Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category


I just finished a marathon re-read of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Some 5000 pages. Whew! I read each of the five novels when they were originally published between 1996 and 2011 but I was working then and so I never had the leisure to read for continuity across the series.

Emerging from the present reread, which took me about three weeks, my overall impression is that ASOIAF is a work of art.

This claim may be controversial in some quarters. But I damned well should know a work of literary art when I see one. I slogged through three degrees in literary studies in order to get permission to do what I really wanted to do, which was to study and teach rhetoric. Given my interest in rhetoric, I am willing to call any writing “art” if it shows me something new or useful about how human beings think, how they act, interact, and react, particularly in difficult situations. It helps if the work is interesting and engaging. (ASOIAF is certainly that–during my marathon reread I sometimes resented having to stop to feed the cat).

Some critics think that Martin is a Romantic, probably because he works within the genre of fantasy. They are wrong. Clearly, he set out to turn the typical tropes of fantasy literature on their heads, but he achieved much more than that. The series is also an extended meditation on human failings, particularly the failures of folks whose good qualities and/or good intentions get in the way of their attempts to do the right thing. Because of this, and because of Martin’s skill, some parts of the work are hard to bear. So much so that at times I had to stop and go for a walk or talk to a neighbor while I got over the pain of losing an endearing character. Martin’s work forces his readers to confront human venality, and because of that it is not always a comfortable read.

The standard tropes of fantasy of course include a hero/heroine who undertakes a journey, suffers and perhaps dies, and returns triumphant, having found the magic thing-a-majig that will fix the woes that have befallen his/her land and people (think Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones). Insofar as there is a hero in ASOIAF, it is probably Jon Snow, an outcast bastard son whose moral failing lies within his stubborn insistence on maintaining his honor. The chivalric notion of honor is so embedded in his thinking that he never tells his comrades why he does the borderline treasonous stuff he does. He comes by this naturally: Jon’s putative father, Ned Stark, is so stubbornly in thrall to honor that he gets himself beheaded and his family is scattered all over Westeros.


Sean Bean as Ned (on the right) with Kit Harrington as Jon Snow

Fantasies are also populated with creatures–dragons, direwolves and dwarves– who are represented in ASOIAF by Drogon, Ghost, and Tyrion Lannister respectively. Tyrion is a fine example of Martin’s trope/overturnings: born into a wealthy and powerful family, he is glib, smart, well-educated, and resourceful. Standard fantasy also features villains who are ordinarily morally unredeemed until they are killed or are chastened by the hero/heroine (the Joker or Lex Luthor, for example). But while comic book villains are larger than life, Martin’s most repulsive villain, Ramsay Bolton, is an utterly horrible young man who lacks any feeling for other human beings. Theon, his captive, is a more traditional villain insofar as he is merely misled by pride and envy; the unremitting punishment dealt to him by Ramsay reaches far beyond anything that Theon can be said to have earned.

Martin also challenged traditional fantasy when he created a number of wonderful female characters. There is Brienne, the maid who is a powerful warrior, much to the chagrin of the men who want to control her;  Arya, who, after witnessing her father’s beheading, undertakes her own perilous journey through war-torn Westeros and lands across the sea in Bravos, where she studies to become an assassin. Even Cersei (Circe?), who is a villainous queen, shows great courage when she is condemned to humiliating punishment by a fanatical religious fundamentalist.

There is, as Martin might say, much and more to this magnificent series of novels. But I’ll close here with an image that captures the comic spirit of ASOIAF, if not its general tenor.






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Yara Greyjoy as Hillary?

Clever fans of Game of Thrones are contending that the kingsmoot on the Iron Islands, depicted in last week’s episode, is an analogue of the current American presidential election.

Yara, a member of the Greyjoy royal family, competes for the kingship. She is loyal, a skilled sailor/fighter, and learned in the history of the Iron Islands. Just when she seems to be winning the kingsmoot, though, a loudmouth upstart (her uncle Euron) strides into the discussion, loudly declaring that he is the best ever at everything under the sun.

