Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss

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Sometimes I wonder if my dislike for a lot of Pop singers is because of misogyny. Nowadays female singers aren’t docile like they used be. They’re aggressive, can rap, can have a guitar here and there and not shamed of having a lot of sex or of telling someone to fuck off. My manhood is threatened, and thus I cannot enjoy when Lady GaGa tells me about how everything is beautiful and that we should all just be ourselves (That’s because we all have the privilege of being skinny, right?). I can’t stand Rihanna because a sexually assertive woman offends me. Submission is a turn-on, and without it I’m nothing.

Or maybe not. My favorite Pop singers include Lana Del Rey, Tove Lo and Melanie Martinez which are all concept-heavy. As for aggression, I also admire Emilie Autumn who directly attacked her sexual abusers. The problem with the singers in the first paragraph isn’t that they were ‘assertive’. In fact, no one should be scared of Rihanna. She’s so conformist that Chris Brown beating here wasn’t the big deal. The problem with these singers is that they didn’t sell you an image or a concept, but themselves.

Compare Taylor Swift’s “22” – which I actually like – to any song here. Taylor uses the song as a vehicle to inform the listener who utterly cool and fucking awesome she is. It’s about her, not about having fun. She has a lot of exes, she has breakfasts at midnight unlike these lame ‘cool kids’ and they dream instead of sleep. The songs’ music videos even confirm it. In “Good Time”, Carly and Adam Young are surrounded by people who actually look different and don’t seem to be doing anything but having fun. Everyone in Taylor’s video looks perfect and skinny. It’s a song about contrasts, not about partying.

When everyone got taken away by EMOTION – and by ‘everyone’ I mean ‘music nerds’ – the shock was hearing a Pop singer who really didn’t care about seeming cool. She did way before “I Really Like You”. From a distance, this and “Call Me Maybe” sound like an artist with one gimmick that milks it. Listen to a whole album, and it’s a modus operandi. If Carly can’t deviate, it’s because she’s having too much fun, doesn’t need and want to and invites you to join in.

Adam Young asides, who everyone seems to hate, “Good Time” is such an inviting song. “Call Me Maybe” may have generated the shitty parodies but that song tells you more about who Carly is. Most of the songs here work in the same sphere only with slightly weaker drums. All the songs are about the excitement of first love and first crush, about a possible future that may happen and if it does it’ll be awesome. It’s not exactly optimistic. Rather, Carly captures that tiny moment of happiness when you’re sure someone really likes you or may like you, and you’re kind of emberassed and unsure but enjoy it all the same. Song titles like “This Kiss”, “Curiosity”, “Tiny Little Bows” and “Call Me Maybe” all display this range of emotions. Merge these topics with dance tracks and you have great party music that’s happy, not tough. People who don’t jump to “Tiny Little Bows” look like they’re trying too hard to reach the Idea of Coolness.

Carly’s performance is also perfect. Another problem of contemporary Pop singers is how much they love show us their voice. Often, the songs aren’t meant to be enjoyed. Even the performance isn’t meant to be enjoyed. Rather, we’re supposed to be impressed, stand aside and admire all the vocal acrobatics. Adele epitomizes it and Sia is the biggest offender. Imagine if Sia sang these songs. Will “Turn Me Up” sound so cute and confused if Sia howled? Would it even be about confusion, instead of about how awesome Sia is? Carly sings so low and calm. She rarely stretches her voice, trusting instead her character shine through her voice. It also makes the song more listener-friendly, making it sound like anyone can sing them.

At times she does stretch her voice for something more profound, but it’s so rare it leads to a weird effect. On “More Than a Memory”, she stretches her voice just a little to suit the song’s more somber mood, and it makes her seem vulnerable and worried. Since she doesn’t stretch it often, she shows us that this moment is more important than others – the relationship might die! She also loses the tune a bit on “Guitar String/Wedding Ring”, and the result is ridiculously cute. The song’s lyrics are a bit nonsense, but they, along with the sparkling, noisy production and Carly’s messy voice expresses the excitement and thrill of love all the more effectively. Music is, after all, acting. I’m sure many can sing that song better technically, but I doubt if anyone can convince me like Carly does.

