Melting eyes | January-March 2019

Books

  • The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre (1963)
  • Annihilation – Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
  • Authority – Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
  • Acceptance – Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction | Volume 2 – Gardner Dozois (1984)
  • The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
  • Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (2009)
  • The Last Girlfriend on Earth & Other Stories – Simon Rich (2013)
  • The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
  • CivilWarLand in Bad Decline – George Saunders (1996)
  • The Tetris Effect – Dan Ackerman (2016)
  • Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)
  • Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump – David Neiwert (2017)
  • The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East – Patrick Cockburn (2016)
  • V – Thomas Pynchon (1963)
  • Think Like A Freak – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2014)
  • Mistborn Book One: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson (2006)
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2016)
  • In Persuasion Nation – George Saunders (2006)
  • Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle (2014)
  • Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories – Philip Roth (1959)
  • Nicotine – Nell Zink (2016)
  • The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon (1966)
  • Mistborn Book Two: The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson (2007)
  • The BBC: Myth of a Public Service – Tom Mills (2016)
  • Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (2018)
  • NW – Zadie Smith (2012)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (2017)

Annihilation is a brilliant film, creepy, evocative, brilliantly performed. I wasn’t wild about Ex Machina, but was relieved to see Alex Garland’s ambitions more evenly matched by the source material. The Southern Reach trilogy of books it is based on shares very little in common with its adaptation. Characters are a tad broader, there’s a tighter focus on the environmental history, and the closing in particular veers closer to existential dread. Ironically, the movie is internal as all hell, almost monomaniacally revolving around the emotional struggle of Natalie Portman’s character. For a medium commonly extolled as being better suited to the machinations of the inner mind, Southern Reach is ultimately a story about nature’s dominance over humanity, and the awe of the closing sequence is simultaneously climate-affirming and anthropologically bleak. Reading the series in the midst of a worsening crisis of capricious fucks ruining the natural world offered its own kind of comfort, a horror story where we’re all the villains and the foliage fights back.


Wolf Hall is the 2nd Hilary Mantel book I’ve read (the first was A Place of Greater Safety) and I don’t know if I’ve picked bad times to read them, or I barrelled through them too fast to pick up on the nuances, or if I’m just uninterested in historical fiction. I wanted to like them, but I went through entire passages without picking up anything, and felt weirdly empty by the time I ended it. I hate feeling like I’m missing something major, as Mantel is clearly a skilled and accomplished writer, but it did nothing for me and I can’t get myself interested enough to continue reading the series or getting interested in the final book in the trilogy coming out this year.

On a similar note, I think I’ve finally figured out that I don’t naturally enjoy Kurt Vonnegut. Breakfast of Champions was an annoying read, with characters that were aggravating to be around, running gags that had no steam, and an inconsequentialism that should keep me interested but just made me speed read the latter half just to get it over with. Vonnegut was an interesting guy, and one I’d love to have over for a dinner party, but I’ve read about five of his books so far, and none of them made me yearn for more. So it goes.


I finally got the library card in the town I currently live in around this time, and tore through Nell Zink’s Nicotine, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, all of which I enjoyed for their humour, well-realised characters and spins on the staid format of SeRiOuS lItErAtUrE. I also used it to read JK Rowling’s most recent mystery novel without having to pay for it, which was a load of old codswallop. I liked the first two books in this series fine enough, but it fell onto its face so dramatically that they’ve gone down in my estimation in hindsight. Rowling can’t seem to write a story without it devolving into another 700 pages of whining about how hard it is to be famous. All characters are neoliberal caricatures with no recognisable inner lives (behold the socialist thought leader who’s only into class struggle to crush pussy; marvel at the overly litigious and condescending Tory minister; what Rowling proposes is, they’re not that different?), and she’s more interested in score-settling and a baffling central romance over writing a decent mystery. The scenes where Strike explains the play-by-play of the central evil plot are embarrassingly bad, as if they were copy-pasted from her original notes with basic drama sellotaped on. I’ve thought about re-reading Harry Potter a few times over the past couple of years (been nearly a decade since I read them) but the bloody-minded awfulness of her recent work has left too much of a stink.


Most of my reading material while I was in college was non-fiction, and when I wrapped up my masters last year I had a deep yearning for some good fantasy and science-fiction, genres I’ve neglected in my mad scramble for true stories and information. I started the year off with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which pleasantly upped the stakes and complication after a relatively simple first instalment. My forays into this world is still in its early stages admittedly, but I’m eager to get more into it.


