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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Retrospecticus 2011

How will 2011 be remembered in decades to come? Will it be the year that twitter and Facebook overthrew governments? That the verb occupy took on a whole new meaning? Or maybe it was when ignorant, drunk assholes watched a city burn at their own hands because of a sports team? How about when massive debt on a global scale spread like a flu virus throughout Europe? All are large scale, highly impactful events that have made ripples that will fan out into 2012 and beyond. All of these events will be recapped over the next few days in annual retrospects on every news site and blog. But what about on an individual level? What happened this year that impacted me? What wandered into my orbit that made me think that this year was worth living? What made me happy? Lots, actually. Sure, I'm dealing on a small scale, but it's the little things in life that make it worth living, n'est pas?

Watching Hugo in 3D with my family. 

See, told you it was small scale. But this movie made me so incredibly happy. I normally treat 3D as an angry leper crawling toward me with outstretched limbs, but I realized that all it took was the greatest living director with over 40 years of moviemaking experience working with a seemingly unlimited budget on a movie that seems closer to his heart that anything he's ever done to make a 3D movie worth watching. The fact that it concerns the twilight of cinematic legend George Méliès and a plea to keep silent cinema alive and breathing, all in the guise of a children's movie makes it great; beyond just a movie, Hugo is an experience for anyone who loves film to savor and enjoy. 

Conquering my writing demons

Maybe the single most difficult thing I've done all year. Banishing my doubts and trepidations with one fell swoop, I signed up for a short fiction writing workshop where it would be impossible to crumple up whatever I write to keep it from prying eyes. Quite the opposite, in fact, since I had to not only write for others to read but also read my works aloud. Kind of reminds me of how Seinfeld said that death was the #2 fear behind public speaking, meaning that most people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. I may not have conquered death quite yet, but I read my short stories out loud to perfect strangers and lived to tell the tale. Turns out, it wasn't so bad. And since starting this blog and concurrently working on a novel, turns out I'm not such a bad writer after all. 

Reading 1Q84

I had been waiting for this novel to come out for almost 2 years, actively avoiding reading anything about it leading up to its publication in October, then spending almost 2 months savoring every one of its 944 pages. The reviews haven't all been kind, pointing out that Murakami appears to be resting on his laurels and revisiting plots and themes that have been covered in his other books that are half the length of 1Q84, but I didn't mind these so-called faults one bit. In fact, the length and familiarity made the book more enjoyable, knowing I am in the hands of a master storyteller at the top of his game and pulling out all the stops, no doubt eschewing the advice of more than one editor telling him to pare down his prose. It tickles me to think that such a massive tome by a Japanese author can still elicit midnight book store openings and lineups usually reserved for boy wizards. 

Turning 30

Oy vay. Starting my fourth (fourth!) decade on this planet was something I told myself wasn't a big deal. I'm most likely only a third of the way through my life, I thought generously. I've got milestones ahead of me that will hopefully count as the most memorable of my life....hopefully. But even the most optimistic thought cannot banish the fact that memories that seem fresh in my mind  (graduating high school, getting my driver's license) happened over a decade ago, which leads to me to think if I have really changed all that much in the ensuing years. Which then causes me to think that I have become what I never thought would happen: out of touch with whatever is considered "cool". Most of pop culture is a confusing mess to me nowadays. I've even caught myself saying 'back in my day....' And yet I'm told by people that I'm still just a young pup with his whole life ahead of him. That may be true, but my aching knees and increasingly crotchety behaviour say otherwise. We shall see where I am in the next 30 years. 

Watching my friends get on with their lives

This is an offshoot of the last entry, but it warrants it's own rant. Not so much rant, maybe, since there isn't much anger involved, more just melancholic realization. This is the year that good friends moved away, entering new chapters in their lives that, shockingly enough, don't include me as much as I would like. I will eventually pick up and move on too, but it's always hard when you're not the first to do so. Such a mixture of emotions, most of which were unexpected. Familiar blue sadness painted the canvas of my consciousness, but also red anger and green envy with splatters of ochre nostalgic reminiscences and the occasional trickle of bright white anticipation. A true emotional Pollock canvas, this saying goodbye to your best friends is. 

Listening to the album House of Balloons by The Weeknd

Out of nowhere, The Weeknd dropped a free mixtape called House of Balloons in March, and turned R&B on its head, at least for me. Abel Tesfaye, the man behind The Weeknd, sings songs about sex and drugs, but without all the posturing in a desperate attempt in glorification. Instead, the listener is bombarded with skin crawling hooks like bring your love baby, I can bring my shame/bring your drugs baby, I can bring my pain. Yeah, real uplifting, I know, but Tesfaye sells it so well, embracing debauchery in all it's discomfort, making insanely good music around it, and then giving it away for free. 

Seeing tUnE-YaRdS live 

What. A. Show. Seriously, I had heard that tUnE-YaRdS live was amazing from articles in The Village Voice and Pitchfork, but nothing could truly prepare me for such energy, crowd engagement, and sheer musicianship that tUnE-YaRdS brought to the small stage at Sugar Nightclub. It was an electrifying concert with zero filler, and listening to all the songs from my favorite album of the year live in such an intimate venue ranks as one of the highlights of the year, hands down.

