Saturday, October 08, 2005

Happy Endings for Jack Womack and Jane Eyre

I had forgotten what a nearly indescribable pleasure it is to read Jack Womack in tiny increments while falling asleep. There's something about the mix of his language, the arcs of plot, the ambience, the penumbra of softly-floating place and uncertain time that produces excellent dreaming. I mean this will all the respect in the world: a Jack Womack book is one of the best ways to fall asleep. Your brain can be activated and excited and still drift off imperceptibly into one's own iconographic alpha-wave reverie without any ill effect.

That's not to say that, hithertofore, one would move to Mr. Womack's work for what one might call a happy shot of brain candy to top off the evening. Being a confirmed Dickhead and Sterling cyberpunker and rabbit-hole-Burroughser back in the 1980s, it did not take me long to find Womack's Ambient series when it first appeared. I cannot say it was as easy to find subsequent works. In some kind of strange paradox of space and time, it seemed to be pressingly harder to obtain an in-print copy of each volume as it appeared, and the lag time between a new installment appearing and my (a) being made aware of said volume, (b) being able to obtain a copy of it, and (c) having sufficient time to give it proper attention, for attention his works have demanded, only increased. The large lag between the penultimate entry in the series, Random Acts of Senseless Violence -- surely one of the saddest works set to pen since Little Dorrit plodded through Newgate -- and the final entry, Going, Going, Gone set up some kind of strange vortex of personal time slippage for me. At some point in the late 1990s I'd stopped looking for new Womack, before the internet so easily disgorged such details previously hidden in Forthcoming Books, and I somehow didn't discover the publication of Going, Going, Gone until five years after its initial publication. (Womack actually got a non-Ambient book out between them, which at the time suggested that Ambient was over -- making the final entry seem even more like a coda.)

I can guess, perhaps, although this is only a guess, the multitude of factors that went into the seven-year gap in the series. The drift of the publisher is clear enough: my first-edition-paperback of Ambient is in standard paperback size, with a typical SF weird-bad illustration on the cover of a stone Elvis on top of a sleek black limo with "Dryco" license plates. The last volume, Going, Going, Gone, is a sleek trade paperback from Grove Press, with a slick photomontage but with binding and printing that bespeak a far more literary appreciation of Mr. Womack. That is to say, I suspect between 1985, when the manuscript for Ambient was written, and 2000, much happened to antiquate the marketability of the Wo-verse. The idea of Elvis as worshipped saint and demigod became as much as a cliche as cyberspace itself, the philosophical and spiritual implications being distorted by their appropriation into pop culture. The overselling of the Gibsonian touch as the next big thing in fiction passed, no later than The Matrix spewing the sense of the alternate back in mind-bending visuals -- so inert and rigid, in fact, in the age of the pause and the slow-frame advance and the chapter access, compared to the ineffability of fiction. So too I can readly imagine that Womack's sales figures declined, particularly as his "series" of books were, on face value, so insecurely linked to one another. To this day, other than the omnipresence of Dryco in one form or another, it's hard for me to readily describe the commonalities of the book beyond the style, language, and just general sense of a consistent vision into something.

Another possibility, of course, is the painting-into-a-corner problem. Most authors of series do this by creating beloved characters who become prisoners of their readers/fans: no sooner is a compelling character introduced than those who love that character demand that s/he never change, and woe to the author who tries to shake free of the shackles of their own invention. Womack had no such constraint, in that he managed to create humanely-crafted characters in a set of universes that prevented those same characters from ever recurring. He shifted from third person to first to the epistollary novel and then finally back to first in the form of the imagined autobiographical novel. The chronology was jumbled, as the stretch of realities shifted from an imagined future to a parallel one to a merged one that seems in Going, Going, Gone to be simultaneously in 1968, 2021, and 1985. No, Womack didn't paint himself into a corner in the usual manner. It was just that the rabbit hole he fell down was a deep, dark one indeed, and I wouldn't blame anybody on the earth for giving up on chasing the bunny after Random Acts of Senseless Violence. Staying there would've been too depressing, and likely the unremunerative nature of being a dedicated, unclassifiable, linguistically accomplished and stylish author required some attention to a day job of some sort that would've been hopelessly bolloxed up by continuing to think Ambient-ly.

So I finally got a chance to read Going, Going, Gone, in fifteen-minute increments before falling asleep over a month or so, and I was, needless to say, curious about where Womack and Dryco had gone. Big spoiler coming up: Jack did himself a favor, I believe, by killing off his universe in the last ten pages of this wonderful coda, of ripping Dryco out of space and time and settling competing distopias into our own present and strange distopia. His hero, Walter Bullitt (try not to think of Steve McQueen when you read that name), morphs into Womack himself, tapping away on a modern computer instead of the greased disfunctional typewriter aura of previous works. He kills off the gremlins and ghouls that sat on the shelf in suspended animation since Random Acts of Senseless Violence, resurrects a few friends, and gives everybody in the series a biographical obituary in a glossary at the end of the book. Some might read some of this as being recursive, self-referential, or simply indulgent: I read it as appropriate therapy, a recap of the talking down he obviously had to do in the seven-year gap of time. Womack's got something new coming out later this year or next, and I can only imagine that having gotten himself out of his corner, he's got new a new life of the pen or keyboard or whatever awaiting him. I'm happy for myself as a reader that he managed to put the stake in the vampire's heart in such a way that we can enjoy moonlit nights once again, but perhaps still enjoy strolling through the scrapbook of grievous neck wounds at a later date with re-readings of the series. And I hope for Womack's sake he gets enough readers this time around to support the writing habit on a more regular basis.

