Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

dorislessig
I kept postponing writing this review because I had no idea where to start. I hoped reading other reviews and another book might have helped me. It didn’t. I’m falling back on the technique of telling that I had no idea how to start the review and feminism. I, too, wish I had a more original approach.

Lessing said she didn’t view this as a ‘feminist work’. Others have agreed with. They pointed to Anna Wulf’s character, who is overflowing with flaws. Her whole mind is in fragments and she can’t help but be attracted to guys who have no problem cheating on their wives. Then there is Africa and communism and a story-within-a-story. It’s like someone took that Tove Lo concept album, mixed it with a Rage Against the Machine and Drums of Death record and didn’t trim the weaker tracks.

My interpretation of feminism is different than others. Many think feminism is giving a female character a gun and letting her shoot everyone down. You can teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t mean you know him. Whether we’re putting women in the kitchen, factories or in the front lines doesn’t matter. We’re still putting them in roles.

What Lessing does here is what many a male author did – Salinger, Bellow, Heller. She dumps all her problems and the ugliness inside on the page with hope of making sense of it all. These type of novels can be cathartic, but they can also lead to a lot of rambling if there’s no idea to bind them together.

Lessing at least attempts that. The whole structure is an attempt to look at every problem on its own. It means every album gets the spotlight for a considerable page-count. It also means that it takes a long time before we return to it, which forces the reader to re-focus, recall a lot of previous details and push back what he just read.

The problem is that Lessing has a lot to say about everything. Paragraphs stretch for pages. If this was a small novel that gave a brief taste of everything and asked us to focus on the big picture, it’d be fine. The problem is that you’re always zooming in. When you spend hours staring at a fifth of a painting, it becomes the painting itself. It’s full of big pictures.

There’s a reason connected novels are published separately. That’s because each has to be readable and be read on its own. It has to be a big picture, too. Chapters should also stand on their own, of course. However, they can’t be a big picture on their own. Cut them from the novel and you lose something.

Lessing reminds me of George Martin (only with far more writing skill). She has so much information to convey, but much of it is too separate to allow you to focus on it. Each of the sections could stand on their own as a novel. Maybe making this a series where the line between novels isn’t chronology but the subject would make it easier to read. It’d be a pretty cool idea that many others will imitate, too.

It’s a shame, because Lessing is otherwise a great author. She rambles, of course. Her labyrnith of thoughts doesn’t flow as well as Auster and is too big. Still, her ideas are fascinating. The section about communism is one of the more mature treatment of the subject I’ve seen. We often encounter either pro or con. We’re told that either communism failed or that it just wasn’t really tested. Sometimes there are even rational arguments to back these up, but Lessing has empathy for all sides. She critiques isn’t pointed at who’s right, but at what causes the discussions to fall.

Her writings about The Female Experience are even better. This is where the whole feminism thing rears its head, and where I find Anna Wulf’s dysfunctional character as feminist. If men are allowed to have their labyrniths of thought, so do women.

Lessing doesn’t care about empowerment. Like Atwood, she just thinks a woman’s life deserves as much attention as a man’s. If men are allowed to psychanalyze themselves using literature, so do women. If there is any conclusion here, it’s that men and women are more similar than they are different.

It seems there is no actual difference between men and women. They all have the same wants and needs. The problems are when we take gender seriously. The two gay men aren’t very different, but the fact they’re attracted to men rather than women casts a shadow over them. It’s this little thing that disgusts Anna Wulf, although they are otherwise fine.

It’s also interesting how the romantic struggle isn’t with loneliness, but with Bad Guys. That seems to be a common theme in any female work of art that deals with heartbreak. Males are trapped in loneliness. There is suffocating loneliness in songs like “Forget Her”. Then you read this, Atwood and listen to Tove Lo’s album and it’s a world where nobody is lonely. There is always someone giving you attention and wanting you. They just don’t want you in the way you want them to want you.

Me and a friend discussed this often. What’s worse? The unwanted attention or the loneliness? We haven’t found an answer yet. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe asking questions like these are what set up the barriers between men and women. Even if Lessing’s character and Tove Lo will never know the loneliness of being invisible, we somehow all end up with hearbreak and frustrated with the ideal of romance.

