Friday, August 19, 2016

Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares may be the first and only example of its genre: the superhero/gangster novel. This fact leaves the critic with some broad blank spaces to fill in. The first is the tantalizingly murky definition of “genre” when applied to a single text; Jimmy Callaway’s first novel is indisputably genre fiction, but is there such a thing as a genre of one?

Genre fiction’s proponents (as well as its detractors) often point to an emphasis on plot as its defining characteristic. Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares lacks many of the twists and turns that many people describe as plot. The material, objective events described by the text chug ahead, one foot in front of the other. First Lupo Danish fights this guy. Then Lupo Danish fights this gal. Then Lupo Danish fights this other guy. There’s no intertwining dual narratives, dramatic inversions, or mistaken identities. But if Lupo Danish doesn’t meet this superficial standard of genre fiction, why is it such good genre fiction?

Maybe it’s that it’s a good superhero story. The contemporary mania for film adaptations of superhero comics has been accelerating since the beginning of the century (it still seems weird to say that, huh?). If the superhero-film industry is to be taken as a standard for how superhero stories are to be told, we can identify two bedrock requirements: big fight scenes, and origin stories. Billion-with-a-b-grossing films have been essentially nothing but big fights and origin stories. Even if franchises continue beyond the origin story, Spider-Man’s treatment in film seems to indicate that Hollywood thinks we need an origin story about every third film to hold audiences’ attention, even when it’s the same origin story for the same character.

If received wisdom is that superhero stories need big fight scenes and origin stories, it’s interesting that Callaway offers us heaping servings of one, but (at first blush) none of the other. Lupo Danish’s world has no shortage of superpeople thrashing the garbage out of one another, and those sequences are some of the highlights of the book. Callaway has a surprising facility with the description of complex action—his fight scenes are fun yet dramatic, cinematic while still feeling high-stakes. At moments, comic-book panels depicting the action hover all-but-visible before a reader’s eyes. Yet there is no indication in the text of where these ├╝bermenschen’s powers came from in the first place, how many there are in the world, or, notably, whether there are actually any superheroes in Fortlow City, the book’s setting.

Which brings us to the gangster half of the superhero/gangster genre. The titular character is a fist for hire, and we see him working on the behalf of insurance fraudsters and druglords-cum-property developers, but the cops are largely absent from this cops-and-robbers story. Lupo Danish lives in a world apparently devoid of state power to oppose the criminal powers that populate the novel. Though readers might expect some force of law and order to act as a foil for the criminality typically depicted in gangster stories, to a shallow reading, they appear to be as absent as origin stories. Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares is a window on a sort of dark libertarianism where organized legal structures aren’t even a consideration for a mob whose capabilities are limited only by those of the superpowered John Galts they have on retainer.

But enough playing coy. Reader, these seeming omissions, of origin stories and of “good guys,” are not flaws. Notwithstanding that mass audiences have been conditioned to expect them, their inclusion is not, should not be, the critical standard by which the nascent superhero/gangster genre is judged. Jimmy Callaway, with a scalpel honed by the short-story form, has excised the extraneous window-dressing from this narrative. There are rollicking good fights, yes, but genre tropes are not the engine that drives this genre novel. Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares is driven by Callaway’s ear for dialogue, instinct for structure and pacing, and above all, his rigorous exploration of character.

For all that the book’s material narrative may be straightforward, its psychological narrative is intricate and nuanced. For Callaway, the answer to the question “who was that masked man?” has nothing to do with radiation or magic and everything to do with choices, desires, and (I know this is macho-fist-lit but bear with me here) feelings. Where the events of the story are deterministic if not linear, the characters’ internal journeys are as intricately plotted as the best thriller. And while we never see a story of the origin of a character’s superpowers, we are treated to tragically honest stories of the origin of their characters. To put it glibly, we don’t know how Lupo Danish can slug a guy across a football field, but we learn why he does. And as it turns out, that is a far more interesting story, or—dare I say—plot.

Further, approaching the novel from this perspective helps to explain the puzzling absence of law enforcement from a crime novel. In Lupo Danish Never Has Nightmares, morality is something his characters have to enforce upon themselves, rather than have enforced upon them by some formal power structure. In this, Callaway joins Jean-Paul Sartre in offering an exploration of, if never quite an answer to, what I have always seen as the most important question superhero stories raise: when you can do whatever you choose, what will you choose to do, and why?

Buy it here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Car crash

A little after midnight last night, the night before Thanksgiving, I almost hit someone with my car on the freeway. He had staggered into the lane, and I had to swerve a little to miss him, my tires crunching through the debris from his wrecked SUV. His was the only car stopped, so I pulled over to help. I ran back along the shoulder to him, shouting “Do you need help?” over the hiss of freeway traffic.

