12 May 2005

Cultural Product

"So, Philip, are you watching any T.V. apart from Doctor Who at the moment? Are you even reading any books?"

I'm glad you asked me that, imaginary reader. Despite my best intentions, I haven't had time to talk here about books or T.V. at any length for a while now -- the last time would have been House of Leaves, well over a month ago. Since then, as you may have gathered, I've read Anno Dracula, The Prestige and Something Rotten, as well as Promethea Book Four, The Masters of Luxor and very possibly some other things which presently escape me. All of them I've enjoyed.

Anno Dracula was pretty much what I'd expected, having read its splendid second-sequel Dracula Cha Cha Cha: a massively multitextual crossover novel set in a Victorian multiverse where (to take an example at random) Bill Sykes' son belongs to a crime cartel with Fu Manchu, Professor Moriarty, the Invisible Man, Captain Macheath (from Brecht's Threepenny Opera), and Raffles -- most of whom are vampires because Dracula has married Queen Victoria and infected half of London's high society. As you do. As with Alan Moore's equally excellent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Kim Newman's vastly superior reading in the period means that a large number of the references in the novel passed me by, but it's both a massively erudite and a pulpily hilarious book, which ranges from making serious political points about England under Victoria to dissecting the Jack the Ripper murders. And it has a truly inspired use of the quotation "How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen".

Book Four of Alan Moore's Promethea was also much as I expected from the previous volumes, being an extremely well-written but ultimately uninvolving exposition of kabalistic philosophy, thinly disguised as a superhero comic. Moore is a fine writer, and his skill at manipulating and reworking the iconography of comic books is truly extraordinary; but since it moved from being a reinvention of the superhero comic to a philosophical treatise, I've found Promethea a lot less exciting than it ought to be. What Moore has to say about magic, mysticism and their symbols is really quite interesting, but the narrative it's embedded in feels like an arid intellectual exercise where the characters, despite mouthing appropriate emotional responses as they travel, are simply cyphers for the expository prose. Part of the problem may be that presenting credible human reactions in the face of the transcendent is actually extraordinarily difficult, and since the end of Book Two the Promethea storyline has consisted of virtually nothing else. I much prefer The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which has a sense of fun to it. Still, Moore has yet to write anything that's not worth reading -- or at least if he has I've yet to read it.

I've talked a little about Something Rotten already. I feel slightly guilty about the fact, but I have ambivalent feelings towards Jasper Fforde. On the one hand, his books are wonderful entertainment, creative and funny and exiting and all the things you'd wish for. On the other hand, they seem... superficial. Given that one of his themes is the relationship and interaction between the real world and the world of fiction, I can't help feeling that his so-called "real" world, inventive and clever as it is, lacks the depth required to sustain the distinction -- especially when the works of fiction under discussion (Dickens, Shakespeare, Brontë, Bester, Carroll) display considerably more profundity. I know it's only meant to be a bit of fun -- and it is -- and perhaps I'm being a terrible old sportspoiling snob, but all the same, it just seems a bit too... easy. God, I don't know. Perhaps I really am just jealous.

Now I've discovered Christopher Priest (having started with The Separation back in December), I'm going to have to find most of his backlist and read it, because his work really is excellent. The Prestige is the equal of The Separation (which was actually published later, but Gollancz have recently rereleased the earlier novel in a smart new edition to match the recent one) in every way, including the weird and allusive deployment of S.F. tropes within a firmly-grounded historical tale, the dreamlike prose and the obsession with twins and dual identity. Despite the Victorian setting and the plot device of the electrical matter-transmitter invented by Nikola Tesla, this isn't really steampunk. The ethos has little in common with that of S.F. -- rather it's a rhapsody on the miraculous benefits the Victorians were expecting their harnessing of electricity to bring to them. I've shelved it tentatively under fantasy, but I have some doubts on that score -- the fact that the chief user of the device is a stage magician, as is the other central character, may be "problematising the aesthetic", as we pretentious gits say.

