Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dorset Perception

Yet another CD has raided me. Like the recent Sigur Ros insurrection, this is a CD I've owned for a while now, but just recently has come crawling up through my brain to manhandle any and all attempts at productive thought. This time around it is "Involver" by Sasha, an arrangement of several electronic pieces. I had enjoyed it, but gone for months without listening to it; one night, as I was lying in bed, the bass line from the opening track came from out of nowhere and filled every available neuron: "Buh duh duh duh, duh duhduhduhduh, duh DUH duh duh buh du... duhduhduhuh." I was a wreck. After an hour or so I got up, stumbled into the living room, and spent several minutes flipping through my CDs to find the offender. Only after I put it on could I finally fall asleep.

This is the second Sasha album I have heard. There was a huge gap between the two; the first was "Airdrawndagger," which I have had on my hard drive since Sophomore year in college (or thereabouts). Airdrawndagger is a beautiful work. My tastes in electronic music skew heavily towards IDM and trip-hop; I love the soulful voices that warp and warble over the unearthly tunes, and don't care as much about the insistent dance beats that drive trance and techno. But something about Sasha's beats really grabs me. I can't define what it is, but even without any lyrics I still feel like he's saying something. I'm not sure what Airdrawndagger means, but I always think of that scene in Macbeth where he sees the dagger floating in the air before his eyes. One of many things I love about that scene is that Shakespeare doesn't make it clear whether there really is a dagger there or not, so any company who stages the play has a profound choice to make. Do they put a dagger there, in which case Macbeth is a profound victim, drawn to slaughter and death by the machinations of supernatural energies? Or does the audience see nothing but air, in which case Macbeth is crazy, inventing divine signs to justify his bloodlust? I love the way an ambiguity in the text vanishes once it reaches the stage; to me, Airdrawndagger retains that original ambiguity, carrying weight and importance without revealing its intentions.

I don't clearly remember when I picked up Involver, but it might have been something I grabbed immediately before leaving Kansas City for California. I vaguely remember stopping at a Borders where I picked up a Lupin manga, and I think the CD might have been my other purchase. If so, it's one of those CDs that will become linked to a particular moment or experience in my mind.

I had been expecting something "like Airdrawndagger," and initially was slightly disappointed. Further research has revealed that Airdrawndagger is actually a bit of an anomoly in that it is an original work by Sasha; like Paul Oakenfold, he is far better known as a DJ, and Involver is one of his compilations. Still, that doesn't mean it's at all bad, and as I listen to it more I increasingly appreciate the selections, both in their own right and the way they feed off one another.

I took the unusual step of actually taking the CD to work with me and ripping it for iTunes. My productivity has shot back up now that I can satisfy the senseless howling of my brain for that music. Here's hoping it will be satisfied soon and I can go back to listening to Sigur Ros and Radiohead.

In other pop-culture news, I finished reading "Fables and Reflections," the something-or-other-th collection of "Sandman." I wasn't planning to write about it until I finished the series, but this seems like as good a spot as any; I already have the next book but will probably not read it for another week or so, and the library is missing the one after that so it will be a while before I finish up. Besides, as good as it has been, I don't think it'll suffer if I wait a while before finishing up. Original readers had to take, what, over ten years to read the whole thing?

So: Sandman. I have the first book if you'd like to borrow it, but I can't really recommend it. Gaiman really flexes his creative muscles early on, switching between a lot of different story styles (gothic horror, adventure, traditional horror, and more) without really claiming one as his own. It isn't bad, it just isn't terribly original and isn't indicative of his later mode.

He really hits his stride with the last story in that first book. From that time on there's at least a thin (albeit often dark) vein of humor in his stories. Better than that, though, is a very malleable sense of existence. The abstract principles are much more real than the minutiae of dreary physical life; you can probably imagine how much I appreciate that.

