Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

wilderness.jpg
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

Advertisements

Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

erin.jpg
It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

vlcsnap-2016-02-05-18h40m37s142

It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

vlcsnap-2016-02-05-18h42m58s11

As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

vlcsnap-2016-02-05-18h43m22s233

When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

vlcsnap-2016-02-05-18h43m48s10

Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

vlcsnap-2016-02-05-18h44m59s201

There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

vlcsnap-2016-02-05-18h45m39s78

The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

joydivision

I am depressed.

Like many angry young men, I had a philosophy I stuck with. I thought that sticking to my principles was itself an admirable trait. Hypocrisy was defined as changing your mind. Since I wanted the moral high ground, among the reasons because I didn’t have much to boast about, hypocrisy was out of the question. The world was wrong. I was right. My opinion will defeat you all.

I was angry, but there was some sort of confidence. The path was clear. I thought I knew everything, which meant I knew where I was going. I also was, apperantly, as rational I bragged about. My ideas kept being challenged. They gradually changed. It didn’t happen over time, but I went from thinking sex is an evil force to it being something positive that we just can’t handle. I went from hating alcohol and all drugs to understand each drug should be judged on its own. I went from thinking you don’t need friends to thinking being social is a necessity.

The music I used to listen to back then was loud and angry. It also used to have something resembling confidence. I blasted Nu Metal, which was angry but had bravado. A little later I found myself blasting Nine Inch Nails, Local H Marilyn Manson. That’s when the self-doubt and self-loathing reared their heads. The anger at everyone was still there, but I started to admit I’m confused. There was even a brief period of listening to a lot of Glassjaw, which helped me through my toughest heartbreak.

After about eight years of exploring music, here I am finally listening to Unknown Pleasures. The album was always there. Its influence is everywhere on my favorite music. It took all these years, and all these changings of the mind for me to ‘get’ the album.

That’s not really a good thing.

That’s because I’m not that angry anymore. I don’t have the energy to hate the world, or women, or sex, or television. Everything just seems hopeless and meaningless. Everything is bad, but nothing specific and there’s no ideal to fight for. It’s an emptiness, which this album describes perfectly.

Sparse is the common description for Unknown Pleasures. You couldn’t find a better one. A band member said the producer made them sound like Pink Floyd, but Pink Floyd had space. The sparseness of Unknown Pleasures is not just a production technique but the way the songs work. Nothing takes the center. Nothing drives the songs, beyond the drums in “She’s Lost Control”. It’s no coincidence it’s the most accessible thing here.

“Candidate” and “Interzone” are the two defining tracks here. The first is the emptiest thing here. Its last seconds sound emptier than silence, and the guitars barely appear in it. “Interzone”, on the other hand, is an attempt to inject some energy. There’s even a guitar riff that could make for a nice single. Even that’s pushed to the back though. The song is a fast driving rocker, yet the guitar is distant and Ian Curtis sounds like he knows it won’t end well, but fuck it he’ll try anyway.

The sequencing is also great. Unknown Pleasures is not a concept album, but it flows like an exploration of a depressed mind. “Disorder” feels slightly brighter and rational, while “Day of the Lords” sink back into complete agony. On the aforementioned “Candidate”, the agony went for so long that there’s no longer will to express it. “Wilderness” and “Interzone” offer a glimmer of hope. The first speeds up things a little, as if the protagonist saw the light. “Interzone” has already been discussed. Then the album ends with “I Remember Nothing”, which sinks back into the emptiness.

It’s a wonder that the whole band didn’t kill themselves after this record. There is sadness, and there is emptiness. A strong feeling of sadness might still imply there could still be something out there, something worth feeling bad over. The emptiness of Unknown Pleasures says there’s nothing worth looking back at and nothing worth looking forward to. Doesn’t that sound like a suicidal mind?

Post script: This review was written a long time ago but I didn’t want to post it. I don’t know if things changed since I wrote it. My environment did, but the future still looks cloudy. I haven’t gotten over that emptiness. Things are better than before, but not by much.

3.5 days out of 5 lords