Subtext Galore

I’ve not yet seen Skyfall, the latest installment of the James Bond franchise. I’m one of those difficult customers who feels that the current reboot has strayed too far from the original concept of the title character. I do want to see if the latest movie can overcome my sense of dissonance, but it’s not been a priority.

On the other hand, even similarly cynical people are finding good things to say about Skyfall, notable among them being praise for Naomie Harris’ performance as Agent Eve.

“Though,” one friend commented wryly, “I’m not sure Ian Fleming would have have approved.”

At this point, I smiled, and answered with an off-the-wall theory that I’d been bouncing around in the back quarter of my mind; but the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I’m right about this one.

I don’t think Ian Fleming would have had any problem with Naomie Harris’ casting in this movie, or with the modern lack of racial concerns that it represents. In fact, if you go back to the novels, I suspect the most iconic of all Bond Girls was written as an African-American.

I’m talking about Miss Pussy Galore.

I hope that’s still an arresting, striking, perhaps even shocking idea. After all, thanks to the movie version of Goldfinger, the popular image of Miss Galore is very blonde. Very English. And I’d imagine that if any expert fans of the Bond franchise are reading this, they’re already aching to point out that, even if she’s American in the novel, Fleming describes Miss Galore explicitly as “pale”.

Well, yes; but I think there’s more to it than that. Let’s look at her backstory in a bit more detail?

Pussy Galore is based in Harlem, where she started out as a burlesque artiste, assembling a troupe of trapeze performers who diversified first to cat-burglary, then in a fairly serious way to organized crime, under the name of “The Cement Mixers”. This much, Bond knows already before he meets her.

What he’ll also, therefore, know, is that are very few white dancing girls in Harlem. This is the centre of African-American culture, the home at that time of jazz and swing and important movements in poetry, theatre and the visual arts; but it’s also the home of the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and an array of other vaudeville theatres, burlesque houses, “buffet flats” and whorehouses. That name, of course, that “inexplicable“, “outrageous” name of hers, is her stage name, as Goldfinger makes clear when he first mentions her – her act was called Pussy Galore and her Abrocats. It’s not exactly a stage name that suggests she performed at the respectable end of Lenox Avenue, either.

The name of the “Cement Mixers” is also part of this context: to the casual reader, it evokes the euphemistic “concrete overcoat”,  but it actually refers to the mechanical pelvic grind of burlesque chorus lines and cheap, synthetic sex.

So, by the time Bond meets Miss Galore, he knows what she is – an African-American ex-stripper.

So when Bond’s narrative voice describes Pussy as “pale”, he’s thinking of her as “pale” within the spectrum of Harlem showgirls. The twist of meaning becomes clearer if you look carefully at the whole description: “pale, Rupert Brooke good looks, with high cheekbones and a beautiful jawline”.

This is a wickedly-turned phrase, deliberately deceptive. At first sight, it seems to suggest a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon sort of beauty — Rupert Brooke was an iconic embodiment of Englishness, the great lyric poet of the British Empire at peace and war, and also the most handsome young man of his time; but “pale” is hardly a word that we should really associate with Rupert Brooke: his friends and contemporaries tended to describe him with words like “ruddy“, “richly coloured“, “tanned“, and his own choice of words tended rather towards “brown”.

A girl who has a Rupert Brooke complexion while remaining “pale” is not Caucasian; especially if she’s a former burlesque artiste from Harlem. She’s what the guys at the Cotton Club called teasin’ brown.

There are other hints, as well: as commentators have noted, Pussy’s hardboiled dialogue is “entirely foreign to representations of the American South”, but I think that may change if you drop the assumption that she’s white; and when Bond thinks of her as looking “like a painting by Vertes”, he’s not thinking of some obscure Spanish old master noted for his nudes, but the contemporary illiustrator and designer Marcel Vertès – and presumably, his ethnically mixed or racially ambiguous depictions of Paris jazz clubs and the Harlem demi-monde.

By this point, I’ve thoroughly convinced myself. I hope you’re still with me?

Of course, a writer doesn’t compare an African-American woman to Rupert Brooke unless he’s deliberately setting out to screw with his readers. In 1959, when Goldfinger was published, Shirley Bassey had just her first number one single, and McDonald Bailey’s 100 metres world record had only recently been bested, but the idea of pairing James Bond with an African-American woman would have probably still been shocking to a sizable percentage of the English reading public. It would have been even more unacceptable in the American market, where interracial relationships were still proscribed by varying levels of legal racism in twenty-four states.

