May the Fourth and All That : John Jackson Miller – “Lost Tribe of the Sith”

Taking place after “Dawn of the Jedi”, but feeling even more genuinely mythological, John Jackson Miller’s “Lost Tribe of the Sith” is further evidence that almost everyone in the Galaxy has given more though to Star Wars mythology than George Lucas. Now no longer “canon” and relegated to the “legends” designation, this is a nice collection of 9 novellas: “Precipice,” “Skyborn,” “Paragon,” “Savior,” “Purgatory,” “Sentinel,” “Pantheon,” “Secrets,” “Pandemonium.” (Notice a certain pattern?) After the Sith Starship “Omen” crashlands on Kersh, 5000 years or so before the Battle of Yavin, the Dark-Forced castaways made themselves a new home by conquering the Keshiri with incisive, genocidal glee over millennia. Their biggest challenge, though? Their inability to co-operate:  a civilization of sheer evil doesn’t last long because its leaders turn to political cannibalism. How the Sith of Kesh manage to make it all work is an interesting tale, although necessarily fragmented and rushed (you try covering two millennia of Lost Tribe history: even Gabriel Garcia Marquez stuck to 100 years of solitude.)

Jackson Miller, (who also wrote the “Knights of the Old Republic” series) would return to the Lost Tribe with “Spiral,” a 5-issue graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. This follows the collected stories, and is set two thousand years or so before “A New Hope,” or, as normal people call it, “the first Star Wars movie, the one that didn’t have that Jar Jar Binks fella.” Continuing with the idea of strangers in strange lands, “Spiral” is about two discontent Sith who wind up in Kesh’s supposedly uninhabited version of the South Pole, only to find “The Doomed”: descendants of Fallen Jedi.

Star-Wars_Lost-Tribe-of-the-Sith_Spiral

There is a particularly dumb moment in “Episode III : Revenge of the Sith” when Annakin says something to Obi-Wan Kenobi like (and I paraphrase because dialogue this bad shouldn’t be committed to memory): “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” to which Obi Boy replies all like: “Only a Sith would think like that. THEREFORE YOU’RE NOT WITH ME AND YOU ARE MY ENEMY AND I MUST KILL YOU AND I DON’T SEE THE IRONY IN ANY OF THIS!”

The much smarter (and better-written) Doomed, instead, have  realized that there IS a possible middle ground between the Dark Force and the Light Force. This is a concept so apparently beyond the subtleties of Hollywood cinema that so far it hasn’t even been considered in 7 “Star Wars” movies- and a spinoff. To find out how they make it work, of course, look up the comics.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH, clearly best for SW fans.

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Pissarro World : Alice Hoffman – “The Marriage of Opposites”

Camille Pissarro was the honorably bearded elder statesman overseeing the Impressionist movement through its eight major exhibitions from 1876 to 1884. He counseled practically every French exponent of the movement (and its Post-Impressionist aftermath) as well as selected foreigners – such as Vincent Van Gogh. Presumably, Parisian galleries would have been left poorer without his presence, had Pissarro spent his whole life sharing the shadow of a palm tree with his parents in the island idyll of St. Thomas, where he was born.

Above: Self-Portrait, with Beard.

Those parents, Frederick and Rachel Pomie, were engaged in a minor tropical scandal that comprises the bulk of Alice Hoffman’s “The Marriage of Opposites.”

Unwarranted, inexplicable comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in several major review sites led me to this “magical realist” romance. No, not every story set south of the Continental U.S. needs to be accused of “magical realism.” After racking my brains, I figured what the reviewers mean is that the novel’s COVER reminded them of Isabel Allende’s “Portrait in Sepia,” and Allende IS fairly famous for her Marquez impersonations. (I welcome any alternate theories as to why Hoffman’s flat-yet-overwritten Harlequin romance should be compared to the Colombian winner of the Nobel prize.)

ABOVE: Painting by Numbers

ABOVE: Seeing double!

“The Marriage of Opposites” has many little sins: no emotion is left unexplained (twice, if possible); the characters are modern to a fault; at least one plot twist is so obvious that when it is “revealed” the reader should feel insulted; and there’s a nearly total failure to accurately capture Caribbean folklore (no, werewolves are NOT a big part of tropical superstition; save all that fur for frosty Europe.)

But I doubt the novel’s target audience will care. They’re looking for a familiarly framed romance daubed with historical edutainment, and the book’s first half provides that. Sure, Rachel Pomie may be a familiar Jane-Eyre-type, but no one who picks this up would demand otherwise. It’s in the second half, when Pissarro’s upbringing takes over the picture, that “The Marriage of Opposites” turns into a hasty, unconvincing, eye-wounding sketch.