Let's see... I guess I'll sort of summarize what I remember of the last few months of off-and-on Sandman, and give my reactions. Let's call these


"Preludes and Nocturnes." Dark, dark, dark. Depressing and morbid. We don't really get to know Dream/Morpheus much; he is a silent prisoner first, then a weakened and vengeful echo of himself, then a Man With A Mission. I love Dream, he's probably my favorite character in a series full of colorful characters; he is distant, amused, curious, insensitive, and vain. None of these characteristics really come through during his trial, though. Still, I guess you really do come to know and possibly love his appearence. Again, I'm hardly a comics expert, but I love how distinctive and yet ordinary he appears: just a little too tall, just a little too white, face just a little too long, but otherwise ordinary... except for his eyes. Oh, and my favorite image from the entire first book comes towards the end, with him sitting on the fountain, mumbling "Just feedin' the birds."

But, yeah, the stories. I dunno. I still get a little uncomfortable about trips to Hell. The Constantine story was interesting, but the pictures of his girlfriend made me almost physically ill... actually, that happened a lot during this book. I enjoyed his sojourn in Dreamland; it's even cooler re-reading that after the later books, once the characters have been fleshed out more and you get a better feeling for just what had been lost. The Ruby mini-arc, though... man. It was weirdly compelling, one of those things I hate myself for liking. Dr. Destiny's naked sadism and madness suck you into the story in a way nothing before has.

The next book is "The Doll's House," and is the first one I really enjoyed. It has a good, strong narrative that drives the stories as Morpheus tries to find and recapture dreams which have left the Dreaming in his absence. The bit with the Corinthian felt most similar to the horror-heavy first book; even that was superior, though. You had the incredibly dark humor of the Cereal Convention (a joke I suddenly got several weeks after I finished the book); the Corinthian himself had a lot of style that gave him a Doctor Dee sort of fascination. The first book often made me feel sickened; this second book made me feel glad I don't get nightmares.

The characters got a lot better in this book, too. The girl in particular whose name I'm blanking on was wonderfully written, an odd combination of heroine and damsel. This book was especially cool because for the first time I realized how much Gaiman called back to earlier stories and/or was planning these stories when he first wrote: little things that I had assumed were throwaways in the first book, like those whose lives were interrupted when Dream was captured, suddenly became important. That's been one of the best things about reading Sandman, the way that later issues don't just get better, they also make previous issues better as well.

Dream Country was sort of cute. It's the first of two (so far) books that are just collections of standalone stories that aren't part of a larger arc. I think this book proves that the characters and writing are strong enough to stand on their own, interesting material even without a compelling plot. Calliope is the first explicit trip into Greek mythology, which seems to be becoming more important the longer the series grows. The cat story was kind of dumb, but whatever. I really dug the Shakespeare piece. Did you know I've actually never read or seen Midsummer Night's Dream? It's true! I know enough about it to track what was going on; despite my previously noted indifference to Shakespeare's comedies, I'll need to check it out one of these days.

Season of Mists gets back into the standard pace of the series, once again taking an obscure incident from the first book and building a whole arc around it. Oh, and I think this is the first time you see all of the Endless, so that was really cool. Well, I guess you don't see ALL of them, but it's the first time five are together. The story itself is FASCINATING, probably my favorite plot so far. When Morpheus announces he is coming to Hell, everything Lucifer does predicts a war; the whole time Lucifer is showing Morpheus around, you're expecting him to spring the trap. And... I guess he does kind of spring a trap, sort of, but until the end of the story I still didn't believe that he really didn't want to rule in Hell any longer.

