The Familiar Volume 3: Honeysuckle and Pain by Mark Z. Danielewski

TheFamiliarVolume3

Here we are with Volume 3 of my favorite series prominently featuring a scrying orb.

My review of Volume 3 could almost be a copy-paste of Volume 2.

Xanther’s bond with the sinister Familiar deepens. Anwar worries about code and money. Astair worries about sex and money. Luther chews metal. Jingjing smokes. Isandorno unemotionally observes great violence. Cas is on the run. Shnorrk drives his cab around and ponders being the most irrelevant character. Ozgur collects even more scintillating clues that will surely come together, some day.

In Volume 3, there’s actually conjecture that the characters might all start converging in LA. And one character even, ever so briefly, sees another one. Granted, it’s a 2 second long accidental non-meeting, but it’s there!

In other words, the series remains a very slow burn. But it also remains a pleasure to read. The swirling text and tension-via-page flipping and word arrangement remains enchanting. I just like holding and reading the damn thing. The characters were already easily identified by their fonts, but now I can just glance at the color coding on the top right and think “Oh, pink, I’ll have a long Xanther chapter next”. It has become… familiar.

The Familiar is extremely tight on both technology and current events. The nerdy characters discuss modern video games. The characters react to say, the Isla Vista Killings or ISIS executions. But even now, we’re starting to outpace, in real time, the story. It’s still Summer 2014 there. Anwar attends E3 and beholds games that have already been released. Should this series reach its end, at 26 or 27 or whatever volumes, we’re going to be many years ahead (barring major time skips). It’s set to produce the heretofore unseen trick of going from fully up-to-date to capturing a past moment in history in the same series.

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The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

utopia of rulesBureaucracy! You hate it! You love it! Quite possibly your workday is clenched between its squeaky-clean cogs.

Inflexible and stupid rules. Little else can make me as furious. Someone simply saying “but those are the rules!” regardless of how stupid they are is incomprehensible to me. Non-negotiability is madness. Especially when wielded by those with real power over me.

Graeber’s essays go beyond the mere stupidity of bureaucracy into deeper, sinister territory.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Bureaucracy is tightly coupled with the threat of violence. The rules only truly work because if you don’t follow them, men in uniform, be they police or security guards or whatever, will throw you in a cage or charge you exorbitant fees.
  • Bureaucracy used to be more a government technique, but Graeber coined the term ‘total bureaucratization’ to encompass our modern era where government bureaucracy is inextricably linked with corporate bureaucracy. See banks throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing we can do while pointing at inflexible regulations that they themselves encouraged. Or consider work within corporations themselves, which now includes all sorts of metrics and rubrics and paperwork to measure performance. 
  • Bureaucracy, at least the current American version, stunts technology. By forcefully pointing tech and science in directions of further bureaucratization / social control, it keeps it from inventing alternate technologies that change the world and possibly obsolete capitalism or bureaucracy itself. For instance, the ‘mechanized worker’ people of the early 19th century were sure would be invented never materialized.
  • Bureaucracy totally morphs the concept of value in baffling ways. Value becomes a ubiquitous concept to be arrived at, rather than the obvious result of labor. See:

The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends, between facts and values, is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because bureaucracy is the first and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done

Worst of all, as a result of all these things (and more), modern Americans now think that the hard-line, impersonal rulecraft of bureaucracy is the only correct way civilization works. Yet for the vast majority of human history, it wasn’t required at all. Somehow people got by without being able to instantly call men in uniform to threaten (&inflict) violence in the name of Rules.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

milagrobeanfieldwarCheck out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed page edges. A brick of mass market paperback in that unmistakable font that used to signify A BOOK to me before trade paperbacks took over and the construction of the book itself became stylized. Along with the funny title, these are the reasons I picked this up for three dollars (more than its original sale price) and took it home.

