Sunday, January 20, 2019
Thursday, November 15, 2018
Why a Duck?
Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne cannot seem to end. Less than four months after its April 2017 publication, Tor.com released The Strange Bird: A Borne Story digitally that August. Eight months later, “The Borne Bestiary” appeared online (and was then included as an addendum to the subsequent paperback publication of Borne. In May 2018, VanderMeer was finishing a novella, The Three, also set in the Borne universe. That work has grown into a novel, Three Dead Astronauts, that will be released in 2019 (?). Borne moves backwards in time, too. The Subterranean Press limited edition of The Complete Borne, which was originally slated to include “The Three” as a short story, has now substituted VanderMeer’s 2008 work, “The Situation,” as a “proto-Borne novelette.” Like Area X from VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the Borne narrative universe is ever-expanding. The Borne world is “sticky,” in the sense that Timothy Morton uses the term.
Indeterminate, open to change, moving backward and forward through time and space. The Borne-world exemplifies ecologically engaged fiction not through a mimicry or representation of a world in crisis. Instead, it enacts and engages such a world. Our world is in crisis. Borne-world is in crisis. How these two worlds relate to each other is in flux.
Many abstractions work here—fungal, growing, infectious, ecological, unknowable, indeterminate, world-ending, late-capitalistic—be they literary, biological, climate-sciencey, economical, or apocalyptic. But it should not be a question of who can shout HYPEROBJECTS the loudest, of who can say “Anthropocene” is already archaic, that we’ve already moved beyond it. Everything is sticky and everything is in flux. There are no entry or exit points. One just either starts somewhere or one does not start at all.
I will start with a duck, a duck that is not a duck. Toward the end of Borne, as Rachel and Wick make their way across a blighted landscape, they see a bird. “Coming off the plain, we spied a single duck with a broken wing near a filthy puddle. It waddled back and forth in front of the puddle, drank from it, stood sentry, drank again, stood silent. Waiting. A kind of mercy that no one had killed it, that it had escaped notice” (264). The act of spying the duck shows us that Rachel is wrong to say that “it had escaped notice.” She and Wick see it, and she notes it. Rachel means that the duck “had escaped notice” from those who might kill it for food or for a thrill. Regardless, this encounter with the duck is short, almost inconsequential. After noting the duck, Rachel says, “we moved on, toward the Company.” A reader might remember this duck or he/she might not. It’s hard to say. My bet is that the duck did not take up residence in the memory of most of Borne’s readers. Imagine a reading quiz: What animal do Rachel and Wick see as they make their way toward the Company? A Fox? A minnow? Wait, is it a duck? No—it’s a trick question.
What they see is “not a duck.” Or, that’s what they see if you read The Borne Bestiary’s entry “Duck With Broken Wing (p. 264)” which even gives us the page number to re-find the duck. The Bestiary says
Often sighted and also often misunderstood, the duck with a broken wing reported as living alone on the approaches to the Company building is in fact not a duck at all. But none who have approached it have ever lived long enough to report as to its true nature. As a result, ducks have flourished as a species in the City due to a general suspicion and caution. (See also Elongated Elastic Creatures) (11).
Our reading is altered. We, readers, now know something that Rachel, the narrator, did not know. She and Wick dodged a bullet. Had they approached the duck, they would not have lived to report their notice of it. For a reader, this inconsequential detail has acquired great consequence. Had Rachel and Wick approached the duck, their whole story would be different. But we would not know their story because they would not exist. The duck is not a duck at all. But we still call it a duck. We do not know that the duck is unknowable.
Everything is this duck. Everything in Borne-world and everything in our world. The concept of fiction. of reading. Of authorship. Of memory. Of species. Of global warming. Of mass extinction. The “duck with broken wing” that is not a duck can stand for abstraction itself. It is how we grasp something and how it slips away; it is how we know something and how we don’t. It is the success and failure of figurative language. In his essay “The Slow Apocalypse and Fiction,” VanderMeer writes about the ways that fiction might engage hyperobjects, and specifically how it might engage the “slow apocalypse” of global warming. He notes that humans have difficult understanding the many variables, the ways that objects interrelate with each other, at play in global warming.
“For one thing, we are unable to hold in our minds the necessary number of variables and the connections between those variables; thus immobilized, sometimes also misled by disinformation, we rationalize or compartmentalize. In a sense, the enormity of the situation renders us irrational, could also be said to act as an invading agent or alien presence in our thoughts that destroys the impulse toward necessary autonomous action” (9).
We cannot grasp this “invading agent;” we cannot act; we do not know how to respond to this “alien presence” in our midst. VanderMeer does not propose an answer to how we might more effectively engage this presence. Rather, he defines this question as the content of his fiction, as something that he has “irrevocably turned toward” (18) even as it remains a question “without definitive answers” (18). It becomes a question about a question. VanderMeer asks,
“How do we more effectively convey ineffectiveness?” (AS 2). How can he tell us that we do not know a duck that is not a duck? He can do what he does; he can write fiction. In the Borne-world, via duck, we can engage the difficult question of why humans want to destroy the world.
Why do Humans Want to Destroy the World?
(destroy and destory)
Why do humans want to destroy the world? There is a short answer and a series of longer answers. The short answer is disarmingly simple: the Enlightenment and Capitalism. We have been told this time and again, from Marx to Derrida to Haraway. We clearly do not want to listen. In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing offers as succinct a summary as anyone. ““Ever since the Enlightenment, Western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature” (2). Nature is there; we are here. We want “there” to become “here”. This answer has a lot going for it. It is true. But it is ineffective. That is, knowing that capitalism turns Nature into commodities, and knowing that the Western philosophical tradition has done backflips, first to justify this mastering and then to reject it, only gets us so far. We can define the problem; we can acknowledge the problem. But then we get stuck. We cannot engage the problem, which, it turns out, is not one problem, but many.
Tsing does not offer a solution but something much more modest: a reminder. She writes, “it was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human” (2). Those who make things up—fabulists and storytellers—offer words that might imagine something other than progress narratives, something other than tales of mastery. Fiction, then, can offer glimpses of multiple, entangled forms of life. VanderMeer makes a similar claim about how fiction should strive to engage non-human life. “Somehow we need to be humble enough to finally admit to the true complexity of and importance of animal life — not just some anthropomorphic and patronizing sympathy —and in the process continue the necessary step of de-centralizing the human experience” (SA 15). Fiction can imagine non-human centered worlds; novels can present biological complexity that both responds to, simplifies, and exceed the biological complexity of our world. Tsing reminds us that, even though Japanese research institutions have spent millions of yen, it remains “impossible for humans to cultivate matsutake” (4). The complexity of matsutake growth, its relationship to trees and soil, cannot be replicated by humans. To grow, matsutake “require the dynamic multispecies diversity of the forest—with its contaminating relationality” (4). Such “contaminating relationality” resists the logic of agricultural science that seeks to isolate a species from all connection to other things (think of endless rows of corn growing in the Midwest). Tsing’s fabulists understand this “contaminating relationality,” and, in turn, amplify and broadcast it to receptive readers. VanderMeer’s creatures, like his duck that is not a duck, gesture toward a complexity that undermines human centrality in the world. Humans, then, can imagine themselves out of a world of mastery, conquest, and progress and imagine themselves into worlds of contamination and entanglement.
Imagining such worlds can paradoxically offer a reminder that these worlds of contamination and entanglement actually exist. They are not idyllic or nostalgic, though; they are dangerous. Tsing continually argues that humans (and some humans more than others) live in a state of “precarity” and “indeterminancy.”
The world’s climate is going haywire, and industrial progress has proved much more deadly to life on earth than anyone imagined a century ago. The economy is no longer a source of growth or optimism; any of our jobs could disappear with the next economic crisis. . . Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all our lives are precarious—even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined. In contrast to the mid-twentieth century, when poets and philosophers of the global north felt caged by too much stability, now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end. (7).