The section back in the Dreaming was also interesting, not least because of all the mythology bumping around. Having read "American Gods" before any of this, it's really interesting to see a slightly difference Gaiman perspective on the gods, especially the Norse ones. The storyline here felt like something very unsuited for a comic book, which made it all the more impressive when Gaiman pulls it off. As with "The Council of Elrond" in "Fellowship of the Ring," what is essentially a committee meeting becomes terribly interesting and dramatic. The resolution caught me slightly off guard; I was expecting him to get Lucifer to take it back, or to shut it down permanently as the faeries asked. It was a good choice, though. One of the most chilling parts in the story is towards the end, when the sinner says, "You... you don't understand. That makes it worse. Much worse." Once again I am reminded of C. S. Lewis's excellent quote:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience

That's what's so frightening about the end of this story. Hell was already bad enough, and one would think nothing could be worse than its sadism; but the moral fervor of its new masters will never slacken. Even worse, and I think this is what the sinner is getting at, it reminds them of their failures while eternally denying them redemption. It reminds them that they alone are responsible for their torment; they are both oppressor and victim together.

A Game of You was interesting. I really enjoyed its fantasy atmosphere; Gaiman shows his chops for a genre he hasn't explored much up to this point. It's much more "Willow" than "Lord of the Rings," more a collection of striking and unusual images than a world unto itself. The overall arc of the story was just fine; the framing bit with Barbie's apartment buddies didn't feel like it had enough payoff for what was happening, but the dream itself was solid. And The Cuckoo is one of the best villains yet in Sandman. I just love the incredibly ominous, chilling shadow The Cuckoo acquires long before we meet her. Once we do find her, it gets even better. There were some strong parallels between the Cuckoo and what we learn about The Guardian in Ultima IX, which made the story simultaneously familiar, freaky, and foreign. This felt a bit anticlimactic after Season of Mists, but overall probably one of the better books.

And the one I just finished was "Fables and Reflections." All library copies had been lost so I ordered a copy online; I'm very glad I did, because it turns out that this is the one with the story that inspired me to keep reading past the first book, the tale of Emperor Norton. That was hands-down the coolest story in the book. I sort of wanted there to be more, of course; that's the way I've always felt about Norton, the more I learn the more I want to know. I should probably be impressed that they fit in as much of his life as they did - his descent into madness, his proclamations, patronage of nearby businesses, defense of the Chinese, and more. More impressive, though, is their capturing of the spirit of the man, at least as I imagine it. That's what's so valuable about his temptation; what at first I thought was a red herring (and is decidedly ahistorical) turned out to be a really beautiful exploration of how deeply fulfilling Norton's madness was. I love that short and eloquent line, "His madness kept him sane." It sounds like an oxymoron, of course, but it's absolutely true: he finds comfort in his fantasy, and that comfort sustains him through situations that would otherwise crush him. I can't help but feel like I do this a little myself, and feel like there are far worse ways to deal with stress.

The rest of Fables and Reflections, while not as cool, were still good. The final story with the king of Baghdad was probably the most poignant. The type was annoying to read, of course, but the story was incredible, and the coda at the end made me (soft-hearted liberal that I am) kinda tearful. The long arc with Orpheus was well-written, and it made me understand the myth in a way I never had before. The REAL tragedy isn't just that his love is denied a return to mortality; it's that Orpheus's greed and impatience keeps him from accepting a few years apart from her, and punishes him by an eternity of loneliness. That's awfully sad. (Though I'm not sure if Orpheus's immortality is part of the original myth; if not, it's a good addition.) Let's see... hm. The Rome one was another interesting story, though both too cliche and too... I dunno... shocking for me to really enjoy. The werewolf story was really good, though once again I didn't enjoy the framing device nearly as much as the story itself. Having that big revelation of "Oh and by the way I WAS THAT BOY!!!!!!!111!!!" really didn't add anything for me. Except, I suppose, it makes it more interesting that the grandfather vacillates about whether the items were really magical or not. I do appreciate that part, the open acknowledgement of our inability to understand even things that happen to us. And I guess I like the climax in the bedroom for the same reason. Now that I think about it, that might be one of Gaiman's greatest strengths as a writer: the ability to embrace ambiguities without feeling compelled to resolve them.

So, consider that my report on Sandman. I think I'm a little over halfway through now; I'll report back if there's something worth writing about later on.

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