Chillingly, Euron wins and is acclaimed by the assembled warriors. But while Euron is still bloviating, Yara smartly gathers her followers and makes off with the best ships.

Can’t blame unsullied fans of the show (including a writer for the New Republic) for seeing parallels to current events. And maybe the showrunners intended same, although this seems belied by the fact that GOT has an international audience, cast, and crew.

Also, too: GRRM created this plot some ten years ago. Martin’s description of this scene is far more complex with more contenders and lots of interesting showboating. In fact, in the books the kingsmoot is won by yet another uncle, Victarion, whose smooth presentation to the warriors depends on his deployment of some slick magic.

Perhaps if Bernie could lay his hands on a gigantic magic horn . . .

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You know, back in the old days when we liked a TV show, we had to show up on time each and every week when it aired. If “Wagon Train” aired on Sunday night at seven, butts had to be in chairs on Sunday night at seven, popcorn already popped and readily to hand. We had to stay with each episode until the end–no pausing for bathroom breaks or fast forwarding through commercials. And if we missed an episode, we had to wait until summer reruns to see it. Once. There was no such thing as recording a TV episode until some 25 years after Ward Bond had shuffled off this mortal coil.



Robert Horton and Ward Bond in costume for “Wagon Train”

Today, though, if I want to see Robert Horton in his tightey buckskins, I can flip over to the Westerns channel, and there he is–every day. And if that isn’t enough, he and Ward Bond are no doubt available on disc or somewhere in the ether–streamed or downloadable, whatever.

But those improvements are definitely NOT the best part of contemporary video technology. No, the best part is the possibility of binge-watching. Today I can watch ALL of “Wagon Train” in as many sittings as my schedule (and my butt) will allow, start to finish. For those of us who are readers, this new possibility is to be relished. Now developments in plot and characterization can be installed in a series by its writers and savored over time by its fans, just as they can in a novel.

If you’ve ever binge-watched an old series like “Wagon Train” (1957-1965) you can readily see how the scripting differs from that of a contemporary series; those old episodes were written to be enjoyed in an hour’s time. Hence the relationship between, say, Bond’s and Horton’s characters did not change much over the  course of a season or the series, so much so that when Bond died in 1960, the series replaced him with John McIntire without offering so much as a narrative explanation.

“The Fugitive” (1963-1967) was the first TV series to attempt a running story, but that story was limited to Richard Kimball’s recurring attempts to find the murderer of his wife and prove his innocence. But that’s not much on which to hang a storyline–if you binge-watch that series today, what you get is a series of riffs on a basic narrative pattern:  the fugitive moves to a new town, gets work, is discovered and must flee. In each episode new  actors fill tried and true roles–the woman who becomes interested in the handsome stranger in town, the suspicious sheriff, the child who befriends the fugitive, and so on.

Not so with contemporary TV narrative, which has adapted to technological developments. The first show I binge-watched was “The X-files” (1993-2002), but I did so season by season because it was then available only on disc. But I loved those discs as they were issued each year because they made it possible to appreciate the skill with which the show’s writers picked up themes and reworked them over time. The X-files is, in fact, a combination of new and old narrative TV structures–there are stand-alone episodes, usually “monsters of the week” as well as an overarching storyline called “the mythology.” And there was also the deepening relationship between the lead players, which became more compelling when episodes could be watched back-to-back.

Today, of course, one can binge-watch just about any show that was, or remains, popular. The dictionary defines “binge” as “indulgence in an activity to excess.” Fittingly, I just finished a two-week binge watching the six seasons of Downton Abbey–which is itself a tribute to Edwardian excess.


Downton Abbey

Here is the Downton Abbey of the series, which is an actual castle called Highclere. As you can see, the building is itself a paeon to excess. Its interiors are no less glamorous, as are the series’ cast:


The premise of the show is, ostensibly, that both upper and working classes had difficulty adapting to modern times. Nevertheless its author, Julian Fellowes, is clearly more enamored of upper-class Edwardian manners and possessions (and they are undeniably gorgeous) than he is with treating the downstairs “family” members with equal sympathy. (This photo, for example, shows only four members of the downstairs staff, symbolically standing at the margins)

OTOH, Fellowes is a good-enough narrative artist to keep me hooked over a two-week period (when I should have been reading Akhil Amar’s book on the Constitution, for reasons that are made apparent on the nightly news, or writing a review of an essay on memory, which failure has an ironic overtone all by itself).

