Monday, April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard

[UPDATE: Geez! Step away from the computer for a weekend so you can coach some little league teams, and, whammo! People descend from everywhere to mark a stylistic infelicity caused by splicing up one start with another. Ouch! Below is the revised. If you want to see the original error, tough.]

On a Tuesday in 1982 I was in the Monmouth County Library in Shrewsbury, NJ. I know it was a Tuesday because, as a treat, my dad took my brother and I there every Tuesday. In the metal rack of paperback science fiction books, I noticed a beat-up copy of Chronopolis. On the way home I started to read it and was completely hooked, powering through the entire book that night and reading it several times again before returning it the following week. I had never read anything like it, and the best stories from the volume, "The Voices of Time," "Deep End," "The Cage of Sand," and especially, "The Terminal Beach" have been part of my interior world ever since.

My students find it hard to conceive of "life before Amazon," not to mention "life before the internet" and "life before Barnes and Noble superstores," so they don't understand how it's possible to love a writer but be limited to the one or two volumes in the local library and the bits and pieces that you found in random bookstores. But that was the way I encountered Ballard, a new novel here, a short story there, a paperback tucked away in the science fiction section of a college bookstore. I never engaged with Ballard's work systematically, the way I did with "The Big H" writers that were so important when I was in high school: Hemingway, Heinlein and Herbert. Ballard was different, but that made his books more powerful to me: found treasures.

In college The Day of Creation came out, and for a while it was easier to find other novels. I devoured The Drowned World and obsessively re-read The Crystal World and collections of short stories, The Venus Hunters, Myths of the Near Future, Vermillion Sands. The story that got me into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I am almost certain, was my attempt to write a reverse version of The Drowned World, and I often argued for the literary value of Science Fiction by using illustrations from Ballard's work (unfortunately none of the other students in Carnegie Mellon creative writing classes had read Ballard).

But it was only in 1990-91, when I was doing my M.A. at Stanford, that I really investigated Ballard and his intellectual world: I found, but did not really enjoy, the books for which he gained so much fame: Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, The Concrete Island, High Rise. Much more important to me was surrealism, which I discovered through Ballard. I spent hours and hours at Stanford's art library, pouring over major and minor works, and I tried to write surrealist SF myself. Simultaneously I went though a bad period of horrible insomnia (it didn't help that I lived in East Palo Alto, which that year was one of the crime capitals of California, so there were frequent shots fired in the distance and sirens, cracked-out people knocking on the door at 3 a.m., etc.) and for a while thought I was entering into a Ballard story or a Paul Delvaux painting. Somehow this all made Ballard even more powerful and personal.

Ballard was most widely acclaimed for his non-surrealist, non-SF novel, Empire of the Sun, and he was notorious for the experimental, weird books like Crash. But those books, interesting and accomplished as they are, don't do much for me. I am instead fascinated by the visual surrealism of the shorts stories and the books from the 60's and 70's. London half-submerged under warm salt water, a bird encased in crystal, a giant beach of red Mars sand, jeweled insects, sculptured clouds, flocks of sand-rays flying through the desert, the concrete blocks of Eniwetok. Ballard managed to write visually beautiful things, images that, once read, never leave you.

J. G. Ballard died of cancer on April 19th.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Council of Elrond
Adapted by Michael D.C. Drout and August G. Stoll, III

Bizarre Email of the Week

More Council of Elrond later tonight, maybe, but I just had to let you see this:

Dear Dr. Drout,

We have learned of your published research on whales. We would like to invite your participation in our publishing program. In particular, I have in mind a new research or review article for an edited collection (invitation only) being assembled under my direction tentatively entitled "######## [no need to embarrass the editor ###" The contributions for this edited book are intended to range from 4,000-35,000 words. If you are interested in participating, please consult the Notes for Contributors at the bottom of this letter.

I cannot for the life of me figure out what I ever wrote that had any bearing on whales at all (I've never even written anything significant about Wales).

UPDATE: Google is your friend.

Apparently there is a V. Drout out there who did a 2003 dissertation on Sperm Whales and that must be the source of the confusion. I am so jealous! Although Anglo-Saxon is cooler than anything else in the humanities, Sperm Whales are way cooler than that.

And there goes my plan of seeing if I could actually write something about whales and get published in a by-invitation-only collection. Dang.

UPDATE AGAIN: It gets better: the V. Drout who writes about whales got his/her Ph.D. from the University of Bangor in Wales.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Council of Elrond: An Adapted Play

(My apologies for the lack of content. I have been absolutely buried with:
  • Administration
  • The editing and then proofing of Tolkien Studies volume 6
  • The production of the cumulative index for Tolkien Studies volumes 1-5
  • Expansions, correction and revision for the new edition of Beowulf and the Critics
  • Prepping our Lexomics presentation for Kalamazoo
  • Writing a book chapter, "The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms" for an April 17 deadline
  • Prepping to give a lecture at Amherst
  • My son's 5th birthday
  • My daughter having two weeks off from school and a violin recital
  • Easter
  • My son's birthday party (which involves knights, princesses and ponies))

So in lieu of new content, I offer you something I wrote 31 years ago (how's that for recycling?)

Back in 1978, in Mrs. Hamer's 5th grade class in Ocean Township School, my best friend Chipper Stoll and I decided to adapt part of The Lord of the Rings for a play. Mrs. Hamer, being a brilliant teacher, let us sit in the book corner in the back of the room and do this for several days.

So with the whole Lord of the Rings to draw from, what did Chipper and I choose? Well, "The Council of Elrond" Why not? We had many choices: battles, stirring speeches, deep emotional struggles, beauty and terror. Of course we chose a faculty meeting with Elves.

"The Council of Elrond" is perhaps the most infamous chapter in the book: in 2005 I did a radio show in which one caller, who ran a bookstore, said "I just tell everyone to skip that chapter, and then they enjoy The Lord of the Rings (I'm afraid I took umbrage). And I have heard the same idea from many people, which I why I'm writing a chapter for a Tolkien book (assuming the chapter and the book are accepted) called "The Council of Elrond, all those poems, and the famous F-ing Elves: Teaching the Hard Parts of Tolkien."

Recently I found Chipper's and my script of The Council of Elrond, and, after reading it over, I have to be snotty and say that we did a better job (on this particular chapter) than Philippa Boyens. Our version is not all fighty-fighty, and we managed to use a lot of Tolkien's own words. I'm also extremely amused that my pedantic, academic self manifested itself even in fifth grade: Sez Elrond: "The Rings of Power were forged by the Elves of Eregion in S.A. 1590. The One Ring was forged in S.A. 1600, by Sauron."

So, for your amusement, over the next few days I will post The Council of Elrond, adapted by Michael D.C. Drout and August G. Stoll, III.

More to come...