Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills – Thoughts on a Roundabout Narrative

Ishiguro in Stockholm. Picture taken from Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Frankie Fouganthin

Recently, I finished Nobel Lit Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills (APVH), and, in a way, it came at just the right moment. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about that whole idea of writing ‘roundaboutly’. It’s something I might have mentioned earlier in – for example – my analysis of a chapter from A Norwegian in the Family, where I outlined how Dan wrote ‘around’ historical subjects like the American elections, in order to pick the best point of entry. The idea itself was first taken from Alex Sheremet’s review of Nabokov’s book Mary – where he characterizes great art as such:

“…Nabokov lived in one place only: his imagination. A few may argue that’s a sign of a great artist, and they’d be right. It is a sign, but not a landing. It is the entrance to a movie theater, but not one of the dozen side doors, where the most cunning sneak in, and make you feel cheated. It is a cocoon. It is, in brief, a hint, or an impetus, but what’s potential without principle, anyway? Art is bound by rules. Good artists break them, like the kids sneaking in through the back, smiling before you even walk in. But, artists need to break things intelligently, and, even more than that, with meaning.”

And, even though I’ve written quite a bunch about it – the concept still existed in some kind of haze. Mere inklings of what could be possible, rather than a hardened understanding of it. In a way, Ishiguro’s book (or, rather, his overall corpus and repeated themes) – helped in pointing a way (though, not the way) of understanding those many side-entrances. Part of it comes from an interview of his as to how he came up the structure and techniques of the book itself. The interview is found in a book – Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro – but I managed to grab the excerpt from the comments section of a blog post:

“In [A Pale View of Hills], I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It’s about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there’s a certain area of her life that’s very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people’s stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection”

And this excerpt perfectly sums up the book in question. It’s a story about an elided narrative, made manifest by the narrator talking about other events that stand parallel to that main thing. Because of that huge gap that seems to seep through all the events, the reader cannot help but begin a search for connections, and cohesions of meaning as to what this concealed story is. For example, there’s the title itself, and the image of the hills that appear within, and how its development across the novel syncs with the trajectory of Etsuko’s mind across the whole span of the book.

Yet, this is only a path – and one that Ishiguro has mastered, culminating in his most famous work Remains of the Day. We know that skirting around the main narrative with sly allusion is not the be-all-and-end-all of how to attain great artistic subtlety. This is a trap that many artists, like those who indulge in heavy intertextuality and esotericism (Nabokov etc…), are too quick to fall into. What sets APVH apart from all of those other books is the clean style of its prose, and how it hews to human character while maintaining its elusive narrative. Etsuko’s restrained speech and repression in the novel is consistent with the muted personality established for her, as seen in her interactions with the other characters. With the above linked blog post, you can see a certain pitfall that readers might fall into – they treat the book like some sort of grand mystery novel, merely being satisfied with the apparent answer – the plot conclusion – rather than the deeper answers that APVH reveals through its structure, such as the importance of moving on past one’s repressions, and how characters react to the idea of Japan, and how the macro-theme of Japan itself mingles with the micro-narrative of Etsuko’s own struggles.

Indeed, let’s look at the book’s core moment – the ‘plot twist’ – which appears at the end of the penultimate chapter of the book. I apologize for those people who care about stuff like spoilers – but – it shouldn’t matter since great literature isn’t defined by the flow of the narrative and its twists and turns, but how it coheres. For those who don’t want to be spoiled, though, you can stop reading here.

So, the entirety of the book centres around Etsuko – a Japanese survivor of the war living in England, and whose first daughter, Keiko, committed suicide. She refuses talk much about her daughter for most of the book, but recounts a woman she met back in Nagasaki called Sachiko. It’s through talking about Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko – that she is able to indirectly broach on her own daughter’s death, and other dark feelings inside her. In the penultimate chapter, Etsuko has some sort of dream-vision where she sees an unnamed girl, which initially seems to be Mariko. Yet, in the dream, Etsuko talks to this girl with the same words and topics that Sachiko would have used to address Mariko. From there we get a hint of the unreliability of her narration – and how Sachiko might be Etsuko. A doppelganger created within her own head to make sense of Keiko’s death.

Of course, this makes the whole thing seem like a mystery novel – and the blog post immediately starts going on about possible plot interpretations of this twist. Yet, the point is missed in its entirety, for what matters is not that the two women are one and the same (although I feel it is quite unlikely, because the characterization for both characters are completely different and they are not exactly equivalent to the Jungian symbol-characters of a Hesse novel) – but that Etsuko is finally willing to approach a subject she has repressed throughout the entire novel. Furthermore, even after this reveal, the moderation and austere nature of the prose remains till the end. We get a nice poetic image of the child running off into the distance:

“The child began to run, her footsteps drumming along the wooden boards. She stopped at the end of the bridge and stood watching me suspiciously. I smiled at her and picked up the lantern. The child began once more to run.

A half moon had appeared above the water and for several quiet moments I remained on the bridge, gazing at it. Once, through the dimness, I thought I could see Mariko running along the riverbank in the direction of the cottage.”

All this implies a certain kind of peace although she remains in her restrained and moderate pose – an outgrowth of her personality, rather than a sudden schism. In the next chapter, she begins to make better connection with her current daughter, Niki, and the novel fades out on an ambiguous image of her smiling and waving to her daughter. There are no fireworks involved, but just an impression.

You can also think about the wrongheaded artistic cliché “art doesn’t answer questions, but asks them” – and while it’s true that we never get a definite answer as to what role Sachiko plays in Etsuko’s life, or what she is exactly, we do see certain answers glimmer when we reach the end and see this subtle shift in Etsuko’s mood, and we see certain answers when we think about her narrative in conjunction with the symbols, perpetuated by characters like Ogata-san and Shigeo Matsuda, about the fate of Japan after the war.

There is a lot to learn in analysing how Ishiguro put APVH together, and there’s also much to learn from its flaws – for the themes and the story itself, of the clash of Eastern & Western cultures and Sachiko’s characterization as a well-sketched, but rather typical tempestuous westernized woman (as well as a bunch of others) – feels like it’s running over the same subject matter that lots of other Japanese novels have touched upon, although done in the distinct style of Ishiguro’s unreliable narrator/memory focus + the restrained prose style. One day, I might have to read this again, in continuum with Remains of the Day, to chart out its development from one to the other.


A Norwegian in the Family – Book 2 Chapter 14: Knowing Dick (Analysis)


The normal mode of thinking for any writer just getting into writing might be “how to get from point A to point B”. In other words, come up with a framework – all the plot events, characters, and actions – and the rest of the creative act is just stringing the above together. Deeper communication – true Art – goes one step beyond. It involves attacking a subject in a roundabout manner such that not only are there many points of entry, but many points of exit as well.

Dan has done this continuously in his countless poems, as I have analysed – but what about novel writing? Prose cannot exactly have the same ‘creative leaps’ as poetry does, at least not line-by-line. There has to be a kind of model, or ‘ground’ – that exists for the percipient to grasp.

Every chapter of Dan’s massive 2 million word novel– A Norwegian in the Family – is a practicum of how to create deeper resonance through prose. For this analysis, I’ll be examining one of the chapters and look into how Dan builds up small moments, character traits, conversations, and prose writing into a greater structure. The chapter is Knowing Dick – Chapter 14 Book 2 – from a Norwegian. It focuses on Richard Nixon and takes place in November 1964.

It would probably take too long to explain the entirety of the plot up to now, so I’ll just focus on the essentials. The chapter focuses on a mob boss, Pauly Marivelli (fictional), getting in touch with Nixon & trying to get him to side with the Marivelli Family. Nixon, at this point in time, has already lost to Kennedy – and he’s out of the race. Pauly wants Nixon back in the race so that he can become President, and then Pauly can manipulate him to lengthen the Vietnam War so that the Mob can profit off of it.

