a literal sense.1 Lots of people on my bookshelves are as well: Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Patricia McKillip.2 And some of the music I most adore was created for projects centered around a single artist’s obsessive vision, like Current 93’s David Tibet or the Bevis Frond’s Nick Saloman.3

I take some comfort in this because I know in my own work (and work-in-progress) that I’m a Brancusi. I really can’t help myself, even as I’m aware I’m doing it; I look at my notes for future projects and I can see the patterns starting to form there, little singularities whose event horizons I’ll be unable to pull away from. I expect this will also be somewhat true of what I write here. (Hey, there’s a reason I chose the name I did for this blog.) So it’s probably good for me to take stock from time to time how many of the artists who inspire me have similar threads that run through so much of what they create. If nothing else, it gives me permission, in case I need it, to quit worrying so much and just embrace it.

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1 The Ray Gallucci ouvre is woefully underrepresented online, but his work is full of riffs on the same organic and quasi-organic shapes: circles and globes, spines and branches, layered strata, extended tubes.

2 Barker’s repeating themes, of course, are transformation, the intersection of beauty and monstrousness, the parade of the strange, and the secret otherworld. Barron has been noted for his exploration of the devouring cosmos, the hidden invading swarm, and the loss of self that happens when humanity comes face-to-face with the outer darkness. And McKillip has come back to the idea of the shapechanger so many times that her work is practically modern fantasy’s Metamorphoses.

I was going to put Grant Morrison on that list, and I think he very much belongs among the Brancusians; but damned if I can sum up the thread in his metatextual batshit mysticism enough to say why.

3 I mean to come back to these guys in more depth in future posts, but briefly: Aside from the way he’s made the through-line of his musical career the exploration of his very personal and idiosyncratic spiritual journey, Tibet gets extra credit for actually signposting some of his recurring motifs by making them into mantras that get repeated from one work to another. I’m not entirely clear on what “the inmost light” means when he says it, but I know it’s an awfully important idea to him. Saloman has a long list of interesting fixations, but I especially think there’s a very serious paper waiting to be written about the use of water as both a nurturing and destructive force in his work.

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(Rilkean) Heart and Soul

The Missus and I were out and about earlier today when T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul” came over the radio, a song that’s in fairly frequent rotation on her preferred local station. I can’t help but like that tune; as far as siren-fronted ’80s synthpop goes, it may be pretty near the pinnacle. (Also, I did not realize the name was a Star Trek reference, which certainly brings up my estimation of them a notch or two.)

Watching the video now, which I probably haven’t done since before I was legal to drive, something else strikes me: neither the song nor its accompanying visuals are that many hallucinogens away from being a Cocteau Twins number. But I suppose that was true of lots of things c. 1986.


Back to Riverside: Some thoughts on Swordspoint

My book group‘s selection of the month, which we’ll be discussing later this week, is Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint – a book that was one of the best things to happen to me twenty years ago or so. This isn’t the only time I’ve picked it up since it first rearranged my head back in the ’90s, but it’s been a while.

Returning to an old favorite, especially one from your teenage years, is a dodgy prospect; you’re never quite sure if the Suck Fairy‘s been at your toys while you were away. In this case, I needn’t have worried. If anything, it’s a book I find more to love about now, if only because twenty-plus years of thinking about stories and language and fantasy have given me a better appreciation for all the things Kushner does right.

(Beyond the cut: prose, plotting, incluing, interstiality, subtext, switch-hitting heroes, and mild spoilers)


The Parable of the Fruit Punch Czar: A meditation on power, responsibility, and community

As fortune, good or ill, would have it, I picked the weekend before a busy and hurried week to launch this blog, and have not had the time I’d have liked to follow up with a post of any substance. In the interest, then, of not letting this field lie fallow overlong, allow me to point the Gentle Reader to someone else’s excellent thoughts.

I have Making Light linked over in the sidebar under the Essentials category of my blogroll. For almost nine years it’s been one of my very favorite places on the Interwebs; though I’m not the active commenter there I was years ago, it’s still one of the sites I make sure to check in on regularly even when I don’t have time to run down every interesting online rabbit-hole I’d like to. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Making Light is the weblog of SFF editors Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden and their friends and fellow-travellers, swelled by a host of excellent commenters (who refer to themselves collectively as the Fluorosphere). For people who enjoy smart and eye-opening discussions of writing, art, fandom, language, communities, politics, publishing, and a host of related subjects, there’s no other place quite like it.

So here, from last weekend, is a small taste of what makes ML great: Teresa’s tale of the Fruit punch czar, a distillation of patterns observed in the delegation, assumption, and transferrence of responsibilty. It’s framed in the community of SFF fandom, but describes a phenomenon that’s all too universal. Like many of the things the Nielsen Haydens and company write about, it has the effect of condensing a lot of small ideas you might not have known you knew into something fascinating and revelatory. And, like almost everything Fluorospheran, the discussion in the comments is at least as good and illuminating as the post itself.

For me, having been through changes in a lot of organizations (professional and otherwise), and having observed several of the weird and uncomfortable things that can happen when a role is passed from the person who defined it, this is an enormously useful bit of terminology. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of batons passed in situations where it might have helped to be able to say “Uh-oh. This is a Fruit Punch Czar in the making.” It’s hard to say how much just having that knowledge can prevent such things from occurring, but, jeeze, it sure couldn’t hurt.


No Beginnings

Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic, always something before the described events, unless we are to start every story with “BANG! Expand! Sssss…”, then itemise the whole subsequent history of the universe before settling down, at last, to the particular tale in question.

– Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist

It must be arbitrary, then, the place at which we choose to embark.

– Clive Barker, Weaveworld

I would say that I’m bad at beginnings, but I’m not sure that’s true. I’m bad at endings, or possibly just challenged at producing enough middles so that endings are possible. But the start of an endeavor produces a particular kind of terror, the blank page stretching ahead perfect and unmarred, waiting for all the mistakes to be made.

Nonetheless, everything has to start somewhere. So here we are.

Therefore, by way of introduction: Hello, and welcome! I’m Dan; I am (in no particular order) a writer and student of the craft of language, both professionally and avocationally; a musician and music lover with broad and eccentric tastes; a nerd; a Unitarian Universalist; a feminist and LGBTQ advocate, and supporter of social justice in general; a cook and gourmand; a former Theatre major; a poet, or at least a versifier with pretentions; and, maybe more than anything else, a lover of stories, without much prejudice as to the medium they’re conveyed in. I expect I’ll be writing about all of these things here, and the places where they intersect, as well as whatever other shiny topics or ideas present themselves to me.

This is not a beginning. This is simply where things go forward. Watch this space.