These are just a few off the cuff experiences from the past 12 months of my life. By no means do they sum up the year for me tidily, not by any stretch of the imagination. But they all serve as signposts in my life as I, with the rest of you, hurtle into the unknown territory that is the next year. 2012 looms just on the horizon, almost in our grasp. Who knows, if the Mayans were correct this will be Interrobang's inaugural and sole Retrospecticus, unless I fervently tap an entry out on December 20th.

Only time will tell.

Friday, 16 December 2011

An Otherwise Dreary Day Punctuated by the Surreal

I have just finished Murakami's 1Q84, where the themes of death and rebirth (among many, many others) are explored in the haze of a dreamlike work only Murakami could create. So these topics are at the forefront of my mind whether I like it or not. So after finishing 1Q84, what do I choose for my next book? Hitch 22, a memoir of the British essayist, atheist, journalist, and wit Christopher Hitchens. I started it last night, December 15th. In the first chapter, Hitchens describes what it is like to read your own obituary, since he himself has experienced this. I'll explain: one day in 2008 he was featured in a photograph in an article for the New Statesman, and the caption referred to him as the late Christopher Hitchens. It turned out to be an error, of course, but seeing himself so matter-of-factly announced as having shuffled off this mortal coil rattled him. 

So what do I read the very next morning, December 16th? That Christopher Hitchens has indeed passed away and his obituary has been published, rightfully so this time around. This is a very sad day, for Hitchens is a dying breed among, well, that's hard to say. Among journalists. Among authors. Among outspoken critics and people with bon mots for pretty much any occasion. So raise a glass (or two, or three) of the finest brandy and light a Cuban cigar in honour of Christopher Hitchens. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Kindred Spirits

Last week I pondered how the genre of postmodern literature just may be too big for its britches. The books that fall under that category are too tricky, too wild, too unpredictable, and far too unlike each other to really belong in the same company. That also holds true for one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick. His novels and stories often fall under the same genre. You know, the genre that sits at the back of the class that no one really wants to talk to because it hasn't learned to wear deodorant yet. Yes, science fiction. 

Ask 100 people what genre of books or movies they generally shy away from. I'm sure you'll get a few serious dramas, some British comedies, and one or two "old classics" but I guarantee the majority will say science fiction. Why? Well, for starters, most people base their opinion on two things: Star Wars and Star Trek. These, sadly, are the ambassadors of sci-fi to the general public, but along with them come the creepy fans, the annual conventions, the costumes, and of course, the intense obsession about every last minute detail of both the Wars and Trek universes. Yes, these stereotypes for sci-fi fans exist for a reason, but they represent the absolute nadir. Unfortunately, the entire genre of sci-fi gets the brush off from just about everyone because of a few bad eggs, but if you look just a tad deeper, you can see just how fascinating and thought provoking sci-fi novels can be. And no other author has done more to expand sci-fi to its very limits than Philip K. Dick. 

You know Philip K. Dick even if you haven't heard of him. Many of his novels have been adapted into films, but Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and Minority Report (adapted from his short story The Minority Report) are the two most famous and well known examples. Both films were very good, as was Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, but I don't believe what makes Dick's books and stories so special can be necessarily translated into film. The movies themselves are pretty great in their own right, and are head and shoulders above some of the less memorable Dick adaptations (Next, Paycheck) but even the best can't capture the twisty, labyrinthine, poetic worlds Dick creates in his novels, often exchanging artfulness and subtlety for special effects.  Essentially, if you judge Philip K Dick solely on his contribution to cinema, then you really don't know Philip K Dick.

Okay, so where do you start? Dick has published 44 novels and over 120 short stories, so there's not exactly a dearth of material. He was, however,  never content to be confined in the genre trappings of science fiction, making his oeuvre notoriously difficult to penetrate. I would recommend Ubik as a perfect starting point. This 1969 novel encapsulates many of Dick's obsessions, namely paranoia, the questioning of reality, paranormal powers, and ultimately, faith, but wraps them in a cracking good story rich with humour and pathos. The plot is just the right amount of twisty for the novice reader, and is easy enough to follow right to its emotionally satisfying end. 

For those willing to venture further down the rabbit hole after finishing Ubik, there are many paths to take. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a horrifying acid trip of religious imagery and futuristic paranoia, The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history novel (some say the first) where President Roosevelt is assassinated and after America loses WWII, it is divided between the Germans and Japanese.  VALIS finds Dick at his most unhinged and autobiographical, diving headfirst into gnosticism, Christianity, Jungian psychoanalysis, and his own personal experiences as narrated by his doppleganger, Horselover Fat. 

As you can probably guess, Philp K. Dick was no ordinary sci-fi author. He abused amphetamines (often attributed to his seemingly non-stop publishing habits) and claimed he had visions; visions of Ancient Rome where he lived as "Thomas," a persecuted Christian. He also claimed that a pink laser beamed to him wisdom and clairvoyance, a plot point he made pivotal in VALIS. Dick's idiosyncrasies and paranoia were perfectly wed to his subject matter, elevating him to a cult figure with an intensely rabid fan base who pore over his works like, quite appropriately, religious texts. But Dick deserves a fate better than being a minor footnote in a genre held in such contempt. Philip K. Dick was a humanist above all else; no matter how hallucinogenic his stories became, they always have a human interest. There is sadness, curiosity, regret, confusion, joy, and longing suffused in his prose. It stands as a testament to this that the K. in Philip K. Dick stands for Kindred.