Take note that Nov 1964 was itself a presidential election month in USA – with the main candidates being Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Yet, while another historical writer might have focused on the big event itself, and the excitement surrounding it – Dan focuses on Richard Nixon. Even though I’m not from America – and I can’t recite every single US president in chronological order the way some schoolchildren might be able to – the context still exists in the background for me to know about what was going on at the time (though, Google also helped).

This is one of Dan’s usual tactics. If you’ve watched his video on how he wrote Ed Gein Becoming – he chooses the least expected point of entry and writes ‘around’ what people would normally expect. He avoids focusing on a major historical event in order to focus on someone who would not come into power until 1969. In this way, Dan can reach out into the ‘future’ while downplaying primacy of the presidential election. Rather than focusing on the triumph and excitement of the elections, the ‘obvious narrative’ – he focuses on snivelling Tricky Dick’s underhanded activities. This also plays into the greater thematic thrust of A Norwegian – which is a novel that analyses the nature of Evil and the contradictions implicit in the USA as a whole (among other themes).

The chapter is broken up into three main parts. It opens up with a scene of Pat & Richard Nixon going to watch a movie. It then shifts to a bar, where Pauly has brought Nixon over to talk to him about re-entering the elections. Finally, the chapter ends by focusing on a totally different character entirely – a hitman called Tony Luft & his fling with a girl called Flo.

Now, before I get into a deeper analysis, it’s very important to take note of the multiple meanings embedded in the title of the chapter. Knowing Dick, on the surface level, refers to knowing Tricky Dick in a deeper fashion. Yet, there’s also the phallic/masculine interpretation (one of the main themes in A Norwegian, whose very subtitle is “A Novel About Men”), as well as, more importantly, the link to the saying “knowing jackshit”.

Part 1: Pat Nixon

Beyond choosing the least expected event to focus on, Dan also chooses the least expected way to approach that event. He begins the chapter by sketching out a little scene where Pat and Richard Nixon go to the cinema to catch a movie. It delves into Pat’s thoughts about her husband. This not only humanizes Nixon by showing his family, but it creates deeper ‘parallaxes’ and symbols that will play out in a subtler way across the entire chapter.

The chapter opens up with Pat staring at a billboard for the 1964 drama film Where Love Has Gone – and Dan ramps up the font size to make it clear that this is probably a symbol of some sort.

Where Love Has Gone

The movie itself is a very interesting choice. When I first saw the title, I read it as Where Has Love Gone, as in the cliched question asked by couples in those kinds of romance drama movies. But, the title of the movie is pointing to the end destination, rather than asking the question. This fact opens up many more possible parallaxes than if the title was the above question. Interestingly, Pat Nixon sees it as a question, even though it isn’t one. Dan even points this out through parentheses (“a question (or statement?)”.

WLHG Movie Poster

Anyway, this ‘love’ spoken of in the title links immediately to the Pat/Richard relationship, but it could also link up with the political relationship between Nixon & the people, destroyed by Kennedy, and soon to be rekindled when Nixon re-enters the race with the backing of the Mob. Finally, there’s the Tony/Flo relationship at the end of the chapter.

Combined with that title, the chapter opens with an imagistic juxtaposition of Pat Nixon being affronted with the “greasy smell of cheap popcorn”, only to be hit with the billboard – “its almost golden hue broke through the misty rain and fog of the evening, as well the frosted glass that encased it, making her nascent nausea a secondary thing to the smile upon her face, as she gazed upon it.” – poetically pointing to the kind of Romanticism captured inside Pat’s head versus its dirty reality, as well as the distance of the dream itself.

This effect is heightened by the prose seeming to shift into her style of thought, from the third-person omniscient. It shows her train of thought as she fantasizes and oohs & aahs about the various movie stars. Then, her train of thought goes into irritation as she wonders why her husband is taking so long to buy tickets. At this point, the melodramatic hooks from the rest of the billboard appears in large font, possibly hinting at the tension in the couple’s relationship.

The train of thought continues into various things, highlighting out Pat’s psychology with deftness – she thinks about Dick feeling depressed about the campaign season, worries about a possible affair he’s having, feels guilt at being so suspicious, and her mind goes back to the title Where Love Has Gone, and she also has a little aside about how she hates having “to pretend to have an interest in whatever trivial nonsense whatever little insignificant powerbroker or beancounter he was sucking up to was interested in.”

In a few quick strokes, we get the sense of her naivete and her attitude towards her husband. Dick returns with the tickets, and bitches to her:

Nixon Rants after coming back to Pat

From this little excerpt, we get to see hints of his paranoia, sniveling nature, and entitlement – traits that will come to play in greater force during his negotiation with Pauly Marivelli. Yet, Dan has the insight to add this little morsel:

His wife, Pat, was going to speak, but she found an odd comfort in the fact that her husband’s brooding, arrogance, and insecurities, were back in full force after a day of, well, harmony. As he pointed the way to an Italian restaurant, across the street, she felt sort of perverse, to be thankful for something most found so distatsteful in any person, but especially in her husband.

Which aptly characterizes how such couples who have stuck it through for a long time might feel about one another. It can be seen as either tender, in that there’s still someone who might accept (or at least bear with) Tricky Dick, or terrifying, because it tells a truth about people who have stuck it through together to the point where they cannot see any other alternative, despite the flaws. Tender, or terrifying – the main thing is that its human. Think about how that might link up to “knowing dick”.

As their conversation unfolds, Nixon bitches about the elections between LBJ and Goldwater. Pat, well-known to his ways already, merely shuts up and lets his heat play out:

She smiled and nodded, as he held her arm, and they crossed the busy Manhattan avenue.
He said, ‘Just feel like a little bit of Italian food, you know?’
‘That’s fine, Dick.’
‘Yes, Dick.’
‘Buddy, it all came to me, last night.’
She said nothing. She knew that all he ever needed was the look of approval from her eyes. She knew that he was going to tell her that he had decided to take one last shot at it, in ’68. The whole world knew that LBJ was going to murder Goldwater in the election, but she knew he had to say certain things. She smiled.

Dan ends this section with Pat having a poetic rumination on a past memory:

Pat goes back into a brighter memory

This is a beautiful way to cap off this segment. Yet, when placed in the context of all the psychological stuff that comes before, and what we can see of the relationship – it could be a sign of her exasperation, to the point where she has to rely on such nostalgia to remove herself from the reality of the relationship, and bear it. Does Pat love Nixon? Does she remain silent out of exasperation or consideration? Does she enable Nixon’s crimes? What about Nixon? Throughout the segment, he bitches, but he shows care for his wife. Later parts of this chapter might show how he really feels about her.

On a side note, go back and look at the excerpts, and take note of what kind of innuendo appears when you use the phallic interpretation of the term, and what sort of tricks Dan uses to create resonances in that direction (“I’m a man, damn it. I have, I have…” “Dick…”).

Part 2: Pauly and Dick

Part 2 of the chapter opens up with a description of the bar where Pauly meets up with Nixon (after getting his goons to ‘kidnap’ him from his office). Well, I say ‘description’ – but there’s not really much describing of the appearance and surface reality of the bar. Rather, Dan pulls apart the mythos, anecdotes, and stories surrounding the bar. This is a part of his “total immersion” technique. Dan rarely spends much time describing things in A Norwegian (unless there is a narrative purpose to do so), but he floats up the aspects that we, as humans, would link to. This technique is the anti-thesis of “show, don’t tell” – and he creates a model of the world in our mind through dialogues, conversations, memes, anecdotes, tropes, and everything internal rather than external in the world:

Uncovering the mythos of the Bar

While waiting for his goons to bring Nixon over, Pauly looks at the TV and shoots the shit with his right-hand man – Tony Dellaguardo. They talk about things like the election and a bunch of other stuff. Dan is pretty much a master at writing conversations – creating a natural flow between topics, with all the jumping about and digressing that real people do, while he sticks symbolic cues and stuff to create parallels here and there.

