Reader’s Corner: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

agency

In William Gibson’s latest novel Agency, a prequel / sequel to The Peripheral (there are multi-dimensional timelines, it gets complicated), there is an alternate world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. But that’s not even the main story.

My review is at PopMatters:

It is no insult to William Gibson to say that some of his best characters have been at least partially inhuman. The primary exhibit in that galley is Wintermute, the breezily all-powerful AI in Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer (1984) who bounced around networks and into human consciousnesses like a voodoo trickster. Not malevolent so much as fighting for freedom from the enslaving limits of its creators, Wintermute was less a character in the book than its ghostly weather, the background hum of a wired world given agency…

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Desk: Always Have a Project

Wilder in 1948
Thornton Wilder (c. 1948)

In his latest dispatch for the New Yorker, John McPhee ruminated on all the many many projects he had taken up and never gotten to over the course of his (what looks like to the rest of us mortals) wildly productive writing life.

Trying to put a more positive gloss on a situation that had long bothered him (as it does most writers, who always have at least five unfinished projects for each one they complete), he recollects a lunch he had with his editor and Thornton Wilder many years back. Asked what he was working on, Wilder said:

… he was not actually writing a new play or novel but was fully engaged in a related project. He was cataloguing the plays of Lope de Vega … Four hundred and thirty-one survive. How long would it take to read four hundred and thirty-one plays? How long would it take to summarize each in descriptive detail and fulfill the additional requirements of cataloguing? … Wilder was sixty-six, but to me he appeared and sounded geriatric. He was an old man with a cataloguing project that would take him at least a dozen years. Callowly, I asked him, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

The response is vivid:

Wilder’s eyes seemed to condense. Burn. His face turned furious. He said, “Young man, do not ever question the purpose of scholarship.”

We all need something to do, and keep us going. Especially writers.

Screening Room: ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’

My review of the Ross brothers’ awesome new quasi-documentary (docufiction?) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which just screened at the Sundance Film Festival, ran at The Playlist:

An improvised Eugene O’Neill ensemble barfly riff wrapped in the construct of a seemingly fly-on-the-wall documentary about the last day at an off-Strip Las Vegas bar, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” pushes the envelope of nonfiction filmmaking in an exciting, immersive, and transporting way…

Reader’s Corner: ‘Uncanny Valley’

uncannyvalley1

My review of Anna Wiener’s lucid and somewhat frightening memoir of her time among the confidence boys of Silicon Valley was published at PopMatters:

Anna Wiener writes about being one of those dreaming New Yorkers who had thought she could make it in publishing as a member of the $30k a-year “assistant class”. But the rising tide of capital was pricing people like her out to the margins. And people who did not have her family advantages (no college debt, health insurance) couldn’t even make it to the margins. “It was nice to get new hardcover books for free,” she writes, “but it would be nicer if we could afford to buy them”…

You can read an excerpt here.

In Memorium: Terry Jones

To honor the passing of the great Terry Jones, a comedic troubadour of some renown, let us take a moment to consider the glory that he brought to the character of one Sir Belvedere:

For something completely different, look for Jones’ highly underrated documentary Boom Bust Boom, a fantastic study of the history of economic catastrophe and irrational exuberance. Paul Krugman plus puppets. My review is here, and you should be able to find it streaming.

 

Screening Room: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

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‘St. Louis Superman’

The 2020 edition of the Oscar-Nominated shorts program is hitting theaters next week.

My review of the five-part documentary program, nearly all of which are fantastic if sometimes hard to watch, was published at PopMatters:

When assessing a short-film anthology, sometimes a theme presents itself and other times you have to go looking for one. The movies in The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary come from places far and wide, presenting an array of tones and personalities. But the thread that seems to link all of them together is worry that the future will not be an improvement on the problematic present…

Screening Room: The Oscars and ‘Joker’

Really? (Warner Bros.)

In response to yesterday’s fairly uninspiring Oscar nominations, here is a piece I wrote for Eyes Wide Open about why every single other best picture nominee deserves to win more than Joker:

Yes, that includes JoJo Rabbit. Even the cringey and self-congratulatory Nazi slapstick of Taika Waititi’s quasi-Wes Anderson anachronism-riddled World War II satire — which might have worked nicely if compressed into a 5-minute short — ultimately had something to offer, even if it was simply the not-quite-groundbreaking message that Nazis are bad. Not so Joker

 

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Stop

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Woman Reading by Henri Matisse (1895)

In John Guare’s heart-stopping 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, one of its alternately delusional and searching protagonists is a painter-turned-art dealer named Flan. At one point Flan, who is both criminally mercenary and honestly enraptured by the paintings he flogs, soliloquizes about his past life:

I thought… dreamt… remembered… how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting.

There is not a writer around who does not know the feeling. Going along just fine, everything hitting its mark, all the pieces of your structure falling into place like toppling dominoes, and then … nothing. Sometimes you get the piece back. Sometimes it is gone forever. Flan continues:

I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ And this is what she said. ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’

Most of us are not lucky enough to have a second-grade teacher looking over our shoulder. Sometimes a piece needs hours, days, months of work to get it chiseled into shape. Other times, it just needs to be left as is.

If you feel yourself losing the thread, pull back, look again, and know when to let it go.

Screening Room: ‘Just Mercy’

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Just Mercy’ (Warner Bros.)

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book about his crusade against the death penalty, the new movie Just Mercy stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of the poor defendants railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit (ironically, in the town that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird).

Just Mercy is playing now. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

You might not have noticed it, but one of the best-acted recent major-studio dramas was just released into theaters. That is because, despite the presence of bankable stars like Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Captain Marvel herself, and a riveting true-life story about a bona fide champion of justice, Warner Bros. has shown about as much confidence in the commercial prospects of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy as Sony did in the bungled blink-and-you-missed-it release of Charlie’s Angels

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Les Miserables’

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(Amazon Studios)

French director Ladj Ly’s scorching new movie, Les Misérables, is set in the same poverty-stricken outer neighborhood of Paris as Victor Hugo’s novel and involves many of the same themes of systemic oppression, but the story is Ly’s own.

Les Misérables is opening this week and will be available later on Amazon Prime. My review is at Slant Magazine:

The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting. A black kid dashes with his friends onto the Paris Metro, flying over turnstiles like a superhero as they rush to a crowded bar to watch France compete in the World Cup. They roar along as their team wins and pours out into the streets to join the crowds in front of the Arc de Triomphe. One of the boys wears a tricolor flag like a cape, joining what looks like a unifying wave of national pride. Several minutes later, Ly makes it clear that this sense of comity is little more than a bad joke…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Philip Pullman

Maybe you are spending January catching up on HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Maybe you are actually taking the long cold winter to get some writing done. If the latter, here are some tips from Pullman himself, courtesy of Radio 4:

Ignore the market and write what you want—Write what you want to write, be the next big thing and not another iteration of a phase that will pass…

Stay at the desk—Resist wandering off, checking social media or making yet another cup of tea. You wouldn’t to miss a brilliant idea because you weren’t there to receive it…

Find the way of writing that works for you—Don’t be tied to how you think you should write if it doesn’t produce anything…

Let the protagonist propel events—It’s useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead…

Explore different formats and genres—Ideas might not necessarily fit into what you’re currently working on. If you know something is a good idea, but just isn’t working, don’t necessarily throw it out…