There’s a lot I could say more about here. I think this twist in Miss Galore’s identity is designed to tie into more general themes about identity and oppression in the novel, and I think it’s particularly important to acknowledge that her sexuality is a part of that identity as well. She is, as Goldfinger crassly puts it, the leader of a “lesbian organization”.

The trouble is, I’m what you’d call a straight white man, and I’m not at all sure I feel confident to commentate on any of this. That’s also a problem which the author and his protagonist have: the ending of Goldfinger is regarded in critical circles as problematic, because the lesbian heroine ends up in bed with chauvinist arch-conservative alpha-male protagonist.

There is a certain awkwardness in that concept, but if I’m right, I think it’s possible to see some redeeming features in how Fleming and Bond negotiate it. Let’s look at that defining description again: Rupert Brooke was a man who men fell in love with; even straight men. Stuffy Victorian generals sound like starry-eyed teenagers when they describe him. When Bond compares Pussy to Rupert Brooke, he’s not only comparing a women who attracts women to a man who attracted men, he’s also implicitly transcending the usual gendered boundaries of sexuality, because in Bond’s thoughts, the quality that makes Pussy so beautiful and desirable is something you can also find in men.

That Rupert Brooke comparison is a subtle way for the author and his protagonist both to defer to the lesbian heroine, and in that context, the fact that Pussy beds Bond is ultimately her own decision. It’s not Mr. Bond who takes the initiative, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily Miss Galore whose sexuality is undermined or problematized in this novel. Insofar as the two of them meet as equals, it’s because the chauvinist protagonist allows himself to be seduced very easily by someone outside his official comfort zone.

I hope I’m at least allowed to speak up for straight while men’s ability to subvert themselves…?

To conclude, though, I want to focus on just one issue. A key theme of Goldfinger is its exploration of American organized crime – organized, that is, along ethnic lines: we’re introduced to fictionalized versions of the Sicilian Mafia, the Cuban mob from Miami, the Las Vegas gambling moguls (presumably representing Eastern European immigration, as in reality), an outwardly ultra-respectable German businessman from Detroit, and the Irish crime boss behind the Democratic Party in Chicago.

Yes, you read that last one right.

This isn’t about racial profiling. Goldfinger’s coalition is composed of immigrant minorities, who originally formed criminal cartels due to their exclusion from full participation in mainstream American society (you’ve seen Gangs of New York and Once Upon A Time in Americaright?); but now the leaders of those cartels have bought their way into that mainstream society, without divesting themselves of their core business: they’re planning a profitable revenge on the American state, while continuing to exploit it through their place in its élite. Not all of them are portrayed unsympathetically, either. The fact that Miss Galore is one of these characters emphasises that they’re not automatically, or inherrently, bad people.

It’s also important to emphasise that in this collection of the ethnic underclasses of the USA, Miss Galore’s Harlem outfit implicitly represents the African-American community.

(This James Bond theme will return….)

In the original Klingon!

Klingon really isn’t my thing.

I know enough about languages, real and invented, to know that tlhIngan Hol is a technical triumph, but I can’t pretend I’m particularly fond of it as a cultural statement. My strangely retentive memory for trivia means I have a pretty good grasp of the nuances of Klingon costume styles and warship variants, but I don’t have any emotional attachment to that particular spacegoing barbarian empire.

I can admire the skill and dedication that it takes to make the appropriate mask and costume, translate some Shakespeare into a language originally designed for insulting Captain Kirk, or set some Klingon poetry to Klingon music and perform it – especially if you do all three at once.

But I don’t feel any urge to do any of that myself.

On the other hand, this isn’t entirely to do with my usual antipathy to organized geekdom. Back around 1990 when there was no new Star Wars to enjoy, I made up for it with a diversion into Star Trek. I became a big fan of the novels, and maybe one day I’ll write about Diane Duane’s cycle about the Romulans, but today, I want to tell you about a book called The Final Reflection, written way back in the early 1980s by an author named Mike Ford.

The Final Reflection is a book about the Klingons.

But these Klingons aren’t the ones you know: the headbutting, armour-wearing barbarians with the funny shouty language, and the tourist-friendly cultural backstory that give their loyal fandom the toolkit for an alternative identity. In 1982, when work on the book began, the Klingons had a continuity backstory of just three low-budget TV episodes and a single movie cameo, and they were still primarily a metaphor for powerful foreign opponents of America – the Russians and the Japanese, specifically. So Mike Ford wrote them as a high-tech military superpower with a violent and heroic history very different from our own, and a confusingly foriegn way of thinking. Unlike today’s Klingons, they valued intelligence, deception and forward planning just as much as strength, brutality and honour.