Precarity has become the state of all life. Climate science essentially gets ignored, even as it notes with more and more precision the economic, social, and political devastation of global warming. Tsing claims that we must recognize “precarity as an earthwide condition” (8) in order to imagine other possibilities, to look for “life in this ruin” (9) of a world formed by global capitalist practices. In these ruins, Tsing finds matsutake mushrooms, sprouting in human-altered forests, building assemblages that spread nearly unnoticed through the cracks of accumulation and concentration of wealth. She asks “What do you do when the world starts to fall apart?” This question has infinite answers. Tsing’s very localized answer is that she goes for a walk and hopes to find mushrooms, to remind herself that “there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminancy” (7). Tsing’s walk, though, is not a Thoreauean romantic withdrawal from the world. Rather, it is a way to become part of an assemblage that breaks off in multiple unknown directions. This walk becomes an entry point into the multiple entanglements of The Mushroom at the End of the World. For my purposes, it also serves as both a reminder of and a way into a world, that in the title of VanderMeer’s short story, is “full of monsters,” a world that is not about humans telling stories to other humans, but about stories as alien agents, stories as assemblages that attack us with precarity, with indeterminancy, with ineffectiveness. They grow on us, into us, through us; they are fungal, arboreal, bacterial, viral, bio-mechanical. They can even be dead. Stories infect tellers and tellers transmit infection to readers, listeners, receptors. Through this interactions, stories become “story-creatures.”
What do “Story-Creatures” want?
In Jeff VanderMeer’s short story “This World is Full of Monsters” stories themselves might be the most monstrous beings. The first section of the story “I Did not Recognize What Sought Me” presents “a tiny story” as a living, sentient being that infects the “I,” the narrator who tells us elliptically, “I am a writer . . . I was a writer” (3). The story that the writer encounters was “covered in green fur and lichen” (3). It had “large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth” (3). It is not a metaphor, not a narrative, but an attacking agent that infects the writer. It bursts out of “the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds” (3). It then grows “roots [that] plunged greedily through my brain and through my soft palate and through my lower jaw, seeking the soil” (4). It grows through the “I” of the narrator; it leaves his body, but only after it has altered the “I” to a state beyond recognition. The narrator loses parts of his memory; his sensory inputs get skewed so that “the world as it had become held a strangeness too vast for me to understand (6). The story-creature spreads the impossibility of understanding through the world. “It did not care about your belief system, your grasp on reality, the excellence of your
analysis or your senses” (16). The “I” continually transforms; it continually waits for “the next thing” (23), the “next part of the story” (23). The “I” does not understand what is happening, but it does absorb “a capacity to understand beyond my actual ability to understand” (17).
And that’s what it feels like to read “This World is Full of Monsters.” I might understand the story; I might read it as a story about the capacity to understand stories. I might disappear into the ether of my own close reading. The story ends with these words. “Now I would be a story-creature and have a world of my own” (24). This could be a dead end of perception dissipated into a world, of story and world inextricably, precariously rooted into each other, forever noting Tsing’s “terrors of indeterminancy.” Stories can only do so much.
In the “Slow Apocalypse,” VanderMeer asks “if you were standing in a hideous post-apocalyptic landscape, would you want me to tell you a story or would you just want me to shut up long enough so you could convert me into edible protein?” (SA 2). I take this question as rhetorical. I would want edible protein. But. Maybe we are in this “hideous post-apocalyptic landscape” already. So maybe the question is not rhetorical. I still want stories, even in the land of what Tsing calls “third nature, that is, what manages to live despite capitalism” (3). Third nature, according to Tsing, often remains invisible when we have been “blinded” by “progress stories” (3). Counter-stories, anti-stories become necessary. Tsing writes “To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead. Like virtual particles in a quantum field, multiple futures pop in and out of possibility; third nature emerges within such temporal polyphony” (3). Instead of turning the writer into edible-protein, we might want them to spew out all the stories they can, to be a story-creature, a telling and a thing at the same time.
The duck-that-is-not-a-duck shows us third nature. It looks like the narrator’s description of a moment in the transformation of the world.
The terrain became more floating than fixed, the ground covered with a thin stubble of vegetation while the clouds had come close above and turned sea-green and from them tumbled down a forest that hung wrong, the bird-things that were not birds stitching their way through that cover upside down. 11
Everything is messed up and backwards. The whole world is “hung wrong.” We still live in it, though. And we live with “bird-things that were not birds” with ducks that are not ducks.
