Dan Brown is not the world’s greatest writer. The Da Vinci Code, as Anthony Lane said, is “baloney“. We know this.
But truth be told, I’m not sure Umberto Eco’s Holy Grail novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is any better. It’s mortadella to the baloney, fails because it’s the perfect inversion of Da Vinci Code – too smart, too precious, drowning in self-conscious intricacy. Eco is one of those guys who can’t stop tapping you on the shoulder with all the obscure facts in his head. At times – most of the time – he seems more invested in trying to bamboozle you than storytelling.
That’s why I’m so grateful for The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, an undeservedly obscure painter – probably because she was a she – tragically lumped in as a footnote in the Surrealist movement. She died in Mexico City in 2011. The Hearing Trumpet is her only novel.
The story begins the outskirts of an unnamed town in Mexico, where a deaf elderly English woman, Marian Leatherby, receives a hearing trumpet from her only friend. Suddenly gifted with hearing, Marian learns her no-account son plans on sending her off to an old folks’ home.
Marian’s adventure starts off with a droll, almost sitcom-like tone – and I mean that in the best possible way. But something magical happens midway through: a story-within-a-story unfolds, and so does the wider novel, into something truly glorious and cosmic, a grand, apocalyptic quest involving a Spanish abbess, the Holy Grail, the myth of Cupid, and series of riddles involving, well… you’ll just have to read to find out.
Which you should. There’s no better book on the Holy Grail that I’ve ever encountered, nor do I think I will. The Hearing Trumpet perfectly captures Leonora Carrington’s enigmatic, magically-imbued paintings in story form. It’s a fresh sprig of parsley from the garden, at a time when so much of popular culture is recycled, re-hashed, re-heated, and re-regurgitated.
I love Nintendo as much as the next guy, but I can’t imagine shelling out $60 for the “Mini” Nintendo Entertainment System. Let’s face it: emulation is just plain better than original hardware.
“But emulation is piracy!!” No, sirrah. ’Tis not. It’s 100% permissible under law to own ROMs of games you owned at one time. Buying a game = buying the right to a digital backup of that game, forever. And that’s all a ROM is: a digital backup. Is there potential for piracy? Of course, but also a huge upside: the ability to play through all those wonderful games without the frustration and misery of losing your last continue.
A long list of Things to Dislike about the Mini, but worst is that no additional games are forthcoming. All you get are the preloaded 30 – an impressive roster of titles, but one of my favorite things about the NES was all the weird little games from weird little publishers like Sunsoft (still around!), Hudson, and Data East. Indie gaming before indie gaming was a thing.
So, in “honor” of the Mini, here are five of my favorite NES games not included:
1. A Boy and His Blob
Gameplay might not be its strength, but it’s impossible not to love this quirky, offbeat title. You play as, yes, a boy and an jelly bean-eating alien blob attempting to save planet Blobbonia from an evil junk-food emperor. If that sounds awesome, that’s because it is. A new-and-updated version is available for virtually every modern platform.
2. Bionic Commando
A platformer where you can’t jump?! Sounds crazy, but Bionic Commando’s hook-shot grappling makes for an all-time classic. And a brilliant story brilliantly told, to boot. Notorious for not having a save function, but hey – no problem in emulation.
3. Blaster Master
A boy named Jason chases Fred, his pet frog, into an underground labyrinth, where he finds “Sophia the Third”, a hyper-advanced combat chassis – young Jason hops in and sets off to save Fred from The Plutonium Boss! So much to love about this title, but by far and away, the coolest thing is the tiny caves only Jason can enter, at which point gameplay switches from sidescrolling to top-down. Wonderful non-linear play. They don’t make ’em like this no more.
Woefully underappreciated. Among the best RPGs ever, I’d argue – a beautiful story synthesizing Norse mythology into something unique, flavorful, and unforgettable. One of my favorite things about this title is that your character’s sprite actually changes appearance when you equip different armor and weapons. Start off as a scrawny pipsqueak, end up a bad-ass fantasy warrior. Makes you feel so invested and proud of your character’s progress.
Not on the level of Zelda, but this just might be my favorite oddball, out-of-the-way NES title. Pretty much said it all right here.
Owned any of these games past? Want to relive the glory? Check out Nestopia, the best OSX NES emulator out there, AFAIK.
A simple crumb of advice can be profoundly deep. Two of the profoundest crumbs on writing I’ve ever received came from Cynthia Huntington, a magnificent poet who also happened to be a professor at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. Here’s what she says:
First of all, know the difference between “it’s” and “its”. This is confusing, because “its” is a possessive pronoun, and normally apostrophe-“s” at the end of a word means “possessive”. But not in this case – “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”. So while it’s (<--) tempting to write "the lion swished it's tail", no: "the lion swished its tail".
Once I grokked this, I noticed mix-ups everywhere. Drives me nuts! The larger point is that attention to detail matters. Mistaking “it’s” for “its”, describing something as “very unique”, or writing “a lot” as one word is just plain sloppy, it screams “I care less about words than you” to someone who knows better. And if you don’t care, why should they?
