Monthly Archives: May 2010

Caricature-ization

I tried to read Jonathan Franzen’s latest story in the New Yorker, “Agreeable,” and I had to abandon it on the first page. I usually try to soldier through with the fiction, but he’s shameless in loading the deck for his protagonists, employing characterization that’s about as nuanced as a Snidely Whiplash appearance on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.

Continue reading Caricature-ization

Graduating Into Debt

The Project on Student Debt, a research and advocacy organization in Oakland, Calif., used federal data to estimate that 206,000 people graduated from college (including many from for-profit universities) with more than $40,000 in student loan debt in that same period. That’s a ninefold increase over the number of people in 1996, using 2008 dollars.

The New York Times has an excellent article on ballooning student loan debt. I’ve long thought higher education will be the next bubble to burst; people are leveraging themselves beyond what their college degree will give them the ability to pay.

Joystick Jockey, Heal Thyself!

I can’t claim to be much of a gamer anymore, but I enjoyed David Wong’s Cracked piece, “5 Reasons It’s Still Not Cool to Admit You’re a Gamer.” He touches upon the format’s misogyny, immaturity and repetition. I would agree and add the sheer cost–in dollars and time–of keeping up with the hobby. Many games leave you repeating the same gameplay experience for three levels beyond the point it’s novel. (Hello unbeaten copy of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind!)

I think the anecdotal surge in casual gaming highlights how many fun, quick and free browser-based games are out there. Plants Vs. Zombies, Bejeweled and Mushroom Madness 2 are some recent ones I’ve clicked through and then happily abandoned. The AV Club’s Sawbuck Gamer feature is a great guide to more.

Review: Little Big

John Crowley’s “Little, Big” is a sprawling, lyrical fantasy epic. It is a work of high style, one Crowley executes with skill rare for the genre. He teases his sentences into precise, beautiful forms, situating them the page like typeface origami. Even if his phrases are occasionally overdone, they often succeed in shaping fresh metaphors, new views onto a created world.

Crowley’s fantasy setting strays far from common touchstones of elves and named swords. It is fixed in myths and prophecies, a fairy world at the edge of sight. The story revolves around Edgewood, a mysterious house designed by an older architect as a beacon for his younger wife—and perhaps the fairies she communes with. It is isolated, anchoring a pastoral community at some distance from a big city.

A family—a tribe, really—has grown there. They stand in uncertain commune with the spirits surrounding them, unsure, it seems, whether they exist at all. Some can see these visitors better than others—the women and children, mostly—but no one can explain their visions. It’s all part of a larger Tale, they assure the bewildered outsiders who come to follow love and father children. No one will know the deeper meaning until it’s over.

Crowley succeeds in building a familiar, but unknowable, society, especially at the outset. His family feels organic; his house, lived in. He sketches a mystery, leaving you eager to find a solution.

But the book falters later. Like its characters, it ends up re-treading beautiful, circular paths of the imagination. The characters’ confidence in what is written—the larger Tale—grounds them in a frustrating passivity. They are acted upon, by human and unknown forces, but they rarely seem to act themselves. Crowley’s male protagonists are especially inert, hapless wonderers content to lapdog along. Toward the end, when the characters arrange themselves on their pre-set paths, it’s increasingly uncertain why they choose to acquiesce. Rationalizations are offered, touching upon passion and duty, but these are spoken rather than felt.

Crowley is at his best with beginnings, notably the piercing passion of early love. He writes with a sure eroticism, luxuriating in reckless idleness, time spent unheeded in beds and bars. His willingness to leave “the Tale” here is energizing, and some of the book’s biggest disappointments come when we’re forced back into the larger narrative.

“Little, Big” is suffused with blunt mysticism, the heavy strivings of Crowley’s attempts to establish an unknowable world. The book is dense and beautiful, offering the delights of realized ambition. But it is also a chore, losing its way at times as it meanders within itself. If you accept it as a journey, you’ll find many rewards. As a destination, its value is less certain.