TV

  • A Series of Unfortunate Events – Season 3 (2019) e1-7
  • Danger and Eggs – Season 1 (2017) e1-13
  • The Tick – Season 1 (2017) e1-12
  • Forever – Season 1 (2017) e1-8
  • South Park – Season 22 (2017) e6-10
  • The Good Place – Season 3 (2019) e11-13
  • You’re the Worst – Season 4 (2019) e1-7
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Season 6 (2019) e1-7
  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – Season 4 (2019) e9-16
  • Corporate – Season 2 (2019) e1-7
  • Scrubs – Season 1 (2001) e1-12
  • Game of Thrones – Season 5 (2015) e1-10
  • This Time with Alan Partridge – Season 1 (2019) e1
  • The Eric Andre Show – Season 1 e1
  • Game of Thrones – Season 6 (2016) e1-10

Danger & Eggs is an animated childrens’ show about the misadventures of D.D. Danger, an Evel Knievil-style daredevil and her best friend Phillip, a traumatophobic talking egg who lives inside a giant chicken. It is adorable, wholesome and not afraid to include some dark themes and characters: D.D.’s father has been left paralysed and mute following a lifetime of stunts, a minor character was abandoned by his parents and has grown to middle age in the woods still believing he is a child… The season ends with the government attempting to invade the park and assassinate Phillip’s mother. A second season is unlikely, but if you’re looking for something to fill the Adventure Time mold of wacky shenanigans, only not insufferable, then it’s worth checking out.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my favourite shows ever, and the finale was aggressively fine, a bit too neat and rushed. To be honest, I could have watched the characters just living life and being friends for another 5 seasons, but there’s something to be said for how it recognised the logical end point of its central story. I just wish it took a bigger leap before it attempted the landing.

I had to give up on You’re The Worst this season. I don’t think stories need to have likable characters to be interesting, and indeed one of the show’s virtues is how unpleasant everyone in this nasty little shitshow of privilege of squalor is. That said, the final season was just a drag that smothered any interest in the flashforwards and arc closures. I will admit that this is mostly down to me just having no interest whatsoever in Los Angeles/Hollywood satire anymore, the kind of show that’s like reading a script designed by an AV Club comment section smug-bot. I’m looking at you too, Bojack Horseman.


Movies

  • You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey, 2017)
  • Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn, 2013)
  • Batman Ninja (Junpei Mizusaki, 2018)
  • Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)
  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (David Slade, 2018)
  • Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
  • Vice (Adam McKay, 2018)
  • Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
  • Hot Rod (Akiva Schaffer, 2007)
  • Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013)
  • The Lego Movie 2 (Mike Mitchell, 2019)
  • Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019)

There’s a scene in Vice that shows footage from the 2005 London Underground attacks. I saw the film at a full cinema in Central London. The silence and tension during that few seconds will haunt me to my grave.


Comics

  • Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero, Vol. 1 – DeConnick
  • East of West, Vol. 7 – Hickman/Dragotta
  • Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero, Vol. 2 – DeConnick
  • East of West, Vol. 8 – Hickman/Dragotta
  • Day of Vengeance – Willingham/Justiniano
  • The OMAC Project – Rucka/Saiz
  • Rann-Thanagar War – Gibbons/Reis
  • Villains United – Simone/Eaglesham
  • Infinite Crisis – Johns/Jimenez
  • Babyteeth, Vol. 1 – Cates/Brown
  • Prism Stalker, Vol. 1 – Leong
  • Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero, Vol. 3 – DeConnick
  • Ody-C, Vol. 1 – Fraction/Ward
  • Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero, Vol. 4 – DeConnick
  • Paper Girls, Vol. 1 – Vaughan/Chiang 5
  • The Ultimates, Vol. 1 – Hickman/Ribic
  • Cage! – Tartakovsky
  • X-Men Red, Vol. 1 – Taylor/Asrar
  • 52, Vol. 1 – Johns/Morrison/Rucka/Waid
  • Babyteeth, Vol. 2 – Cates/Brown
  • Paper Girls, Vol. 2 – Vaughan/Chang
  • Mister Miracle – King/Gerads
  • Ody-C, Vol. 2 – Fraction/Ward
  • 52, Vol. 2 – Johns/Morrison/Rucka/Waid
  • Paper Girls, Vol. 3 – Vaughan/Chang
  • The Wicked and the Divine, Vol. 8
  • Paper Girls, Vol. 4 – Vaughan/Chang

If 2019 has thought me one thing, it is probably the following. One of the joys of having a full-time job is the ability to buy comics regularly. By the same token, one of the most grounding realities of having a full-time job is how easily that hobby can become expensive, repetitive, and attritional. Either way, I’ve read a lot of good comics this year, and finally got around to stuff I’ve been putting off for ages, particularly in the DC universe, which I’m not as well versed in as Marvel. Of course, the most exciting stuff in comics isn’t necessarily superhero related – if done right, tv/movie adaptations of East of West, Wicked + The Divine, and Paper Girls would be phenomenons, but no matter if they’re not, the books are already ridiculously good. Image Comics are on a blinder.