I reached him, and he put his hands on my upper arms. “Yes,” he said, his eyes digging into mine, “yes, I need help.”

I pulled him as far as possible from the traffic singing by just feet away, and pulled out my cell phone. “I'm going to call 911,” I shouted.

“No,” he said, “I need you to help without calling 911. Can you call someone else?” He was drunk.

His car was facing the wrong way, its headlights dark. I told him there was nobody I could call.

Almost as soon as I arrived, I saw police lights flashing down the other side of the freeway. I told him I saw them, that they were on their way; he wanted me to find something to break his windshield. He thought that would help somehow. I don't know why. I watched the lights exit the freeway and cross the overpass to the entrance on our side. I considered putting him in my car and driving away – nobody was hurt, there was no property damage besides his own vehicle, he was the only one involved. It was too late. The police arrived.

The whole front of a police car is dazzling lights pointed at you. I felt like I was on stage, and didn't know my lines. I felt like they were going to come out of those lights with their guns drawn, pointed at us.

I told the police that I wasn't involved; I had just stopped to help. They took down my information and told me when it was safe to run around the wrecked SUV and jog back to my car.

When the police had pulled up, he had slumped back against his twisted grille and started crying.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why I'm a Dick About My Moustache

Deconstructing Moustache Praise
Every day, people comment on my huge, ridiculous moustache. Almost invariably, these comments take the form of praise. In (very) rough order of frequency, I most often hear:
    • Is your moustache real?
    • How long did that take?
    • Well done!
    • I wish I could grow a moustache like that.
    • That is a respectable/legitimate moustache.
    • Is it a lot of work?
The number one question, that of whether or not it is real, mostly illustrates the degree to which people have become inured to simulacra and artifice. My moustache is notably large and goofy, granted, but it's still rather disappointing that most people who are moved to comment – and of course, there is no way to measure the number of people who assume it is fake and don't ask about it – would rather assume something slightly outside their daily experience is not real, even something as mundane as facial hair that is styled unusually. Facial hair is something that is within the reach of about half the adult human population of the world.

This is what makes the remainder of the common moustache comments troubling. They are all, to greater or lesser degrees, framed as praise for an achievement. As I've mentioned, nothing could be less of an achievement than possessing a naturally-occurring appendage. In fact, one of the questions, “Is it a lot of work?”, is particularly paradoxical in this respect: is the asker so unfamiliar with the process of shaving that they believe it takes some kind of exertion to grow hair? Obviously, I wax and style it, which requires some degree of effort, but the combing of, application of product to, and subsequent styling of hair is a process with which virtually everyone is familiar. It would be insulting to the asker to assume that they actually believe that not shaving one's upper lip and then twisting the ends of the resulting hair amounts to some kind of Herculean task, the completion of which merits congratulation. What, then, are they congratulating me for?

Most obviously, I am being congratulated for being a man. I am aware that not all men can grow moustaches, and that some women can. I am also aware that among trans and intersexed people, moustache ownership or the capacity therefor is mostly uncorrelated with gender. However, cis people form an overwhelming majority, and in the cultural consciousness of virtually everyone, facial hair is associated with masculinity. Thus, at least in the minds of the people commenting, I have a moustache because I am a man, and I am a man because I have a moustache. And they're congratulating me, in terms of “respect” and “legitimacy”. Wow.

But wait, there's more. Let's talk about expressed envy. It is infrequent, but sometimes it is women who say that they “wish they could grow a moustache like that”. I'll go out on a limb here, and say that all other things being equal, no. They don't. Given that one of the key responsibilities that patriarchy imposes upon women is to conform to prescribed standards of beauty (which most assuredly don't include growing hair on one's face), I'll venture that given the choice, not a single one of the women who have said that to me would wish to awaken the next morning with thick, coarse hair growing on her upper lip. What, then, are they wishing for? One obvious answer springs to mind: they are wishing that they were men. When, living in a world in which men are disproportionately in positions of power and privilege, these women are confronted with an unequivocal signifier of masculinity, they are prompted to express a desire, however transitory, that they were not members of a disempowered class. Perhaps not revolutionary, but not surprising, either.