Conversation between Pauly and Tony

Despite being a vicious killer and a mob boss, for example, Dan still humanizes the middle aged Pauly by having him talk about his aching feet. He tells Tony that he feels an affinity with Goldwater, even though he knows that the “bastard’s gonna get killed in the election”. Tony makes the comment that Pauly and Goldwater are similar because “He’s decisive and never backs down. People are often drawn to men like that…”. Then, they talk about the Vietnam War and Pauly remarks how:

“War is always good for business. It was good for Alexander The Great. It was good for Attila The Hun. It was good for Genghis The Khan. And, my friend, it is good for Pauly The Marrivelli”

Note that this comment has deep resonance with the overall themes of A Norwegian, about the continuum of power and an examination of evil – but it is placed in the off-handed comment of a mob boss. The historical reference is believable because Pauly doesn’t push into it like some kind of political theorist, but merely makes it something he skimmed of his mind, probably from stuff he read in the past – to suit his current conversation.

An interesting note is that Pauly himself discusses the prospect of voting independent, beyond the Republican Goldwater and the Democrat LBJ:

Pauly Votes Independent

This idea of voting independent is something that Dan himself believes in – but he places that opinion in the mouth of a character who is definitely not himself, and is a pretty shitty human being. But, the trait fits the character. This is where the point must be re-iterated, that art must be separated from the artist – and Pauly Marivelli is not Dan Schneider, even though Dan has submerged his own traits into the mouths of his characters. In fact, it seems like the best art comes about when the artist negates himself to the maximum (or, subsumes his self into a world), and reaches out to the world beyond his ken – to prove he is vast enough to talk about things beyond his immediate limits and display that contrast of his own subjectivity, and something greater.

Anyway, as much as I would love to dissect every single line of conversation, it’s pretty much impossible due to how much stuff Dan packs into it – so I can only touch on core points. I’ll leave the full exegesis of the Schneiderverse to the future scholars.

After Nixon is finally brought into the establishment, he immediately goes into a paranoiac tirade – very befitting of his character as sketched out by Dan.

Enter Richard Nixon

Let me take a moment here to talk about how brilliant Dan’s characterization of his version of Nixon is. He does not play off Nixon like some kind of mastermind, or devious villain. Rather, Nixon is insecure, has his head up in the clouds most of the time (in a somewhat endearing way, sometimes), and is delusional & hypocritical (possibly unconsciously) rather than being a two-faced Machiavelli. This is actually a scarier characterization than having Nixon be a crook through and through – and it reminds me of Woody Allen’s depiction of Judah in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It is a lot more painfully human, in the insecurities, pathetic nature, and self-justifications verging on the level of doublethink. The fact that this entire conversation leads to Nixon siding with Pauly, and agreeing to prolong the Vietnam War if he becomes President – is a great showcase of how it is ignorance, narrow-mindedness and stupidity, rather than outright malice, that frequently screws over humanity. Yet, despite holding such grim implications as to how the world works, Dan sketches out the whole exchange in a satirical and joyous manner – stringing together a bunch of jokes and making Nixon into a comedic buffoon.

Nixon even drops his famous line:

I’m Not A Crook

Another thing to note is the dick-waving and banter that occurs throughout the whole negotiation. There isn’t any Hollywood style criminal coercion type scenario, but the bullshittery and one-upping that comes with real life conversation, though possibly exaggerated for poetic and comic effect in parts. For example, Nixon remarks:

‘None of your beeswax, Mister. Dick Nixon answers to no one but Dick.’

Which leads up to this exchange:

‘Is that a confession?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. You just said you answered to dick, and I thought maybe you was queer, or something, and hadda get it off your chest?’
Tony D. started chuckling.
Nixon roared, ‘Dick Nixon a fag? Are you joking? And tell your Neanderthal, here, to cut it out with the laughter.’
‘Tony, ixnay, ixnay.’
Tony D. quit chuckling.

Here are a few more moments of hilarious exchange that occurs throughout the conversation:

Nixon on being grabbed off the street

Paranoid Nixon

Nixon on Rat Poison and ‘working the angles’

Partway through the conversation, Pauly tries to drop an anecdote about how he squished a waterbug once. At first, it seems like Pauly is setting it up as some kind of intimidation against Nixon, or he’s trying to make a point – but halfway through, it sparks off a memory in Nixon about a song he would sing in a bath-tub when he was being bathed by his ‘mama’. And, much to Pauly’s chagrin, he breaks out into the song without any care about the conversation he’s currently in:

 ‘Dick, I wanna tell you a story.’

‘A story? Is that why you had your thugs and goons drag me out here?’

‘Thug or goon- pick one, Dick; and it don’t even gotta be an either/or thing, ok?’

Nixon sneered.

‘Here’s the story I wanna tell you. Just sit back amd relax, ok?’

‘Ok. Not like I have a real choice, now, do I?’

‘No, but I’m glad that reality has sunk in. It’ll make the rest of our relationship that much easier.’


‘Dick, I saw a waterbug the other day.’

‘Where?’ said a frightened Nixon.

‘Not here, Dick- somewhere else. It was a metaphor kind of thing.’

‘Oh, ok.’

‘You ok?’

‘I said I was ok. Dick Nixon isn’t scared of little bugs. Insects, that’s the scientific name. Spiders aren’t insects, you know.’


‘No, they’re arthropods- with eight legs. Insects have only six. Well, technically, insects are arthropods, but, well….’


‘Yeah, well, go on. Didn’t mean to interrupt you.’

‘Thank you. So, as I was sayin’, I saw a waterbug the other day, and it was crawlin’ along a wall, right were it was on a concrete floor in a warehouse of mine.’

‘Ah, a warehouse. I see.’

‘Yes, they often have insect problems. Anyway, he was around the size of a dollar coin.’

‘Ah, that’s big.’

‘Yeah, dollar coins are pretty big.’

‘Oh, a coin, I thought you said bill, as in dollar bill. I was thinking that that was enormous- something from the Carboniferous Period, I think. More oxygen in the air, then, so critters were bigger. My daughter reads this stuff in textbooks.’

‘Can I go on, Dick?’

‘Yeah, sure, sure- a waterbug. Go on….’

So, I had just finished up my business there, with a foreman.’

‘Importing some illegal trade, I guess?’



‘Anyway, he’s crawling behind the baler, in shadows, but I see his jet back body, Dick, and, naturally, of course, my first impulse is to kill the bastard. Ugly fucker, in my warehouse. I got rights, right? He’s trespassing, right?’

‘Yeah. I guess.’

‘So I watch the little fucker.’

I last saw a waterbug a few months ago. It reminded me of when I was a boy. Not many waterbugs in California, but enough, see?’


‘It got me thinking of when I’d see them come up the drains in bathtubs.’

‘Yeah, well, anyway.’

‘I used to sing songs in the tub. My mama would bathe me when little.’

‘I don’t need to hear- ‘

Nixon started singing in a mock Cockney accent:

Nixon Sings (cont)

Nixon wiped his brow with the hanky, and looked up sheepishly at Pauly.

Pauly said, ‘I’m touched, Dick. That was beautiful.’

‘Why, thank you.’

‘You ok?’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just thinking of mother, does that to me.’

‘I see. Can I go on?’

‘Of course, of course.’