They even had a different language.

But there was a problem. Even before The Final Reflection came out in May 1984, the people in charge of Star Trek had decided that official continuity had to actively contradict everything outside the movies and TV series. If there was to be a Klingon language on the screen, it would have to not be the one in the book. As far as I can tell, the people who began to create a Klingon language for the next Trek movie were unaware that one had just been created for the novel (and adopted in the extensive RPG material that accompanied the movie’s release), but the franchise’s policy made integration of the two impossible.

This was before the internet, of course, and at first, the intentions of the production people struggled to counteract the influence of the tie-in material (not least since the novels and comics were allowed to supply running continuity fixes to keep themselves consistent with the movies); but eventually, the development of The Next Generation created a fairly decisive estrangement between the two elements of the franchise. It became pretty clear around the time I got involved.

Thankfully, Star Wars started producing original fiction again soon after, so I was suitably distracted.

But I still think that the direction Star Trek took was a shame, not least because the original Klingons, like the original Romulans, were much more interesting as a sci-fi concept. Ever since, in spite of the commitment of their fanbase, the official Klingons have been in danger of becoming inept comedy barbarians, unintentionally reforcing all sorts of problematic cultural prejudices.

It’s inherently harder to do that with the novel-continuity Klingons.

And then there’s their language. Klingonaase, not tlhIngan Hol. Both take their cue from the same source, a few lines of subtitled dialogue that were made up for the first Trek movie, but they do very different things with it. For one thing, ‘aase isn’t a complete language, though I’ve been starting to realise it was probably more completely-developed gramatically than I’d thought. The key difference is in what the language is meant to do: the Hol that modern Klingon fanboys speak is a linguist’s language, with a fully-functional lexicon and gramatical system and an interesting structural and phonological alienness – but ‘aase is a novellist’s language, designed to tell a story.

At first sight, the words and phrases dropped into the text seem simply to be relatively light, decorative details in a piece of viscerally enjoyable space-fantasy world-building. But they’re much more than that, as the reader realises as the novel develops.

What ‘aase provides is a set of concepts and conceptual frameworks that aren’t very easy to translate directly into English. These are the concepts that define the Klingons of The Final Reflection, embodying the patterns of their thoughts and their society, articulating their biological imperatives.

As the reader (probably an impressionistic teenage boy) begins to get to grips with Klingonaase, he starts to understand the Klingons, and starts to see why they’re different from the Feds who we generally see as “the good guys”, as “us”. This “reader’s journey” parallels the Kilingon characters’ own encounter with the humans, and the end result is firstly, a very good story, and secondly, one that ends up telling us something new about ourselves.

The way the reader picks up ‘aase in the course of the novel is designed to complement and accentuate a story about a clash of cultures, and about learning to see past confrontation to understanding. Not the most original story, perhaps, but that’s hardly the point. It’s the only language course I know that’s structured as a telling of the Campbellian monomyth.

And that is something that you just don’t find in modern Klingon.

The Great American

This is an apparently incongruous essay about major literary novellist. But since it’s Michael Chabon, I figured I’d indulge myself: he’s a Pulitzer-winning heavyweight whose works include a loving eulogy for the Golden Age of comic books, a considerable number of knowing baseball references, and the adaption of some Edgar Rice Burroughs stories into a Disney movie.

In other words, Chabon likes genre fiction; more to the point, he uses it as a powerful thematic reference point for the American identity. I really like his novels, and I really like that aspect of them (and I’m also a huge fan of the movie adaptation of his second book, Wonder Boys, which is probably my all-time favourite American film, and which was what led me to discover him as a writer).

That said, though, there are certain sections of his books that I find slower, less interesting, and I wonder if this also has something to do with that whole genre-and-identity thing.

(Alert readers will notice that this is the idea I stopped myself from digressing into a few posts back; really alert readers might notice that that idea is actually a retrospective edit into that previous post, designed in large part to set this one up).

The parts of the Chabon canon that have nothing to do with America are the parts I find most accessible: Gentlemen of the Road, for example, a homage to high fantasy which is set in faintly improbable countries that no longer exist, a thousand years ago. But then again, I also really enjoyed the first half of Kavalier & Clay, which is all Americana: superhero comics and electric urbanism imbuing young, apparently powerless immigrants with new hope and strength.