I wish Lessing was more brief and focused with these themes. Her labyrniths of thoughts are so dense that you’re too busy figuring out where you are to stop and enjoy the ideas she scattered around. I don’t want a literature of answers. I don’t mind it an author throws me to a maze full of ideas that I will never understand 100%. When an author makes you feel too lost, you give up looking.

There are also a bunch of interior monologues. I keep thinking that intenral monologues are either your whole story, or you don’t put them at all. She’s a bit more stylish, but the whole method goes against what she’s doing. She’s bringing her characters to life using interactions and sitations. There are plenty of these that are amusing enough. A monologue only serves to stop the story to tell us what’s happening. Interior monlogues only work if the whole story is supposed to trap us in the character’s head, like the film Pi. In books like this or the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the action is the core of the story.

Her character also lives a relatively good life. She just lives off royalties from a book she published and rent money. She ‘struggles with ideas’, but it feels like the typical struggle of a privileged person who got it all sort out. Anna even have guys falling for her all the time. I’ve had those ‘philosophical struggles’ too, and I also come from a privileged background. Just sitting around and thinking doesn’t help. It’s self-defeating. You won’t get anything resembling an answer if your questions aren’t directed at the world. My whole life right now is a ‘philosophical struggle’, trying to make sense of everything. I won’t get anywhere lying around like Anna though. That’s why I read all these books and write all these reviews. Maybe if Anna did something other than talk to herself her ‘philosophical struggle’ would have been more engrossing. Talking to yourself often becomes a sick cycle of self-affirmation.

Although it’s a deeply flawed work, it’s also one that’s overflowing with ideas, interesting situations and good writing. The word ‘overflowing’ is truly the best description. There is enough here to make it worth reading, and it is something I want to return to later. It’s too much, however. It lacks the elegance of a truly brilliant work, one with a focus that can’t be swayed.

3 cheating husbands out of 5

Advertisements

Madvillain – Madvillainy

MADVILLAIN

Madvillainy is a record so brilliant, so unique that it couldn’t remain underground. It was an antidote to the horrores that plagued the radio. It was the antithesis of the the generic Rap-Rock* and the one-dimensional Crunk. It’s a record with a coherent concept. The lyrics are beautiful, funny and clever. The rapping is energetic and passionate. Almost no rapper raps with as much verve and passion as MF DOOM. Madlib’s production is even better. It’s wide-eyed, borrowing ideas from any genre it can. Madvillainy isn’t just the product of a talented rapper and a talented producer. It’s also a bold experiment. It completley destroys and rebuild the format with short songs that move quickly, throwing idea useless things such as hooks.

This is all true if your exposure of Hip-Hop can be summed up with Lil Jon, Nas and Jay-Z.

Madvillainy is such a wonderful failure that it’s surprising. It shoudln’t be. The Hip-Hop canon treats originality like the Nazis treated the Jews. It’s that Madvillainy actually fooled people into thinking it’s original. ‘Original’ artists like Tribe Called Quest are merely praised for hating women over a different style of beats. Madvillainy‘s gimmicks will fool the easily impressed that you’re listening to a precursor to El-P.

The few tricks that the duo pulls to come off as ‘original’ are pathetic. They barely hold for one song. The song’s format is short and without hooks. That’s cool, but Hip-Hop is already driven by the verse. Illmatic and Midnight Marauders didn’t have a lot of hooks either. Madlib is even worse. He doesn’t even pretend to be original. It’s just that people haven’t heard of Mike E. Clark or El-P before writing about this.

You know an album is awful when everybody mentions that it has an accordion in it, therefore it’s original. That song is called “Accordion”. This is how desperate they are to make you think they are original. Madlib may throw some funny noises occasionally, but his approach has already been beaten to death. His beats are smooth and calm. He may remove the basic breaks, but he relies on soul music like any other producer who’s scared of imagination. “Accordion”, in fact, doesn’t sound that different. He mostly mimics early Roots production, which is just a worse version of Black Moon anyway.