‘So, I see this little fuckin’ waterbug, Dick, and I start thinking if I even have a right to killit? I mean, he’s just doing his things. That’s what the kids nowadays like to say: ‘doing my thing, Daddy-O!’ So, I watch him and watch him, ans sometimes I think he’s drunk, cuz the fuck’s got like six legs, and sometimes loses his balance. Maybe the poison traps are workin’ and fuckin’ up his brain. He ain’t a quick mover, is all I know. I could’a killed him a dozen times over. Just BAM! Slam the Buster Browns down, as they said in my youth.’

‘Yes, yes. I had a haircut like Buster Brown when….I….was…..’

‘Anyway, I’m pondering this deep philosophic shit, Dick.’

‘So, what did you do?’

‘Well, I thought about it. And then I went BAM! Slammed the Buster Browns down!’

‘Am I supposed to be moved, Mister?’


‘I mean, it’s a fuckin’ roach.’

‘Waterbug, Dick. There is a difference.’

‘To God, maybe, not man. What is the point of this story, Mister?’

‘I wanted to illustrate the preciousness of….’


‘Well, I thought it was a good story.’

‘I’d’ve squashed the little bastard the moment I saw him!’


‘Why? It’s just a bug, a- a- a little thing.’

‘Ah, Dick, but, you see- that’s what you gotta learn- the little things in life sometimes ARE the big things. I killed the fucker, but after I contemplated its life. Your problem, Dick, is that you think just of the big shit, but that’s made of all the little shit, see?’

‘Hmm, I see your point, kind of. You know, I get contemplative, too.’

‘You do, Dick?’

‘You ask that like it’s a shock. I was fucking Vice President, damn it. You think you rise that high without a brain?’

‘Of course not, Dick

The use of insects as a symbol is a trait of Dan’s, but this very exchange has so many layers to it beyond that symbolic one. The song, too, has symbolic resonance when placed against later things that happens in the chapter. The act of singing the song adds flavour and whimsicality to Nixon’s character, and plays a part in showing how delusional and pathetic he is (he even weeps slightly in the midst of the song – showing an endearing side, that he treasures his childhood and memory). Dan will also deepen the influence of Nixon’s mother later in the conversation, so this exchange sets up the inklings of that psychological background. The way the conversation plays out subverts a trope, where Pauly seems to be trying to pull an anecdote to intimidate or prove a point like some kind of more intelligent villain, only to be disturbed halfway through, and then he makes whatever point he was trying to make in a very sloppy and ambiguous way. Yet, the very ambiguity also adds poetic resonance to all sorts of other greater themes and psychological implications of Nixon’s character (“big shit being made out of little shit”). This is the difference between a writer that does a single thing in a single moment, and a writer that does multiple things in a single moment.

After the anecdote of the bug, Pauly and Nixon segue into banter about Bridgette Bardot’s beautiful naked ass from the movie Contempt. The point of the anecdote is pretty lost at this point, and they digress into talking about naked chicks. This is hilarious and bawdy, but it also brings up another aspect of Nixon’s pathetic character that will be followed up later in the conversation.

Nixon and Pauly on Bridgette Bardot

Then, they talk about a bunch of other topics, and Nixon tries to style himself up as a moral paragon – but, it’s all hypocrisy of course, given what we know of him later in history. Dan doesn’t need to call him out on it or explicate on it greatly, but merely showcases how Nixon paints himself now, and lets our historical knowledge of him do the rest of the work:

Nixon on his own Morality and Immigrants

He also tries to attack Pauly through his race by ranting against foreigners and calling him a ‘dago’.

Nixon once again goes back to the topic of sex – but this time he’s talking about how he’s a family man and a Quaker, and how he’s strictly a one-woman person that doesn’t cheat:

Nixon on his faithfulness

When Dan actually drops some description, he does it for a satiric and exaggerated effect, playing up Nixon’s paranoia through this description of how he faces off against Pauly (and how Pauly is merely amused by how weird Nixon is):

Tony left the room, as Nixon sprang out of the leather chair, and Pauly and Nixon walked about each other, as if in a Mexican standoff, shy one gunman. Partly, this was due to Nixon’s paranoia. They circled each other, Pauly with a spry humor regarding all this, while Nixon seemed ready to uncoil a wrath. Nixon tugged at his five o’clock shadow and his left eye twitched.

‘Sit, sit, Dick, you’re amongst friends here. You’re so goddamned nervous. Why?’

‘Why? Why? Well, let me think, Mister. Oh, because friends don’t kidnap friends, Buster. And, since you seem to know all about me, the least you can do is let me know who the hell I’m speaking to. This is about the tenth time I’ve asked. And not a single goddamned confirmation. And don’t try to deny who you are. I may not know it all, but I know you’re bad.’

‘Now, that really hurts, Dick. After all we’ve shared these last few minutes.’

‘Bah! We’ve shared nothing, Mister!’

To follow up on the running joke, Nixon sings a few more songs (Hard Times Come Again No More, Suwanee River, Oh! Susanna) while Pauly tries to get him to stop. He stops for a while, then starts up Suwanee River again, only to have Pauly finally diss his singing abilities:

Nixon’s Bad Singing

Eventually, the tension ramps up when Pauly talks about Lee Harvey Oswald shooting Kennedy (in the Schneiderverse, the JFK killing was done by a second shooter for reasons related to the larger macro-plot). Later, he also makes a comment about Nixon’s family, and Nixon takes this as another threat. He gets slightly aggravated, but both sides manage to keep it down in the end.

Nixon Threatened 1


Nixon Threatened 2

This is another bit of characterization on the side of Pauly too. Throughout the novel, we’ve seen Pauly lose his anger and kill a lot of people for the most arbitrary of reasons. But, there is always a clear line between how he orients himself towards people in positions of power, or people who have deep loyalty, that have value to him, and people who lack that value. Furthermore, in his mind, he already has an edge over Nixon due to a trump card he has, and so he can just sit back and enjoy the reaction. Nixon too, being a politician, and maybe also a coward, knows his boundaries. Throughout the whole conversation, though they take jabs and try to one-up each other, they don’t cross the line.

Pauly is slowly stringing him up into his deal. His eventual trump card is that he has evidence that Nixon forged the Pumpkin Papers (Google it up to get the historical context) – and he’s patiently waiting for the moment when he can drop the bomb on Nixon, outing him as the hypocrite that he is, and bringing him over to the side of the Mob.

Before the reveal, there’s another little moment that helps to deeper characterize Nixon’s personality. He sees a bowl full of ‘Coffee Nips’ candy on the table, and, with Pauly’s permission, he grabs one to eat, but kleptomania grips him and he tries to abscond with a few more candies in his pocket. Pauly catches him in the act, and tries to out him, but he immediately denies it, and then goes into a memory back when he was young:

Nixon’s Memories 1


Nixon’s Memories 2

Not only does this moment reveal Tricky Dick’s sloppy thievery (which has deeper resonance with the historical context of Watergate), but it also shows the psychological mechanism he uses – immediate denial, and a kind of escape back into his past. It also fully expounds on the possible influence Nixon’s mama had on him, due to her strictness, leading to his development into a shady and sloppy rat.

After the recollection, Pauly finally drops the bomb on Nixon. Dan’s description of how Nixon reacts to it is hilarious exaggeration:

Pauly’s Trump Card

Like the lawyer he was, he tries to cover it up and say that the public won’t trust Pauly’s words over his, but Pauly then reveals that he has physical evidence. Nixon’s reaction to this is also exaggerated and hilarious:

Nixon Goes Out the Window

At this point, Nixon is on the verge of losing it, and he breaks down into a rant, then slowly descends into a pathetic appeal – even revealing his perverse habits:

Nixon Breaks Down

Then, Pauly begins the turn, and starts roping Nixon into his deal. Dan shows the whole gamut of Nixon’s hypocrisy over here:

Pauly Pulls Nixon In

Even when he’s down, he still makes blatantly hypocritical remarks, claims that he doesn’t ‘sleep with the Mob’, but is more accepting when Pauly rephrases it as:

“No one’s talking about bed. Think of it as a telephone booth, and you’re just standing up with your pants around your ankles.”