Video Games

  • Spider-Man: Silver Lining (DLC)
  • Spyro the Dragon 120%
  • Spyro the Dragon: Ripto’s Revenge 100%
  • Sypro The Dragon: Year of the Dragon 117%
  • Dirt Rally (Achieved #1 championship)
  • Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  • Tetris Effect
  • Rayman Legends
  • Saints Row IV
  • Sleeping Dogs
  • Uncharted

I had a mostly pretty good time with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, though it was limited somewhat by some factors baked into the concept of remakes, some decisions that neutered the humour and character somewhat, and the obvious rush-job that resulted in two-thirds of the under-animated content not being included in the disc. I thought B-Mask did a pretty good job of covering the positives and negatives:

I will say this, though: The new design of Spyro is adorable and I want to hug him.

I nearly gave up on Witcher 3 several times due to how slow and laborious its opening few hours are, but I’m glad I stuck with it and regret that I rushed through the rest of the story without getting involved in the side quests, though there’s always the option of replaying it if I ever become unemployed or am bedridden for 6 months.

I am emphatically not a sports person, but I did always have a fondness for motorsport, and DIRT Rally pushed a lot of those buttons pretty effectively. It felt pretty damn good to win a championship given how difficult the game is designed to be, though I haven’t managed to be nearly as good at it since and the fact that I haven’t attempted with a different car or set up makes the achievement effectively moot.

Melting eyes | Pointless experiment

At the beginning of this year, I started a pointless experiment. In a Google document I made a note of each book, movie, TV show, comic and video game I consumed. Inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s annual tradition of sharing the movies he watches in a given year and Nick Hornby’s longrunning “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column, I wanted to get an idea of how my tastes have evolved, a time-benefit analysis of stuff I laboured through versus content I actually enjoyed, and probably most constructive and disturbing of all, just how much of the one life I will ever live has been thoroughly wasted.

To wit, 6 months into 2019 I had apparently taken in 43 books (plus 8 started and not finished), 202 episodes of 33 TV shows, 27 movies (7 at the cinema, one of those seen twice), 804 issues of comics from 73 series (499 in trade paperback form, 305 digitally), 24 video games, 2 concerts, 4 plays read and 1 seen live. This does not include content on YouTube, or music, which are too complicated and messy for me to easily keep track of.

Just looking at that makes me want to scarper to the mountains at the first opportunity and do one of those extreme cultural detoxes where you water the same plant for two weeks straight and find zen through the majesty of boredom. I don’t know if I’ve directly learned anything significant about my entertainment habits from this exercise so far, other than that slamming through six Kingdom Hearts titles in a few months is a good way to resent the concept of language, and that the Marvel house-style circa 2004 is a drag to look at.

Hornby states in his latest column that his ultimate goal is “to break the link between literature and grim duty” and I’ll admit to falling into this cultural obligation hole quite a bit in recent years. This was compounded by a few years submitting freelance work as a music writer for a publication’s last 2 years. I was a bit out of my depth, reeling and raw from a recent mental health breakdown that threatened my life. Though I learned a lot from writing reviews of music I had an interest in on a regular basis, it soured a significant part of my approach to media and I left it with a severely depleted faith in my abilities to write, critique and keep my perspective in check (this is entirely on me, the editors and colleagues I had were wonderful and I’m grateful to this day for the opportunity).

I noticed that in the wilds of Internet Talk About Pop Culture in this decade past, it’s rare that a piece of media gets a hearty recommendation from the algorithm lords without being saddled with unwieldy moral importance that’s unfair to the work, audience and creators and conversely not remotely unfair enough to the corporate mandate that’s invested in such passioned praise. When Beyonce released Lemonade (which I enjoy a lot) in 2016, I saw a tweet by a fairly popular film critic that said that he still didn’t enjoy her music, but that this was his own failing and he was clearly wrong. As tempting as it is to mock the obsequiousness, he surely isn’t alone in falling for that line. If I had the ability, patience and time to make a point-by-point breakdown of the entertainment content I took in since I began college, I’ll bet a substantial portion of my intake got the Beyonce effect. I know for a fact that I did some mental gymnastics over the suffocatingly average Ghostbusters reboot just to sick it to the misogynerds, and three years on I feel duped by falling for corporate-flavour student politics.