More recently -- in fact too recently to have an opinion on them yet -- I've embarked on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Memory of Whiteness, thus completing the collection for which I asked you to recommend a reading order back here. Both seem very promising so far, although Mr Norrell is huge, even worse for reading in bed or taking to work than The Algebraist. I should have waited for the paperback.

On a televisual front, I'm still watching Desperate Housewives... and very little else that's current, actually, beside the obvious. On video B. and I have been working through The West Wing for the first time, and have recently finished a grand re-watch of Angel.

I still haven't seen last night's episode, but Housewives I've found a bit meandery recently, without the unifying drive which the quest to discover Mary Alice's terrible secret gave the early episodes. Given the almost entirely casual way in which a very salient fact about this hidden past was revealed early on in last week's episode, it does seem almost as if the writers have lost interest in this aspect of the show, concentrating instead on the (more soap-operatic and less crime-dramatic) events in the lives of the other housewives. Unfortunately this puts them in danger of losing my interest too. Last week's introduction of Susan's equally wet mother (who they felt the need to point out might well be responsible for Susan being the way she is -- thanks for that) annoyed me more than I liked, as well. However, Bree continues to be effortlessly wonderful, as does Lynette, and the programme's worth watching for their performances alone.

The West Wing is a show I've been meaning to get into for ages now, having heard persistently wonderful reports of it -- generally in the same breath as those for Six Feet Under, which I love, and The Sopranos, which I've never actually got around to catching. It's good. In fact, it's bloody good. At first it took all my concentration to follow it, but recently I've got the hang of the trancelike state required to enjoy the actual drama whilst letting the U.S. political jargon wash gently over me. It's quite clearly a liberal wish-fulfilment fantasy (and why the hell not, when reality is so ghastly?), and it seems to this Brit at least that it invests altogether too much and too worshipful a respect in the office and functions of the President; but this is overpainted by a broad streak of cynicism about the political process which sees the good guys constantly having to compromise, lie and betray in the name of the greater good. B. considers that the series is still too sentimental: I feel it's just about right. Whether this makes me more pro-American than her or just more of a romantic, I'm not sure.

Finally, a worthwhile fact about Angel: the really bad episodes, such as the Pylea ones in Season 2 or The Girl in Question in Season 5, aren't nearly so bad when you watch them again knowing what's coming. The horrifically stereotyped Italians in the latter scarcely made me cringe at all this time round. Angel is often cited as a spinoff series which has successfully broken free from the shadow of its monolithic original, and despite the continued crossover of characters, I think this is fair. The series had its low points, but it built credibility and gravitas as it went along, until in Season 5 it had the courage to turn its lead character into a muppet (er... I mean an actual muppet), and still managed to impress. Sadly, this final season doesn't really live up to the promise of the earlier stuff, or to the promise of its changed premise, where the good guys have to work within the confines of their Faustian bargain with Wolfram and Hart. Unfortunately, the storylines feel cramped, as if the series' infuriating cancellation caused the writing team to squeeze three seasons' worth of character development and history into one. There's still some impressive stuff, of course -- the muppet episode, Smile Time, is a particular triumph, as is the final story, Not Fade Away; while Amy Acker as Illyria is a real revelation. Still, the limitations of time mean that the writers just don't have any room to breathe or move their elbows, with the result that material which should be of the greatest significance, like Spike's return to the flesh, is breezed through in a couple of episodes. It's all very reminiscent of the fourth season of Babylon 5, where much the same thing happened -- except that then the contract was extended, and Season 5 was left with nowhere to go but disastrously downwards. T.V. executives: making the world safe for sport and soap-operas since 1969.

Now B. and I have finished Angel, the plan is to embark on Twin Peaks, a show I unaccountably managed to miss out on altogether when it was broadcast. If it lives up to its reputation (and to David Lynch's films), it should be like my first viewing of The Prisoner all over again. I'm not quite expecting that (I'm not nineteen any more, apart from anything else), but I'm looking forward to it quite a lot.

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