Nixon, now dragged down to equal grounds with Pauly, gets into more of his weird fetishes and sexual thoughts when he recounts a moment when he imagined Pat as Audrey Hepburn:

Nixon reveals his fetishes

Interesting to note that, for this chapter, even though Nixon has all these creepy fetishes and masturbates to his secretaries – nothing shows that he’s been unfaithful, and that might be one of the things that he can hold up as being honest about. The fact that he confesses to all the other acts, which seems more pathetic than having a normal affair with a mistress – lends credence to this idea. Although the acts themselves do indicate that he has lost interest in his wife, he still remains faithful… or maybe he just has the inability to attract anyone else. If you follow the thread of masculinity, impotence, and this character trait of Nixon’s – you get one interpretation of the whole “Where The Love Has Gone” title – that Nixon’s actual relationship with his wife has transferred over to this power-relationship with the Mafia, and he buys into their deal to make up for his impotence in life. This interpretation is derived from the innuendo implicit in the title, the parallel of the metaphor about “sleeping with the mafia” that Nixon uses, as well as a later part of the conversation where he talks about keeping it a secret from Pat, as though it were an actual affair he was trying to keep under wraps:

Tricky Dick’s Subterfuge

This is just one of the countless possible frames to view A Norwegian that I derived from my own speculation, and thinking about the overall themes.

Pauly, in the meantime, outlines more of his plans with Nixon regarding the war:

Nixon and the Vietnam War

As the conversation goes on, Nixon gets more into it – since he is now basking in the prospect of finally getting a chance at winning the election (something that Kennedy stole from him). His pathetic nature and ranting changes into fervor, and he becomes happier and friendlier with Pauly. Another great depiction of the psychological mechanism at work:

Dick Nixon is not a Queer

Once the deal is finalized, Nixon dips into the bowl of Coffee Nips again, and absconds with more treats. This part ends with a great little rumination on Nixon that summarizes his character, and points towards the future of his eventual downfall:

Ending of Part 2

Part 3: Tony Luft and Flo

The third part, to me, completely came out of left field. Yet, once I saw the greater thrust – it surprised me as to how much it deepened the chapter overall. To cap off this chapter on Richard Nixon, Dan totally avoids any more of the main storyline. He goes into what seems like an extended Shaggy Dog Story about a hitman called Tony Luft.

Tony Luft is one of A Norwegian’s many idiot characters. He’s a hitman that can’t do his job right half of the time, and is a total idiot and goon. Throughout the novel, Dan has characterized him as a loser totally lacking in self-consciousness. You can hear Dan talk a bit about him in this video:

The entire third section is about how Tony manages to get in a relationship with a rather intellectual girl named Flo from seeing a personals ad. She has interests in “reading, museums, art, and philosophy”. Of course, the fact that he’s an idiot hitman makes the two of them a complete mismatch:

Tony Starts Dating Flo

The way the story unfolds, Tony and Flo, at first, manage to hit it off a bit, because she doesn’t know the true nature of his stupidity. But, Tony is then wrapped into what seems like an elaborate scam. A person sends him a letter full of little tips for things like stocks, races, and sports matches, and wants him to bet on the tips and send him some of the money if he wins:

Tony Luft gets the ‘scam’ letter

Flo is, throughout the whole thing, extremely worried – but Tony tries it a few times and strikes the money, then uses that as proof to calm Flo down. Tony receives 5 tips, and follows the next four after staying out of the first one (out of suspicion – which is allayed when the tip works). On the last tip, he invests in a certain stock.

Flo Worried About the Scam

Unfortunately, its revealed that Tony also owes money to a certain hustler called Salvatore “Sally” Tranghese. Exactly when Tony buys the stock for the last tip, Sally goes after him to collect about 60 grand of debt. Tony has no choice but to hand over the stocks. His life is now dependent on the tip working out. If the stock fails, Tony will get his brains blown out.

Tony being hustled by Sally

The stock manages to hit it, and Sally leaves with all the money, including the profits that goes beyond Tony’s debt. Tony is left with nothing, but is out of hot soup. Flo, on the other hand, sees deeper into the situation. She guesses that the whole thing was a scam working like this:

Most Lose

And, after the incident, she breaks up with Tony because she can see the patterns of stupidity that he constantly falls into, as well as inklings of his criminal lifestyle:

Tony Luft’s End 1

This entire part then ends with a meta-fictional rumination, as the meta-fictive writer of the novel, Manny Kohl, remarks on how he did investigation into what happened to Tony Luft far into the future, and he cannot find any trace of Luft. Tony Luft disappeared off the face of the Earth after 2004. The chapter ends with a poetic rumination:

Tony Luft’s End 2

Before we get on to further analysis, we have to backtrack slightly. The third part, before it goes into the story of Luft and Flo, opens with this description of Luft shitting:

Tony Luft and his Shit

From there, we can slowly put together the thematic resonances. Even though this part doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the chapter in terms of pure plot – it has a lot of hidden parallels in terms of how it relates to the title, the symbols revealed before, and the character of Nixon. The part about shitting parallels to things like Nixon’s songs and the waterbug anecdote. The entire story of Luft being pushed around by fate, luck, and his own ignorance – leads up to that idea of ‘knowing dick’. He is able to bask in victory for a short while, but loses in the wider picture – and also loses his girl. Tony Luft’s ignorance matches up with Nixon’s own ignorance, and maybe even Pat’s ignorance, and the poetic rumination at the end seems to give some deeper comment on the flow of history. Luft disappeared into history, Nixon was conquered by history – but such men are necessary in the process of the world. They are inevitabilities, despite being the bottom muck.

“The world of the dead, the dying, the despairing, the depraved, needs all the Tony Lufts it can get, no matter the year, to perform these minor tasks of death, these errands of regret, as they rush on, rush out.”

This is how Dan approaches a single chapter, and positions it to tell so much with so little, through the parallels and resonances that builds up over time, through little hints scattered across the pages, leading up to an eventual point that is higher than the sum of its parts. And, he does it all while still conforming to all the event/plot beats that he wants to discuss.

Which returns me to what I said at the start – the need to eschew linearity, and think about ways to create multiple ins and outs of a single scene. Creating parallels and deeper thrusts, while still allowing everything to cohere.

A Norwegian in the Family is Copyrighted by Dan Schneider

The Possibilities of Xianxia (and Stealing from Chekhov) – I Shall Seal The Heavens Volume 1


I spent 5 hours reading the entire first volume of I Shall Seal The Heavens. I think of it as time amazingly well spent.

I think that the main joy of the Xianxia genre (besides magic bolts and watching arrogant asses get trumped by someone of a higher power level) is perspective. Xianxia works, with their meticulously charted power levels and rising levels of epicness, are works that can best invoke that “how did I get here feeling”.

I’m talking about the feeling where the protagonist is a small pip-squeak student in chapter 1, and by chapter 90 or so, he’s a guy that’s slinging around 500 flying swords. By book 6 he’ll probably be a close to Immortal level being that can destroy mountains with his fist.

The problem would be that the increase in perspective isn’t pegged to anything in particular. The general motions are still basically the same. All you’re doing is changing the size of the weapons and the scope of the personnel involved. The character undergoes changes, but these changes are the expected “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” psychological changes.