MF DOOM fails in the same way. He pulls some tricks, but he’s no different than Black Moon. His rapping consists of random words placed between references to how wack some rappers are and how good his own rapper is. He even occasionally talks about hustlin’ and pimpin’, just in case you’re worried he never heard of NWA. The whole ‘supervillain’ concept is present in a few samples, but that’s it. MF DOOM is a generic battle rapper who stays smooth because being loud isn’t cool anymore. He deviates a few times from this subject only to pursue even more generic subjects. On “Fancy Clown”, he gets heart broken. We already heard that. On “America’s Most Blunted”, he preaches about the beauty of weed. Cypress Hill already did that. There’s also some half-assed social commentary on “Strange Ways” that Chuck D probably ghost-wrote in his sleep.

DOOM’s slow is as boring as his lyrics. He has a unique voice, but that monotonous flow was never worked. It may have worked in a few Rakim songs, but without good lyrics it doesn’t do anything. It’s like a House beat that has a boring drum sound. MF DOOM doesn’t try to develop a personality with his vocals. There are no moments that show some emotion, like Tyler or Eminem or Cage. It’s the same old monotonous flow we already heard in a thousand Boom Bap record.

“America’s Most Blunted” is the only good track here, and the only one where the duo sounds like they care. If they love drugs so much, why not just make a Cypress Hill tribute album? It’s hard to make an original album with titles like “Hardcore Hustle”. If you wonder how dull the Hip-Hop canon can be, listen to this. Madvillainy is supposed to be one of the most original rap albums out there, yet it manages to be more boring than Liquid Swords. An absolute failure, but that’s classic rap to you.

*Which includes Pop Will Eat Itself, Urban Dance Squad, Linkin Park and One Minute Silence.

1.5 supervillains out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation’s Edge

4956471872_85688261ba_o (1)
Asimov was a great mind who somehow wrote books that were nothing more than good. They were very enjoyable, and anyone who wants to write a straightforward adventure or mystery has a lot to learn from him. Yet none of them alone justifies Asimov’s place at the throne – they are no Grapes of Wrath or Catch-22. Foundation’s Edge isn’t that book either, but it’s the one that comes closest so far.

It is a product of a person who didn’t let old age stop him. We often treasure youth so much, as if by old age everything is over. The distance between this and the previous Foundation novels is felt. It’s not an old author returning to his well-known series to boil the pot a little. Rather, he returns to the series with the new things he learned over the year.

The story’s format and style is not very different, but it obviously tries to address previous flaws. For once, we get actual characters. Asimov’s characters are no longer chess pieces. This is just as dialogue-heavy as before, only now we can distinguish who the characters are by how they speak. It may a small difference, like Pelorat’s ramblings (and calling people dear chaps) or Golan’s toughness, but it is something.

Asimov doesn’t work against his structure – his stories are driven by plot and ideas, not characters. He just breathes a little more life into them to make them more fun. Pelorat’s character also feels like an author exploring himself. Asimov is our image of a ‘cold academic’, but in Pelorat he comes to the conclusion that a life that’s only the Life of the Mind is pretty empty and dull. It’s an alternative point of view that in previous stories he wouldn’t even consider.

The position of the Smart People is a new theme here, too. That must be something that comes from hanging too much around intellectuals. Asimov once said of Mensa Internatinal that they’re ‘aggressive about their IQ’s’, and this criticism of elitism is in this book. Asimov doesn’t hold an ideal view of a world where everyone is intelligent. Some people’s minds are just not good enough. But these don’t mean they’re automatically useless.

The Hamish people represent the ‘simple men’ who do manual work. Asimov doesn’t condescend above them, though. Asimov is mostly interested in how to prevent the intelligent people from getting drunk with power. That’s what the whole conflict of Second vs. First Foundation is about, and why the Second Foundation has such strict rules about tempering with minds.

Gaia is also Asimov’s attempt at acknowleding there is more to life than being an academic. It does come off as an asspull – a mystical thing that pops out of nowhere and becomes the center of the conflict. Like always, Asimov is good at controlling his asspulls and limiting them. They may have changed the conflict, but they don’t conveniently solve it. Gaia exists more to express the idea of actually living instead of just being an intellectual. It’s not a very deep exploration of that idea. Asimov sinks a bit into the One With Nature cliche. Still, it’s good to see him stretch beyond his comfort zone.