Monday, June 18, 2018
But back to my point. The Bushmillerites don't like Olivia Jaimes. Look for some double-secret Facebook pages or read the comments on Go Comics if you want evidence. Why do they dislike Jaimes' Nancy? Some don't like her drawing style. Some don't like her focus on contemporary technology. Some think her gags are not funny. Any of these criticisms may be more or less true. Certainly Jaimes (whose career we know nothing about) has not had the same kind of apprenticeship that Bushmiller did, hand drawing crossword puzzles and hanging around with newspaper artists. No contemporary cartoonist has done those things.
And Jaimes' has trolled the Bushmillerites in the early weeks of her Nancy, as exemplified by this panel.
After waiting a month to reintroduce Fritzi (so readers could forget the ill-conceived Guy Gilchrist marriage of Aunt Fritzi that he ended his run with), Jaimes made clear that she had a different vision for Fritzi. Starting on June 4, Jaimes did a number of strips focusing on the "new" Aunt Fritzi.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
Friday, May 4, 2018
The words themselves continue Jaimes' meta-commentary from last week about Ernie Bushmiller purists. The first panel features Nancy, seemingly floating in white space, while someone off-panel intones, "Nancy is iconic for her simplicity." In panel two, another voice adds a longer commentary--notice that the line of the word balloon is lower in the second panel than the one in the first, suggesting a second speaker. Another speaker than chimes in from the right. We cannot see all the words that this speaker intones. The words will not fit in the panel. And the word balloons are beginning to crowd Nancy. She raises her hand as if defense, as if she is getting ready to push back. Her half-smile from the first panel becomes a frown. Her eyebrows straighten out and push toward each other. By the third panel, her mouth opens slightly in a frown. She looks like she cannot breathe. Word bubbles from the left and from the right touch each of her hands as she tries to push back. The word bubble in the bottom right side of the panel cover part of her shoe. Nancy is in danger of being blocked out, erased. That's the gag. The online commentary is not allowing us to see Nancy today.
Friday, April 27, 2018
I'm feeling compelled to write about Olivia Jaimes' Nancy reboot every week, so here goes.
In their exhaustive, detailed, and insightful book, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels, Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden perform a detailed analysis of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy strip from Aug 8, 1948 in order to get at just what makes Bushmiller a master of the "gag." They examine the strip in whole and in parts--the images, the text, the word-ballon placement, the spacing, the background, the props, and as they write, the"details, details, details"--to work toward their conclusion that to make "good comics" one must understand "the hard-won language of all the great twentieth-century practitioners, a language exemplified by the clear, unambiguous example of Ernie Bushmiller" (158).
Does Olivia Jaimes' know Bushmiller's language? Can she speak it? Lots of people say "no." I say, "not so fast." As Karasik and Newgarden tell us, Bushmiller published his first comics as a teenager, and by the time he changed the name of his strip Fritzi Ritz to Nancy around June 11, 1938, he had been drawing Fritzi for more than ten years (58-59). And he didn't have Ernie Bushmiller as a guide. Nobody knows how long Olivia Jaimes has been making comics, but we do know that she has fifty years of Bushmiller's Nancy to contend with.
So what is she doing with this history? To my eye, she is "working backwards" with it. That is, Karasik and Newgarden write that Bushmiller often wrote the "gag" first. Bushmiller says "I draw the last panel first and work back toward the beginning, which is the opposite of the way you read (I hope)" (66). I don't know if Jaimes ever starts with the last panel, but today's strip seems most interesting if a reader considers the last panel first.
We end with a pun, a pun aimed directly at the new Nancy's critics. "You Hooligans, Be Earnest, Dang It!" says a crotchety-looking old guy, half out of the frame, shaking his fist at Nancy and Sluggo. Be Earnest . . . Be Ernest . . . Be Ernie . . . he might as well be saying. Nancy dismisses him with an emotionless "Nah." Here's the whole strip.