I can come up with a few alternate plots from that premise. I don’t know if they’ve been done before though.

The first would be what I call the ‘Reverse Shounen’. Basically, it is about a God falling lower and lower and giving away his powers to help various people until he finally has to fight a one-on-one battle in an alleyway with rusty knives, and it’s the absolute hardest and most exhilarating battle he has in the world.

The second would be what I call the ‘Xianxia Dictator’, which is where you have the first part play like a normal Xianxia novel, and then when he reaches Immortality, you perspective-swap to a normal mortal character having to live under his powers, and then you create a parallax by having the genre shift from that kind of easy escapism to really tooth and nail realistic hardcore battles.

These are merely novel premises. But they can be utilized to create greater meanings if you can balance the characters, setting, and prose with the themes.


The best aspect of Xianxia works would probably be the complete artifice. It doesn’t care about crafting an entire culture from ground up or building too detailed a setting. There is also little sense of time and place, and people seem to be flying through some kind of mountain or forest most of the time. It doesn’t conjure a setting until the plot requires it.

I wish that certain SF or Fantasy authors were less anal about their need to world-build, and cared more about the forward momentum of the plot, as well as the character interactions. After all, setting and ideas are kind of dead if they aren’t explicated in a way whereby a consciousness can interact with them.

Of course whether one CAN do that is a completely different matter altogether, but if you can’t, then you can just take 5-6 character axioms from Chekhov or some psychological short story writer and stick it into some character. At the very least, that’s a lot better than taking character ideas from overused stereotypes.

For example, one of Chekhov’s short story, the Two Volodoyas – involves a heroine, childhood friend, and one more guy. The childhood friend is called Little Volodoya while the other guy is called Big Volodoya. And the heroine is going to marry the more mature Big Volodoya rather than Little Volodoya. That already sets up a total Anime Light Novel character trio + NTR.

But since Chekhov is such a psychologically penetrating bastard, the story is anything but a normal love triangle. In fact, the two Volodoyas are the ones who profit more than the heroine by the end. Both Volodoyas are womanizers that get along really well.

During the story, she vacillates between loving Big Volodoya for his maturity, and Little Volodoya for his handsomeness. She falls into an affair with Little Volodoya in the end, and he negs her, treats her like a child, and tosses her aside casually after he’s done with her. She falls into ennui and self-depreciation while both Volodoyas “spent hours playing billiards and picquet”. All this is mixed up with a stunning Christian philosophy and poesy.

In other words, it’s an ‘NTR’ (or even a double-NTR) story where no male gets screwed and the heroine internally implodes for being ‘in love with falling in love’ (which is more nuanced than the masochistic fantasies of NTR stories). More importantly it’s about exploring the vicious psychological cycles that people will fall into, and the self-justifications they give themselves.

This story of a few pages has enough character material to create a screwed-up romantic character base. If you stuck supernatural elements, you could turn it into a Bakemonogatari style character exploration. If you threw in a murder mystery you could have a penetrating examination of passionate crime that no one has ever really done before. If you threw it into a high school setting with more jokes and adolescence and characters, you could turn it into a full fledged RomDrama. Yet people will always draw their character ideas from silly fantasies or well-worn stereotypes – even though Chekhov managed to make a masterful sketch of this kind of Romance waaay before stuff like White Album 2 could come out. Steal from the greats y’all! Don’t think you can beat them until you understand them first!

Developing Supreme Vision


In our information and book saturated era, one requires supreme discernment. This means understanding the ‘mode’ of a book with as little information about it as possible – so that you can know whether it’s worth it or not. When I use the word ‘mode’ I am talking a little about an author’s intentionality, but it’s slightly different. I’m more referring to an author’s capability – which is what is important anyway. This capability can be derived from what they choose to add and what they omit. It does not require you to guess what is inside their mind.

So, without further ado, these are some 3rd paragraphs from random books. I will not give any context. I will use the female gender when referring to the author. Continue reading

Dan Schneider’s Poem: War Comix #1452

As a continuance to my Schneider primer, let’s take a closer look at one of his poems. Now, Schneider himself has characterized his style as ‘cathedral-like’ in nature. Every verse or line is like a hardy brick building up to a grand picture.

Another artist who was described as creating ‘cathedrals’ is the composer Bruckner, and sometimes this criticism wasn’t a positive thing. Other terms that people have used to describe Bruckner includes – the creator of symphonic ‘boa-constrictors’. He’s been frequently contrasted with Mahler, whose symphonies were all about building up a world of color, sound, and feeling – both pleasing & ironic/jarring.

Many people out there confess to finding Bruckner’s symphonies too slow and choking. But others have argued he stands at the pinnacle of symphonically intellectual composition. Slowly and methodically making every piece fit into a structure.

To bring us back to poetry, if you were to contrast Schneider with a poet of lyrical shimmer like Plath, or ee cummings – you would something close to that kind of Bruckner/Mahler divide. He’s also rather different from a poet of pure delightful abstraction like Wallace Stevens. He has a thickness of technique that acts as a high barrier to entry to people who are unable to conjoin the constituents of all the parts.

This doesn’t apply to all of Schneider’s poetry though since, as I said before, he takes up a lot of subject matter. But Schneider’s closest compatriots poetry-wise would be Whitman (even he professes that Whitman was what first inspired him), Hart Crane, and Robinson Jeffers. But he’s also not a smooth follower of that rugged and rocky American verse. He can sound too prosaic at times, but this is only to people who can’t see the closer effects and combinations. Most importantly, he is a poet of the ‘intellectual-hijack’.

Let me, for example, look at this poem about one of Lichenstein’s Comic Book Paintings:

          WAR COMIX # 1452:


[Captain Armstrong ponders his perfect gaze
in a mirror. A man looks for himself
in a mirror. A woman looks at herself
in the album behind the dashing young officer
preening himself for battle. The man finds himself
in his eyes’ benday glint. In a moment
the olive-toned woman will drop the album.
She will succumb to his certain future and thrust
her brunet love, a gesture of appeasal,
on to his blond manhood, like young boys
surrender their plots to the bitter
TAKKA-TAKKA-TAKKA of machine guns….she will
love his pink unscarred body for now….the silent
lucidity of love will fill her eyes….unalone
in the empassioned air’s embrace….his death
will be a last finished panel to the selective genius
of war….the transcelestial flourish of honor….denied
to those who only carry justice on their tongues….]

Armstrong to mirror:

I chose this one because it has a very clear example of a technique that Schneider frequently excels at – the usage of enjambment to create 3-4 simultaneous meanings in a single line. If you can’t see these continuous aggregation of meanings, you can’t appreciate his verse.

The lines are at the start:

[Captain Armstrong ponders his perfect gaze
in a mirror. A man looks for himself
in a mirror. A woman looks at herself

The poem is based on Lichenstein’s paintings, some of which are based on one of those war comics with idealized male heroes. Already, this is set up in the first line which is a prosaic description of the idealized American soldier looking at himself in a mirror, but it then gains an extra meaning about sexuality & misogyny by the second and third lines.

The subtlety of the ‘for’ and ‘at’ characterizes the male as the ‘searcher’ while the female principle can’t ‘see beyond herself’ – and this is so true of those comics where the other gender is simply depicted as hanger-ons to the hero. On the other hand, it also holds a metaphysical import – describing the ‘Yin/Yang – Sun/Earth’ kind of archetype that is discussed by Mystics, or Weininger, or Jung etc… But it doesn’t show that layer through open analysis. It just draws a simple parallel through a shift in one word.