I would also say this with those disappointed in happy endings, even ones as strange as that in Going, Going, Gone: the sense of dread that had built up by reading the previous five books in the series made the end of the series seem especially surprising, not just tacked on (like, say, Jane Eyre -- cf. subs.) That, my friends, is just pleasurable reading.

It's hard for me to figure how the Ambient series is going to read ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now. But I've changed my mind in recent years about what constitutes great literature. The old saw is that "timeless" literature is that which transcends the ages, withstands reinterpretation, allows imitation and its less sincere forms of flattery in endless cycles, which supports literary criticism and doctoral dissertations and occasional film versions. (Somewhere, some time, somebody is going to be tempted to try to put a Womack work on the digital equivalent of celluloid: after all, Bill Burroughs was in his seventies before somebody had the balls and bad judgement to put millions into a film version of a major work, but by god, Bill lived to see the day.)

My own feelings are that, while it's possible I will be around ten, twenty, or fifty years from now, a hundred seems unlikely. Ambient was great because it was great when I read it the first time, and Going, Going, Gone was pretty good when I read it the first time, and they were great ways to do whatever a book does to one's brain: mediate, reflect, amplify, clarify, invent, fill, empty, I'm not sure. All culture is just a way of mediating our reality and experience over some truly basic facts and emotions: fear, hunger, horniness, and possibly boredom. Most everything else seems residual or an epiphenomenon, and discussions about the divide between pop culture and fine art seem to me to be pointless hair-splitting about better ways of passing time and lying, creatively, to ourselves: the end points always are the same, the virtue of the wiggly lines to those points either of ambiguous value or moot. That is to say, I don't see moral relativism in Ambient so much as the moral of reality, mediated and propagated to my sleepy brain.

So it was an odd coincidence of the "to read" shelf that right after I finished Going, Going, Gone, the next book up was Jasper Fforde's first "Thursday Next" series, The Eyre Affair, published a year after the last novel of the Ambient series. It's great brain candy in its formulaic derivative way. I'm not saying Fforde ain't original per se: it's just that you couldn't get half the jokes without having the subtle transformations of mass consciousness that twenty-plus years of Neuromancer's influence have wrought. Fforde doesn't have to explain parallel universes, he can pillage some of the lighter ramifications of quantum physics without being obliged to detail them. Not that Womack ever did: but a lot of what I got, in the broadest sense, out of the Ambient series was a way of reconciling humanism with the truly disturbing, non-intuitive, almost too large to comprehend implications on thought, language, and being that developments in physics have forced into our consciousnesses in the past decades. "Science Fiction", maybe, but only because the reality behind the science is so compellingly loud. The Thursday Next series is, of course, the complete fantasy, and focussing as it does on alternate universes and time streams where our intrepid heroine can have adventures courtesy of a variety of SF genres from classic horror to cyberpunk itself, with a strong sense of hommage to the readers of classic literature, is far more a product of genre fiction than Ambient ever was. The Thursday Next books are public constructions, and have all those paint-you-in-the-corner characteristics of successful popular fiction series I alluded to earlier: biographical and plot details that must be rationally reconciled, a cast of supporting characters, a strong main character to whom loyalty is given and utter consistency demanded by her fans, anthropomorphization of the fictive. The truly main idea Thursday Next takes from SF -- nay, probably from filtered readings of quantum reality -- is the creation of the real by creation of fiction, of the observable by the observer. Namely, the idea that a book, once written, is a reality and that the reader and author are engaged in a constant game of protecting that reality. Thursday Next is just a literal instantiation of a protector of the canon, and the series is quite playful and articulate in a way about navigating the pitfalls of the relationship between author, reader, and the fictional characters they conspire to create.

In the opening book in the series, The Eyre Affair, to provide yet another spoiler, Thursday is required to change the unsatisfactory ending of Jane Eyre in order to save the work from destruction by an arch villain of possibly demonic origins. The macguffin of this plot is lovingly twisted around, in that in Thursday's alternate universe, the unsatisfying and abrupt ending of Jane Eyre is even worse than it is in "our" universe. Thursday's intervention ends up making it even more satisfying, though, than it is in our universe; it's a wish fulfillment for readers who don't like the endings or are unsatisfied with strange quirks or holes (real or imagined, but perceived) in favored works, and yet cannot fix them. The literary police enforce the canon, and our rogue cop in this universe is one who, in order to protect the subtext, is willing to fiddle with the text.

It's fun, rollicking, thought-provoking for a popular and successful series, but somehow doesn't have but a tenth the courage of Jack Womack's work to date. There's nothing wrong with that. But props where props are due: I think, using the logic of Thursday Next, there would be no Thursday Next without Dryco.

Sometimes, if you love something, you have to kill it. Womack sneaks this delicious block into Going, Going, Gone (very parenthetically, one small coincidence between Going, Going, Gone and The Eyre Affair is that both books have short but wonderful descriptions of dilapidated grand hotels):

In the past the bellhops would've had the dicks lay into the Dynamos with saps if they'd dared to even walk past the place; but you could tell it wouldn't be long before management finally wrapped its mouth around the gas pipe, and let in sci-fi conventions.
Hey, sometimes it's the slap in the face that helps you come up for air. Methinks Womack gave a couple of loving slaps to some of his fans to help them float back up to the surface with him. There's not only air, but maybe a little sunshine waiting up there. I've appreciated Jack Womack's deep dives, but I'm just as glad that Walter Bullitt and Jane Eyre got their happy endings.

1 comment:

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