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02-16-12: Ryan Boudinot Architects 'Blueprints of the Afterlife'

The Unfortunate Mirror

The problem with mirrors and photographs is that they generally show us precisely what we do not want to see — reality. Literature has this unfortunate trait as well, but good prose and an original vision can mask reality and make it look entirely different. Instead of our tired, crud-filled, dysfunctional mess of a world, a good writer can hold up a mirror, show us precisely what is going on and have it appear to be a thrilling, surreal, almost unfollowable novel of a post-post Apocalypse.

In 'Blueprints of the Afterlife,' Ryan Boudinot takes up mirror-holding duty, and does himself proud, weaving a particularly bizarre and often unpleasantly detailed story that nonetheless captures our imagination and sucks us in. Boudinot is an expert at mixing the familiar and the slightly familiar in a manner so as to create outré collages that have the ring of truth even though the scenes are patently absurd. He's a master of the hand-waving school of science fiction, giving readers just enough of a trail of breadcrumbs to keep us focused on the there-and-then he's creating so that only subliminally do we realize that he's just writing about here and now.

'Blueprints of the Afterlife' is a picaresque post-post apocalyptic journey with characters crisscrossing one another's paths while the reader searches for resolutions and connections that are not always in the offing. It's two steps after the apocalypse, referred to with a phrase you cannot use on the radio. A world champion dishwasher gets an unusual writing assignment and a group of goons out of a video game is sent into a virtual New York. Maybe it's real, or going to be real. The world is a bit confusing, it's pretty ugly, very dangerous, and that is the point. For all the in-your-face strangeness that is alternately compelling, grotesque, surreal, challenging and disorienting, the leftovers Boudinot's characters are warming up are nothing less than this world, right here and now, as it might look were a sort of cosmic, planet size drunk to consume the earth and regurgitate it into a new, messier version.

Boudinot pulls off this reading experience and makes it fun by focusing on the basics. He gives us a galley of extremely well drawn if weird characters to follow across a landscape wrought in prose that is often very funny and very disturbing in the same moment. While the danger in these sort of visions is that the formlessness and chaos of the world leaks into the plot, Boudinot craftily sidesteps this danger by making a search for the genesis of the world by characters as well as the reader a focal point of the action. And Boudinot knows that we want our surreal action in excess. Here is a novel that excels in excess. This is not nearly so easy as it sounds. Giving the reader that pleasant feeling of overload without letting it lapse into mere confusion requires a lot more discipline than the writer is able to display on the page.

'Blueprints of the Afterlife' is an excellent exercise in weird. Now, chances are you will have to like weird going in. If you are looking for a post-apocalyptic novel that is essentially is vision of the 1950's, as so many of them (particularly the zombie apocalypses) are, this is not that novel. Boudinot is not shy when it comes telling you what he's about with this novel; he does, after all, use the word "Blueprints" in the title. For all the weirdness, all the dislocating, discombobulating techno-crap that's strewn Boudinot's landscape, to see what he's talking about, all you have to do is look out your window. Or if you're feeling brave, look in the mirror.

02-15-12: Michael Saler Lives in the 'As If'

Fantastic Fiction Matters

Raise your hand if, because you read, you have been told, "You're living in a fantasy world." Our modern pact with day-to-day life demands that we give no particular credence to any other form of reality. To do so is seen as hedonistic escapism, or regressive religious primitivism. We're supposed to keep focused on the "just so" world.

Michael Saler makes a serious literary argument for the import of the world "as if" in 'As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary PreHistory of Virtual Reality.' Making connections between the outburst of imaginative fiction at the end of the nineteenth century and the onslaught of "modernity," Saler examines the basis of our notions of story, of myth and the reality that we inhabit in order to read the books that allow us to perceive something more. Saler pulls apart our cultural embrace of seemingly opposing notions to re-draw the lines between fantasy and the literature of the fantastic. He maps the lands of enchantment with literary and cultural precision.