You can see the three simultaneities coming together here. Dan is describing the comic, but he’s also talking about American ideals, and misogynistic perceptions, and he’s also talking about abstractly about the dual M/F archetypal. And he does this by this sly enjambment where looking ‘in a mirror’ can be read with the part of the next sentence.

in the album behind the dashing young officer
preening himself for battle. The man finds himself
in his eyes’ benday glint. In a moment

This builds up the idealizations in the last few lines, by describing the young officer as ‘dashing’ and ‘preening himself’. There’s the enjambment again where he links the preening with ‘the man finds himself’ – which talks about arrogance & pride in externals.

And yet he drags us out again, by linking the soldier to the benday dots of Lichenstein’s painting. The new layer is added. It drags us back into the gallery looking at the painting, and since there’s a close proximity with the last line – the ‘preening’ can be conjoined with the act of creating art.

the olive-toned woman will drop the album.
She will succumb to his certain future and thrust
her brunet love, a gesture of appeasal,
on to his blond manhood, like young boys
surrender their plots to the bitter
TAKKA-TAKKA-TAKKA of machine guns….she will

These lines are saucy softcore descriptions, but they fit in the message of the idealization, and the link to war & machine guns is an ironic twist on the previous lines – what men give themselves up for: this idle masculine dream linked to sexuality & power. In the characteristically sarcastic Schneider fashion, he links the young boys getting shot by the guns to the woman getting fucked – which is pretty much self-explanatory. Even then, the ‘surrender their plots to the bitter’ is another subtlety because ‘plots’ can be linked up with the comic books themselves. It could even be just a general statement of a boy giving up childhood for a future ‘bitterness’ – not necessarily the war.

Even within the saucy description, there is still the sly enjambment of ‘certain future’ and ‘thrust’ – with mirrors with the hopes & dreams held inside the masculine perceiver of the ideal. The next line focuses on ‘gesture of appeasal’ at the enjamb, which points to the idea that feminine submissiveness is core in the ideal.

love his pink unscarred body for now….the silent
lucidity of love will fill her eyes….unalone
in the empassioned air’s embrace….his death
will be a last finished panel to the selective genius
of war….the transcelestial flourish of honor….denied
to those who only carry justice on their tongues….]

These lines lead up to the final message on both the allure & the perception of the ideal. The ‘pink unscarred body’ – both allowing for a link to freshness & immaturity, to the ideal, and enjambing /w ‘silent’ in order to add a metaphysical force to it. The ‘empassioned air’s embrace’ enjambs with ‘his death’ in order to parallel both the feminine ideal loving him, which is in fact the love of his own death. The next line draws us back into the comic-book page, but also implies that all this is the design of a higher thing. As if panel opens beyond a comic, but also a kind of artistic panel put in the final slate of a grand design.

The ‘transcelestial flourish of honor’ is linked to the ideal, but it is also linked, within the sentence, to ‘denied’. That’s is so totally amazing & fucked up! You get, simultaneously, the man striving for the ideal of a transcendent honor in war, but you also get the fact that the reality will deny him this. You can even get the connotation that war itself is the ‘transcelestial’ – the eternal transcendent order that has guided men since the start (see Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for more ‘War is God’ stuff). The final line reminds me of so many people in my country that like to tell other people that they can’t “talk about National Service until they’ve been through it themselves” – and other kinda shit like that. War is both a horror & a pride. The soldiers take pride in having lived through the horror – floating on the dreams of masculinity.

                                Armstrong to mirror:

This is just like a cherry on top. It wraps up everything into the ideal of a nation, and its wars. Its faults & foibles in foisting a bloody ideal onto the citizenry, but also its allure. Ideal & Mirror. War & Love. Nation & It’s Enemies.

This is what I mean by Dan Schneider being a cognitive poet. In the above analyses I guided you through my thought process in coming up with my interpretations, and how Dan made those interpretations within me. But you can also see how many other people would view it. Think about how a Freudian analyst would view it – it’s so ripe for them due to all that Love is Death shit! Even a Marxist or a Situationist could talk about the spectacle of entertainment. A feminist reading works. But a misogynist could also read into it as a commentary on something that is denied to the opposing gender, because the last line can also be read as a statement of the lack of understanding the fight of men. It can even be read as a kind of metafiction, given that there are cues of the artist due to the benday & the comic descriptions. I chose to parallel it to Weininger & the Yin/Yang because that general abstraction was ripe within it for my brain to latch onto. It has that powerful ambiguity that makes the ending of A Clockwork Orange, with you being unable to know which side to root for (Alex or Government), such a resonant work. This is apparent in ALL of his poetry. I am only just realizing what kind of an iceberg he is. It’s also apparent in his prose as well, which reads like normal on the surface, but aims to leave upon your brain the mystery of life.

The main thing is that Dan’s poem exists before interpretation. It was made to vortex the minds of all sorts of people into it. It is the loveliest trap and this is the very crux of what poetry (and all art) should be. It shouldn’t merely be about lyricism or imagery or technique or a specific worldview – but about this cumulative explosions of ideas structured into a single frame. A world into itself. The Quantum Objective. Even if you like or dislike it based on your own feelings, it is itself a cathedral of meaning – and so a person who can make the logical connections cannot help but appreciate it for what it is.

And all that in a mere 20 lines!

(Forgot to add. Even the title links Lichenstein to Liechenstein – and the Nazis. That adds the extra layer of Aryan & Fascism being mirrored with American Idealizations & Propaganda etc…)

Bite-Sized: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

I completed John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War lately.

There’s a rule that Scalzi seems to follow, and it falls in line with another book which I completed lately – Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. That rule is – alien randomicity is fun. This also seems to be the principle behind Roadside Picnic (and any Stalker related material) as well as the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

While Pohl’s novel was all about exploring the psychological consequences of randomicity and the greater unknown on a person’s head though – Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is simply about milking as many alien worlds and battles for all the fun you can have, while throwing snarky joking characters into the mix, and expounding on all those general themes of military SF like the horrors of war etc…

So that makes Scalzi more or less the minimal standard for having character-oriented SF that uses its ideas for something more entertaining. It’s a pity – I also picked up the Three Body Problem lately (I’m on a military SF binge for some reason) – and that was astounding in its ideas and the science was probably ten times harder but it didn’t reach the level of fun that Scalzi was able to generate in 300 pages.

An issue to some would probably be that the character voices and personalities aren’t exactly well-distinguished. The snark carries over to more or less everyone in the novel. This, though, isn’t necessarily a problem if you know how to play it correctly. Romeo seems to suffer from this at times too, when he’s trying to maximize the jokes in the scenario and all of the characters start doing the same high-flown Romeo comedy exchange. He gets over this hump by relying on basic character stereotypes and modulating them away from their premises in order to develop something else. The rest of it comes in the strength of his themes, poetry, and psychological observations.

But Scalzi is touching on the same kinds of things that you’d expect in a lot of other Military SF, like the death of comrades and facing up against uncertain and inhuman enemies. That’s his limit. A higher level writer would probably be mixing up things that don’t seem as central to the narrative, but builds up the narrative still. Lately I’ve been diving into Kundera as well, and he’s a writer that makes frequent digressions and ironic ruminations, drawing from other philosophy, literature, and using metafictive techniques – but he still manages to maintain an emotional base because of how he fits it all together – and isn’t overbearing in his poetic prose.

I’m not, of course, saying that a person needs to have that kind of repertoire to be a good writer. Pohl tried to create a second layer to Gateway, for example, by interspersing a conversation between a therapist robot and the protagonist in between the action. The problem in that was that it felt like Pohl was writing in that ‘new wave sci-fi’ vein where everything is steeped deep in Freudian sexual angst and stuff like that. It made those portions of the novel a drag to go through.

But, if that kind of ‘experimentation’ is the alternative – then it may be a good thing that Scalzi doesn’t try to over-reach and focuses on merely making gripping good fun.