Only one song does stick out where she sounds closer to her contemporaries. That’s “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” which includes an actual bass drop. The noises this time are aggressive instead of sparkling and Carly tries to reach to the top of her voice. It’s also a total success because it focuses on this idea, instead of using these tools as a modus operandi. It’s not another generic club banger but a singer who’s full of pain and needs to let it with singing and loud beats. What’s beautiful is that once the chorus hits, she still sounds vulnerable and hurt. The cries of “getting over you!” aren’t triumphant, but sound like she’s trying to convince herself by constantly repeating it. Many said that “Chandelier” by Sia mixed the whole party-and-depression thing well, but that song, like anything else by her, is about how Sia awesome is. Carly outdid everyone else.

It’s interesting how clean this album is. In a world where singers like Rihanna use misogyny and objectification of women to seem powerful – because being approved by wifebeaters like Chris Brown means you’re strong? – it’s refreshing to hear someone who doesn’t need to go on and on about it. Carly is sexy in her way. She’s not afraid of it, she’s just more concerned with love and having fun. “Good Time” works because, unlike other party songs it’s for everyone – not just people who happen to be sexy. Her excitement in “Tiny Little Bows” is way sexier than anything by Rihanna. Carly was actually older than most singers when she recorded this and many called this ‘immature for her age’, but is it really?

Today Kiss sounds more like a prelude to the brilliant EMOTION, and it’s not as all-encompassing as that albums. Still, what it does it does brilliantly. “Call Me Maybe” is actually buried in a sea of highlight, and there’s a consistent mood that shows Carly always believed that Pop is an album genre. Even the acoustic ballad “Beautiful” doesn’t let down the pace. 12 joyous Pop songs about excitement and love that invites everyone are too much to become viral in this age of irony, but really, if you dislike this you may be trying too hard to seem tough.

3.5 kisses out of 5

Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Ed Sheeran – Divide

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Reviewing an Ed Sheeran album only takes two sentences. Any song where isn’t trying to lure a girl to sex disguised as a romance is excellent. Any song where he pretends to feel deep, serious emotions is obviously bad. Of course, two sentences isn’t a review and there’s more going on here. Ed Sheeran is a star and his love songs are especially popular, so we need to figure out how exactly this crap works and why cheesyy love songs are still pumping out when he should be putting a backwards baseball cap and collaborate with Eminem.

I said this a thousand times before and it dawned me. It’s hypocritical to claim Ed Sheeran comes off like an asshole, even a dangerous one when Lostprophets is one of my favorite. These guys are a classic case of music as acting, when the front is completely different than the real person. Solution to this conflict is easy. Fist off, acting is all that’s important when judging music. Ed Sheeran can be a fantastic person for all I know, but I review his character here. Second, Watkins never broke character. Sheeran does.

“Shape of You” is the most interesting song here since it merges Sheeran’s two sides, and reveals all I said about him. He courts a lady with soft, sensual singing and sounds romantic. Yet listen to the chorus. It’s all about the girl’s body. Imagine if the song was sung by a heroin junkie homeless in the street or an overly obese dude with glasses and anime dakimakuras. The song is quite creepy in how it goes on and on about how Sheeran desires a body and not the person.

There have been countless songs about sex, but the key is that they sound authentic. When 50 Cent made “Candy Shop”, it was all about having fun sex. He never tried to sound romantic – only more into sex as having fun instead of status symbol. “Shape of You” has a fantastic melody, but it’s equivalent of a hot guy going on a date with a girl and only telling her how beautiful she is. Something about its bluntness and how Sheeran still sings romantically makes him sound like a person trying to lure girls desperate for romance to easy sex.

Everything else here is easy to digest. There are the ballads, and they’re all quite bad. Sheeran can’t seemt to find a bit of vulnerability in him. Every ballad is sung with confidence. A slightly low voice doesn’t equal vulnerability, especially when “Dive” and “Perfect” explodes into choruses. The latter actually has a decent melody that would be good in the hands of a different singer. He can’t even fake sincerity like Coldplay.

It’s too clean. When he sings that hearts don’t break around here, it’s more believable – only it must be Sheeran’s heart since women come back to him anyway (See “New Man”). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is it about him that makes his ballads sucks so much. Wisely, he doesn’t do any vocal acrobatics like Adele and his voice is quite beautiful. In style, he’s closer to the Weeknd, who is the model when you want to be both a sex icon and a mess. I guess it’s because Weeknd always lets darkness in, even when he brags. “Perfect” never touches on the possibility of heartbreak. It’s music for the end credits of a bad romantic comedy, as if once a romance starts it never ends and the story’s over.