Of course, the vast majority of those who express a wish that they “could grow a moustache like that” are men. Once again, such a comment seems, on its face, paradoxical. Perhaps the texture and growth pattern of his facial hair is such that he can't grow a moustache exactly like mine, but in all likelihood he can grow a moustache. Facial hair of some kind, almost certainly. And there is always something he can do with his facial hair to make him look as ridiculous as I do. So we ask the question again: what is he wishing for? Perhaps he is wishing for the social freedom to grow wacky facial hair. I have the social freedom to wear an eccentric moustache because I am a student who works low-paying low-status jobs in the service industry. That isn't the kind of social freedom that my customers probably want. It's more likely that these upwardly-mobile hard-working young professionals are wishing for another kind of social freedom: wealth. It's common enough – “I wish I could take a vacation in Tahiti”, “I wish I could drive a Lamborghini and not have to worry about speeding tickets”, “I wish I could just party all the time and not have to work”, “I wish I could grow a big handlebar moustache”. The way these commenters conceptualize it, the wish for a big moustache is a wish for membership in the elite, and thus by implication for the perpetuation of that elitism.

Could these criticisms be leveled at me for growing the moustache in the first place? Perhaps. I am a white male, I do have at least the level of economic privilege to concern myself at a given moment with trimming and grooming the hair on my face rather than where my next meal is coming from. In my defense, I can suggest that while my privilege authorizes and enables me to grow a moustache, having grown one does not enhance my privilege, or extend it over others. Ironically, my “unbelievably” weird moustache, though in one sense a function of privilege, serves to curtail my access to opportunities that my maleness would otherwise facilitate, in much the same way that one has to have a couple of grand to blow on tattoos, which subsequently hinder one's earning potential. In contrast, while my moustache doesn't actively oppress others, those who comment on it or congratulate me are expressing their respect and admiration for the position of privilege from which it descends.
Fuck those guys.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I am a product of my past. My identity may or may not be built around some inherent, undetermined core of individuality or personality, but the raw materials of my identity are beyond my control. The people I've known, the education I've received, chance encounters, campfire stories, the pattern of light filtering through leaves on the wall of my childhood home: one doesn't need to be a determinist to agree that my past constitutes the experiential palette from which my present is painted. There are episodes in my history I may downplay, strive against, forget, or wish to forget. However, not only is it impossible to unexperience these episodes, my own desire to obliterate them is itself evidence of the shaping force they have exerted upon my character. This is true of all of us.

I identified this theme of determinism and the inescapability of the past in all of the texts I produced for my creative writing class this semester. In particular, I found that I was exploring the way that our lives are shaped and constrained by the decisions and behavior of other people. 

In keeping with this theme, I generated the final text of my semester protfolio in a (for me) novel way: I drafted a short story, and then deleted a number of key words and phrases. Then, I read the story aloud to my classmates, and invited them to choose words and phrases to replace those I had deleted. I committed both to my classmates and to myself that I would preserve their language in my final submitted draft. This writing process mirrors the way an individual's identity is formed: as the author, I can revise so that the language I received fits elegantly or grammatically into the story the same way that a person has a degree of control over how they interpret or react to their past experiences, but those words, like those experiences, can't be erased. 

Without exaggeration, I can say that as a writer, the prospect of relinquishing control over my text was frightening. As expected, the students chose language that I would not have, and as such the story is definitionally not up to my standards. The experience has had precisely the effect for which I had hoped: it has put into sharp focus the extent to which my life is out of my control, and reminded me just how scary that can be. It has also raised an interesting question: to what extent does this story actually differ from any other story I have written? I didn't invent each word that I use. The worlds I describe in my writing consist of components I have experienced elsewhere. The tiny subset of a universe of infinite possibility that is available to me to include in my writing has always been chosen for me, hasn't it? 

The story is after the jump. I have chosen not to highlight the students' additions -- I think it would be a cop-out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Everyone be scared! Kodak had nukes!

Gizmodo has this article wringing their hands about Kodak's hyper secret nuclear bomb factory under New York City! (Well, okay, Rochester). Why, they "could have started their own nuclear war if they wanted"! We're all safe now, though. It was dismantled in 2006.

Okay, let's dismantle the article. According to the article, 3.5 lbs of uranium is "not enough to create a nuclear bomb". No shit. You need 115 lbs to even reach critical mass. Nonetheless, the article warns us, "illegal arm merchants are seeking small amounts like this to put them for sale in the black market [and] the government doesn't want Iran or al-Qaeda getting their hands all over the atomic candy for obvious reasons." Very obvious reasons. I mean, like, just off the top of my head, we don't want al-Quaeda to have the ability to do neutron radiography testing. And god forbid Iran set up a lab and test materials for impurities! We'd all be doomed!

But we made it through by the skin of our teeth. Although everyone in New York State was walking around above potential nuclear holocaust for a while, there's no problem now, because those 3.5 lbs of uranium are... uh, not there anymore. You see, until 2006, they were dangerously stored "in a closely guarded, two-foot-thick concrete walled underground bunker in the company's headquarters", but now, thank goodness, they're, you know, gone. Poof. So, although the thrust of the article is 'oh no, there was uranium' and 'what if brown people got it', we don't have to worry, presumably, because uranium evaporates or something when the reactor it's in is dismantled.