Saler is nothing if not focused. His introduction effectively lays out both a lexicon and a map of his intentions. He defines modernity and then goes on to discuss enchantment and disenchantment as aspects of how we embrace our world. "The efflorescence of imaginary worlds at the turn of the [20th] best explained in terms of a larger cultural project of the West: that of re-enchanting an allegedly disenchanted world." The first two chapters of the book then lay out that argument in greater detail, looking at the transformation of how fiction itself was regarded, then stepping into the imaginary worlds and the adoption of these worlds into the public discourse.

Saler then follows up with three chapters on specific creations; the imagined worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. His analysis of each is unique, exciting and invigorating for readers of these works, and for that matter, anyone who is interested in how reading works itself into culture at large. The book is extensively footnoted and indexed, and the implications for our current interest in virtual worlds is noted. It seems destined to become a classic textbook that might capture the popular imagination as well.

This is not to say that Saler is writing poppy cultural chic. 'As If' is serious business and the prose reflects this. It's not a quick read, but it is the kind of book that will make you buy a second copy so you can underline the heck out of the first. It's also the sort of book that will transform everything you read before and even more so, everything you read after. Single sentences and questions will have lifelong reverberations. Saler is very smart, very perceptive and as enchanting, in his own way, as the literature he clearly holds in such high regard.

Reading Saler's analyses of your favorite works in the canon of the literature of the fantastic (and yes, Conan Doyle's Holmes stories are fantastic) is riveting stuff. He explores the nature of the literary community, and public spheres of the imagination as well as the private lives of the authors. He understands the merits of the works on their own, but as well their merits as parts of the public imagination. His visions of Doyle/Holmes, Lovecraft/Cthulhu and Tolkien/Middle Earth interlock to form a larger argument about the literature of the fantastic.

We're currently caught in an old argument about the anxiety-inducing introduction of virtual reality technology. Some of us who spent our youths in virtual worlds created on paper perceive those crafted in pixels with dismay. Like science fiction and comic books, video games are often portrayed as corrupters of youth. I'd be happy to point that finger had Mr. Saler not so deftly opened up a new vision not just of the literature of the fantastic, but of us as well. We are a story-based species, and we like a good story, a ripping yarn with monsters and adventure, a journey — that inevitably leads back to our lives. Ultimately, 'As If' tells us precisely such a story about the books we love, about how and why we love them.

02-14-12: Archive Reviews: Jeffrey E. Barlough Awakens 'Dark Sleeper' and 'The House in the High Wood'

Bold, Unique, Horrific, Enchanting

Editor's note: Jeffrey E. Barlough is probably the best unknown writer you're going to encounter. Were he to enter the market today, a smart publisher would pitch him to the general reader as literary fiction with a fantastic, Dickensian twist. He's still publishing books in this series; 'Strange Cargo' (2002), 'Bertram of Butter Cross' (2007), 'Anchorwick' (2008) and 'A Tangle in Slops' (2011). The publisher of the last three titles is Gresham and Doyle. Demand them via your local independent and make sure he is inspired to write another. This is a world we cannot lose!

In retrospect, the title is appropriate. The chances are that you're going to have to look around for this book now; and you may have to pay a premium price. But it will be worth it. 'Dark Sleeper' by Jeffrey E. Barlough, the first in his Western Lights Series, was truly unique when it came out, and it's still unique, as are the five sequels that have followed. Barlough's innovations were not just in plot, characters and setting, though you'll not find anything much like these novels out there today. Barlough's work stems from a much deeper divide. He writes with a singular prose and storytelling style that does take a couple of pages to get accustomed to. But once you are immersed in his prose world, you'll find a richer, more rewarding reading experience than you might have imagined possible in our overclocked world.

'Dark Sleeper' begins with an arrival in Salthead, a Victorian town populated by Dickensian characters. Ghosts, ships and demons hang in the sea air. Salthead is clearly haunted, as is the storyteller, whose voice is formal, informal, filled with melancholy and regret. It is the voice within all of us, the aged man who looks back on a life past. But it is a life lived in a very different world than ours.