Previously, he could sound more sincere (if unimaginative) when talking about things other than love and how awesome he is. “Happier” should be his moment to show heartbreak. The guitar strums in a defeated way, not trying to produce a melody and it aims for the warmth of an early Dashboard Confessional. Everything is hushed, the singing is lower and the piano is pushed back. Yet it doesn’t work. You can still see the stage behind him. Where is the bitterness of heartbreak he is so good at showing at “New Man”? The falsetto at the end is a joke, a gorilla beating on its chest, sounding more macho and confident than a Groove Metal band who are hell-bent on beating Pantera.

Then again, even with better acting these songs will most likely suck. They don’t contain a melody, but all lead to an explosion, like Coldplay that’s more readily available to stadiums. It’s not the source of the bad acting since it was present in his earlier songs. When he gets personal, the only reaction to it is ‘why the fuck should I care?’. Many artists wrote songs like “Eraser” (quite good) and “Castle on the Hill” (awful), but none of them sounded so self-centered as he is. Why should anyone of us care about Sheeran’s life, considering he made so much money singing pretty ballads?

‘Privilege’ is a word I didn’t want to use. After all, a lot of my favorite rappers are white dudes whose albums are psychotherapies with the listener. Grieves and Atmosphere come off as humble, sharing their stories with the listener with hopes of relating. “Eraser” has a toughness in it, Sheeran trying to convince us he’s tough because he survives the pain of being famous. Considering on later songs he brags about fucking – and sounds happy about it – I’d say it’s another attempt to impress us. The song is good, though. As for “Castle on the Hill”, it has the same idea as Adema’s “All These Years” without the darkness. Nostalgia is a painful thing. I know that since I spent 3 years in a military home and seeing a distance growing between me and my old self, me and my friends and all I’ve known is quite hard. “Castle on the Hill” paints it like it’s all happy and nice, taking a trip down memory lane. Don’t say ‘privilege’, don’t say ‘privilege’.

So it’s all crap so long as Ed serious. Smack in the middle of the album you get “New Man” and “Galway Girl”, two brilliant songs that will easily rank as among the best of the year. Switching up his demeanor, now he’s a playboy who fucks women and women call him up – despite having boyfriends – to fuck. It’s believable for once, actually has spirits and Sheeran is into it. The latter is about picking up a girl at the club but there’s none of the creepiness of the lead single. Instead, it’s just about how she fell in love and they had sex. The former is a bitter break-up song about how the ex-lover’s new man isn’t that good. The confidence, the venom in that song is fantastic. It’s not a rant or a plea for the lover to return. Condescension is the dominant emotion, with Sheeran sneering all the way to next  one night stand. It’s not a song to sing to convince yourself you’re over the break up, but to celebrate how you moved on. No coincidence that both of these are Hip-Hop driven.

Nothing here is too different than previous albums by him. His sound is expanding a bit and there is more than acoustic balladry now, but overall the man remains the same. He cannot break free of being a performer, he cannot get into the act. The difference between him and the horrible Watkins is that Watkins remained in character. Having “New Man” and “Happier” in the same album is jarring, since they’re opposites but there’s nothing to connect them. Eventually, one side takes over and the most convincing one is the braggadio and macho bullshit. It’s funny how that song take shots an ultramacho new boyfriend, because that’s exactly how Sheeran sounds like. I have no problem with that, since “New Man” is actually brillaint. I only wish he would let go already. “Galway Girl” has more spirit than any song here.

2 new men out of 5

Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary)

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At some point, someone had a vivid dream with a lot of cool visuals. He pitched them to a studio with a lot of budget and they said, yeah, we’ll run with it. Perhaps some asked about character design and plotting and symbolism, perhaps not. If they did, the production committee just said ‘oh, what the hell’. They hoped that by the force of sheer charisma and some visual inventiveness, it’ll be easy to miss how empty the whole thing is

What producers miss about anime like these is that you can’t mask emptiness. Great anime with great visuals who do bizarre things but somehow succeed don’t rely on a single element. Grand experiments like Future Diary work because they leave no stone unturned, and no element unfocused. That anime wanted the whole thing – psychology and philosophy and character development and action and romance. It wasn’t successful, but it was brave and that made it exciting.

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Beyond the Boundary doesn’t seek to replicate this specific method. Rather, it tries to impress by sheer volume and energy. Wackiness is the essence and it works in some places. The dreamshades never look like ordinary enemies. An arc concludes in a surreal fight which includes a train floating in free space. In the climax, there is some kind of paralell world floating above ours. Inside it there’s terrain that’s always shifting. The main antagonist trap himself and another person inside empty white space. That’s quite cool, at least visually.