Mention of these tasks has reminded me that while I did not set out to write a review of Downton, I am dangerously close to doing so. So here I take my leave, my narrative left inartfully dangling.


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Probably Not In The Cards



If you haven’t read your Ovid lately you may have forgotten the story of Narcissus, who was so enamored of himself that he spent all his time staring at his own likeness–much to the chagrin of his enamored lover, Echo:

He spoke, and returned madly to the same reflection, and his tears stirred the water, and the image became obscured in the rippling pool. As he saw it vanishing, he cried out ‘ Where do you fly to?  Stay, cruel one, do not abandon one who loves you! I am allowed to gaze at what I cannot touch, and so provide food for my miserable passion!’ While he weeps, he tears at the top of his clothes: then strikes his naked chest with hands of marble. His chest flushes red when they strike it, as apples are often pale in part, part red, or as grapes in their different bunches are stained with purple when they are not yet ripe.

As he sees all this reflected in the dissolving waves, he can bear it no longer, but as yellow wax melts in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire. He no longer retains his color, the white mingled with red, no longer has life and strength, and that form so pleasing to look at, nor has he that body which Echo loved. Still, when she saw this, though angered and remembering, she pitied him, and as often as the poor boy said ‘Alas!’ she repeated with her echoing voice ‘Alas!’ and when his hands strike at his shoulders, she returns the same sounds of pain. His last words as he looked into the familiar pool were ‘Alas, in vain, beloved boy!’ and the place echoed every word, and when he said ‘Goodbye!’ Echo also said ‘Goodbye!

He laid down his weary head in the green grass, death closing those eyes that had marveled at their lord’s beauty.

And even when he had been received into the house of shadows, he gazed into the Stygian waters. His sisters the Naiads lamented, and let down their hair for their brother, and the Dryads lamented. Echo returned their laments. And now they were preparing the funeral pyre, the quivering torches and the bier, but there was no body. They came upon a flower, instead of his body, with white petals surrounding a yellow heart.

(Metamorphoses, Book III, 339-580


Narcissus in death (Nicholas Poussin)

The moral of the story is, of course, that self-love kills.

Sadly, I suspect that wasting away is too much to ask from the bullying narcissist who now defiles our public space.

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Still Sad


Well good. The Hugo Awards have been handed out, and the Sad/Rabid Puppies won none of them. Zip, nada, nein.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the assorted Puppies were a group of disenchanted Angry White Guys who write manly science fiction and who were chagrined that all the Hugo noms seemed to be given out to writers they disparagingly refer to as Social Justice Warriors, which, translated into actual-speak, means women and people of color. So this year the Puppies rigged the ballot. But apparently they crowed a little too loud about doing so, and got their asses handed to them at the awards ceremony. (If you want to know more, google” Sad Puppies,” or “Hugo awards,” or read all about it on George R. R. Martin’s blog).

The Puppies believe that great science fiction should be politically and socially neutral. Moreover, they claim that the work of the “great” writers who founded the genre (Asimov, Heinlein) is free of political agendas. Funny thing, though, they don’t seem willing to grant the same to Ursula LeGuin or Octavia Butler or Sam Delany, and they certainly don’t admire these writers quite the same fervor that they feel for Heinlein and Asimov.

Insert brief lecture about the blindness accorded to privilege here.

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In last night’s episode of Game of Thrones a giant named Wun Wun took part in an epic battle. Wun Wun’s name is George R. R. Martin’s sly allusion to NFL quarterback Phil Sims, whose playing number was 11. (Sims played for the Giants–ha ha).

BTW, the photo depicts your typical, run-of-the-mill giant, because  I couldn’t find any pictures of Wun Wun.

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Drogon, one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, drops onto her balcony for a visit.