Do you ever stop to contemplate a physical book that is older than you? This book is about a decade older than me. While I was busy being born and learning to read and playing super mario brothers and being bored at school and entering the workforce and getting married and whatever else up until the present moment, this copy of The Milagro Beanfield War was out there, somewhere. Maybe having adventures and being read by all sorts of people (there was an old receipt stuffed between the pages of the book from a now defunct airline). Or maybe it was just read once and stuffed in a trunk before being sold to a used book store many years later.

Anyway, enough musing. Review time.

This is a political book. The war of the title is not a joke nor a bloody battle, but a sort of Cold War between the inhabitants of Milagro and a combination of the wealthy landowners and government forces seeking to abscond with their ancestral lands to create a golf course and surrounding tourist amenities. It’s a story of rich versus poor, old versus new, white versus brown, tradition versus capitalism.

The chicano subsistence farmers of Milagro, New Mexico have lived and died there for hundreds of years. They were there before the US won the Spanish-American War and they’ve been there since. Never really gaining anything in the way of wealth, they’ve survived OK off the land, taking joy in beers on the front porch, mariachi music, and hunting and swimming around the gorgeous and serene mountain lakes that frame Milagro. But for the past several decades, trouble has been brewing and the working class farming community has slowly morphed to true hopeless poverty. Milagro’s inhabitants are all in danger of losing their lands. Indeed, many already have. They’re pushed into service jobs in faraway cities and a huge portion of them are on food stamps.

What happened? Bureaucratic water laws driven by interests far from Milagro, with dead eye sights on economic growth, out of state tourism and the March Forth of Progress. It almost does not need to be said that the poor farmers of Milagro whose land is the fuel for this endeavor will never see any of profit.

This leads to the events of the novel: Joe Mondragon, fed up with the directionless path his life has taken, heads out to his late parents dusty property and diverts a stream to irrigate a paltry beanfield. A simple gesture, but a seriously illegal one with major political implications that Joe himself, a fiesty hot-head, doesn’t even consider. Government agents, water rights goons, local businessman, and a slew of other interests converge on Milagro, plotting how best to dispose of Joe and his beanfield without blowing the whole delicate political situation like a powder keg. The community of Milagro, slowly, through various means both violent and peaceful, starts to unify in response.

While the paragraph above outlines the plot, it’s not truly the focus of the novel and it falls into the background for many pages at a time. Joe himself will disappear from the narrative for large swathes, heard only of in rumor, and some of his most important deeds occur off screen. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent elaborating on the exploits and histories of its large cast of characters, from old men like the ancient, possibly immortal Amorante Cordova and one-armed Onofre Martinez (his other arm was eaten by butterflies), to the whites who found themselves in Milagro for various reasons, like Charlie Bloom, a Harvard lawyer who desperately sought to escape his own culture but has a love-hate relationship with the new one that adopted him.

This is simultaneously The Milagro Beanfield War’s defining strength and distracting flaw. While it’s essential to get to know the town to truly feel immersed in the politics and get behind the plight of not just one unique main character, but a whole slew of them, it’s also digressive and meandering to the point of madness. Every character gets a backstory, even ones who appear for a mere scene or two. Luckily it’s funny and engaging and also relevant 40 years later, where the axis of wealth and the exploitation of the poor continues.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

msgv

Beleaguered, weary, wounded and battleworn, I ride my chopper to one final deployment. Not another sortie to South Africa or Afghanistan, to sneak into a soviet installation or assassinate an arms dealer, but to write this blog post. A task I am finding difficult. Usually before writing I already have a lead or structure, an idea to elaborate on. I already have the post about the book I’m reading half-written in my head. Yet, I don’t seem to have much to say about Metal Gear Solid V, a game I enjoyed immensely.

Just why is this game so good?

Take this episode for example: Early in the game, I was tasked with rescuing a hostage. I snuck into a Soviet-occupied Afghan village, slithered up on a soldier to interrogate him and retrieve the prisoner’s location, and was nearly there, without being seen, when a guard spotted me at the door. Alarms sounded as I rushed into the hostage’s room. The prisoner is screaming, bullets are plinking glass bottles above the bar I’m hiding behind. I’m surrounded.

