David Marusek's Upon This Rock: Book I - First Contact (some notes)

David Marusek produced two brilliant science fiction novels in the '00s, Counting Heads (2005) and Mind Over Ship (2009), and then went dark for a few years.
He's back with the above-titled novel, the first of a projected three-parter.
In this installment an E.T. lands in the Alaska wilderness, planting mysterious artifacts encountered independently by a young park ranger, Jace Kuliak, and a Bible-quoting survivalist, Poppy Prophecy. The novel bounces between their points of view. Excellent and highly recommended with one minor quibble, discussed below.

Excerpts from the book published in a short story collection a few years ago introduced the park ranger character (then named Casey). He seemed to be the main POV and his narrative contained some of the novel's early exposition. The finished book, however, was apparently jiggered around to become mainly Poppy's story, beginning with scenes of his large, pioneer-style family coping in the Alaska outback. This is all fine, but Marusek has chosen to move some of the Jace material to what he calls "sidebars," something between footnotes and DVD "deleted scenes," which are placed at the end of the book and hyperlinked in the e-book text. This decision creates a few continuity issues.

In an introduction Marusek proclaims the sidebars "generally" not essential to the story but a couple of instances in the main narrative refer to events that happened in them (section headings from the book are used to identify these):

1. CW3 1.0 mentions the "mountain of grief unloaded on [Jace] and Danielle...on Lucky Strike Lane," referring to the shenanigans of Poppy Prophecy and family during a brief spell when they lived next door to Jace. Marusek describes those antics in the sidebar "Sex on a Glacier" (SG1 1.0); if you skip it, you have no idea what he's talking about.

2. More importantly, "Sex on a Glacier" gives the reader an objective description of what Poppy and his family look like to outsiders: a sizeable clan ("Dozens of children played in a yard already worn down to bare dirt... Older children tended goats in a makeshift pen or hauled water in plastic jerry jugs or helped prepare dinner at the fire pit") including three sons who are large and somewhat menacing ("In an instant, the three older boys were surrounding him. The eldest... was tall and dark. The middle one was heavyset and gentle looking. And the fiery youngest one was wearing a patch over his right eye. If Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa and his sons had evil twins, these Prophecys could be them").

Reading the book from the beginning, from Poppy's POV, you don't know the sons are big fellows; Poppy describes them as "boys" and punishes one of them with a switch, creating the impression they're young adolescents, not grown men. Later descriptions eventually reveal their size but this seems more bug than feature.

3. CW2 1.0 in the main narrative also refers to the sidebar (SG1 1.0) descriptions of the "quarrelsome family" in the "lot next to [Jace's] house" that "pulled up stakes" and moved to a new location .

4. The "Sex on a Glacier" sidebar (SG1 1.0) refers to events in a later sidebar (HP1 1.0), confusing the chronology even more. Jace mentions the "odd pioneer family and their encampment" located at the "private parking lot at the end of McHardy Road." The Prophecys' brief control of a town parking is chronicled in the sidebar "A Herd of Picnic Tables" (HP1 1.0), which follows "Sex on a Glacier" at the end of the book.

5. The basic chronology of the Prophecy family, told asynchronously in the book and sidebars, is as follows: they travel from the Anchorage suburb of Palmer to a parking lot (which they camp out in and administer) in the smaller, more remote town of McHardy, then to the house next door to Jace (also in McHardy), then to an abandoned mine in a wilderness area outside of McHardy. The family's management of the parking lot and relocation to the mine are described in sidebars (HP1 1.0 and TM1 1.0, respectively). Well along in the main narrative, in a flashback, Poppy first learns about the town of McHardy and the parking lot is mentioned (LL4 1.0), again, without context. We aren't given any particulars of how the Prophecys actually obtained the parking lot concession when they first settled in McHardy.

Marusek has indicated that Book I may be revised at the time of publication of Books II or III of his saga. The above chronology could be clarified with a few paragraphs in the main story. It might be a good idea, at that time, for the author to kill his babies and ditch those sidebars. They're a distraction.