Second: When attributing dialog, always use “said”, or occasionally “ask” for questions. In other words, characters should never “murmur”, “speculate”, or – the absolute worst – “intone”. Using a verb other than “said” or “ask” is just distracting and annoying, calls attention to the writing in a bad way. Can this rule be broken? I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “rule”. But it’s like invading Afghanistan – good luck.
Using “said” for attribution is a perfect example of style over grammar. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with a character “intoning”, especially not a priest on Sunday. But stylistically it’s just awful, and style is so much more important than grammar, after all. A sentence can be grammatically miserable but somehow, through a trick of the writer’s brilliance, be transformed into a thing of beauty.
William Shatner fired off a broadside against the English language in 1966, proclaiming his quest “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, but no one really noticed. Star Trek was just a clunky TV show about phasers and warp drives, and the split infinitive – wedging “boldly” between “to” and “go” – was the least of its problems.
Only the clunky show went on to become a classic, and the proscription against split infinitives officially kicked the bucket when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched in 1987.
It’s Patrick Stewart who killed it, repeating Shatner’s words in that beautiful accent of his. His elegant, Shakespearean diction lent respectability to split infinitives, as if The Bard himself gave permission. The proscription became embarrassing reminder of our benighted past, when women couldn’t vote and gay people couldn’t marry. What’s the big deal, bro? It’s all good.
Only it’s not all good, and figuring out why gets the root of what makes the English language tick.
The official reason is pretty stupid, actually. Infinitives are two words in English – “to run”, “to hold”, but they’re a single word in Latin – “currere”, “tenere”. And so, the argument goes, infinitives are an indivisible unit of grammar. Jamming “boldly” between “to” and “go” is like cramming a nugget of raw chicken liver into a chocolate truffle.
That’s what I was told back in the eighth grade. And if I believed it, I’d be all too happy to split infinitives, but it’s not the right reason. Split infinitives aren’t bad because of Latin, they’re bad because they dilute the clarity and power of writing. “To be or not to be”, for instance, becomes “to be or to not be”. Hamlet becomes Spamlet. And the words inserted into an infinitive are almost always junk.
Take this odious sentence I came across earlier this morning, from Yahoo Finance: “Still, while falling below $30 would represent a big milestone, some investors say the stock would need to fall still further for the company to truly become a takeover target.”
Purging “truly” improves the quality of the sentence, but it’s just the beginning. “Still” is used twice when it shouldn’t be there at all, and “big” is redundant because any milestone, by definition, is “big”.
Every phrase of the article contains similar crimes, including the title. And that, to me, is what’s most offensive about split infinitives – it’s a sign of laziness, the author screaming out “I don’t care about writing”.
And yet, I can’t deny the power of “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. For some reason, this phrase – like the original Star Trek – works. Despite itself, it works. Remove or reposition “boldly” and the words lose their effectiveness. There’s no rule of grammar or style so severe that it shouldn’t be broken once and a while, and that’s what makes great writing so powerful and mysterious.
One of the best side effects of writing The Band of the Crow is that it’s forced me to start reading – not just my usual hit list of obscure pulp fiction from the 20s and 30s, but contemporary books by “legit” authors. And of all the titles I’ve read in the past year, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply really stands out from the herd. Gets the blue ribbon, in fact.
Neo-noir – that’s the best way I can describe the story. It reads like a great movie, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. And yet, adapting it for film would require a lot of finesse, because the writing is so brilliantly calibrated to the medium of prose. I could go on and on, but Reply’s brilliance comes down to three things:
1. Simple writing. George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is, for me, the Holy Bible of English writing, and Chaon faithfully adheres to the gospel. He doesn’t try to razzle-dazzle with sesquipedalian words, obscure facts or convoluted syntax. It’s a sign of supreme confidence, as if to say “My writing stands on its own.” Which it does.
2. Zero gratuity. Some of the characters in Reply have sexual relationships, but Chaon stays away from explicit details. Of my biggest gripes about contemporary books/film is the amount of garbagey shock-value sex and violence passed off as “sophisticated”, and the Guardian’s Bad Sex Awards are as close as it gets to calling the emperor naked. There’s one big exception in Reply, and I know why Chaon included it – the ever-present pressure for a “hook”. That’s contemporary writing for you: hook ’em on the first sentence, and don’t you dare stop, bucko. I understand completely – gotta write stories that people want to read, after all! – but there’s something lost, too.
3. It’s about something. Await Your Reply makes a powerful observation about personal and online identity – even a very clever person’s ability to disguise and reinvent themselves is, in the long run, pretty circumscribed. Eventually, someone somewhere will find you, as Ross Ulbricht and Eric Marques know. In fact, the real-life cases of Ulbricht and Marques – both of which came to light a few years after the publication of Await Your Reply – make the book feel all the more relevant and meaningful.