Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts on "American Gods"

I was encouraged to read "American Gods", by Neil Gaiman, and I thought a blog post to try and gather my thoughts on the book was in order.

If you want a flavour of what it is about, have a look at the Amazon page. I'll try not to include too many spoilers.

The book brought to mind a whole shelf-full of others. The supernatural elements evoked the magical/real worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently", Eoin Colfer - even perhaps Doctor Who! The fluid evocation - homage? pastiche? - of the unseen U.S. reminded me of Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson. And those were just the connections I was able to make. However, it would be misleading to suggest that this book is simply a cobbling together of other people's ideas. On the contrary, this is a story that these books would aspire to - the plot that succeeds in drawing all these threads together.

However, in my opinion, it comes nervously close to failing. Gaiman is obviously a well-established writer, held in critical high regard. That allows him to make demands on his readers that a new writer would not be able to; but for a new reader (me!) coming to this book, it felt as though it was on the edge of being overblown and indulgent. On top of the main plot about the clash between modern and ancient gods, there is a police procedural "whodunit" here, a collection of essays about the connections between various people from American history and their gods, and a studied gaze at small town America. All of these would have stood up on their own - for all of them to cohabit inside one book brings it close to being a literary orgy. And why is it necessary for literary masterpieces to break the 400 page barrier?!

The main character, Shadow, is indeed a shadow. "I'm not sure you're alive, either. Not really," his dead wife tells him at one point. Shadow does eventually act to demonstrate to himself the fact that he is alive. But even so, he seems somewhat unengaged. (Spoiler alert!) He manages to single-handedly stop the twilight of the gods - but I was left wondering why he would have bothered, really. If at some stage he had had a kind of ultimate existential experience which was motivating him, it didn't really stand out from the other experiences he had along the way. One of the reviewers on the blurb describes the book as "heart-rending". I disagree. It was good enough, but none of the characters, with the possible exception of a young woman called Sam Black Crow - not even Shadow - really engaged me enough to care about them. Certainly this is an excellent book if it is considered within a particular genre - it garnered SF awards, for example. But in absolute terms, I didn't think it was earthshaking.

To come - thoughts on some of the ideas in "American Gods".

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On listening to the other side...

From here:
When did attending a speech imply acquiescence to the speaker’s views? As a rule, I’d rather hear someone I disagree with than someone I agree with. The only exception to the above rule is that I'd rather hear Christ than Satan. But, nevertheless, if Satan was invited to give our commencement address, I’d be really excited to hear what he had to say.

David Heddle

"The Tempest", RSC, Richmond Green Theatre

We took the children to see the matinee last weekend. There was a disapproving comment from a woman in the row behind to the effect that the children were "too young", but they seemed to largely follow what was going on and enjoy the play, having been given a quick introduction (based on the programme notes).

I have had affection for "The Tempest" for years, due to references to it in a book my Madeleine L'Engle and a more substantial analysis in "A Meaningful World". Despite this, I only read it last year, and this was the first time I had seen it performed.

The setting was African, with the spirits being given spectacular African costumes, and large puppets featuring at several stages in the action. A small group of musicians, visible at the back of the stage and amplified, enhanced the setting. Anthony Sher was Prospero, and John Kani was Caliban.

The direction hinted at colonial/apartheid overtones. Thus, Caliban, although a "bad person", was ultimately being wronged by Prospero by having his land taken from him, and the play presented Prospero's departure, specifically leaving Caliban free "to be wise hereafter and seek for grace", as the culmination of the play. Also, the director chose to portray Prospero's turning away from revenge as something prompted by Ariel - something not really present in the text, but conveyed through the actions of the cast. The text certainly bore these things, although the portrayal of Prospero as less of a "wise old man" and more of somebody needing to make a journey of forgiveness somewhat muddies the archetypes. And if Ariel were able to deflect his master in such a way, would he really have put up with the resentment caused by thirteen years of bondage?