6. The main narrative (CW4 1.0) uses the phrase "go all kitten on them." This refers to an anecdote in a sidebar, "Kitten of Our Discontent" (KD1 1.0).

late Maigret

Within the framework of short, satisfying detective plots featuring his recurring character "Inspector Maigret," Georges Simenon maintains a steady flow of observations about class, sex roles, economic tensions, and everyday etiquette in mid-20th Century France. In ambition and quality, the project recalls the human comedy of Balzac (who Simenon admired), spread over years of genre installments. Simenon also wrote "real" literature during this period -- stellar books such as Monsieur Hire's Engagement and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By -- but taken as single project, and given changing ideas of the relative value of "genre" within the literary fraternity, the Maigret books are real enough.

The novels don't follow a strict chronology; however, by the time of Maigret and the Lazy Burglar (1961), our intrepid Parisian police functionary is nearing retirement. Simenon meditates on the aging of his character and the changing nature of police work since the series began thirty years before. In the early stories Maigret could run an investigation as he desired, whether it meant wandering the streets waiting for intuitive connections to present themselves, or hauling in suspects and (non-violently) sweating confessions out of them.

By the 1960s, police departments had begun shifting case management and decisionmaking away from inspectors and more towards prosecutors' offices, within a modern, scientific system of justice that, in Maigret's opinion, elevated "exams" and "efficiency" over street knowledge. Meanwhile, the rights of the accused received more recognition than they had in the 1930s -- perhaps in imitation of the American system? Maigret doesn't tell us. Even though he rarely if ever abused his earlier powers, by the time of Lazy Burglar, he resents having the discretion taken away, and especially having to cede it to remote bureaucrats who lack his judgment and life experience. This is less Dirty Harry than it sounds.

In Lazy Burglar [caution: plot points], Maigret covertly rebels against prosecutors by pursuing his own investigation of a case after they have assigned it to another detective, and then rebels again when his digging "solves" the crime. He simply declines to bring the truth to his superiors, reasoning that because the murder victim, a burglar whose professionalism Maigret somewhat admires, is a marginal figure (reminiscent of Monsieur Hire) and the likely murderer a sheltered aristocrat, justice will not be served in any event. Ultimately Maigret retains the Godlike power not to prosecute, which, as the reader well knows, he exercised many times in the course of a long career. Despite the crook's getting away with it, the story has a happy ending, which will not be revealed.

early Maigret

michael wetzel + stanislaw lem

standardsofliving2

standardsofliving

These sculptures by Michael Wetzel appeared in a two-person show (with Jeffrey Tranchell) called Standards of Living at Honey Ramka gallery last year. Of the artworks in the show, these objects most drew my eye and lingered in my thoughts afterward. These are blurry screenshots I made from the gallery's photos and don't do justice to the intricacy of the work, but serve as visual notes to accompany a passage from Fiasco (1986), a Stanislaw Lem novel I am reading for the first time. Lem is describing a field of bizarre, fanciful-seeming mineral deposits on the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan.

For the very reason that here nothing served a purpose -- not ever, not to anyone -- and that here no guillotine of evolution was in play, amputating from every genotype whatever did not contribute to survival, nature, constrained neither by the life she bore nor by the death she inflicted, could achieve liberation, displaying a prodigality characteristic of herself, a limitless wastefulness, a brute magnificence that was useless, an eternal power of creation without a goal, without a need, without a meaning. This truth, gradually penetrating the observer, was more unsettling than the impression that he was witness to a cosmic mimicry of death, or that these were in fact the mortal remains of unknown beings that lay beneath the stormy horizon. So one had to turn upside down one’s natural way of thinking, which was capable of going only in one direction: these shapes were similar to bones, ribs, skulls, and fangs not because they had once served life -- they never had -- but only because the skeletons of terrestrial vertebrates, and their fur, and the chitinous armor of the insects, and the shells of the mollusks all possessed the same architectonics, the same symmetry and grace, since Nature could produce this just as well where neither life nor life’s purposefulness had ever existed, or ever would.

Addendum: The first sentence is eloquent and rather long and at first it seemed ungrammatical (perhaps it's the translation from Polish). The core of it is "nature could achieve liberation" but the word "nature," surrounded by other clauses, tends to get swamped, or appears to be paired as a synonym with the word "survival" that precedes it. Regardless, once you have it, this passage is a good example of Lem's Borgesian talent for extrapolation from known phenomena to create "unthinkable" vistas and thought processes. It comes at the end of a description of a volcanic crater where minerals have run riot over millions of years of geological time to create landscapes that seem like amalgamations of our worst nightmares. There is beauty there, as well, which got me thinking about those quasi-biological Wetzel sculptures. Lem is one of the most visual sf writers, and his book Solaris has been stripped down by film directors into something like a simple love story, when the essence of it is his poetic description of the surreal life forms constantly churning in the Solarian "ocean" and human inability to ever understand them.