This is also the book where Asimov connects Foundation to his Robot, Eternity and Empire novels. This isn’t a Marvel Cinematic Universe syndrome, though, where the purpose is to point out references and think of how cool it is. Asimov references the ideas of these stories, not their actual plots. The value of the reference to the Robot universe doesn’t change if you read the novels or not. He even admits in the afterword that The End of Eternity isn’t exactly as it was described here.

Asimov’s prose remains as brisk as before. It’s a little less minimalistic, but it doesn’t read like an author who is beyond the power of editors. The occasional techno-babble is amusing. It’s so distinctly Asimov. He describes it in such cold intellectual langauge that is also very simple that these little details become amusing. The books would have been better off without explaining how hyperspatial travel works or how we can see the skies of various planets, but he always stops himself before it gets too far. If anything, it makes me curious to see how Asimov is like when he isn’t writing fiction.

Asimov remains a master at simple adventures. So far, this is the best in the series. On the previous entries, Asimov brushed his flaws aside because he was skilled enough at telling a cool mystery. This time he’s better at expressing ideas and creating actual characters. It still reads like Asimov’s more interesting ideas are in his essays. The story remains a simple adventure, but it’s better at every aspect than before.

3.5 Earths out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

secondfoundation

There are two sayings about reading literature that I hear often. The first is that the person just can’t get into the book. The second is that I should wait 1000 pages until the character killed in the epilogue for A Storm of Swords for a cheap twist, is connected to the larger picture. True, these statements aren’t said by the same people, but even the people of the second group don’t display an interest in reading. You’d think that if reading is such a task, people would prefer more minimalistic works.

The general public has better things to do than search the net for new books to read. The Sci-Fi/Fantasy community is more disappointing. We’re all familiar with Asimov, so how come nobody asked why the hell people are preferring a longer, less focused, less meaningful version of Foundation?

Asimov’s focus has tigthened, and in this novel he abandons the short-story format of the previous novels. These are still two seperate stories, only with a much stronger connection between them. Unlike a lot of trilogies, Asimov’s books don’t get worse as they go on. Rather, he has a better idea of what inspired his first book in the first place and he discards what’s useless.

Asimov, despite being famous for being a hard sci-fi writer and a scientist, doesn’t resemble any of the ‘scientific’ people I encountered. Go to your typical science class, and people will worship physics while being sure that psychology is for the rubble. Since it can’t be represented in pure mathematics, it’s therefore meaningless.

Asimov gets around that by saying ‘psychohistory’ also has hardcore mathematics and equation, but no one in the novel can really comperehend this subject. That doesn’t make it less important. Understanding people is, above all, the most important thing. Whether you want power or to advance society, human society is first of all made of people.

Without people, the physical sciences can’t exist. If people are the basis of all science, they are therefore should be a top priority for research. In a genre that’s more about science than people, it’s a bold statement. Never mind that Asimov can’t (and doesn’t try) to create characters. He must have had bad social skills. His conclusion has more in common with literary fiction than a lot of popular sci-fi.

While his characterization remains weak, they got to be a little more human last time and here the Mule is improved upon. He’s still simple, but the climax gives him a moment of humanity that Asimov didn’t seem capable of. Asimov tried to make him sympathetic in the previous novel – that’s another plus for the author by the way, how his work doesn’t actually have ‘heroes and villains’ – but here it feels real.

In Foundation and Empire, the Mule was a generic weakling who decides to take revenge on the world. On Second Foundation, his journey reveals itself to be something like Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Like the Worm, he achieves all that power but is not sure what to do next. He may have defeated the external enemy, but he didn’t do anything about himself. The Mule got into a habit of conquering and defeating that he couldn’t stop, even if his next enemy is possibly not even real.

If Asimov combined the two novellas concerning the Mule into a single one, it’d probably be worthy of considered a classic. It’s this moment of humanity that’s so rare from epic fiction nowadays. Even if the Mule remains simplistic, he’s a well-made, sympathetic antagonist who’s not here for us to hate or root for his defeat, but to understand his mistakes.

The rest of the novel brings Asimov back to his pulp style, and it remains surprisingly in control. This is where Asimov destroys everything that was ever good in Game of Thrones. Like Martin, his plot is dense, in large scale and features plenty of twists and riddles. Asimov’s minimalism means you’re never drowning in details don’t help to move the story forward.