I honestly don’t think enough time has passed for me to recognise what exactly this malaise is or where it came from bar speculation, but I’ve noticed some rattlings of perspective since I took on my Masters degree and moved into adult life. I was halfway through the latest seasons of Bojack Horseman and You’re The Worst and it dawned on me that I kind of hate them, the concept of the recent Chernobyl series strikes me as exploitative and vulgar, I’d rather one hundred more average superhero movies than another biopic/celebration of 70s musicians or ripped from the headlines Oscar bait, and I almost don’t want to bring those up in polite conversation because to do so seems transgressive in an almost obscene way. That’s obviously a ridiculous thing to believe. Granted, I’m not naturally a person who delights in hot takes or contrarianism. I’m a sucker for good pop songs and blockbuster movies as much as anyone. However, as much as it makes me sound like a South Park character, I do have a deeply ingrained contempt for conformity, and for too long my attempts to run along at speed with the cultural conversation put that on the backburner and left me disproportionately annoyed when certain sites treat the latest #GoodTVShow as the universally hailed peak of artistic achievement and we are now living in a post-[X] Show era. Wait, what?

It’s almost like a sizable contingent of fandom want to turn art into sport, or to marry one’s cultural taste and aesthetic with their moral character, both concepts I can’t truck with. Whenever a critique of popular media feels the need to say that the product in question ‘matters’ or is ‘the [X] we need right now’ I cringe, not just for the boilerplate terminology but because part of the joy of art for me is specificity, its ability to pierce one person’s circulatory system while utterly failing to make an impression on others. Art’s vitality and futility are welded together in a way that I find compelling, but vitality is all that gets clicks, and that can get exhausting to sit through, if not outright pious.

I’m aware that my argument sounds eerily close to those toxic morons who think white males are being erased from their precious Star Wars and the like. I don’t think anyone’s approach to media is wrong, the absolute last thing I want to do is make people feel bad for how they enjoy art, and I certainly don’t think my views on this are ‘objective’. I think that anyone alleging an ‘objective’ critique of popular media, with dogmatic axioms and splenetic disaffection, is trying to sell you something and are better avoided. I don’t think art can be truly apolitical, cultural commentary is a great and precious tradition, and the push for diversity in entertainment is overdue and should be encouraged at every opportunity. I also don’t think it’s a contradiction to cut slack sometimes and not treat all downtime as a culture war battleground, since I think it’s a form of low-level conformist pressure to turn passion into the ‘grim duty’ Hornby laments.

More than should be necessary I’ve privately resented that my pile of ‘to read’ books were largely made up of stuff I wouldn’t normally be interested in, or been frustrated by testing the thesis that bingewatching mediocre TV somehow ameliorates the tedium. I’ve started and abandoned with a completionist fervour many lists of books, movies and tv shows I ‘need’ to have seen in order to fit some pre-packaged notion of being well-versed in the subject; the joy of taking in art, of researching and learning, of finding truth and resisting bullshit, of creativity, had been siphoned away. Entertainment became work became a grind became irritating, and I don’t blame anyone other than myself really, my own tendency to obsess, a neurotype that had been accustomed to figuring out and taking notes from the rhythms of others that went into overdrive for a period of five years and zapped out like a slam into a brick wall.

So this project, if anything, is my passive attempt to reformulate my own specificity, my willingness to experiment and try new things, and to follow my nose where my interests actually lie. Especially if it means 500 pages of exploding spaceships or dense social theory about a factor of life I find genuinely fascinating instead of suffering through another Booker Prize doorstopper about a philandering knob with metaphysical monologues on the narrative potential of an onion or some shit. Stuff that’s as interesting as a cardboard sandwich just because some self-righteous Graun twit, canon-obsessed Buzzfeed Quiz, fart-sniffing Film Twitter bro or poptimism zealot tell the world that no good informed citizen can do without. I don’t think those approaches are without their merits, but right now it’s as though the entire planet is overestimating culture’s external impact, and underestimating its internal one. I’d rather be left alone.

Anyway, what now then?

The next post in this series will go through some of the stuff I enjoyed in the first few months, because negativity is boring, as well as other stuff I may or may not have thoughts on. For example, I decided to jump back on a project I abandoned last year by going through recent Marvel history thanks to their Unlimited app (hence the horrifically large amount of digital comics I’ve read in a short span of time) and who knows, I may have something to say about Game of Thrones that hasn’t already been ground into dirt and snorted up Google’s API. I highly doubt it, but weirder things have happened.

The Google doc hasn’t included music, as that is one field that’s a bit too vast for me to catalogue without going mad. I may relegate that to a separate series, but I have not made that decision just yet. In any case, here’s a Spotify playlist with songs representing releases I’ve enjoyed from the year so far.