That’s when even Hoffman’s most assiduous fans might want to sue for a divorce.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for Hoffman fans, MEH for me.

Salem’s Plots : Santiago Gamboa – “Necropolis”

“Lives are like cities. If they’re too neat and tidy they don’t have a story. The best stories come out of destruction and misfortune.”

ABOVE: City of Oddballs

“Neat and tidy” surely doesn’t describe Santiago Gamboa’s 2009 novel, “Necropolis.” Set in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel during an unlikely literary convention of “Biographers and Memory,” this novel-made-of-novellas borrows from Bocaccio and Chaucer (and a few other sources). Literary pilgrims try to drown out the noises of terrorism just outside the walls by telling their varied tales. Among them:

The picaresque saga of a former drug dealer/ evangelical pastor from Miami.

The spicy affairs of an Italian porn star who has (obviously and yet unconvincingly) read the Marquis de Sade – or at least Milo Manara.

The variations of two chess players ( Stefan Zweig’s “The Royal Game” is the inspiration).

And, (I know I  mention Alexandre Dumas a lot in here, perhaps more than he warrants) a thrilling remake of “The Count of Montecristo” set in modern-day Colombia.

Gamboa is one of Colombia’s most prominent narrators, (or THE most prominent, now that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead) – and perhaps one of the foremost Latin American writers, (now that Roberto Bolano has similarly ceased to be.) The (late) latter gets a friendly, pre-emptively defensive nod from Gamboa, who is surely aware that “Necropolis” invites comparison to “The Savage Detectives.” Working in a similar vein, he shows off with tonal shifts – but it’s too much showing off. The stories are all entertaining enough but never even remotely convincing. I can’t judge the original Spanish, but the translation flattens the voices of the male characters, whether Colombian or Israeli or Swedish. The females fare even worse: wish-fulfilling literate nymphomaniacs. And, (this could sound like a case of “bad food, small portions”) there aren’t ENOUGH stories to follow up on a Decameron or even a Heptameron.  For all its ambitious heft, “Necropolis” ends too soon. This is the rare 500 page novel that needed 1,000 pages to truly fulfill its promise.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

Fancy Fantasmas : Carlos Fuentes – “Unsettling Company”

ABOVE: Glass Half Dead

Carlos Fuentes often shows up in the kind of inclusive “all-Latin-American-writers-are-the-same” sentences that link Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and more recently Roberto Bolanos. But “Unsettling Company,” a late-career collection of literary horror stories, casts him in the light of an even more trans-national Henry James.  (Albeit a Henry James with a crazy Mexican abuela.) Fuentes was 75 at the time of the collection’s release so his admirably modern energy is tempered by an old-school, refined elegance. Collection highlight: “Vlad.” 

RATING: COOL

Old Dixie Down : William Faulkner – “Flags in the Dust”

“For man’s enlightenment he lived
By man’s ingratitude he died
Pause here, son of sorrow; remember death.”

That’s carved on the tombstone of John Sartoris, the Confederate soldier whose death during the Civil War is but the prelude to further familial tragedy, and whose legend  seeps down through several generations of Sartoris. The Sartoris are the fading aristocracy of Yoknapatawpha County, and the subject of “Flags in the Dust,” the very first William Faulkner novel to be set in that now mythical corner of imaginary Southern geography.

ABOVE: Faulkner originally wanted to name his County Yokelnapatowphillytapwahsburg, but his editor threatened to commit suicide if Faulkner didn’t change it.

John Sartoris’ legacy is one of pride; individual acquisitional pride first, and aristocratic pride second:

“In the nineteenth century,” John Sartoris had said, ‘‘worrying over genealogy anywhere is poppycock. But particularly so in America, where only what a man takes and keeps has any significance, and where all of us have a common ancestry and the only house from which we can claim descent with any assurance, is the Old Bailey. Yet the man who professes to care nothing about his forbears is only a little less vain than he who bases all his actions on blood precedent. And a Sartoris is entitled to a little vanity and poppycock, if he wants it.”

And the Sartoris become vain and poppycocky indeed, as their world disintegrates year by year. “Flags in the Dust” takes place immediately after World War I. John’s son, Old Bayard Sartoris. spends his time on the porch of his house in Jefferson, Mississippi, reminiscing about his father and Robert E. Lee; or else entombed in his library:

The room was lined with bookcases (…) emanating an atmosphere of dusty and undisturbed meditation, and a miscellany of fiction of the historical-romantic school (all Dumas was there, and the steady progression of the volumes now constituted Bayard Sartoris’ entire reading, and one volume lay always on the night-table beside his bed.)