Our characters, in the beginning, are given more than stereotypes. Slight differences in dialogue, like how the little sister’s insults tend to drag on – add life. Even quirks that have nothing to do with personality, like Mirai collecting bonsais helps to add life. These tiny details are the differences between actual human beings. Usually, adding quirks without connecting them to a personality is a sign of sloppy writing. The series finds ways to balance those, with Mirai’s collection only cropping up occasionally – enough to show us he has interests outside the story, not enough for the quirk to beg for importance.

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Then it’s over. Nothing happens to these characters across 12 episodes. I didn’t expect deep psychological portraits, but I expected versatility. A one-dimensional character isn’t one with one trait. Rather, it’s one that reacts in a predictable, repetitive and almost mechanical fashion. If a character uses the same sentence in each situation, it’s one-dimensional.

Now, catchphrases can be fun but the characters have nothing but catchphrases. Once they stick to a quirk, they never let go of it. In the early light-hearted moments, the right comic timing makes these invisible. This flaw is more apparent in the last, ‘serious’ part of the series. The world is about to end, people might die and we still get the old joke about how Hiro’omi loves little sisters. In the midst of the apocalypse, characters still kick the silly woman

A character doesn’t have to change through the course of the story. What must happen is revelations. The new events need to reveal something new. Even if your character is defined by one trait, different events should show different sides of this trait. When the apocalypse finally kicks in, everyone behaves in exactly the same way as in the first episode. The only difference is that they’re slightly more serious. I know about Hiro’omi in episode 1 just as much as I know about him in episode 12. In fact, I actually know less.

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The Serious Turn is a problem for many such shows. You’ve seen it in High School DXD and in Big Order, where an external enemy comes in and everyone works together to defeat it. The laziest storytelling is to give the hero some external thing to do, some sidequest and have them perform it. You don’t have to be bothered with writing a personality. Just have the dude solve the murder or help the girl. Your typical airplane detective novel features such characters.

When the Serious Turn arrives here, the anime loses all its vitality and quirkiness. Suddenly there’s a whole conspiracy in the works that doesn’t add anything. Characters become forgotten, vanishing for scenes and showing the authors had no idea what to do with them. They couldn’t imagine how their personalities would react to the gigantic enemy, so they just have them stand there. If they move, it’s because everyone needs to gang up on the bad guy.

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Our hero also loses his quirks and saves the world because he doesn’t want his loved one hurt. What the Serious Turn shows us is how empty these characters are. If the quirks were connected to something bigger, the climax would’ve been vastly different. Every character would have a unique way of reacting to it. The anime got me when Akky decided the world isn’t worth living without the person sacrificing themselves to save the world. This cliche is only acceptable in ultra-ridiculous heroic stories. If your stories are ultra-ridiculous, your characters will be too and they’ll actually react to events in ridiculous, memorable ways instead of convenient ones.

Only Mirai rises above the mire. She could’ve been better, being pushed towards either the psychological direction or the ridiculous direction. As it stands, she’s a beacon of charisma in an otherwise empty cast. She has a personality that adjusts her reaction. The clumsy, hesitant and bumbling persona isn’t the most original. Mirai’s at least a convincing portray of it. When the climax hits, she’s still a mess, still uncomfortable in her own skin. Her personality might not be particularly original, but at least it exists and affects her reactions. It makes her the most alive character in the anime.

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She’s also the only one blessed with a good character design. It’s bizarre that in an anime with perchance for odd imagery, everyone will look ordinary. Akky looks slightly better than most harem protagonists, but he has nothing going for him besides blonde hair. Hiromi has a nice bowl for a hair and that’s where the distinctive details end. Some characters look so dull that it’s a wonder they still put effort into giving them voice-actors. I don’t expect them all to be as iconic as Mirai. As an expression of personality, Mirai’s design was is fantastic. At least give me something to look at.

This anime could’ve been a lot of fun. It does start off wild, with a wacky fantasy element and total disregard for making sense. Sadly, the creators didn’t have the gusto – or the imagination – to fully go there. If it would’ve been a nonsensical mess, it would’ve at least been bizarre enough to ponder. Instead, it’s another anime that settles on everyone being nice, saving the world from a dude who pushes up his glasses.

2 people who got lost beyond 5 boundaries

Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5