Asimov wants you to solve his puzzle, but you can’t solve the puzzle if you’re given 100 extra pieces that got nothing to do with anything. There’s a reason puzzle games, even plot-driven ones tend to be minimalistic. No matter how many riddles and twists Asimov pulls, they’re always in focus. They’re never drowned out by long descriptions of rooms or of what the character thinking. There are a few embarassing moments of techno-babble, but they’re read more like Asimov was sure he was going to invent the thing. There is charm in that excitement

It does get a bit silly in the end, where everyone suddenly assumes he thinks he knows he assumes he thinks he knows what the other person thinks he assumes he knows what the fifth person is eating. The climax, while fun, is ridiculous and borders on self-parody. It’s a series of amusing twists, but they’re more confusing than clear. Confusion isn’t Asimov’s purpose. He keeps you at the dark at first, but then makes everything crystal clear. It’s a minor slip, though. It doesn’t completely undermine the coherency that makes these books so fun. Asimov just let the pen get away from him a little.

This is the best of the first of the original trilogy. It may not provide a big, final conclusion but it’s not needed. It sees Asimov getting better at both his strength, and he gets over some of his weaknesses. It’s still not a classic, but as far as simple, fun adventures go it sets the standards. Asimov wrote an adventure that’s smart, fun and occasionally has something to say. If he’s so popular, how come nobody replicates it?

3 mules out of 5

Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping

HousekeepingNovel
There was a time I labeled myself a non-conformist. It was a short time, or at least I want to believe so. Like your typical socially inept nerd, I could not fit the norms and weren’t interested in them. There was supposed to be some vague ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’, but the impression I got is that it was just another herd. Whether you’re following a small or a big herd, you’re still following a herd.

Then the whole idea of ‘following a herd’ started to not seem so bad. It turned out that the popular kids got a few things right, and that trying to fit in has its benefits. I ‘found myself’ not by discarding everything else – I didn’t define myself by lack – but by taking pieces of this and of that, whatever fit. Being different on purpose is just limiting yourself. When I no longer cared about being different or fitting in, things became so much easier. I also became weirder and harder to digest, if my friends’ comments are anything to go by.

You rarely find this narrative in art. Our parents, schools and sport guys tell us to conform. Weirdos are bad because they’re weird, and being weird is bad because it’s weird. It may have something to do with weirdness meaning automatic sexual unattractiveness, or that it leads to ‘failure’. Music, books and movies tell us to stand up. The mainstream is stupid. We should put a fist up, do the opposite of what they tel us and buy Rage Against the Machine records. Art’s narrative gives you an enemy to rebel against, and everything that’s associated with it is immidiately bad. How many embarassing political songs there are about ‘America’, where if you put the word ‘you’ instead of ‘America’ you get a generic break-up song?

Housekeeping offers a truly different (oh!) narrative. Its narrative touches a lot of things, and some of them will surface only after re-reading. Like other capital L Literature, like The Assistant, it’s a book that’s very profound when it shows life and incoherent when it attempts a philosophical essay. It does more the former than the latter. Robinson’s language is as beautiful as everyone says it is, but the style is different.

Housekeeping is called ‘descriptive’ when, in fact, it’s very minimalist. It doesn’t take long before Carver name pops in the mind. It was released around the same era. Robinson reaches the same intimacy Carver’s writing has but in the different way. Carver’s writing is rough and hard. It just stands there, hoping the emotions will surface on their own. Robinson reaches out for them, tries to make it clear.

It’s funny to describe the novel this way when the protagonist is so inactive, but what can you expect from it? This is how novels about grief and tragedy should be written. What’s interesting about death is less that it happens, but how people cope with it. Tragedy is only as meaningful as the characters’ reaction and means of coping with it. Paul Auster made a whole career out of it.

Ruth’s behavior is reminiscent of Holden Caulfied. Both of them spent too much time in their youth with death, and you get this PTSD-like behavior. Ruth is passive not just because Robinson’s characrization is a bit underwhelming, but because she can’t think of anything else other than death. Death is everywhere. She lives in a house where she last saw her mother, who comitted suicide in the lake where their grandfather died.

There is no escaping death, or forgetting it a little. They’re isolated from the town. The lake is always there and the train is always audible. They are a reminder of lost family members. Just like how Caulfield kept thinking about his dead brother, Ruth can’t help not think about her dead family members. She finds no way of coping with it.