On the other hand, the whole second half of Kavalier & Clay didn’t do so much for me. Here, Chabon is doing the “geek” thing, with a plot crafted from extensive metatextual referentiality to the “Silver Age” of comic books, and at the same time, he makes a “serious” narrative shift of pace; it’s all about lost optimism, disillusionment and a renewed hope in a suburban family setting. It’s also, I think, a distinctively American story, both in its use of a ruthlessly authorial, almost pulpy, plot-twist, and in its expectation that the reader will either experience the emotional impact so coldly set up, or else enjoy the genre referentiality.

Oddly, there’s one tiny continuity error in the novel, which suggests this wasn’t the original plan (or else is designed to emphasise the mid-novel narrative break by doing just that)….

I also find myself tripping over the extended intermission before the third act of Wonder Boys the book, where two of the protagonists disappear off to hide in what’s effectively another story: someone else’s rather meaningless family reunion, where they all sit around the table and fail to connect. The screenplay simply ditched the entire digression, and it could simply be that its presence in the book’s narrative jars me because I saw the film first, and because I rate the film so highly; but even if I’m biased in that way, the detour around the detour seems like a smart bit of editorial intervention: the long digression is quietly involving (mood-wise, it’s what David Lynch’s The Straight Story would be if it was a novel by Thomas Pynchon) but it’s superfluous to the novel, both in terms of plot and pacing.

What it is, moreover, is a piece of standard-issue Americana, the family narrative as mini-metaphor for social change and generational tensions. It’s as much a piece of genre fiction as the worst of clichéd heroic fantasy, yet it conceals its true nature because of the conventions of the narrative, the same ones that function in suburbia. It also contrasts very strongly with the setting in which the rest of the novel takes place. It is, very deliberately, a switch of genres.

With that in mind, I’m curious if this out-of-place half-act is a surviving section from Fountain City, the unfinishable and selfconsciously Great American novel that Chabon had been trying to complete, before he gave up and turned the writing and abandonment into one of the inspirations for a different book. Quite probably that’s a wildly wrong guess, but it’s the sort of question that occurs to me, and it would certainly be appropriate if it was.

In a critical sense, this is a key point of Chabon’s writing, where he directly highlights the innate connection between  the identity-building themes of genre fiction and the American identity itself. But at the same time, there’s an emptiness there for me that I don’t think is deliberate. It’s Passover told as Thanksgiving, but I don’t think that’s even intended as the double-ended skewering that it actually is. The clever, “geeky”, genre games aren’t enough to transform it into fun for me, just as they aren’t enough when Joe Kavalier retreats to his fortress of solitude in the polar wastes, and Sammy Clay hides his secret identity behind the life of an ordinary American.

It’s a measure of Chabon’s skill as an author, though, that these sections simply read as less good than the rest.

So, ultimately, where am I going with this? Genre-fiction fandom as a metaphor for America, embodying on multiple levels the search for a new, free identity and the generational renewals of that search, from the Mayflower via Occupy (another reason, perhaps, that it has no resonance for me, since I’m not American)? I think so, yes. And, if so, then the wider tensions and concerns and narratives of genre fiction might turn out to be intimately symmetrical with those of America itself.

America, in other words, is a work of genre fiction.

More on that theme in general some other time, perhaps?

(Funny, that. I knew where this essay was going to end up well before I wrote it, or even had the idea for it.)

Ceci n’est pas un Geek

I promised in an earlier installment to talk at some point about why I hide behind a pseudonym, even though I’ve not really done enough with it to warrant the anonymity. The real reason is relatively straightforward. In the UK, it’s still not though exactly proper to take genre fiction seriously.

Our definition of “genre” is probably a little different than the American equivalent: it doesn’t include historical novels, or superior thrillers, which is why David Mamet’s description of Le Carré or O’Brian as a genius of the “humble genre novel” rings so strange over here. High fantasy of the more austere kind probably gets a pass, too (Peake, Le Guin), as does the sort of hard near-future fiction written by Orwell and Atwood.

Buy anything involving spaceships or time travel? That’s for teenagers, or literature courses at the less élite universities. You can get by commenting on it if you employ a certain irony, if you use it for a certain purpose, but only for a certain audience, and it’s a tricky discipline to get quite right. The consensus in polite society is that Star Wars – the original 1977 movie – is the only really worthwhile piece. Apart from that, the genre’s really rather déclassé.

So, the nom de guerre is a sort of social camouflage. Does that make me a social terrorist?