This kind of "we almost lost Detroit" nuke gasping makes me sick. 470,000 people die annually from coal and fossil fuel energy production. By contrast, 64 people have died as a result of the meltdown at Chernobyl, predictions for deaths as a result of the Fukushima meltdown run as high as 100, and the high estimate of deaths at Hiroshima is 166,000. So first of all, don't bother me pissing your pants about nukes until something actually happens, and second, if we switched over to nuclear energy, we could let a plant go full Hiroshima every year and still be saving lives.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Defense of Wordiness

                Consider this selection from a hypothetical mystery story:

                 The bar was close to empty, and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was empty in a glad-to-see-you kind of way. The bartender looked sidelong at me as I entered.
                “Something I can do for you, friend?”
                That was one mystery solved.

                The preceding passage is, if I may, pretty good. It says a lot without using a lot of words. Evocative without being descriptive, it pretty well conforms to the ideals of American prose since Hemmingway.
Now let’s dissect the bird. The narrator doubts whether he will be welcome in the bar. Upon his entry, the bartender’s greeting is chilly and sarcastic, indicating that the narrator is not, in fact, welcome. The text mirrors the narrative: by omitting descriptive phrases like “he hissed” or “he asked sarcastically” or descriptions of the bartender’s expression, the reader, like the narrator, must rely on his wits and social acuity to a certain extent if he wishes to unpack the pronouncement’s implications (although those implications are fairly unambiguous).
That’s all cool – for a contemporary American reader. A contemporary American reader would be familiar enough with retail procedures to know that it would be considered extremely rude to greet a customer (or anyone really) with “Something I can do for you?” Likewise, such a reader would know that native American English speakers never use the word “Friend” in that context when they are speaking with a real or potential friend. Addressing someone directly as “Friend" is actually interpreted as openly hostile by many people.
But non-native, non-American, or decades-distant future readers may not grasp these schema. To them, the “solution” to the “mystery” may at first seem that the bar is friendly, and they may be confused when someone’s nose gets broken or something. What we initially valued as straightforward, unadorned prose turns out to be a complex dirty trick on a reader who actually takes the words at face value.
It is often quite convincingly argued that the “text” emerges as the effect that words have on a reader irrespective of the author’s original intent. However, all but the most ridiculously pretentious of the proponents of such interpretive frameworks agree that the author should try to get his point across as effectively as possible. Though a reader brings his own experiences to bear on any final reading of a work, I can’t imagine many writers who wouldn’t be (perhaps quietly) disappointed to hear that a reader interpreted a book, scene, or line completely differently than the author had intended.
In reality, the fewer words we use to get our point across, the more we rely on intersubjectively shared assumptions and experiences to be understood, and the more we exclude those from different social and cultural positions. Or, more correctly, the less different someone has to be before they are excluded.  Obviously, an author isn’t writing for everyone – at the most fundamental level, not everyone reads English. But as writers, we have to ask ourselves, how many people do we wish to exclude?

“The grounds are nice, I suppose,” he intoned over a neat Bruichladdich, “but run by an old Dulwich boy? Well, I suppose they at least have some standards.”
“The grounds of the club are nice, I suppose.” He stepped to the bar to tip a bit of Bruichladdich into a tumbler, eyeing the ice bucket distrustfully. “But I can only chuckle when they call it ‘exclusive’. The president went to Dulwich for heaven’s sake. Ah well, it’s the public school set at least.”

“I do like the grounds at Kensington Men’s Club,” he said as he nursed his glass of Bruichladdich, his favorite scotch, and coincidentally one of the most expensive. He never took it with ice, as in the view of most who enjoy scotches of that caliber, both the intense cold and the water from the melting ice conspire to deaden the nuances of its flavor. “But I can only chuckle when they call it ‘exclusive’. The president went to Dulwich for heaven’s sake. I suppose it should be enough that he’s a public school boy, but Dulwich isn’t exactly the most prestigious.” His father had instilled in him from a young age that breeding was everything, and that the best way to judge breeding was by school. From time immemorial it seemed, an education at a public school (as the finest independent boarding schools in England are called, perhaps confusingly to Americans) had been a prerequisite to accessing the highest echelons of British society.