Lucille is the alternative. Lucille is in the same spot as Ruth, but she wants to move on. ‘Escape’ isn’t the right word. After a certain point, there is little more you can learn from death, other than that it gets you eventually. Lucille doesn’t ‘conform’ because she’s bad, or because she’s not unique enough or anything so silly. Her ‘conforming’ is a way of moving on. She conforms out of her own will, because eventually there is nothing to learn about that lake, other than that people died there.

This is where Housekeeping‘s story of nonconformity takes a unique route. Our conformist ‘conforms’ out of her own will, and it does her good. The problem is not that there is a ‘norm’, but that it’s enforced. Ruth’s and Sylvie’s situation worsen when society opens its eye on them, and tries to ‘set them’ on the right path.

There is no attempt to understand them, why Sylvie is such an eccentric and Ruth is so passive. They try to use brute force, as the problem is that Ruth doesn’t go to school and not something deeper. It reminds me of what Marilyn Manson said about the Columbine kids: “I wouldn’t say anything to them. I’d hear what they have to say”. All this brute force did, in fact, push them in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter what kind of norm society stands for – there is mention about a strict religious attitude, but it’s not developed. All that matters is that it thinks forcing the ‘weirdos’ to conform will somehow make everything better.

Robinson expresses these ideas by showing the behavior of the characters, and she does it welll. So why are the philosophical ramblings? In a novel that’s all about letting you figure out its meaning, what spelling out will do? It’s funny to see such talented authors resort to this trope. Talented people are indeed unaware of their talents. To Robinson’s credit, she has a knack for crafting a beautiful sentence even if its meaning is opaque. She’s closer to McEwan than Malamud. Her sentence have a nice, easy to read rhythm. It’s a langauge beautiful enough to be enjoyable without being meaningful, but the novel is too good for this.

Robinson also can’t get over realism’s biggest obstacle. In an attempt to make ‘realistic’ characters, they make their characters dull. They don’t include enough odd details that inform us who these people are. Sylvie and the aunts get some development, but their quirkiness is contrasted with Lucille and Ruth. Lucille and Ruth feel almost empty. The writing and pacing feels real enough, so instead of coming unrealistic or undeveloped, it just reads like Robinson held a lot of information back. What the novel needed was a few moments that will show us how these sisters are like when there are together.

For a novel about two sisters who lived their whole youth together, there are barely any moments to show it to us. They are young teenagers. Isn’t it that time when clothes and boys are starting to be interesting? Isn’t it the time when you start to doubt that adults had everything figured out? It’s the time when personality develops, but there is perhaps one or two fights. That’s it. People’s lives don’t revolve just on whether to conform or not, but Ruth and Lucille’s relationship does. Maybe adding this means adding an extra 60 pages, but I wouldn’t mind. Robinson isn’t terrible when the pen gets away from her, so writing a bit of what she does best can’t do harm.

It’s a beautiful novel though, one that deserves its place in the canon. Even if it fails in the same way most realists do, Robinson keeps the intimacy. She never builds a wall of words that separates us from the charactes, like Updike or Malamud. She rarely takes her eyes off the characters, and what’s left in the end is not the philosophical ramblings but the feelings that we really were there. This is what realism is all about.

3.5 lakes out of 5

Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

RakimPIF
For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.

Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.

In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.

The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.

When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.

There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.

It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.

3.5 breaks out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

foundation-and-empire1
For a person who wrote so many books, it starts to look like maybe fiction isn’t Asimov’s thing. It doesn’t even read like he’s a got lot passion for it. He’s far more interested in grand ideas. That’s why there are no characters, and he cares little about pretending that they’re more than game pieces. Then again, he also knows the dangers of being pretentious, and Foundation and Empire remains a brisk, pulpy novel. It’s a weird thing. It’s a fun, shallow adventure written by an intelligent man who was probably too busy thinking to actually experience life.

Asimov occasionally inserts his grand ideas into the story. The conclusion to the first novella contained in this volume is a big deus ex machina. It renders all this running around irrelevant. The characters we followed had nothing to do with solution. Yet, it makes perfect sense in Asimov’s world. The only reason it was unexpected is because we’re still used to characters, even though they’re not driving the story. A solution that the characters came up with would’ve been easier to swallow, but will also see Asimov breaking the rules he created.