I radio my chopper for air support. I hold out behind the bar while I wait for it to fly in. The Soviet guards freak out and start screaming and returning fire as my chopper strafes them. The pure chaos allows me to sneak out, prisoner thrown over my shoulders. A few hundred meters from the village, I radio my chopper to come pick me up. I watch as it flies away from the battle, slightly smoking, to touch down in front me. I toss the hostage inside and hop in myself, taking potshots at the enemy soldiers, not really expecting to hit anything. Mission complete.

Everything feels so organic. There’s a thrill in non-scripted happenstance. A point is reached where gameplay is so well-designed, well-thought out, and polished that it becomes narrative. MGSV has a plot of its own, and it’s pretty interesting, delving into the imperialism of language and western tyranny in the Middle-East and Africa, as well as exploring some video gamey themes like player agency.

But this is secondary to the story that is built simply by playing the game. Like that time I blocked a road with a truck, and while the tank rolling down that route honked its horn and yelled at the truck to move,  I snuck up behind it and planted C4 on its bumper, only to creep away and detonate it from a safe distance. Or when I sicced my pet wolf, D-Dog, equipped with a taser, on a full squad of armed men and how he somehow stunned them all. Or the simple thrill and follow up relief of being spotted by a guard and reflexively shooting him precisely in the face with a tranquilizer dart, in the brief window between him noticing me and alerting his buddies of my presence.

You know that feeling you have, watching a good thriller, when the protagonist is hiding from some villain or creepy monster and your heart is racing because the scene is tense and well-shot? That is the feeling MGSV evokes, except you’re the protagonist and you are the one who got yourself in this situation, not the screenwriter or cameraman or director.

It is excellent.

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loiteringLoneliness.

Love.

While the essays in this collection masquerade as other topics, they all return to loneliness and love in the end. Seeking the latter while immersed in the former.

D’Ambrosio survived a tragic family life: one brother lost to suicide, another brother schizophrenic and a failed suicide, a tyrannical father unable to take responsibility. Naturally, this informs nearly every aspect of his writing, whether it be about hopping trains, the emergent culture of his hometown Seattle, an analysis of Catcher in the Rye, or pondering society’s binary judgement of a middle school teacher accused of seducing a student.

Poignant and smart and occasionally both heartbreaking and funny, but frankly exhausting. It was an endless emotional pummelling of D’Ambrosio’s life and constant searching, searching, searching. He’s camping on the coastline ostensibly writing about the conflict between the native Makah people and their traditional whaling versus the local environmentalists demonizing them, but actually it’s musings about his penis and life as a lost boy isolated on the Pacific coast. I wanted to know about the whales! About the Makah!

I’ve mentioned before that all modern essays that take the personal + topical approach are inextricably tied back to the work of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. Their emotional vulnerability was essential to their appeal, but they remained keen, insightful observers of the world around them. When David Foster Wallace writes, at the start of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again:

I have filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.

Not only is it a funny intro, it’s a model for the essay. We get both DFW’s deep sense of outsiderness and bafflement that a luxury cruise is supposed to be fun but this is a wonderful juxtaposition to what is actually happening on the cruise, and an overall satire/critique on vacation in general. The problem with Loitering, as well-written as it is, is that it’s so heavily skewed to the ‘Just Me’. This is not necessarily some endemic flaw, but key to how I engage with books. I love a good essay collection, but am generally lukewarm to all but the best memoir.

D’Ambrosio is a stellar writer — he has the poet’s eyes for language, his vocabulary is prodigious but the little known words he uses are intriguing to ponder and learn the meaning of. I learned some variations on words I already knew. ‘Parsonal’, which I’m not sure is truly a word, connotes all the attributes of a ‘parson’, but is somehow a far prettier word. And his life is interesting. He tells it well. I was just looking for him to tell some other things well too.