Addendum 2: Clearer photos of the artworks

Breece D'J Pancake

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I took a fiction writing class with this author, when we were both undergrads at UVa. According to the Wikipedians, he "has become a semi-mythical figure of American Literature" whose "vivid, compact style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway." Like Hemingway, he "died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound" (although much younger, at age 26). I didn't learn about his unfortunate death or impressive reputation until years later.

Back then he signed his stories "Breece D. Pancake." The Wikipedians say "the unusual middle name 'D'J' originated when The Atlantic Monthly misprinted his middle initials (D.J., for Dexter John) in the byline of 'Trilobites,' a short story the magazine published in 1977." [1] Perversely, Pancake adopted this flub as his writer name; in the Afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, John Casey, our teacher and Pancake's biggest advocate, calls the acquiescence a "celebration" of Pancake's first published tale, which "eased his sense of strain -- the strain of trying to get things perfect -- by adopting an oddity committed by a fancy magazine." [2]

I remember Pancake as a (sorry, it must be said) lumpish, brooding, but oddly entitled presence at the table where we sat and critiqued work. His type of fiction didn't interest me much at the time, and none of the stories we read were as good as the ones in this collection. Just achingly honest tales of rural America, without the bleak melodrama that came later. Possibly I missed it; possibly because I was one of those "middle class" students from the Washington DC area that James Alan McPherson, in his Foreword, says Breece, a West Virginia native, had a hard time fitting in with. (McPherson also taught Pancake at UVa.)

Lumpish or no, Pancake clearly had some pull outside the classroom. Casey fawned and fussed over his writing in front of the other students. At the time it seemed a condescending form of sympathy for an outsider who had drifted into the system. McPherson frames Pancake's outsiderdom as a matter of social class; to me it was a matter of the relative (lack of) interest in bucolic-details-as-story-material. It seemed old fashioned, but Casey ate it up.

I also didn't know until I read the Foreword and Afterword to The Stories that Pancake had been workin' the refs in his off hours, confidently marching into prospective teachers' offices and saying he wanted to study with them. (His exact words to McPherson were "Buddy, I want to work with you." Gag me.) His chutzpah and the quality of the stories he thrust on them got him an amazing amount of special treatment. But they also gave his benefactors perhaps more than they bargained for.

This anecdote from McPherson awakened me to a world of mentor-boundary-crossing I couldn't have even imagined back in the day:

In the winter of 1977 I went to Boston and mentioned the work of several of my students, Breece included, to Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic. She asked to be sent some of his stories. I encouraged Breece to correspond with her, and very soon afterward several of his stories were purchased by the magazine. The day the letter of acceptance and check arrived, Breece came to my office and invited me to dinner. We went to Tiffany’s, our favorite seafood restaurant. Far from being pleased by his success, he seemed morose and nervous. He said he had wired flowers to his mother that day but had not yet heard from her. He drank a great deal. After dinner he said that he had a gift for me and that I would have to go home with him in order to claim it.
He lived in a small room on an estate just on the outskirts of Charlottesville. It was more a workroom than a house, and his work in progress was neatly laid out along a square of plywood that served as his desk. He went immediately to a closet and opened it. Inside were guns -- rifles, shotguns, handguns -- of every possible kind. He selected a twelve-gauge shotgun from one of the racks and gave it to me. He also gave me the bill of sale for it -- purchased in West Virginia -- and two shells. He then invited me to go squirrel hunting with him. I promised that I would. But since I had never owned a gun or wanted one, I asked a friend who lived on a farm to hold on to it for me.

Pancake gave McPherson a gun; he asked Casey to be his godfather! This was a twenty-something-year-old man. From Casey's Afterword:

Not long before Breece and I got to be friends, his father and his best friend both died. Sometime after that Breece decided to become a Roman Catholic and began taking instruction...
Breece asked me to be his godfather. I told him I was a weak reed, but that I would be honored. This godfather arrangement soon turned upside down. Breece started getting after me about going to mass, going to confession, instructing my daughters. It wasn’t so much out of righteousness as out of gratitude and affection, but he could be blistering. And then penitent.

