Nov 07

overgrown doorways

The Brown Wedge10 comments • 680 views

polarit’s a reflection of the way i read — fast skim and skip x multiple reread — that i catch onto these i think: fragments in a book which exactly transport you to another, not for reasons of “hommage” (a word i dislike: it purports to be cleverly explanatory but precisely isn’t) or transfer of energy or referential density or bigging yrself up or even just quiet self-playfulness necessarily — i mean it’s possibly any of these, but the fragment is so fleeting and the doorway so narrow and easy to miss that it may even be purely unconscious

let’s give some examples:
a. in the wasteland — i’ve talked abt this elsewhere — there’s a weird near-lift from bram stoker’s dracula AND a super-secret glint toward m.j.james’s count magnus (scroll down to “pop vs unpop: who will win?”) –> of course one reason these tremors are intriguing is bcz mr eliot did NOT see fit to mention them in his “notes”

but yes ok the wasteland is a special case, really — it is made up of fragments, even if they’re not all copped to (and they’re DEFINITELY not unconscious): much more fascinating to me is similar material in books where there’s nothing really to be gained from this micro-tactic

so, b. in dorothy l.sayers’s “the nine tailors” , one of the murderous bells, batty thomas, is named for an “abbott thomas”, and there’s a cryptic clue which needs to be decrypted in a way that parallels a similar decrypting in the m.r.james story “the treasure of abbot thomas” (also wimsey’s uncle is called “de la gardie”, which is the family name of count magnus, hero-villain of another james story) (tho of course de la gardie is a historical danish aristocratic name, so this may just be coincidence)

and (and this is what made me just think of this again), c.in peter pullman’s “his dark materials: vol 1. northen lights”, lord asriel at one point is feted for having pulled two people out of a flooding dyke in the fens (doesn’t wimsey do the same — or fail to, or witness the failure? — in “nine tailors”?); and the clockwork seeker-beetles just reminded me powerfully of the hunter-seeker device near the start of dune (this is exactly how far i am in my first-ever reread of his dark materials; i’ll report on any further such, tho of course pullman is rightly known for the sheer profuseness of inventions of devices…

d. in thomas harris’s oddly-managed fantasia hannibal, he does a very weirdly intrusive version of it, where he suddenly states that lecter is a cousin of the (actual real-life) painter balthus: the strengths and failures of this book both derive from harris’s decision to make it a second-level essay on prurience, the public (and intellectual) fascination with the ghastly; our desire to have it both ways (once it’s pointed out that “hannibal lecter” inescably reminds you of Baudelaire’s “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere…” this thematic argument, and harris’s sustained teasing off to the side of it, just leaps out at you, page after page..)

anyway, like i say, this is a thing i notice — names of characters that are shared by people in other books (i spend a minute or so wondering if an “anstruther” in an agatha christie bore ANY useable referential link to the anstruthers in m.r.james’s “the rose garden”)

i think the key here (why i’m interested; why i may be misleading myself) is that it’s a move between levels or out of one genre into another — tecfic to horror; literary fantasy to big pulp scifi; important modernist poetry to gothic victoriana — and as such provides a frisson of critical purchase generally not available “within” a disciplinary strand

my overall notion of pullman’s theme — that he’s rewriting-rescuing c.s.lewis’s idea of parallel worlds (and “the wood betwen the worlds”), trying to make it stronger in its own right, an allegory of the imagination rather than a mere device with a xtian allegory — obviously somewhat maps onto this element in my own reading tendencies (for slippage between genres read passing between worlds; for critical analysis read “subtle knife” blah blah)

[note to self: is the “happy” ending of hannibal a bit rubbish the same way the ending of “his dark materials” is a bit rubbish? will have to wait and see — but cf tolkien on eucatastrophe, and problems thereto]


  1. 1
    Pete on 15 Nov 2007 #

    My version of this is needless pop references. I have little idea what Tiny Fey wanted to say by naming the goth in Mean Girls Janis Ian, as the glum acceptance of (the real) Ian seems completely at odds with the character. Equally there is a point in Buffalo 66 where Christina Ricci’s Layla, literally has Vincent Gallo on his knees – DO YOU SEE – but it means nothing to the actual plot.

  2. 2
    Tim on 16 Nov 2007 #

    Hold on Pete: you’re saying that that it’s a BAD thing that it’s not obvious why Janis Ian is called Janis Ian? Seems to me it’s entirely a good thing.

  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 16 Nov 2007 #

    Oh no, not necessarily a bad thing, but the WHY thing is unclear. Its a ref going over 90% of the audience, and one which if you do get it, you still aren’t sure why (and no-one else in the cast has a similar name). If its just a shout out to Janis, fine, but then naming a character after someone semi-famous is and odd way to do this (esp as Janis is possibly the most unreal character in the film – the goodie goodie goth).