I started reading George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire by accident.  One afternoon before I undertook the long drive home from work I stopped at a bookstore (this was back in the day when there were such things–this must have been about 1998 or so).  I wanted to buy something with which to while away the evening hours when I was too tired to grade papers but not yet ready to sleep.  I picked up a copy of Game of Thrones, intrigued by the cover art as much as anything.


When I began reading I was hooked by the first chapter, wherein each of the Stark children gets a direwolf puppy.  (I now know that one of the pups, Ghost, and his friend Jon Snow are depicted on the original paperback cover).

I’ve been hooked on this mammoth tale ever since. That tattered paperbook copy of GOT has since been lent to friends, and I own hardcover copies of all five books so far published in the series. Hardcover, because I reread these books, something I can’t say about very many books (even my own, once they are published–there, the blunders and omissions are too hard to take). There are several very good websites about the series wherein avid readers note details and tie scattered threads together–Tower of the Hand is one of my favorites, but there are others equally good.  Such revelations send me searching through Martin’s text for confirmation and more detail–oddly enough, just as I did when I was an unwilling student of litcrit (I guess all that training in close textual analysis eventually proved useful after all). That his fans can do this suggests to me that Martin’s plotting is as carefully thought through, and as complex, as anything by, say, D. H. Lawrence.  It’s also a hell of a lot more rewarding to read.

(I know, I’ve written about ASOIAF  many times before, but I’m warming up to a point).

A few lovers of the novels take a dim view of the HBO series entitled Game of Thrones. Some of this is just whining, along the lines of “We loved it first, and therefore we are superior,” and some of it is legitimate, because, let’s face it, the sort of detail that is available in the written medium just can’t be represented in the visual. For example, viewers can’t get access to a character’s thoughts unless he or she speaks some lines. On the other hand, and this is a Very Big other hand, the visual medium can be spectacular. Take, fer instance, the sudden appearance of Drogon in last night’s episode. Wow. Just wow. He is huge, and he is only half-grown at this point. Dany holds out her hand for him to sniff, just as you might do with a cat or dog, and us viewers are all thinking “Oh please, please, dragon, don’t burn her up!” even though us readers know that he won’t (at least not at this point in the plot).

So, appreciating the differences, I’ve enjoyed the series as well as the novels. Until now.

This season the showrunners have begun to morph the plotline in serious ways (here I apologize to nonreaders/nonviewers about the detail to follow). I understand why they are doing this–the plotting of Martin’s last two books is quite leisurely–for example, Tyrion has still not made it to Mereen at the end of some 2000 pages–and the show has at most another 20 episodes after this season in which to recount what could easily amount to another 4000 pages. Nor has Martin yet finished writing the books, although he and the showrunners insist that they have worked out an ending with which all three are comfortable.

But come on, already! From last night’s episode, it looks as though Littlefinger and Sansa are on their way to Winterfell, which, last we heard, was occupied by the villainous Boltons. Does Littlefinger think he can faux-marry Sansa (who is still married to Tyrion, after all) to the odious Ramsey Bolton, who likes to torture and kill for the fun of it? I figured, given the show’s re-packaging of the Sansa character (they died her hair black and dressed her in black witch-like costumes) that she was about to become a badass. Finally. And Stannis is still lolling about at the Wall, smiling on Jon Snow, who killed the leader of the wildlings (goodbye Ciaran Hinds) despite Stannis’ desire to burn him alive.  And Jon gets elected Lord Commander of the Watch in a single vote? Come on, people! And Jaime goes to Dorne? And takes Bronn with him? Wha?

Maybe I’m just feeling the frustration felt by the unsullied all along (“unsullied” is readers’ name for viewers who are non-readers). But I will be very sad if the show decides to drop Martin’s nuanced ruminations on human nature in the last two books published so far–Jon’s identity dilemma, Arya’s growth, Stannis’ failure to learn anything, Tyrion’s struggle with his daddy-issues, and so on.  If it does so, it threatens to become just another teevee shoot-em-up, only with broadswords made of Valerian steel.

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