Jeffrey E. Barlough's novel has the distinct feel of a Victorian supernatural horror novel that was actually written in the alternate world within which it is set. Barlough so truly inhabits the lives of his characters that he transports us with prose that manages the delicate balancing act of being both very mannered and very accessible. From the get-go, you know that you're being told a story, and that the speaker is an old man. He's survived the events he's about to narrate, and he's not indifferent. "You'll forgive a mawkish, maundering old fool if he occasionally strays, ever so slightly, form the path of his story. Life is slower now and not nearly so endless. The clocks tick and I find myself listening to them."

Barlough never strays from his linguistic decision. He never veers, and he never takes it so far as to be impenetrable or annoying. Soon, it seems inconceivable that the novel could be written any other way. Soon after that, the style becomes so likable, you look forward to your next dip into the book as you might look forward to a conversation with a particularly voluble friend, a real raconteur who can spin a story like nobody's business.

And what a story Barlough has to spin. Something malign has arrived in this weird world of Salthead, something unsavory. One of the great pleasures of Barlough's books is his choice of character names. Titus Tiggs and Doctor Daniel Dampe are called upon by the citizens of Salthead to investigate and put a stop to whatever is causing ghosts of children to walk the streets and sunken ships to rise in the harbor of Salthead. The joy of discovering these characters is similar to the joy of the first time you meet Holmes and Watson. So is the prose, and it works perfectly, culminating in a journey worthy of Doyle's Professor Challenger.

All the joy one will take from the storytelling and prose will distract readers from the wealth of innovation one will find in 'Dark Sleeper.' Barlough deftly manages to evoke, at the same time grand romantic adventure, gothic terror and a sort of sweet nostalgia for the world he creates — a world the reader has never and can never visit. The novel is filled with character who manage to be authentically charming without being — even pets. That Barlough can do this so effortlessly is a testimony to his talent.

Given the strength of the underpinnings of this novel; the prose, the characters and the setting, it should come as no surprise that the plot that emerges is more than worthy. Barlough has much more on his mind than a genre-fiction plot. Terror is balanced by wonder, and character arcs have the power of plot points. Once your immerse yourself in the Western Lights, you will wonder how you got along without this world to light your path in ours.
In his first novel, 'Dark Sleeper,' Jeffrey E. Barlough showed that he was not afraid to try something totally different. He gave us a novel with Victorian language and sensibilities, and set it in an imaginary wild west that never was, a wild west without guns, but with wooly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers and subtle and terrifying supernatural entities. He returns to that world — and writing style — in his second novel, 'The House in the High Wood.' He slightly expands his territory, retains his Victorian writing manners, and in the end comes up with another unusual blend of enjoyable characters and a very chilling story of supernatural revenge.

Once again, readers will find themselves immediately immersed in Barlough's unique, Victorian-styled prose. The difference in the prose is more than mere affect. Barlough uses this style to underpin a very different form of storytelling itself. The narrator speaks directly and familiarly to the reader. The upshot is that the novel seems to come from the world in which it is set, a world based on significantly different expectations than ours.

Billed as 'Volume Two of the Western Lights Series The House in the High Wood: A Story of Old Talbotshire' functions as a standalone sequel to Dark Sleeper. It's set in the same territory, and the town of Salthead that is the setting for the first novel is mentioned tangentially here, but otherwise the novels do not share the same characters or settings.

After a brief (but required by the plot) opening frame, 'The House in the High Wood' moves on to create the small town of Shilston Upcot in the Western mountains of Ayleshire County. Barlough creates the town and nearly every citizen in it with great care and a Dickensian prose style that is readable and very enjoyable, lightly humorous but not cloying. We meet the lounging Squire, the rapacious lawyer, the genial landlord, his bustling daughter, the wishy-washy vicar and his strong-minded wife, and eventually, the mysterious new residents of the old abandoned mansion above the lake. All too soon, we meet the creature of their dreams, a huge-green eyed owl. Barlough is able to endow even dogs, horses and large vulture-like birds with characters that we care about.