  4. 4
    Tom on 16 Nov 2007 #

    You need to judge this kind of easter-egging really finely I think. There’s some recent comic – totally forget which – where a group of minor characters (superheroes probably) are called something like Beckham, Rooney and Scholes. For the main US market this is a nice little gag which a few expats and anglophiles might get, but obviously for a British reader it’s really glaring and throws you entirely out of the story.

    Of course that kind of borrowing isn’t a portal-between-worlds thing really, so as you were.

  5. 5

    i think probably there’s a finegrained thing going on, with actually rather different intentions

    i. the agatha-anstruther link is i suspect PURE CHANCE — agatha needs lots of plain-jane names which DON’T set off alarm bells; she’s not in the business of dog-whistling a more alert layer of readers (there may BE a more alert layer but she’s feeding them on have-they-haven’t-they got ahead of her CLUE-wise) (ie for all i know she got anstruther from the PHONEBOOK)
    ii. what tom’s calling easter-egging (the thing RTD does in dr who) is a device to keep sweet a more learned tranche of reader-viewer-listener, who are there alongside essentially wide-eyed kids with no backstory awareness or referential skeez (i think this is a bit like the simpsons gag you onl spot on slo-mo playback really: it’s a value-added for a second- or third-level reader) (but it encompasses show-offy smugness also)
    iii. there are private jokes (i slightly suspect the abbot thomas gag is this — viz sayers wanted to borrow the coding device, and popped in a little hat-tip to its source)
    iv. there is simple device theft (a species of plagiarism)
    v. there is straight-up pleased-with-itself “pomo” “hommage” (can be lame, cf midsommer murders; can be effective, cf buffy but also cf vi.)
    vi. there is the fact that there are only 7 stories anyway so you might as well reuse-reinvent a great — this is a version of 5, but replacing “pleased-with-self” with an “anxiety-of-influence” oedipal challenge
    vii. the thing that pullman-harris-eliot are all doing is more ambitious still (and risks being more tw@ty) — bcz it’s a deliberate parallelism of form and content, where moving between zones and territories and imaginary worlds is part of the project, a “magic” with its own ethics, perils and passions

  6. 6

    the harris-balthus thing popped into my head last night, and seemed (is) germane: and of course i already knew (cz i already read) that baudelaire always a clever-chap link to eliot (the phrase “unreal city”, just before the wasteland talks abt the walking dead, is from immediately after “hypocrite lecteur”) —> and this sort of stuff is often a bit wanky, and i don’t think that harris got the snake’s tail back in its mouth for HANNIBAL, which has a lot of awesome ideas and somehow fails

    anyway i was idly looking at the new copy of NORTHERN LIGHTS i just bought — with the special fancy “great art” cover (for discerning grown-ups) — and the painting they’ve used, “jeune fille en vert et rouge”, is by balthus!

    no idea whose pick: maybe Pullman’s, maybe a VERY smart cover designer at “Scholastic Press”

  7. 7
    Tim on 16 Nov 2007 #

    I read this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Everything-Bad-Good-You-Popular/dp/0141018682/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1195224063&sr=8-1

    It’s a bit disappointing but it explains the economic drivers of the fashion for multi-layered telly with lots o’threads and lots of semi-buried references quite well.

    With regards to Janis, I really enjoy speculating about what things like this might mean (I think it’s likely relevant to “At Seventeen” but what do I know?)

  8. 8

    do the economic drivers apply to eg “modernist lit”?

    (i think i would imagine there was a clarity-of-cultural-microniche-identification-differentiation going on: which would have economic elements)

  9. 9
    Tim on 16 Nov 2007 #

    I guess in a simple sense, which is to say a keep-em-coming-back way, it does.

    Quick summary of economics as I remember from plane ride on which I read the book: cable TV arrives meaning sudden wide availability of repeats everyday PLUS rise to importance of DVD derived revenue PLUS da internet exists.

    1. It’s desirable to create something which is as interesting (or more interesting) on the fifth viewing as it is on the first, so this Easter Egging is really important (I think he says this kind of telly is fractal at one point)
    2. It’s desirable to give people stuff to spot, and obscure threads to pick up on, as grist to the mill for web talk
    3. Other stuff I can’t remember right now.

    All of which is true of “The Wasteland” (esp 3) but the target demographics are perhaps slightly different.

  10. 10
    Pete on 17 Nov 2007 #

    And of course it gives a journalist an interesting question to ask if they get it:

    I’ve read that book too Tim (nicked it from Alan) and it is almost satisfying about these things when it comes to TV etc – but gives creators too much agency, in as much as it suggests they know what there doing much more than the actual evidence suggests. A good example would be Lost which has understood the multiple plot thread, self referential flashback while barely resolving anything. Characters do have easter egg names (John Locke being the most celebrated) but all of this is still written on the fly, and after three series feels it. But yes, clearly written for this kind of audience to talk about (because talking about it raises awareness and brings in advertisers).

    Can’t talk about Pullman as I made decision a while back with this and Potter to do film only.

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