The production chose to interpret Prospero's relationship with Ariel as one of repressed homosexuality. I didn't feel this was necessary - it is certainly possible to interpret the text that way, if you choose, in the same way that by ignoring other textual matters in the Bible you can interpret David and Jonathan's relationship as a homosexual one. But it did seem a somewhat unnecessary addition of a modern, gay agenda to a text that is quite rich enough on its own. However, it wasn't laboured to the point of drowning the rest of the narrative - the children weren't led to ask about it!

The play was spectacular and enjoyable, and as a first exposure of the children to Shakespeare, worked very well.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Silly Phonetic Games

Yankee Zulu went to town
Riding on a pony
He pulled a foxtrot out of his uniform
And called it "Mike".

Sorry, you probably had to be there.

It leaves a bad taste in your mouth

We've got tickets for the U2 Wembley concert, which is exciting. After the last tour (which I didn't get to) I resolved that I would definitely make every attempt to get to a future concert, and I should be able to.

The booking system (which I entrusted to my wife) was a little stressful, but kind of worked okay. But what left the sour taste was the booking charges. Paying for delivery is fair enough, though I seriously doubt that the sender will pay close to the amount charged for p+p. But the service charge - more than 10% of the ticket cost! What's that for? The ticket seller? That seems steep.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Vague thought on the difference between poetry and prose

Of course, my background is science, not art, so my thoughts on this have even less credibility than my thoughts on (say) Intelligent Design. And this is probably a really trivial observation - GCSE standard or below - and I just was not paying attention in class when the teacher mentioned it as a throwaway remark.

However, it occurred to me that prose is about ideas, rather than format. So the precise words are less important than the ideas that are conveyed. Take a passage of prose, and it could be rewritten in different words, but conveying the same idea.

Poetry is different. Certainly it will convey an idea, but the words themselves are important - with well-written poetry, every word is the "right" word; none can be changed without reducing the quality of the poetry.

This bears on (for example) the issue of translation. A passage of prose can be translated into a new language, because the words themselves are less important than the ideas conveyed. It can be rewritten for a different audience for the same reason - they may not share the same culture or presuppositions, but the idea can be represented in different language, perhaps with additional explanation. There are some things which don't translate so easily - figures of speech, for example, or ideas that are linked to a particular culture, or particular sections which follow more closely poetic patterns. But that highlights the general fact that "prose" translates, whereas "poetry" and "poetic language" don't translate so well.

A poem can't be translated in the same way as prose at all. There will be some things "lost in translation", because the nature of poemosity (poemness?) is that it is the actual words which are significant. Even when a poem can be converted into a poem in another language, there won't be a direct equivalence between the response to poetry in two different languages.

It would be interesting to explore this idea further, but my knowledge of poetry and prose and different languages is too limited. I think I'll have to do some linguistics. As an example of poetry, it would be interesting to see how similar "Ein' Feste Burg" is, in people's response, to the two different English translations, "A Safe Stronghold our God is still" and "A Mighty Fortress is our God." Though in that case, of course, the music also adds to the response obtained.

This also has a bearing on evolutionary theory, interestingly....

An idea can be expressed in different ways. Similar biological structures (different forms of eye, for example) have apparently evolved separately, and do the same thing using substantially different genetic material. Here are "prose" ideas expressed in different ways. The assumption of darwinism is that all biological structures are of this sort - a gradual process of improvement will allow a movement towards a state where the biological structure is more fit for purpose - where the prose more correctly expresses the ideas that it needs to express.

But by the same token, people argue against simple darwinism by suggesting that some biological structures are highly specified. Like a poem, any substantial changes (much more than at the level of changing the spelling of a word, for example) are likely to rapidly erode the quality of the structure. Prose can be bashed into shape - a plan worked out, ideas sketched, arguments for and against marshalled and then the masterpiece written. But poetry, it might be suggested, doesn't work like that. Certainly a plan for a poem can be come up with - but I guess the poet is likely to pick specific words and phrases from his or her vocabulary, to construct the whole poem in a sense "as a whole", rather than gradually converge towards the final form. Words might be replaced, or stanzas - whole verses dropped or added. There may well be structural rules (metre, rhyme) that mean that the "prose" approach of converging towards the final version with proofreading, editing and so on simply won't yield a poem.

Hum. This merits some more thought....