Barlough carefully layers his work between cheerful characterizations and more menacing experiences in the nightmares of his players and in the woods near the mansion. Something is going slowly awry for the town of Shilston Upcot, something buried in the past behavior of the residents. Barlough takes some risks here, because his characters are so cheerful and likable, one wonders whether the supernatural aspects of the novel will ever attain any significance in their lives. It's a delicate balancing act, but he manages to bring things to a chilling and unexpected conclusion in the beautifully written final chapters. 'The House in the High Wood' demonstrates perfectly that Barlough has succeeded in finding a unique style and genre, one he can hopefully extend across a long series of novels. This is the kind of novel that the reader will close reluctantly, hoping that another is right around the corner.

02-13-12: Thomas Frank Pleads 'Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right'

Weaponizing Words

We're a hard technology-focused country. We like to think that our most advanced and destructive weapons are gleaming, shiny tubes of metal filled with high-density circuit boards. With a few keystrokes, we can destroy the world. Thomas Frank might suggest that this perception is yet another example of the sort of misdirection that he chronicles in 'Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.' All that tech is impotent compared to the weapons he describes; lies, more lies, and language bent to serve the purposes of the few at the expense of the many. World War Three may already be underway. The weapons being deployed are muddlement, mimesis and a self-inflating chutzpah that can transform the general population from employees to serfs with a few well-placed lines of tax code.

'Pity the Billionaire' is a left-leaning political look at the language of politics, but Frank is dispassionate enough to leave all true believers on either side of the equation uncomfortable. He does so by asking unhappy questions; how could a country whose economy has been wrecked by a set of economic policies be convinced that the very tactics that brought about our ruin can, if ramped up to a greater degree, bring about our success? That's the question at the core of this very entertaining and illuminating look at language and politics.

Frank fights fire with fire. To understand how we could manage to ignore history, that is the lessons of the Great Depression, he takes us back for a brief trip to 1929, and then compares our reaction then to our reaction now. To help readers wrap their brains around how the solution to a problem would be to double-down on the tactics that created that problem in the first place, he looks at the language and creates some words of his own. In the process, every word he writes manages to be either gripping, funny, trenchantly observant or all three at once.

"Muddlement" is Frank's strongest contribution here. It's the term he uses to describe the process by which perception of a problem and its causes are slowly disassembled, pulled apart and re-assembled to support an argument that is logically inconsistent with the historical evidence and current economic and political reality, for example, the assertion that the answer to the economic catastrophe of 2008 is to entirely abandon regulation of the markets. Another entry in Frank's lexicon is "mimesis," that is, mimicry. Frank demonstrates with laugh-while-you-cry examples how those in the service of what they like to call capitalism are able to co-opt the language not just of the left, but even, in some cases, communism, to sell the idea that Big Money works best if left to its own devices.

Frank's ability to describe a whole class of linguistic weaponry with one smart term is both entertaining to read about and illuminating when one looks about on the political landscape. He uses language to give readers the tools with which to dissect the weaponized words that enable multi-national corporations to carry out a relentless agenda of reckless behavior.

Frank does so in a manner that is entirely enjoyable to read, without feeling as if one is on the receiving end of a particularly virulent screed. Frank's voice is full of wonder at the predicaments within which we find ourselves trapped. His characterizations are more those of a Road Runner versus Wile E. Cartoon than a political cartoon. It's a subtle difference that allows Frank to revel in his humorous prose voice without ever seeming cruel. 'Pity the Billionaire' is engagingly easy, even fun to read, no matter what your political beliefs are.

The real power of 'Pity the Billionaire,' however is in the sophisticated arguments and analysis that Frank makes even while he just seems to be giving the reader a good time. Though he never cites Orwell directly, 'Pity the Billionaire' is at heart an incisive vision of how Orwellian language is being used to wage a hidden war. Like Orwell, Frank is not optimistic. There's a good chance that the war has already been lost. But his readers, armed with the linguistic weapons like "muddlement" and "mimesis," can at least achieve moments of the sort of clear vision that might enable them to understand that a battle is in progress. Talk is cheap, and in this case that's a weakness that can be exploited by both sides. Language can be overwhelmingly powerful no matter who wields the words.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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