In the first panel, the old man looks toward Sluggo and Nancy and starts with a cliched "Kids these days." In the second panel, we see that he was concealing a mailbox from our view, so his claim that kids today "don't know how to mail letters" makes some sense. (I can't say the same for his "or write checks"). We see Nancy holding a letter; she and Sluggo look sleepy. The old man's speech balloon fills the top of the panel (the old man himself is off panel) with a long tail, as he explains that these two kids are exhibiting "an air of ironic detachment." Jaimes is trolling the trolls. She has set up a false dichotomy between the "earnest" old man and the ironically detached kids, Nancy and Sluggo. The joke is on the reader. Are you an earnest Bushmiller purist or an ironic fan of the Nancy reboot? The battle grounds are staked.
But the dichotomy is false. Jaimes has been creating Nancy for less than a month. She knows the Nancy vocabulary, but she only deploys small parts of it. Look at the balloon placement in the second panel. It's hideous and distorted. Or is it just a riff on the precision of Bushmiller's balloons? Is the weird inconsistent perspective on purpose, "on purpose," or neither?
On Monday, April 23, Jaimes anticipates Friday's old man with the picture in the "Age-Me App" that apparently allows you to "See Yourself Old." Jaimes has something invested in having Nancy and Sluggo use social media and apps. "NANCEE 22" gives the app 1/5 stars. Is this a comment on the online comments about Nancy? Is it?
On Tuesday, April 24, Jaimes breaks out Bushmiller's "Nancy sees Sluggo talking to another girl and gets jealous" trope. Only this time, Jaimes reveals that Sluggo's interest in the nameless girl is only because her parents "have accounts for HBO and Hulu." Sluggo must be dreaming of watching Game of Thrones.
On Wednesday, April 25, Jaimes gives us Nancy lying in a dark room. Is that the voice of Aunt Fritzi?
Is this comic an homage to this one? Look at the blanket. But also look at Nancy drop the phone on her own face. She looks like a cyclops. That's funny.
I'll end with a question, Does today's future, except for the "Earnest," know what bebop records are?
Friday, April 20, 2018
A simple press release came out early in April.
KANSAS CITY, Mo—April 9, 2018– Andrews McMeel Syndication has announced that Olivia Jaimes is the new cartoonist for the legendary “Nancy” comic strip.
The Guy Gilchrist era was ending. (No more oval face! No more sweetness! No more weird Aunt Fritzi t-shirts!)
But who is Olivia Jaimes? The syndicate was cagey. They noted her love of Nancy and they noted her gender.
Glynn continued, “We’re going on almost 100 years of a man writing for Nancy and we loved the idea that Olivia had this delicious blend of love for the old Bushmiller work and a 21 century female perspective that would bring new life to this iconic character.”
But they didn't provide any more of Jaimes' biography. No mention of other work she had done. Barely anything else--"In addition to comics, Jaimes enjoys jogging, video games and playing piano."
Clearly, they were being coy. And mysterious. "Olivia Jaimes" is a pseudonym!
The press release does give readers a brief quotation from Jaimes. "“Nancy has been my favorite sassy grouch for a long time. I’m excited to be sassy and grouchy through her voice instead of just mine,” said Jaimes, “and I can complain to the whole world about things that bother me instead of just my friends and family.”
Sassy and grouchy. Complaining. In other words, a super-promising statement of purpose. Ernie Bushmiller focused on these aspects of Nancy's personality.
Over the next few days, readers could see that Jaimes was bringing something new to Nancy, too. Her adults looked nothing like the ones Bushmiller drew. Jaimes' adults, at least going from the first strip, are more simply drawn--they're "cartoonish," with basic curved and straight lines. They're less detailed than Bushmiller's adults, and because of that they seem to fit into the strip more naturally. Bushmiller's adults always seemed to be too big for the strip. They only fit partially into the frame, unless seen from a distance. Jaimes follows this tradition, but her adults seem different, less detailed and fussy.
On April 11, we see that Jaimes' Nancy is not just sassy and grouchy, but also resentful. And Jaimes is a master of Bushmillerian wordplay, using over-literalization to great effect. Yes, Nancy is "always thinking of other people" but not in they way the speaker expects. Jaimes gives Nancy an inner life. People don't know what's she's thinking. Jaimes' Nancy's mind shares the same self-doubt that Bushmiller gave her.
Bushmiller had an inkwell and modern art to go meta-.