McPherson also recalls Pancake standing in the corridor of the fiction department shouting over and over "I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for President!" -- prompting more paragraphs of contorted, hagiographic justification (akin to Casey's riff on "D'J") -- about the New South and Pancake's place in it.

Pancake appears from the essays to have been bipolar or BPD, yet the teachers catered to him, built him up, hung out with him, at least until McPherson moved to Yale and stopped opening Pancake's mail. (Breece was his bosom buddy till he wasn't.) Regarding his suicide, McPherson quotes a letter from Pancake's mother stating that "God called [Breece] home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldn’t cope," an explanation that covers a lot of territory.

Pancake's book sat on my shelf for several years; I was motivated to read it, finally, after encountering the fiction of Daniel Woodrell, an Ozarks writer who has been compared to Pancake. I prefer Woodrell, for the simple reason that his prose does not make me crave oblivion. Pancake's writing exudes a primal, all-encompassing pain; it's a freakishly intriguing body of work but not a very fun experience. Woodrell tempers the pain with stoic humor, at least; Pancake is rarely funny.

In Pancake's universe, if there is a mine, it is played out; if there is a field, it is shriveled; if there is a car, it is a wreck. People suffer black lung, cancer, brain damage, "spells." An animal will be slaughtered or a woman called a whore at least once per story. Characters can never quite escape them hills. In Woodrell's world people want to stay in the Ozarks. Some commenters on The Stories find resilience and life-affirmation in Pancake's work. This is surely not the case. The best reason to read it is to understand, to live, the levels of despair one might experience before the trigger is pulled, in a West Virginia that serves as a petri dish for all the toxins of Milton Friedman's America. The exquisite craft of Pancake's old-soul, Hemingway-informed prose makes it possible to go this deep.

Still, I don't like the stories much. They seem half-baked, or adolescent to me, for all their brilliant channeling of greater writers. More symptom than fiction.

1. The "John" was added by Pancake, the Wikipedians state, "after converting to Catholicism in his mid-20s."

2. For a writer whose last name is an oddity, to allow a thoughtless gatekeeper to choose an even odder one as his permanent "brand" seems more like an act of self-dislike than one of "celebration." As Pancake's champion both in life and posthumously, Casey seems to have avoided any darker explanations for his behaviour.

[revised after posting]

get ready for work hardening, seniors

"Haircut" is a classic Ring Lardner short story employing an unreliable narrator. A barber describes his swell chum who the reader quickly determines is a complete ingrate. Wired magazine (intentionally -- I think*) uses this device in its recent article Meet the CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army. Written in a perky, upbeat style, it describes the grimmest of circumstances: a man works his way up the ladder at McDonald’s, retires at 60, loses his savings to shaky investments, and spends his twilight years in a soul-deadening Amazon warehouse job.

And not just by himself: there is a small army of elderly camper nomads in the outbacks of Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and other states (cheerfully called "workampers" in the article) who are being exploited by Jeff Bezos in the same manner. Their aging bodies aren't accustomed to 10 hour days schlepping consumer goods around the inside of a warehouse so Amazon begins their (seasonal) work cycle with "a period of half-days called 'work hardening,' meant to help newcomers adapt to the physical stress of the job."

Amazon makes arrangements with existing trailer courts to provide space for the "CamperForce," as Amazon calls these itinerants. In the off-season they camp elsewhere: on public land, in the desert... Wired describes the loving, friendly communities of seniors in rickety, leaky RVs, who have all found each other in their post-retirement estrangement from US consumer society (the term Hooverville is not used). As Naked Capitalism commenter Off the Street put it:

Divide and conquer springs to mind. Hard to resist the societal tides as one piece of jetsam. Given the low savings of most Americans, there is an oversupply of potential workamperserfs to depress wages through their remaining nasty, brutish and shortish lives. If there are silver linings, then those may be through human connections, less need for a wired or credit-driven world and more appreciation of what people once had. Who knew that the Mad Max movies were destined to become instruction manuals? What other movies are in the works now ;p

*The tone of Wired's article is difficult to pin down. The essay isn't original to the magazine; it's a teaser from an upcoming book from a major publishing house. Is the author naive, or passive aggressive? Consider this line: "Many of the freshly arrived Camper­Force workers were curious and strangely excited to work alongside the robots that threatened to replace them." Is the author afraid to speak critically of Amazon's brutal labor practices? Is she being constrained to speak by her publisher? The "Haircut" style makes the article less palatable than if she simply took a stand.