Doesn’t it sounded like the rules of psychohistory? Individuals are mostly meaningless. It’s the great masses that should be researched. Maybe Asimov got confused with masses of people and mass, the physical term. A hole is starting to appear, and it’s hard to ignore it when rappers are riding through it with the booming system.

If you can’t predict the behavior of one individual, how can you predict the behavior of masses of individuals? There is a composition/division fallacy here, but I can’t see how it connects. If the masses think in a certain way, doesn’t it stand to reason that an individual will most likely think in that some way? Psychohistory then does predict the behavior of individuals. It predicts the most common behavior ammong masses of individuals.

The science is messy, but if it were real and practical then Asimov would’ve written papers, not novels. At least he doesn’t use this as a crutch. ‘Prophecy’ is often used to make characters move the plot. It’s a great way to eliminate active personalities from your story and make it convenient. Since Asimov’s psychohistory deals with masses and not with individuals, it predicts that the whole Foundation enterpise will win – or at least, that its purpose will be achieved.

Time and again we see that it’s far more complex than it seems. The actual purpose of all these foundations remains in the shadows. Asimov also still has to create solutions for his conflicts that fit his rules. That’s why the first novella was successful, but it’s in the second one that Asimov goes to the edge. What’s beyond it is pretty foggy.

He introduces a character that messes up the whole equation. The predictions had a chance to be wrong, and by introducing a villain whose skill has power to completely change the equation – it’s more than a brand new variable – he raises up the question of whether or not this foundation thing will succeed.

He even tries to add some charactes. Bayta and Mis are the first real personalities here. They have dialogues that is recoginizably theirs, and behavior that is unique to them that doesn’t just move the plot. He even tries to create a unique villain with the Mule. The second novella shows a braver Asimov, one who tries to write more than a pulpy story.

He completely fails when he tries to be profound. When the Mule reveals itself in a pretty obvious twist, we get the obligatory villain’s monolgue. You’d think this was a tool of writers with zero creativity, but Asimov put some hard work into the Mule’s monolgue. He thinks that if the Mule will pour his heart out to us, it’ll make him more complex. He is more intriguing than a guy who just wants world domination, but it’s not enough.

Asimov spelling it all out clearly for us just emphasizes how shallow these novels are, in the end. He didn’t even try the obvious thing, to examine how an individual lives when he’s well aware of a ‘prophecy’ that has scientific basis. This is an interesting psychology to explore, because science’s role is, in the end, to predict. It’s one of the things that makes for a legitimate scientific theory. Asimov could have explored the individual and the collective, religion and science and I’m sure he has a lot of interesting things to say about this subject.

Alas, what Asimov really thinks is not here. Like its predecessor, the novel uses big ideas as a beautifying prop. It’s incorrect to say Asimov uses it to cover the lack of depth. Asimov remains as unpretentious as they come, with bullshit-free writing. Any time he does bother to describe characters or the scenary, he never rambles. He just wants to give you a general idea of who these people are and where they’re at, and then he moves onward with the plot. It removes any subtlety from the novel, but no rambling makes it easy and fun.

The series is often criticized for being episodic and lacking a main protagonist. That’s its strength, and what prevents it from spinning out of control. Imagine if George Martin took Asimov’s approach, and wrote episodic novels in Westeros instead of a sprawling melodrama. By giving out these little bits, Asimov’s world feels much more alive. It’s odd to say it about such a novel disconnected from human life, but it’s a series that points to a world that’s too big to capture in a single book, or a few. So, it will just give you a few bits here and a few stories here, and let you fill up the holes. It’s also useful not to beat the reader with your coolest symbols. If Trantor was over-described like anything in Martin’s novels, it would lose its mystique.

The series remains a fun adventure dressed up in big ideas, but not much beyond that. I hope there’s an exciting enough story in this series somewhere, because then it might finally be a classic worthy of its name. I have faith in Asimov. So far, he’s very in control of his ideas and knows what he’s doing best. The second novella’s pushing forward and then regressing is a bit sad, but maybe it’s not the right time yet.

3 mules out of 5