Which of these three versions of the exchange are better? Well, “better” is a loaded word, but certainly the first is nigh-incomprehensible to someone who isn’t wealthy, or at least British. When we write, and when we avoid wordiness and thus rely more heavily on cultural assumptions to be understood, we say to those outside of our own cultural milieu “keep out”. This can be oppressive, as in the above “royalty only” passage, or it can be revolutionary, as when Chicanos speak proudly in their own voice without shame. But even then, it is important to realize that some readers are being shut out. Maybe you want that. I don’t know.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that we all need to write like 19th century dime novels, but rather that a writer needs to keep in mind the sometimes unexpected ways concision can restrict his readership. Many of the most compelling tales of even just fifty years ago are virtually unknown to many modern readers who would absolutely love them, were it not for the unexplained references to contemporary figures and events, colloquialisms, and other cultural assumptions that may have made them resonate clearly with readers at the time they were published, but make them opaque now.
                You know, unless you don’t want anyone to ever read anything you write, in which case just do whatever, I guess.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The joys of motherhood

There's a post over at Jezebel - and I'm given to understand that these kinds of discussions happen often on fem blogs and such - where Tracy Moore is too cool to come right out and bitch about the generally anti-baby vibe in the public sphere. Apparently people make mothers feel like pariahs for daring to take their babies outside of the house. You know, the house with the kitchen and the bare feet.

The discussion in the comments has more or less divided itself into two camps. One says that Moore and her procreating ilk are spoiled, selfish, and just butthurt because for the first time in their lives, people aren't making a big deal out of approving of their Really Big Life Event. The other camp says that the first camp just isn't aware of, or is perhaps (unwittingly or not) a part of, a massive, shadowy contingent of anti-feminist, anti-baby haters. The merest suggestion that a silent, well-behaved baby might be within 100 yards of one of these haters is enough to send them into conniptions of rage.

I think everyone is missing the point.

Babies scream and cry and bang silverware and (above a certain age) run up to people and get in their business. I understand that this is the nature of babies, and I would venture that most people do. I am also aware that everyone used to be babies, and that mothers love their babies, and that having or not having a baby is every woman's right and that it's none of my business*. Even more than that, I totally concede that sometimes (often) a mother has no option but to take her baby to places that are not exactly intended for baby patronage. This is common sense.

However. Let's be honest. Nobody likes screaming. If I, Alexander Kraft, was at the bar, or a fancy restaurant, or the supermarket, or Disneyland, or fucking Baby Depot or whatever, and I was screaming for all I was worth, you would be displeased. Your displeasure would likely extend to whoever brought me there, especially if you found out that they knew that I would act like this. Last week, I was in a bar. Also in the bar was a guy with a flat-billed baseball cap. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, knocking drinks over, pounding on the bar, and uninvitedly interacting with and getting in the personal space of other bar patrons. Guess what? Everyone hated him. Everyone hated him, and they hated his better-behaved friend for bringing him there and not doing anything to stop it. They hated him because he was being an asshole. Now, with apologies to Patton Oswalt, imagine that asshole with a bag of his own shit strapped around his waist. Should I feel like a terrible person for wishing for that be-shitbagged asshole to be removed from my immediate vicinity? I venture not.

So mothers, when people on the internet try to advise you against bringing babies somewhere, or when people in real life adopt pained expressions or roll their eyes when your baby starts acting like an asshole, realize that they are neither conceptualizing you as some narcissistic snowflake demanding our praise and sulking when you don't get it, nor are they haters who revile any evidence or suggestion of reproduction or of femininity being released from its prescribed enclosures.† And if they look with wariness or skepticism on a baby who isn't being an asshole at the moment, please recognize that this is precisely because they understand your predicament: they have an inkling of how tough it is to be responsible for a baby - because babies are assholes, and liable to suddenly start screaming and throwing things at any moment.

That guy I was talking about earlier with the lifted truck and the clothing company logo tattoo eventually got ejected from the bar, along with the guy who brought him. This is as it should be; that guy was old enough to be held responsible for his actions. As a society, we recognize that babies are not old enough to take others into consideration when they start screeching and vomiting. Thus, the vast majority of people tolerate the presence of babies in public places. But don't demand that they do so with a smile and a thumbs-up, and don't pretend that having someone in my immediate vicinity acting like a baby somehow doesn't affect me or the enjoyability of my outing, or that people who have chosen not to have babies are somehow obligated to go through the same tribulations with the same patience as those who have.

*Due disclosure: I actually think that an American's choice to reproduce on a planet with a population of 7 billion people and a carrying capacity of 2 billion people (who live like Americans) is selfish and irresponsible. But I don't act on that opinion, and it isn't really very strong to begin with.

To be fair, people like this do exist. But in a society where between 81% and 87% of people reproduce, I'd imagine that people who are enraged by the very existence of babies are few and far between.