This prejudice that I’m trying to sidestep is doubly odd, because erotic fiction doesn’t really carry the same stigma. Senior, respected figures in politics and broadsheet journalism started out writing porn. I can’t really see that on the CV of Rahm Emmanuel or a leader writer for the Washington Post. Our leading literary magazine has an annual Bad Sex Award for the worst smut in a serious novel, a prize that’s considered strangely prestigious. I doubt the Pulitzer committee will ever create a comparable category.

And me? Well, I think I lack the relevant prejudices when it comes to the literature, the comics and the movies, though with some esoteric exceptions. But I’d know better than to risk declaring an interest with someone I didn’t trust, and I’ve never felt comfortable with those labels that tend to be attached in a self-affirmative way to genre fandom, names like “geek” and “nerd”. I don’t really buy into that lifestyle.

Why not? Well, that’s an interesting question. I suppose it’s something to do with the whole concept of a subculture, a counterculture – the apotheosis of the teenage quest for an independent identity. Geekdom, fandom, call it what you like (and I’ll confess that I simply don’t “get” the finer points of the distinctions between the various forms of genredom), it takes the artefacts of a popular subculture and imbues them with a meaning and structure, creating a new sort of social code, a language for interaction within the tribe. It’s a strategy that’s fascinated people from Jung to the Wachowskis via Italo Calvino.

But I don’t buy into the underlying, unspoken and perhaps unconscious idea that defines genredom: the idea that everything is ultimately meaningless, unless we want it to be, and that the creation of an identity out of trading cards and old comic books is ultimately as valid as Vanbrugh and the Rokeby Venus – or even more valid, because it’s knowing, self-referential, liberal and modern.

But I’m only rejecting the lifestyle choice here. Old comic books frankly fascinate me (what John Jackson Miller does with them is one of my favourite things on the internet, and at this point I’m having to reluctantly censor a digression about Kavalier & Clay and the American sense of identity). I just don’t think that there should be a separate cultural frame of reference.

I feel like that would cede the central position to the opposition, surrendering high culture to the worst of the chattering classes and the country club types, tacitly deferring to a package of snobberies that probably seem less noticeable, less absurd than mine because they’re rather more socially conventional. It is, as the Yuuzhan Vong say, “throwing the egg out with the afterbirth”.

So, that’s why I’m not a “geek”. I’m fascinated by pop culture, though, and I’m happy to use it as another form of social camouflage, mind you. That’s what being Paul Urquhart is all about.

I have a large-scale Lego reconstruction of the Battle of Hoth on display, but it’s on a shelf in my library, in between the art history, the literary criticism, and the DVDs of decades-old films with subtitles.

So, I guess the conclusion of this line of thought is an ironic one: I use a pseudonym to create a sort of wry mirror to hold up to “real life”, to compare one form of social positioning with another… while hopefully, avoiding both?

A Short Introduction

This is the blog of a man who doesn’t exist.

However, he’s now the co-author of a book in the official Star Wars franchise, so he should probably have some sort of web presence to do all those cynical audience-building things.

The book gig, incidentally, was sidekicking the legendary and multi-talented Jason Fry on The Essential Guide to Warfare, out now from Random House and all good bookstores. It was huge fun, and you can read more about it at Paul’s other blog, the official one hosted by his publisher.

This, by way of contrast, is Paul’s personal space. And I suppose I should begin by explaining who he is.

Paul Urquhart was originally a collective nom de guerre designed to disguise the nefarious online activities of three or four bored students (a sort of fanboy Luther Blisset, if you will). Eventually, as the other guys grew up, he became a convenient online persona that allows me to remain more-or-less anonymous.

Everything that Paul says is actually true, it’s just had all the serial number filed off, or occasionally been written in a slightly misleading way for literary effect.

There are various reasons why I don’t use my real identity, some of which I’ll probably explain eventually. But I suppose, when I come down to it, I find it more interesting not to.

The real me is a historian of questionable competence, and a Catholic of questionable virtue (though I used to be a very good Episcopalian). I have two rather intermittent blogs of my own, neither of which exactly has a large readership.

Over here, Paul will talk about the things that the real me would consider out-of-character. Expect meandering thoughts on sci-fi physics, high fantasy, Klingons, and the novels of Ian M. Banks. And Star Wars too, obviously.

And maybe occasionally some original short fiction.

Anyway, now it’s time for me to fix myself a whisky somewhere backstage… and it’s over to the other guy!