Grexit: Truth in etymology

Well, everybody’s talking about the “Grexit,” i.e., Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, which looms egregiously as I write. But how many of them know that “grex” is Latin for flock, and forms the basis for the word egregious (lit. standing out above or from the flock), not to mention congregate, aggregate, and segregate? Or that in English, it actually refers to a clump of slime mold?

Just saying.

But perhaps the most relevant term with “grex” at its root is gregicide, “involving the slaughter of the common people,” to quote the egregious (in its original sense of outstanding or excellent) OED.

What more do you need to know?

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Sci Fi Reportage

Thinking about the strange sci-fi convention of filling readers in on social, political, technological, even geological developments that are obviously counter-factual, in reportage or encyclopedia style, when of course if they’d happened readers could be expected to know about them. Somehow these blatant lies, which seem like they ought to disrupt the willing suspension of disbelief, if done well reinforce it. How does that work? Whence the convention? And how does it relate to the idea of “lethetic” fiction that Clayton Koelb discusses in his 1984 monograph, The Incredulous Reader? (Koelb argues that there is a class of fictions which cannot be understood by means of the conventional notion of the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” This class of fictions, which he calls lethetic, is defined first of all by the fact that such works actively “solicit the reader’s disbelief.”) Continue reading

Made Personal

I’m “Writer in Residence” for the current show at The Alice, a gallery run by Julie Alexander and Julia Freeman in Georgetown (Seattle). The show is called “Made Personal” and is curated by, with works by, Serrah Russell, Joe Rudko, and Colleen RJC Bratton. This is the piece I wrote for the show.

Thing was once a verb

The first thing you notice is the hum. Or throb. A blue-green, metallic sort of sound, with a nice subtle backbeat to it, the quiet oscillation of a mindless drone doing its thing, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but if you close your eyes you can dance to it. In a sort of tripped-out spacey way. Like the noise of the ferry when you stand at the bow, the diesel engines pulsing and the hull cutting through the waves with their cross-rhythms, the foam piling up and spilling back, piling up and spilling back, the gulls hovering along beside.

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The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

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Luis Alberto Urrea at Hugo House

Luis Alberto Urrea spoke at Hugo House last night and, thanks to a perspicacious colleague, I knew about the event in time to actually go. The talk was in two parts: a written lecture on what Urrea calls “understory” and an on-stage interview. The lecture was good—entertaining, well written, insightful, delivered with verve despite the fact that he was reading, not speaking extemporaneously. I had issues with parts of it, but overall I liked it. But the real highlight for me was the second half, the on-stage interview, where Urrea spoke off-the-cuff about his work, spinning tales about his Yaqui relatives, speaking at all-Latino high schools, working with Border Patrol agents when writing his book The Devil’s Highway, and an astonishing story about his mother’s experiences in World War II, to be the basis for a new book. His riff on the importance of empathy was inspiring. I won’t try to reproduce the talk; suffice it to say that he was funny, engaging, profound. I came away with great respect for this author whom I’ve never read. I hope to check out The Devil’s Highway, a nonfiction account of 26 Mexican men’s attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert into the United States, and his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro is coming to Seattle at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to going to see him. I got talking about him with a friend and fellow writer, and in a burst of enthusiasm went out and bought both When We Were Orphans and the new novel, The Buried Giant. (Spoiler alert: the article I’ve linked to gives away a bit of the plot, which is unfortunate, but it also has some comments from Ishiguro on the style issues I talk about here. If you want his comments without the spoilers, skip down to the last four paragraphs of the interview.)

After I finished The Buried Giant all I could say was, what a strange guy he is. And I knew, if I had the chance to ask a question when I see him, I’d say this: “You’re a master of style, of voice, of tone. What was it about the narrative voice in The Buried Giant that drew you?”

Here’s my guess at an answer. (It doesn’t jibe completely with what Ishiguro has to say in the Star article I’ve linked to above, but it’s not completely off, either.)

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Fantasy as constraint

I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.

It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading