Archive for the Books Category

Enter to Win a Copy of A Floating World

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on February 6, 2013 by vprime

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Floating World by Karen D. Best

A Floating World

by Karen D. Best

Giveaway ends March 09, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


My Book is Officially for Sale!

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2012 by vprime

It’s a momentous occasion for sure. You can now buy my book through Amazon. Tomorrow, it will go live on the Barnes & Noble website. It’s also going to be available through Smashwords, probably tomorrow as well, I just can’t find it today. Read it, review it, cherish it as if it were a precious baby bunny made of solid gold!

Twisted Fairy Tales, Lovecraftian Dates and More

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by vprime

I suppose this is going to cost me my internet anonymity, if I ever actually had any, but I can’t not mention it. I’ve explained the types of stories I write on my author website, so if you’re interested in reading that, it’s available. You can also read a synopsis and the first story of the collection at Beating Windward Press.

It is a bit odd integrating my writing here with my real name and fiction work. Not that I think the two are unrelated in my mind, but I like maintaining different functional personas. I’m not necessarily comfortable having people who know me from other contexts reading my work, but I guess that’s one of those introvert things that I have to get over once bits of my psyche make it out into the public.

Peak Retro: Ready Player One

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by vprime

Ready Player One takes place in a future universe in which a digital reality has supplanted the boring old analogue version. This world, the OASIS, was partly created by a man called James Halliday. The creation of this wildly popular online environment has made Halliday immensely rich. Too bad he’s dead, and he’s decided to award his estate to whomever can solve the series of puzzles he’s embedded in the OASIS. As a result, the popular culture of the year 2044 is dominated by nerdly obsessions from the 1980s as people dedicate themselves to examining Halliday’s every minute interest for clues. Wade Watts is the hero, a poor kid and an orphan to boot. His devotion to being a true follower of Halliday and encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture trivia pays off for this underdog. What happens is not of great interest to me, since if you can’t already tell, Watts beats the game and wins the spoils. What is more interesting to me are some of the unexamined implications in this book.

First is the notion that searching for Halliday’s fortune (a subculture known in the book by the inelegant portmanteau gunter, a fusion of egg and hunter) eclipses present popular culture in such a way as to render it nonexistent. Everywhere in the OASIS, people live in 80s movies, listen to 80s music, memorize old Dungeons and Dragons modules because Halliday was known to have once played them. There’s little in the book about the world outside of the OASIS. What we do see are trailer parks in which the units have been welded into stacks, vague mentions of an energy crisis that leave certain areas with sporadic electricity, dormitories-cum-prisons in which corporate debtors are forced to work off their debts. The outside world is of little consequence to Watts, in part, because the economy of the OASIS has eclipsed that of the meatspace. Having money in the OASIS seems to be more important. There are some things that reflect the meatspace world. Transportation from one place to another takes credits that can be earned in the OASIS or bought with currency. But for the most part, power in the real doesn’t necessarily translate into power in the OASIS. Meanwhile, in the OASIS, teens run around wearing clothes from well-known 80s films, arguing about Ladyhawke, playing low-res arcade games, hanging out in replicas of Halliday’s childhood home and otherwise behaving more of less like teen versions of the book’s 30-something target audience.

This is the purpose of the book, as far as I can tell. It’s about combining 80s geek signifiers to press that nostalgia button for the reader. It posits a world in which a major geek fantasy has come true; the fantasy that pop-culture trivia will suddenly become the only relevant currency in the world. Then those who can recite every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be kings. The cultural references seem placed throughout the book to trigger a reaction of “I recognize that, therefore I like it” from the reader, which is becoming a serious malaise in the 21st century. This isn’t Eliot making a statement with bits of Arthurian legend, it’s Watts driving a virtual hybrid of the cars from Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Why? Not sure entirely. I kept expecting the references to have some purpose in revealing either Watts’ character or Halliday’s but I gave up on that about a third of the way through.

There seems to be no new culture, rather a pastiche of dead-ends from the 20th century. We’re not far from this ourselves; endlessly recycling films, music and fashion from 20-30 years ago. Patton Oswalt named this phenomenon “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” And in the book, Watts praises the ready availability of every cultural artifact in the OASIS. Oswalt wrote that “Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” This is the world of Ready Player One, and the bleakest element of the book. Forget the 20 people living in one trailer, the absolute death of innovation and art signals the entropic state of American culture. Watts is a kid who is good at 80s arcade games. That’s his talent. He doesn’t produce or conceive of anything. I was initially surprised that Halliday’s will didn’t award his fortune to someone who was capable of innovating, as it appeared that what made Halliday special was this ability to create, but as I read I came to see Halliday as a disturbed person and potential megalomaniac.

There is very little to Halliday’s meatspace life. He’s drawn with the merest outlines of technocratic hero, meant to be a cipher figure into which the reader can project his or her geek sympathies. We know he was a nerdy kid. He worked with Ogden Morrow to create the OASIS. He apparently developed a young adult crush on a woman (I cannot remember her name. If you know it, drop me a line & I’ll put it in.) who was more interested in Morrow. As a result of Morrow’s marriage to this woman, Halliday became a recluse and spent the rest of his life in the OASIS.

Here I’d like to say that I hate “unrequited love” as a method of character building. It can work, but in this case it seems to exist in order for the reader to empathize with Halliday. It also hints at this nice-guy worldview in which it’s made into such a tragedy that the lover’s affections are unrecognized, yet it completely voids the woman’s agency to choose who she’d rather be with. I also hate “one-true-love” ideology and think it’s an excuse for obsessives to rationalize their issues. Halliday completely gives up on the real world after this one disappointment. This seems like an outsized response and exactly the sort of drama a teen would indulge in. His retreat from life seems like the symptom of an emotionally immature person. Bah. I am a heartless lady, because I always think “She picked someone else. Get over it.”

Anyway, Halliday continues to live after his death in the form of his avatar, a Dungeons and Dragons wizard called Anorak. The quest structure of the story involves its own troubled love plot between Watts and an avatar named Art3mis, who are both competing to complete the game. What’s troubling about the nature of the game is that it centers on deep knowledge of Halliday’s teen obsessions. These cultural products are framed as sources of comfort in Halliday’s youth. So, in seeking to make the game reflective of his lonely youth, Halliday is not so much reaching out to another similarly introverted outcast, but is ensuring that the winner will be someone who has studied him intensively. In other words, instead of looking for someone who created his own rich inner world out of cultural scraps, Halliday is ensuring he recreates himself by geek osmosis. He doesn’t want the heir to his fortune to be any another geek, he wants to create another geek as close to his own personality as possible, and since this is a world in which all culture is made out of retro, the method he chooses to replicate himself is pop-cultural pastiche. Halliday has made the OASIS a place where thousands of people live out his memories. There are planets devoted to replicating his childhood home over and over. In contrast, there’s much less veneration of the still-living Morrow, perhaps because he hasn’t waved a multi-billion dollar carrot in people’s faces to make them memorize all his favorite movies.

Halliday’s influence has shaped pop culture into his own personal scrapbook, which leads me into the next problem. All the people in the book are devoted to Halliday’s memory because there is a large cash prize attached. So what happens when the prize is won? The story really doesn’t linger on this point, but it appears that solving the game would essentially deprive thousands of purpose and destroy the world for gunters. Without the prize, why would anyone continue to participate? By proving his devotion to all things Halliday, Watts has eclipsed him and in essence destroyed his memory. Perhaps the future of Ready Player One is about a kid reliving Watts reliving Halliday playing Atari. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a Rubik’s Cube stamping on a human face—forever.

At the end of the story, Anorak appears to give Watts the prize along with a few words of wisdom. Part of which include an admonition not to become a recluse and spend all his time in the OASIS. Cough. If Watts wasn’t already 80% of the way there, would he have won the prize? Seems pretty weak to impart a life lesson that’s essentially “Go play outside.” Watts ends up sitting in a garden with the real Art3mis, having won her love despite out-competing her in the game. The end undercuts everything that has come before and makes an attempt to reassert the importance of the real world. I read this as a sigh of authorial defeat. What remains when the hero has essentially attained virtual godhood? Taking a walk outside. It strikes a false note because the real world has been so completely marginalized by the OASIS that it’s difficult to believe it matters at all. We’re returned to the values of our world, even though they have no place in the world of the story.

I’d love to have juxtaposed my thoughts about this book with another book; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Book Review: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on January 5, 2012 by vprime

There’s a fine line between simplicity and shallowness that fables and fairy tales must negotiate. These are stories, after all, that don’t rely upon the assumption of psychological realism when creating characters. Rather, the fable relies upon types rather than people, which is to say, obviously artificial figures that don’t entirely reflect our reality. The talking animal, the evil witch, the valiant hero: these are essentially paper cut-outs representing parts of ourselves. Part of what draws me to fairy tales is their unapologetic use of fantastical events and figures. There isn’t a tedious explanation of why the big bad wolf can talk to red riding hood, he just does, and the story gets on with itself. That being said, stripping a tale down to its figures can be dangerous if the simplicity exists only because the author can’t be arsed to come up with a good reason why Red should pause to have a conversation with the wolf. I’ve found that the current trend for this type of fairy-tale style writing often cloaks a lack of substance. I bought Stories for Nighttime and Some for Day largely because the cover art of a UFO and tentacle looked intriguing, and the blurbs on the back praising the collection as “a mesmerizing landscape of nightmares, daydreams, fables and parables.” Expecting something like the short stories of Kelly Link, I bought the book.

I should have known better than to trust a blurb.

The first sign of trouble was a table of contents listing over 190 stories in a book of under 200 pages. And before you say “flash fiction” let me state my pet theory that 90% of what is sold as “flash fiction” are story outlines or bits of scene hacked out of context. (Aside: yes, I’ve been guilty of this too. Get off my back–all of you–with that werewolf story!) So, knowing I was about to get the equivalent of a Ramones album (30 songs! All less than 2 minutes long!) I began reading. One could argue that these stories present us with amoral fables—stories in an instructional mode that leave off the moralistic conclusions. Only, I had such difficulty getting over the “who cares” factor that I could not appreciate these as exercises in style. One example, “The Octopus,” presents us with an octopus that has moved into the city and collects spoons. Already, my whimsy meter is overloading. The octopus is named Harley and his two octopus nephews are coming to the city to visit. They visit and the octopus takes them around the city, albeit reluctantly, since, as he explains, he has other things to do. Also there is something about how an octopus who moves out of the sea can live forever, but it has no relevance to anything else in the story. The octopus takes his nephews back to the beach and sends them home. Then he decides to return home himself. That is, we don’t see him deciding, we aren’t even really privy to any thoughts that might indicate the octopus is deciding to return to the sea. Nothing has happened while his nephews have been visiting him that stirs this desire. He pictures his octopus family and goes back into the sea. Ho-hum. So, why is it an octopus? It could just as easily been a story about a guy who moved out of the country. Is there something about an octopus’s point of view that this story needs to have? Give me a reason, any reason, why the protagonist is an octopus and not a shark,  I suspect the octopus was chosen just because it is a zeitgeisty emblem of “weird” and “unique” (check this and you’ll see what I mean) and made the story seem like it had some hidden meaning. The octopus, living forever and collecting spoons are just quirks thrown in to give some semblance of meaning to an utterly dull story. They have no organic reason to be there. For example, this issue of living forever might have naturally occurred to the octopus as it contemplated returning to the sea, maybe? Nope. And the entire book is written in a plodding, stripped-down style that grates the longer one has to endure it. There’s no description or attempted character development to save this Kindergarten Kafka. The other stories are similarly ineffective. In “The End of It All” a man builds a spaceship to search for the wife aliens abducted. He devotes his life to exploring the universe in search of her. On his last day alive he cries out that it was worth all his trouble just to have known the wife and the aliens return her. Pretty ironic, huh? In another story a hunter collects talking heads that convince a boy to behead the hunter. Whatta tweest! Trust me, it sounds more interesting than it is. After a handful of these stories the Twilight-Zone-y twists and 3rd grade writing style get old. I read all the stories, but getting bored less than 50 pages in makes me wish I hadn’t.

If you’re truly interested in the use of fairy-tale tropes in fiction, read Kelly Link or St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell.

Book Review: Venus in Furs

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , , on September 20, 2011 by vprime


I’ve been sorely disappointed with modern authors lately. Long have I taken a secret nerd pride in finishing a book even when I think the thing is horrible, but for quite some time I’ve been unable to do this. A lot of this may be my disinterest in the self-congratulatory twee language-prancing that goes on in a lot of current literary novels. I decided to take a break from postmodernity and read something from the 19th century. Venus in Furs ranks with the works of the Marquis de Sade in the pantheon of influential, taboo titles. Having found the Marquis tediously mechanical and long-winded in excess, I approached this book with some reservation. Shocking subject matter is no guarantee of compelling style. I did, however, look forward to reading something about women in power, as even now there are few works of fiction that contain truly autonomous female characters that aren’t punished for having a will of their own. A book about a dominant female character intrigued me. I wondered if this book might express some ideas about gender that go beyond essentialism, but I see now that I was expecting something far too modern.


The book opens with a man who wakes from a nightmare going to visit his friend, Severin. The nightmare involves the man having a philosophical conversation with the goddess Venus about how women should behave in romantic relationships. The goddess explains that since men are likely to take advantage of a woman’s natural kindness and softness, it is imperative for women to be distant and cruel to protect themselves from men. Sacher-Masoch actually has Venus say “man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired.” Severin explains that unless a man is domineering, the woman will control and destroy the man. His method of demonstrating this is to scream at a maid about his poached egg, then threaten her with a whip. Needless to say, there isn’t much danger of finding radical revisions of gender ideals here, even though the novel centers around a dominant female. Severin hands his friend a memoir he’s written which constitutes the remainder of the book.

This memoir contains a record of Severin’s relationship with a young widow named Wanda. Severin is by his own admission a dilettante, with no real calling. He roams around, pining after marble statues of goddesses. Wanda is an independent woman who warns Severin that she has grown accustomed to making her own choices. Severin sees Wanda as the embodiment of the marble statues he adores and pretty quickly decides that he would like to marry her. Their relationship evolves through several long conversations in which they discuss their romantic philosophies. Severin spends much of this time describing himself as “supersensual,” which I believed at the time referred to his desire for physical pain. But the book doesn’t lavish attention on the sensory details of the pain Severin feels, and I suspect that by “supersensual,” Sacher-Masoch means that Severin receives his pleasure in a psychic or extra-sensory fashion simply by submitting himself to the will of what he calls an “imperious woman.” Severin spends a lot of time at the beginning of the book describing works of art that inspire his supersensuality, including the Titian painting above. He and Wanda speculate that in ancient times, the supersensual received their pleasure through devotion to goddesses, and that this form of belief resulted in happy female-led relationships in which the woman was free to choose her lovers in both kind and quantity.  Over and over Wanda describes herself as “pagan,” a term which I took to mean more interested in sex than fidelity. She warms up to Severin because he appears sensitive and solicitous. They begin to play at fulfilling Severin’s desire to be dominated by a woman in furs. As Severin pushes for crueler treatment, Wanda warns him that the more he allows her to have her way, the likelier it is that her desires will outstrip his willingness to submit. Severin seems to consent to Wanda’s control and they make a bizarre pact that Severin will serve as Wanda’s slave for a set period of time after which they will be married and Severin will take on a more patriarchal role. This is because Wanda explains that she cannot be married to a man who subjugates himself to her, but would only ever respect a more domineering man.

This segment of the book suggests that both Wanda and Severin are too disturbed by their departure from the expected gender roles to seriously consider a female-dominant relationship as a possibility. Wanda even suggests that such a relationship would be so deviant it might make them both lose their sanity. Wanda’s insistence on finding a domineering man struck me as inexplicably strange. She enjoys the freedom of being a widow, tells Severin that she won’t be restricted from loving whomever she wishes, warns him that her appetite for dominance may be much stronger than his need to be submissive, yet she is somehow missing a bossy husband? She vacillates between being coldly cruel and falling all over Severin, needily asking whether he still loves her. A few times, she expresses her desire to give up their arrangement.

Severin, for his part, comes off as incredibly whiny. The main portion of their relationship takes place in Florence, where Severin pretends to be Wanda’s footman. In one scene, Wanda sees a handsome man riding his horse and orders Severin to take him an invitation to tea. Severin falls down crying and begging to know whether Wanda still loves him and will still marry him. Wanda says she can’t marry a weakling like him, then later in the night goes to find Severin and assure him that she loves him so! much! and begs him to still marry her. In other words, they’re both nuts. They fall into a totally codependent relationship that results in Wanda threatening to give Severin away and Severin vowing to kill Wanda. The great subtext of their increasingly drama-laden conversations become “look what you made me do!” I cannot overemphasize how whiny Severin is; constantly flinging himself down at Wanda’s feet in despair that she might take a lover who isn’t pretending to be a footman. Wanda is either a master manipulator or similarly desperate. She goes to great lengths to assure Severin that she’s faithful to him, even after her grand “pagan” pronouncements that no man is going to restrict her “gift of love” again.

Wanda eventually falls for some Greek war hero who seems to have marched out of the Big Book of Byronic Beefcake. He’s all flashing dark eyes and riding boots and arrogance. Severin becomes a non-stop bag of tears at this point. Wanda gets genuinely annoyed, reminding Severin that she was always looking for some jerk to boss her around and that she warned him she could become crueler than he ever intended. Severin pulls out every trick ever used by the manipulative guys you’ve tried to dump. This new guy couldn’t possibly ever love Wanda as much as Severin does. Wanda’s making herself a cheap whore for this guy. He’ll kill himself. He’ll kill her and this new guy, too. Wanda invites her new boyfriend over and together they give Severin a good flogging for being such a whiner. This is the final indignity that makes Severin pack up his toys and go home.

Now Severin is embittered and so determined to never again be hurt by a woman that he threatens his female employees with violence. Nice guy. Years later he gets a letter from Wanda. She did indeed get married to the Byronic Beefcake, but he was killed in a duel pretty soon after they married. She tells Severin that everything she did was to cure him of his supersensuality. The book literally has a moral: “The moral of the tale is this: whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.” Uh, what? Shouldn’t that be more like “Whoever begs and whines to be whipped shouldn’t be too shocked to be whipped”?


I suspected I wouldn’t find a lot of feminist ideas here, despite the book’s lofty praise of remote goddesses and powerful women. I spent a lot of time puzzling over Wanda’s search for a more domineering man. The book suggests this is a woman’s natural desire, which seems so backward. But the more I thought about Severin, and by extension, Sacher-Masoch, the more I started to understand. Severin controls Wanda just as much as any Bryonic Beefcake might, only he does it through emotional manipulation and by maintaining his martyr façade. Wanda believes Severin is sensitive and wonderfully different. She’s impressed by his knowledge of art—but it turns out the only art he ever discusses is that which serves as his personal porn trove. He has the temperament of a poet, but he’s only interested in one subject—his own supersensual needs. He’s great at conversation until he becomes Wanda’s slave—then all he ever wants to talk about is whether or not she still loves him. His time with Wanda is all about his fantasy. I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised, to see that in Wanda, Sacher-Masoch had created yet another empty feminine vessel with no desires of her own. She consents to Severin’s desires even though her true wish is for a different type of relationship.

Even in fiction, Sacher-Masoch couldn’t conceive of a woman’s desire to be dominant except as a means of pleasing her mate. Why wasn’t his Venus already endowed with the will to rule? Why does Severin have to talk her into it? There are two possibilities I considered: First, that the very “unnatural” quality of female power is what makes it appealing. If all women are by nature pliant and submissive, then the inversion of the expected order by itself makes the dominant woman attractive. If women ruled the world, then a dominant woman would be expected, not wonderfully taboo. Second, that a woman who is persuaded into ruling is still being controlled by the persuader. In this arrangement, the male may get the illusion of female dominance while staying secure in the knowledge that he still controls the relationship. Despite his talk of Venus and goddesses, it’s outside Severin’s consideration that women are superior or even equal to him. He turns into a misogynist so readily; it’s hard to believe he ever saw women as fully human. His manipulative behavior shows that he sees Wanda as a tool for his own pleasure, not an autonomous being. Wanda could never fulfill Severin’s desires. No one can, because he has an idealized and literally inhuman image of the cruel goddess in his mind that he’s exclusively devoted to. It’s this second possibility that strikes me as the most likely, knowing that Sacher-Mascoch did this to his wives, leading one of them to die from syphilis contracted from an extra-marital affair he insisted she undertake.

The book is undoubtedly endowed with a wonderful atmosphere of suspense. I read it all in one night because the feeling of dread and anticipation is so well realized through Severin here. There is a wealth of detail devoted to descriptions of Wanda, but the world outside her is just quickly sketched. Overall, the novel had a restricted or claustrophobic mood because Severin’s world doesn’t contain much beyond the fantasies he projects onto Wanda. Also, I might mention that for a book that has a reputation for being kinky, this book is quite chaste. There is no sex or nudity. The sensuality is oddly disembodied—it’s a sensuality of the eye and not the skin. There are images and emotions, but not many physical sensations. Even when Severin is being beaten, the focus is on the humiliation he feels, not the physical blows.

If you are interested in further analysis of this book, I recommend Gilles Deleuze’s “Coldness and Cruelty.”

Have you read this book? What do you think?



Music for a Monday: Venus in Furs

Posted in Books, Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2011 by vprime

I’m devoting this Monday’s music post to a song rather than a band in honor of my forthcoming review of the novel Venus in Furs. This song describes much of the thematic content of the novel. In the book, Severin, troubled by his desire to submit to a cold, unattainable woman, finds a willing accomplice in the headstrong widow Wanda. He persuades her to take him on as a servant and to wear furs in honor of a Titian painting that he believes expresses his ideal of womanhood. Wanda treats Severin as a slave, including meting out corporal punishment as part of their agreement. The book resulted in Sacher-Masoch’s name becoming forever associated with a desire for pain.

The Velvet Underground opened the door for much of the dark music that came to be known as Goth. In the book Goth Chic, Gavin Baddeley credits Nico with inspiring the cold, seductive persona refined by later Goth women. The slow, droning sound and taboo subject matter have made this song a favorite cover for Goth bands. If you have the opportunity to read Goth’s Dark Empire by Carol Shields, I highly recommend you do. In this book, Shields explores in detail Goth culture’s interest in masochism and submission. That I’ve heard this song covered at scores of Goth shows testifies to its influence on Goth culture.

I find it interesting that this song encompasses an ambiguous perspective. It’s Lou Reed who sings the original, and the song seems to slide in and out of the perspectives of Wanda and Severin. Reed describes the scenes from the book as an impartial observer, though the chorus beginning with “I am tired, I am weary . . .” appears to be from Severin’s perspective. It makes  no sense that an observer would express this ennui, though I don’t rule that possibility out entirely. The lyrics ” Taste the whip, in love not given lightly. /Taste the whip, now plead for me” seem to be Wanda’s words to Severin, though again, I think it’s possible that the entire song is from the perspective of a reader who identifies with both characters, whose emotional investment in the book provides a deep catharsis.

The original:

Christian Death (Rozz Williams):

Boring video, great cover by the sadly underexposed Rosetta Stone:

Her Majesty Siouxsie Sioux. If the “Wanda” portion of the song as done by Siouxsie here (especially her unheimlich wail on “plead for me.”) doesn’t give you goosebumps, check your pulse :

The Eden House is former Fields of the Nephilim members Tony Pettitt and Stephen Carey. I believe the vocals here are by Faith and the Muse’s (and formerly of Strange Boutique) Monica Richards:

Remember Gary Numan? He’s back, in pog form!:

And most bizarre of all, a commerical for tires (or, shall I say ‘tyres’?):

See you in a thousand years (after my nap).

Wait for the Blackout: Melancholy in Goth Culture

Posted in Books, Clothes, Culture, Fashion, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by vprime

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided exposed a prevalent cultural practice in America: that of compulsory positivity. As a society, we expect negative emotions to be cured, suppressed and otherwise cleansed from our neat little psyches so we can continue to be the exceptional individuals it is our God-given right to be.  We believe in the pursuit of happiness as a duty. This manifests itself quite often in the platitudes that one can accomplish anything if only one remains positive and believes in oneself.

What a load of shite.

As Ehrenreich discovers, this cult of positivity leaves people feeling embittered and powerless, as though their losses are the result of insufficient self-esteem. The bind is that one cannot reject the exhortations to be positive without being seen as damaged somehow.  Your negative thoughts are “unhealthy,” “toxic;” you need to “heal.” The cult of positivity permeates our language until there seems to be no acceptable way to be unhappy.  What’s the naturally melancholy person to do with all this relentless cheer? Goth and other darkly-oriented cultures offer more than a language that allows the expression of negativity, they offer an alternate world in which the negative becomes valued. The ability to mine the hidden psychic corners of our society is part of what makes Goth appealing to people of a more thoughtful bent. But the focus on negative emotion is often mistaken for “depression” and misconstrued. My aim here is to explore, albeit perhaps more shallowly than I’d like, the difference between what we label “depression” and melancholy.

I admit this will be a shallow inquiry because I just recently acquired Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and have yet to read it. I am also looking into Emo music, as it gets lumped in with Goth so often when the subject of melancholy in popular culture arises. From what I’ve gleaned so far I’d hazard to say that there are some serious differences and the main thing both aesthetics have in common is that they descend from punk.  I’ll return to the issue of Emo later.

Melancholy Babies

Depression is an illness. It’s something that—we believe—can be treated and cured. In past times, perhaps, depression would have been taken to be the same thing as melancholy, but as our concept of the psyche has grown toward the empirical, we increasingly view depression as an affliction that can be alleviated. Melancholy is an artistic stance. By that I mean that melancholy encompasses a point of view that is primarily fueled by the subject’s penchant for introverted thought. Melancholy describes a personality—one who is introverted, tends toward self-scrutiny, prefers thought and silence to action.    The tendency to turn thoughts inward has yet to be (fully) pathologized. It is possible to be melancholy without being depressed. By that token, plenty of people outside of the melancholy personality may experience depression. One of the defining features of depression is a lack of desire—the desire to connect or engage with the world. If I may get Freudian, what’s being “depressed” is the libido in the sense of the will for life. Melancholy is not an undesiring void. It contains yearning and fascination. Consider Poe’s narrators and their dark obsessions. Pining over the dead Ligeia induces a desire for her return so powerful that the narrator wills her into the dead body of Lady Rowena. There is desire and will of supernatural strength. I might add that a story in which the narrator gives up all hope and passively detaches is not a recipe for narrative success (in most hands) so that may account for the ascendency of depictions of melancholy over true depression in art.

Here’s an example from masters of melancholy, The Cure.

I’m going to refer to the singer here as a “persona” because I want to separate the artist from the art. The situation in this song is that the persona is holding these objects (pictures) that serve as the last remaining connection to a lost other. It appears the other that the song is addressed to could be a former lover, but it’s left intentionally vague. The persona blames himself for driving the other away. In the persona’s memory, the other was “crying for the death of your heart.” Here is an example of the fear of loss of desire.  It’s the other’s lack of emotion that causes him/her to mourn here, and, as the song hints, ultimately drives the other from the persona. The photos have frozen the other in an idealized state. They allow the persona the luxury of “remembering you how you used to be,” instead of dealing with the reality of who the other becomes. The real object of mourning here is not the other him/herself. All we know about the current state of this other is that their relationship with the persona is severed. The song hints (“If only I’d thought of the right words”) that the split is due to the other’s rejection of the persona. The persona is not significant to the other anymore, he tells the other he could “never hold on to your heart.” The pictures fetishize the lost other and serve as the new focus for the persona’s fear of loss. The other has become the pictures. The true fear expressed in the song is that even the desire attached to the pictures will fade.

Mourning the Living

I began to conceive of this separation between melancholy and depression when reading Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf, in which he describes the melancholic as one who refuses to complete the process of mourning and reach closure. He writes:  “mourning is a kind of betrayal, the second killing of the (lost) object, while the melancholic subject remains faithful to the lost object, refusing to renounce his or her attachment to it.” In keeping the desire for that which is lost, the melancholic refuses healing. But as Zizek notes, the melancholic is often in mourning for objects which are not yet lost. The melancholic anticipates a state beyond that in which the object is lost to one in which the very desire for the object is gone, and it is the fear that the melancholic will lose all sense of attachment that causes the subject to peremptorily mourn that loss. In other words, melancholy is prompted by a fear of losing desire rather than a fear of losing the object.  Zizek explains: “Therein resides the melancholic’s stratagem: the only way to possess an object which we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as if this object is already lost. The melancholic’s refusal to accomplish the work of mourning thus takes the form of its very opposite, of a faked spectacle of the excessive, superfluous, mourning for an object even before this object is lost” [italics mine]. In the book, Zizek gives an illustrative example: assume he moves from one city to another. Some time passes and he begins to feel melancholic about his old home, not because he misses that place, but because he finds himself beginning to no longer care about the old city. The knowledge that he will wake up one day with no yearning to return home is what triggers the melancholy mood. The Gothic aesthetic often falls into what Zizek calls “a faked spectacle of the excessive.”  The overwrought and over-serious nature of Goth can look to outsiders like a celebration of depression, but exists to stave off the demands of a world in which negativity itself is a lost object. The Goth mourns for a world of enforced cheer and dead senses, in which art exists only to sell you something and beauty is a cheap, shiny facsimile.

The label “depressed” as attached to the Gothic aesthetic has been one I’ve always rejected, in part, because “depressed” is our way of reducing negativity to a more pedestrian scale.  Gothic music expresses sadness and loss in a manner that seeks artistic merit in negativity. The idea of “depressing” music is also one that puzzles me. I’d consider pop pabulum depressing because it has no redeeming quality. Perky songs on the radio are depressing. Most of what’s on TV is depressing—it saps me of enjoyment and the will to live. Dark music is not depressing, no matter how bleak the subject matter, as long as it attempts to reveal the beauty in negativity.

Cheer Up, Emo Boy.

I said I’d return to emo and I suspect I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll be brief. Emo and Goth are like chimps and gorillas. They share a common ancestor, but have totally different ways of relating. What I’ve seen of emo tends to focus on the concerns of white male adolescents and their frustrated sense of entitlement. Emo angst is the cry of the unpopular kid who still has some desire to fit in. Emo also seems to be concerned, as most pop music is, with the concept of “authenticity,” as reflected in confessional lyrics and the use of relationship woes as subject matter. These subjects are awarded greater meaning because they originate in the personal lives of the performers. Goth is more theatrical and artificial, often employing ironic distance to hold the listener back from emotional connection with the performer. Siouxsie is an excellent example of this. Her performance of icy seduction is designed to create a cinematic remove from her subject matter. Her emotional expressions are performance. Consider “The Killing Jar” in which she sings in a sighing parody of sensuality while describing sexual molestation. Even though this song is inspired by a true sexual assault, she never loses control of the narrative or expresses helplessness. How many times have you danced to this song describing the assault of a young Susan Ballion? I can see why bands like The Cure and Joy Division have some influence on Emo as their treatment of emotional subject matter appears sincere and authentic. [I have my doubts, but then, I also think Moz does about 90% of his shtick as arch irony.] Goth celebrates femininity, while Emo’s another sausage fest following in Punk’s footsteps. Emo’s adoption of Gothic signifiers such as black eyeliner, androgyny and black clothing may just be due to the perceived greater sensitivity and emotionality of Goths. I admit I need to learn more about Emo to truly flesh out these distinctions. The music is hard for me to take, though. I find it a bit dull.

That’s all the melancholy misanthropy I can muster.

See you on the darkside.

Review: A Rebours

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , on May 12, 2011 by vprime

A Rebours is a book about nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. It is mainly a catalogue of things the central character, Des Esseintes, owns. The plot, as such is this: Des Esseintes has some digestive trouble. He moves away from the city in the hope that more aesthetically pleasing surroundings will cure him. It doesn’t. In between, there are long chapters devoted to detailing all things that do or don’t appeal to Des Esseintes’ taste. For example, he redecorates his rooms repeatedly, with extra attention paid to which fabrics he uses, which colors suit his mood, which books he chooses to display. He has a dining room made with fish tanks in place of the windows so that he can pretend he’s underwater. He makes his servants wear fake headdresses so he can pretend they are nuns when he sees them walking past his window. There are chapters listing which Latin books Des Esseintes approves of and which ones he finds vulgar. He makes some perfume, has a turtle covered in jewels and collects a lot of plants that are intended to look fake. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of paintings and interiors, but there is little to define the character of Des Esseintes other than his possessions.

I found much of the book tedious and skipped many of the exhaustive lists of Latin books in Des Esseintes’ library. There were two incidents that nearly began some character development, both of which suffered for having been mere memories. In the first, Des Esseintes decides he will make a murderer of a young man by taking him to expensive brothels and then withdrawing his financial support. Why does he want to do this? He seems to come close here to acknowledging his own irrelevance. As though by believing he could wield such influence he hopes to prove to himself that something he does has external consequence. But this matter is dropped because Des Esseintes becomes bored with the game before he sees the outcome. I suspect the real matter here is that Des Esseintes, in living a life slavishly devoted to solipsism, may even doubt his own objective existence, and the failure of this experiment would prove that. Therefore, he abandons the project lest he find out the unpleasant truth—that he really doesn’t matter to anyone.

The second incident that raised my expectations was the fling Des Esseintes has with an Amazonian circus performer named Miss Urania. (Hint. Hint. Hint.) Initially, Des Esseintes is charmed by the daring feats and impressive stature of Miss Urania. Eventually, he becomes disgusted that she doesn’t use her superior physical strength to toss him about like a ragdoll. Also, she inconveniently has emotions and preferences of her own which are far too vulgar for Des Esseintes to tolerate. This memory led me to expect that we would learn after all that all of Des Esseintes deathly boredom was due to perverse appetites the sort of which led to imprisonment in those days. No. From there the book laments that the Church isn’t as brutally strict as it used to be and spends several pages describing a specially made volume of Les Fleurs Du Mal which I would very much like to have. On the way to the end, Des Esseintes is physically sickened by the ugly faces of commoners, stops eating and is told by his doctor that if he doesn’t go back to the city he’ll die. The end.

At first I was surprised at Des Esseintes’ religiosity. After I thought it over, it made perfect sense. What’s the joy in devoting yourself to decadent sensation unless it breaks someone else’s rules? Without the Church, there’s not one to define what’s wrong and therefore pleasurable. What Des Esseintes laments when he rails against the marginalization of the Church is the leaching away of transgressive pleasure from life.

A Many-Splintered Thing

Posted in beauty, Books, Etsy, Jewelry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2011 by vprime

I’ll refrain from the obvious Joy Division reference for this Valentine’s Day post. Instead I’ll just borrow a bad pun from Mr. Eldritch. Valentine’s day is an orgy of romantic stereotypes, waxy chocolates and unfelt sentiments. And substituting Lupercalia is already played out. Yeah, if I didn’t look at this holiday with a jaundiced eye, you’d worry. Sometimes I celebrate it, sometimes not, depending on how depleted I feel. I do have plans that I am looking forward to this year, but I’m equally satisfied by staying home and watching a movie. Nonetheless, I do have recommendations should you need dark offerings for that special someone you’ve been cyberstalking.

Hedonist Necklace by Bellalili

This necklace by Bellalili manages to be tough and refined at once. Bellalili’s items combine ornate metal forms with brilliant crystals. I would wear this with anything from a plain black v-neck shirt to a ruffled blouse. It’s big enough to be noticed without crying out for attention. I regularly spy lovelies in Bellalili’s Etsy shop that I admire. Visit Bellalili’s Etsy shop.

Tokyo Milk Tainted Love

Don’t touch me please I cannot stand the way you tease. Tokyo Milk’s Tainted Love has a little less Marc Almond and more vanilla, orchid, white tea and sandalwood. I have Tokyo Milk’s Dead Sexy and wear it often. I haven’t smelled this yet, but it sounds promising. Anything that combines sandalwood and tea is compelling to me. Vanilla is a tricky fragrance note. I can’t stand it in an overly sugary iteration. I’m not sure what has driven the rise of bath and body products that smell like cans of frosting, but that’s the sort of vanilla I avoid. As long as there’s something to dirty up the vanilla a bit, I’m willing to try it. If you haven’t yet smelled the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Snake Oil, do make sure to sniff this magical and delicious combination of vanilla and patchouli. My hope is that Tainted Love mixes a greenish sandalwood with the fresh tea note and the vanilla is warm and complex rather than sweet. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s tried Tainted Love and can describe it a bit.  Visit Tokyo Milk.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. This new Penguin Classics hardcover has a gorgeous cover worthy of the decadent tale within. This black and white volume would look elegant on your shelf or table. Books are the best gifts ever, in my mind; and even better if the book is beautiful to look at. I am now reading Huysmans’ A Rebours which is the book that turns Dorian from a sweet boy into a lovely monster. To give your love an interesting reading experience, pair this with the highly underrated Dorian by Will Self.  Buy books at

That concludes my Valentine’s suggestions. No flowers, candy or stuffed animals. These gifts are appropriate whether the object of your desire is male, female or other.

Until next time.