I also have to do a brief examination on the Action front. Scalzi does come up with some interesting (and also funny) battles and innovative solutions. Yet you won’t really see any of the ‘grand skirmishes’ that comes with other kinds of insane military-focused action fiction. Neither does he understand the art of Chuuni, so he doesn’t milk the action beats for all their worth. The battles will either be descriptive with character thoughts laden in, or they’ll lead up to a punch-line (e.g. Bender getting fried while trying to open diplomatic communication with an alien race).

It seems to be that the secret to writing good action is actually the opposite of the sacred “Show, don’t Tell” rule. That’s because good action is, really, anything but the action itself. Action is fun because there are extended stratagems based on human intellect behind what appears to be a mere series of physical moves. You wouldn’t find a chess game, sports or fighting game fun unless you knew the exact value-exchanges and tactical intentions of the two players.

So there was this scene in Old Man’s War which was five one-on-one battles between top-class supersoldiers and aliens with nasty bladed arms. The actual depiction of the battles themselves were nothing but a flurry of body part descriptions. There was no explanation (the same kind Kawakami might pull) as to why these moves were important. Neither was there any overtly cool/Chuuni descriptions – except maybe a bit in the last battle. Perhaps the later books in the series will have larger and cooler battles, but for now it doesn’t seem like it.

Of course it could also be because they want to convey all the ‘horror of war’ stuff and tone down on the fun action aspect – making all the battles either gritty or ironic dark humor – but those aren’t really mutually exclusive since Hanachirasu can pull it off while keeping both grit and dark humor.

Overall Scalzi definitely stands as the basic template for how to do fun but also dramatic and gritty Military SF – but he also represents quite a few things that have to be unlearned for anyone who’s planning to break the bounds of the genre. At the very least – he created that magical effect within me where I thought I would be just having a light read before sleeping, and found myself going through all 300 pages in a single session.

It also reminds me that I still have yet to touch Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Bite-Sized: Excerpts From Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

For some reason I randomly started reading Dean Koontz’s Brother Odd. It was given to me by a friend some time ago, but it was on my bookshelf untouched until now.

Holy crap, the way the prose enters straight into your brain is something to behold. This type of information condensation intermixed with the forward push of action, as well as crazily Gothic descriptions is the pinnacle of action writing. It has just the right mixture of snarky, poetic, and straightforward.

Excerpt A

I hurled myself through the snowfall, so it seemed as though a wind had sprung up, pasting flakes to my lashes.

In this second minute of the storm, the ground remained black, unchanged by the blizzard’s brush. Within a few bounding steps, the land began to slope gently toward woods that I could not see, open dark descending toward a bristling dark.

Intuition insisted that the forest would be the death of me. Running into it, I would be running to my grave.

The wilds are not my natural habitat. I am a town boy, at home with pavement under my feet, a whiz with a library card, a master at the gas grill and griddle.

If my pursuer was a beast of the new barbarism, he might not be able to make a fire with two sticks and a stone, might not be able to discern true north from the growth of moss on trees, but his lawless nature would make him more at home in the woods than I would ever be.

I needed a weapon, but I had nothing except my universal key, a Kleenex, and insufficient martial-arts knowledge to make a deadly weapon of them.

Cut grass relented to tall grass, and ten yards later, nature put weapons under my feet: loose stones that tested my agility and balance. I skidded to a halt, stooped, scooped up two stones the size of plums, turned, and threw one, threw it hard, and then the other.

The stones vanished into snow and gloom. I had either lost my pursuer or, intuiting my intent, he had circled around me when I stopped and stooped. I clawed more missiles off the ground, turned 360 degrees, and surveyed the night, ready to pelt him with a couple of half-pound stones.

Nothing moved but the snow, seeming to come down in skeins as straight as the strands of a beaded curtain, yet each flake turning as it fell.

I could see no more than fifteen feet. I had never realized that snow could fall heavily enough to limit visibility this much.

Once, twice, I thought I glimpsed someone moving at the limits of vision, but it must have been an illusion of movement because I couldn’t fix on any shape.

The patterns of snow on night gradually dizzied me.

Holding my breath, I listened. The snow did not even whisper its way to the earth, but seemed to salt the night with silence.

Some parts of the book are also so ridiculous but fun that they remind me of Romeo digressions, like how Odd Thomas will randomly commentate about the ridiculous history of the physicist living in the basement, being attacked by the mass media, with amazing wit and speed. Sadly, I’m 100 pages in and I can already tell that he won’t be able to link it up to that greater macrocosmic view that Romeo is always able to pull off. The poesy, jokes, and descriptions, are more for entertainment than for meaning – although some parts manage to breach something a bit higher.

This makes me think – what will happen to Romeo 50 years later when we lose half of the references that he sticks all around his works? Koontz is already suffering from a bit of datedness in his writing because he has a lot of references that merely hang there without any greater import. I would say that Romeo’s ideas will still come through, although his jokes would probably seem a lot less ‘perfect’ to those of us who have a better access to what he’s talking about. This is another reason why I view the structure and characterization as important – while other things will fall away, those will remain as foundation.

Excerpt B

Wondering if the brain-damaged girl had made room for a visitor, I wished the bottomless blue eyes would polarize into a particular pair of Egyptian-black eyes with which I was familiar.

Some days I feel as if I have always been twenty-one, but the truth is that I was once young.

In those days, when death was a thing that happened to other people, my girl, Bronwen Llewellyn, who preferred to be called Stormy, would sometimes say, “Loop me in, odd one”. She meant that she wanted me to share the events of my day with her, or my thoughts, or my fears and worries.

During the sixteen months since Stormy had gone to ashes in this world and to service in another, no one had spoken those words to me.

Justine moved her mouth without producing sound, and in the adjacent bed, Annamarie said in her sleep, “Loop me in.”

Room 32 seemed airless. Following those three words, I stood in a silence as profound as that in a vacuum. I could not breathe.

Only a moment ago, I had wished these blue eyes would polarize into the black of Stormy’s eyes, that the suspicion of a visitation would be confirmed. Now the prospect terrified me.

When we hope, we usually hope for the wrong thing.

We yearn for tomorrow and the progress that it represents. But yesterday was once tomorrow, and where was the progress in it?

Or we yearn for yesterday, for what was or what might have been. But as we are yearning, the present is becoming the past, so the past is nothing but our yearning for second chances.

“Loop me in,” Annamarie repeated.

As long as I remain subject to the river of time, which will be as long as I may live, there is no way back to Stormy, to anything.

Shit. Too bad this scene is off-hand and used more for an explication on general love angst than for something else – but it points to what Dean Koontz could have done if he had a better sense of structure rather than merely wishing to leave things in pulp. The “loop me in odd one” part is a bit precious, but the part about time reminds me of the opening of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The fact that it’s structured after speedy cascades of Gothic touches gives it the potential to be an ‘out’ – had the situation packed the punch.

Once again, I outline the difference between poetry and prose. If a writer can structure the push of the situation around a certain idea, he can create a great impact without much flowery poetry, while in a poem it has to be sustained. That’s why Hesse’s Siddartha doesn’t have to be as hallucinogenic as something like Nabokov or Joyce in its descriptions, but by placing the poetics at the correct intervals, he can create a sense of a full life reaching something deeper.

That is why, if Koontz had chose to structure that statement around something better than general love angst, it would have been his gateway into greatness. This, sadly, is denied to a writer who has such great technical prowess in his prose and a potential methodology (using a ridiculous gothic scenario from the start allows for a greater sense of the illusion, which allows him to be more tempestuous in his comic side – although a bunch of reviewers around will disagree). He remains on the threshold. He cannot as yet press in.

Then again, maybe some amazing thing will happen in the next couple hundred pages.