Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I recently watched "Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro, who is a magical realist in the vein of Fuentes and Márquez. I'm glad that I watched this evil movie, because it taught me something.

But first, you should stop reading right now if you mean to watch it. I'm going to give the story away.

I have always felt a visceral anger when a story ends as if the events were just a dream or some variant thereof such as drug trips, a book that someone was reading, or near-death experiences. The reader agrees to accept this fictional "reality", he invests his emotions in it, then the writer says, "Just kidding. None of this actually happened." Now the reader is expected to feel foolish, maybe blush a bit, and wonder if anyone noticed that he was reading a silly fantasy. Not me. I feel anger.

Pan's Labyrinth does not end with such obvious chicanery as waking up from a dream, but it does commit the same sin. And yes, I mean sin. I feel that strongly about it.

Keep in mind that I don't believe in magic, so why should I care whether the events in some fantastic story actually happened or not? Shouldn't I be comforted in my world view when I'm reminded that those silly fairies and fauns are just make-believe (or at least probably make-believe)?

No, and absolutely no!

Consider the kind of narrative trickery found in Pan's Labyrinth:

Right up to the story's end, the innocent Ofelia appeared to have a fighting chance of gaining the upper hand over malevolence. In fact, success was promised to her, so long as she took certain actions. Even at the very end, despite the appearance of Ofelia's death, the viewer suspects that the girl's moral purity will permit her to somehow gain magical power—as promised!—and become triumphant. However, the filmmaker doesn't see the world that way. It's not merely that he needed to apologize for the silliness of the fantasy; in fact, he used the fantasy to emphasize, or heighten, a point that he wished to make about the nature of the world as he sees it. To that end, he made the innocent girl's triumph a trick of the mind.

This is worse than a story about hopeless innocence; this is a story about hopeful innocence, about a hero being promised a reason to battle for success, then having that very reason to hope—not merely the likelihood of success, mind you, but even the meaning of hope itself—snatched away by "reality".

The best we can hope for in this terrible life, Guillermo tells us, is to never wake up from our daydream to discover how bad it really is here before we die. Benevolence reigns only over the childish, make-believe mind; malevolence, everywhere else.

Ironically, this is what the word realism in the term magical realism means. Had the young girl been permitted to actually be a real princess—I mean really be—then benevolence would have won the day—and it never does, at least not according to a postmodern mind.

In the author's own words:
Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but it is a dark refuge.

Rot in hell, Guillermo del Toro.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Poetry, Food, and Water

Seen on bumper sticker today:
Poetry is necessary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Future is in Pocono

So a library in Pocono, Pennsylvania, solicits book reviews from patrons then publishes those reviews in the local paper. Normally these patrons are adults, but this time they chose to solicit reviews from youths who participate in the summer reading program. Not many students took them up on their offer, which is no surprise, considering how recently the students got released from bondage, er, school.

As is happening more and more these days, one of the three published reviews happens to cover The Fountainhead. Not only that, but it does so bravely, smartly, and, I think, accurately.

Here's a sample of the short review:
"Multiple themes of human progression and egotism, combined with Rand's marvelous authorial objectivism, make "The Fountainhead" one of the most controversial and philosophically challenging novels to ever have exposed the human potential as the product of individualism."
I offer a warning to the members of the Religious Right and the Marxist Left (not to mention the Marxist Right and the Religious Left): Take one look at the kind of kid/young adult who would write such a cutting review. Take a look at the letters that these youthful fans of Ayn Rand write to their school papers and the essays they send to the Ayn Rand Institute. Compare these to the incomprehensible drek you routinely get from even your brighter students. Consider the power, clarity, and precision of the minds behind these reviews. Consider them — and worry for your lives, because these are the kids of the future.

You can read the full review, published in the Pocono Record, here: Library youths recommend books on the Titanic, individualism and a kindergartener. (HT: Randex)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bradbury: Beware the Evil Factoid

If you've ever heard Ray Bradbury give an interview, you'll know that he's, well, unique and sometimes a bit hard to follow. Call him frenetic, I suppose. So this just in from
Writer's Blog:
Ray Bradbury, who writes every speaking out about Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury now says that his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship; it's about the dangers of television...
Hmmm, okay.

From the original interview:
"Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was," Bradbury says, summarizing TV's content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: "factoids." He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.
So the world is perishing from an orgy of...factoids. Alrighty.

If I were an author of a junior high textbook on literature, I wouldn't rush to change my study guides for Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps just adding a chapter on unreliable narrators would do the trick.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Music and Writing

It's strange. I almost always listen to background music while I'm pre-writing and writing — it calms my mind and helps me focus — but I absolutely can't listen to music while I'm editing. Don't know why.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tips for Heroes, Evil Overlords, and Sidekicks

This list of dos and don'ts for fictional heroes, evil overlords, and sidekicks is worth reading, if only for some good laughs. (The list comes from a writer's workshop called "Viable Paradise", which is hosted by

Here are a few of my favorites:

53. Knowing that creatures with tentacles have a preference for True Loves, I will keep an eye out for them.

32. If the Hero warns me that my girlfriend is a Servant of Evil, I am in a perverse quandary. If I believe him and terminate the relationship, he will turn out to have been dead wrong, and the resulting alienation of affection will drive her to the Dark Side. If I don't believe him, he will turn out to be right, and I will be used as a pawn by my scheming paramour. I guess the only solution is to take my sweetie on a long vacation and not return until after the Heroic Struggle is completed.

33. My fortress will include a holding room for any annoying kids, nerds, would-be love interests and other wannabe-types who follow me there and insist on joining my group. They will be kept in this room until the Evil Overlord is defeated. If there are holodecks available, I will throw the wannabe into it while he/she is asleep and activate the Epic Adventure program.

57. I will not give sloppy, wet kisses to the Hero until I verify that he isn't related to me.

67. When the Evil Overlord says that he was driven to his evil by my radiant beauty, I'll just kill him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What I'm Reading

The Knight by Gene Wolfe
If I like nothing else about this story — and I'm sure that I will — I absolutely worship the way the hero, who lives in this world, practically falls into a fantasy story as effortlessly as if he were walking into a forest and getting lost, yet those two, short pages in which it so effortlessly happens remain mesmerizing, exciting, unique, and real. Wolfe makes it look so easy.

Starwater Strains: New Science Fiction Stories by Gene Wolfe
Short stories are about all I can take of science fiction right now, and so far, Wolfe's seem much more literary and rich than anything appearing in Analog.

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula Le Guin
I love almost everything that Ursula Le Guin writes, even when I don't agree with her. She makes prose look easy, the way Ulrich Salchow made figure skating look easy. For this reason, it's a joy to choose one essay to read from this collection right before going to bed each night. She eases my brain into pleasant thoughts the way nursery rhymes, read by a loving mom, calm a child's mind.

The topic of the collection, by the way, is just about everything, from writing to writers to public figures to historical events.