Alexandre Dumas keeps Old Bayard wrapped in a reassuring, gallant, chivalrous past, while his aunt, fiery octogenarian Jenny, tends to the weeds that push inexorably toward the house.

The novel opens with the return of young Bayard Sartoris (Old Bayard’s grandson) from the war. Young Bayard has survived his father and his brother and is a victim of what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a condition for which he could have expected little sympathy, let alone therapy, in 1919. Young Bayard gives himself to erratic thrill-seeking: there’s a wonderfully cinematic scene here in which Bayard, drunk and reckless, rides a galloping horse through the streets of the town, a full-muscled symbol of self-destructive madness, and winds up with several broken ribs. (Faulkner himself was an equestrian fan, and seriously injured in a horse-riding accident toward the end of his life.)

ABOVE: Horsing around!

Horses are persistent symbols in “Flags in the Dust.” Let’s not forget that the etymological root for chivalry (and cavalry) is in the Latin “caballus”: horse. Horse-riding is knight-hood, it is power, it is distinction, it is tradition. But the horse is threatened by a deadly machine called the automobile, encroaching on the Southland. The term “horse power” is forever altering its meaning.

In what I find to be the novel’s best lyrically sustained passage, Faulkner goes beyond the horse to examine the horse’s sterile offspring: the mule. The mule is as much of a genetic cul-de-sac as the Sartoris. If the horse is the great beast of the ante-bellum, then the mule, stubborn, kicking, future-less, is the South of the Reconstruction.

“Father and mother he does not resemble; sons and daughters he will never have; vindictive and patient: (It is a known fact that he will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.) (…) Unwept, unhonored and unsung, he bleaches his awkward, accusing bones among rusting cans and broken crockery and worn-out automobile tires on lonely hillsides.”

I’ve talked about Faulkner’s influence on Latin Boom writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose Macondo is Yoknapatawpha County on a magical mirror.) Maybe it’s about the peculiar way in which poverty and race and class chafe against each other in Faulkner’s landscape, which is not too different from the way it does in that OTHER American South, the one that stretches all the way down to Antarctica.

ABOVE: Here’s the cover to the Signet Edition, doing its darndest best to suggest this is a companion piece to “Gone with the Wind.”

“Flags in the Dust” was written in 1927; hated by agents, editors and publishers; chopped into a quarter of its size; and eventually released as “Sartoris” to no great acclaim. In its full form, issued in 1973, it is a great novel that suffers from a few editorial eccentricities. Repetitions of certain words and images strike me as unbridled affectations. Faulkner strikes upon the clever use of an image, and then goes on to beat the Proverbial dead horse. People are surrounded by “Impedimenta” 4 times within ten pages, for instance. New rule: You get to use the word “impedimenta” once per novel.

“Richly,” used as a paradoxical adverb, is another repeat offender. Fields are “richly somnolent”; a field hand lounges “richly static”; a house is “richly desolate of motion”; a light is “richly and solemnly hushed”; a few pages later, brocade is “richly hushed”; a vase is “richly serene”; the world is “richly moribund”; a mire is “richly foul”; and, used in the non-Faulknerian way,  flowers “bloom richly” at night. There’s other words on which he leans too bluntly: “solemn” (making 14 appearances);  “sibilant” (15); “silent” (21). The winner, though, is “serene,” which is used an astonishing FIFTY times! That means something gets described as serene every 8 pages or so!

RATING: COOL! Just a tiny editorial notch below MASTERPIECE!!!

ABOVE: “What? You didn’t think it was a MASTERPIECE!!!? OUCH. That really saddens me, Hans. I mean, you gave “Mockingjay” a “MASTERPIECE!!!” rating. Doesn’t sound right.”

Ok, fine. NEW RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

POST-SCRIPT:

Those flags in the dust are, of course, the Confederate flags. I kept on hearing The Band play “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” as I read this; I have no doubt that song would have rocked the Sartoris household 24/7, if they ever warmed up to those new-fangled record-playing machines. I’m not much for eulogizing the glorious days of mint-julep pride where Negroes weren’t uppity and knew how to take their whippings without complaint, but it’s hard not to be stirred by that song, by the way defeat and humiliation get transformed into triumph and pride. It’s also hard to believe this is a song written in 1969, and not 1869- or that it was written by a Canuck (Robbie Robertson).