Descent into Post-modernism

In general, postmodern writing involves a blurring of boundaries.

I’ve been quiet but I haven’t been idle. This post is going to be more like a personal agenda so that I can track stuff without getting utterly lost. The point is I have a point, or at least trying to chase it.

This “post-modern” thing is fascinating, but also elusive. The real question is to get a grasp of at least what it does mean on a very general, but shareable, level. I had ideas but I wasn’t sure they were correct and fitting, and they were also too blurred to offer a good grasp.

In the end I discovered TvTropes and that offered a concise, pragmatic guide (especially how it applies to the variety of the media of today). Many of my ideas were proved sound and could be better positioned.

This kind of journey is across mediums. I’ve been moving through TV series, movies, games, anime, books and more. There’s a reason and it is relevant. A few months ago I was looking into Jonathan Lethem after watching a documentary and this excerpt from the wikipedia is fitting:

Nowadays, I’ve come to feel that talking about categories, about ‘high’ and ‘low’, about genre and their boundaries and the blurring of those boundaries, all consists only of an elaborate way to avoid actually discussing what moves and interests me about books—my own, and others’.

A lot of what I like is innately postmodern, so discovering what the term refers to is like discovering what’s the rule I answer to. It is so wide not because empty of value so that you can fit in whatever you want. The patterns are specific, and the patterns are what interests me.

This habit of “tracing” stuff through the wikipedia or TvTropes is typical of the superficial glance at “everything”, but that superficiality isn’t the important trait. The important trait is to recognize patterns that link the most disparate stuff. For example I’m watching Fringe. A TV series I recommend, very similar to X-Files yet better on certain aspects. It sits well with the postmodern angle as it plays quite blatantly with perception and “frames” (two things that are at the core of what I look for in Post-modernism). Its mythology is extremely straightforward and that’s not what draws my attention the most. What’s in the show is quite blatant and often clumsy, but there’s an extremely fascinating “dark side of the moon”, of ideas suggested but not played. So I watch it with interest more for those ideas suggested but not played with directly. What is not shown. That part of the mythology that is not canon.

So looking at the frames of things, not the details within. The relationships between the frames, relative positioning. You recognize patterns that maybe aren’t “true” (like the ideas that a Fringe episode may suggest you, but that aren’t really part of the plot in any explicit way) but that help move you closer. An idea close to another trope, the Death Of The Author in its more extreme and postmodern definition:

Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it’s about?

Take a little leap of faith, and it leads to Not in Heaven. It’s our right and even duty to take up the thing and understand or interpret it our own way.

This summer I have enjoyed quite a bit going through Final Fantasy XIII’s plot. It’s quite awesome (despite the actual game being rather subpar) and filled to the brim with those kinds of reveals and reversals I love. I’m not even sure I “read” the story the same as everyone else. For example Vanille is the typical FF airhead character. Utterly naive, clueless, cutesy, high-pitched voice to the point of annoyance. Not much clothes on her because she has to fit that male-titillating role. Oddly enough, they give her the narrating role, and this introspective voice she gets is already quite a bit different than the Vanille shown in the rest of the game. One wonders why they picked her this kind of role. At this point the plot is about a bunch of disparate characters who don’t know each other and are brought together by events. They are completely clueless about what to do, so they merely stumble along in their blindness. Some 15 hours in there’s one image. A sudden reveal that puts, without even using words, Vanille as a pivot and origin of the whole clusterfuck. Not the hapless victim, but the one who started it all. Suddenly all appearances are overturned, the reveal is enough to change everything literally. That flimsy, naive character was all a ruse, because SHE KNEW. She faked being ignorant like everyone else so that she could manipulate them and push them along as required (it’s a female Kruppe!). The airhead had been the master manipulator, so that the others were doing exactly what they were expected to without even the slight suspicion. This is a rather great pattern that then reiterates and escalates a number of times. I love this stuff because every loop doesn’t just overwrite the previous, it just… expands (like what’s good in Fringe, every season adds a whole new layer that BUILDS on the previous and contains it). In the end Vanille was only a small piece, herself being also manipulated in a much wider picture. Add in dreaming statues, inner worlds, manipulative gods, the end of the world and the deceit of deceits and this becomes pretty much Malazan, the game.

Within there, the themes I’m chasing. Awareness, the perception, manipulation, the distinction between dreams and reality, the possibility of choice, the place of god, revelations, delusions, and so on. Postmodernism is all that, plus the bending of the medium. The fabric itself where you write your pattern of meaning, that can also be twisted and manipulated. Where’s up? Where’s down? (look at Evangelion, episode 26). One of the most representative writer dealing with stuff is obviously Philip K. Dick, especially the latter works (quoting TvTropes):

When the novel begins, Dick opens by saying that it is a fictionalized account of his own encounters with Gnosticism/his schizophrenia, and he is writing the book to get a perspective on himself. The fictionalized version of himself is named Horselover Fat (“Philip” being Greek for “horse lover” and “Dick” being German for “fat”), and the book begins from Fat’s perspective. Over time, however he begins to write in the first person including excerpts from his unpublished Exegesis. Eventually, Dick becomes the main character of the story and he interacts with his own fictionalized clone.

From there I discovered a writer I had never heard of despite he’s been around from quite some time: Christopher Priest. He and David Cronenberg go hand in hand.

I managed to order an used copy of A Dream of Wessex, whose plot is a distillation of what I’m looking into:

A Dream of Wessex can be read as a straightforward story about a group of twentieth-century dreamers who create a consensus virtual-reality future. Once they enter their imaginary world they are unable to remember who they are, or where they are from. On another level, the novel is itself an extended metaphor for the way in which extrapolated futures are created.

The obvious link here is to “Disciple of the Dog”. Bakker is a writer that fits perfectly into all this, including the root of his fantasy work:

If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?

Is a call for “awareness”, it reminds me of DFW commencement speech, also, in its own way, a call for awareness. And here we cross another medium and we arrive to Japanese Visual Novels: Steins;Gate. The Prologue (you could then also watch Fringe, season 3, episode 3 for another of those links).

For some reason Japan is the cradle of Post-modernism applied to popular culture, and the Visual Novels are possibly the most suitable medium for playing with mind screws (and so symbolism) and perception. Another “frame” with so much good stuff that you can lose yourself within (and I will).

Steins;Gate opens its own category. The Visual Novel (30 hours total playtime according to ErogameScape) is finally being translated and imminent. It has the reputation of being absolutely awesome and one of the best Visual Novels ever made. The Drama CDs are also being translated (γ, α, β, about one hour each). The anime was completed a few days ago and received many praises despite adaptations from VNs don’t usually turn for the better. Steins;Gate also exists in the same Verse of another VN, also available in English and considered quite good on its own: Chaos;Head (20 hours playtime). If you are a completist like me you’ll want to go through the whole thing even if these stories are unrelated.

“Mind Screw” is basically synonymous of Visual Novel, so there are a number of more titles, thankfully available in English through fan-made translations, that are worth looking into. In the end an handful of titles dominate the genre. One is the Nasuverse. Specifically the most known title (among all VNs) is Fate/Stay Night (53 hours playtime), preceded by Tsukihime (35 hours playtime). Tsukihime is interesting in its own right, especially a kind of sequel, Kagetsu Tohya (25 hours playtime), that is a crazy dream sequence that loops over and over till you are able to find a way to escape it. I love just looking at the flowcharts. Even here, for the complete journey beside Tsukihime, sequel, fan disk, and Fate/Stay Night (they tell me to stay away from the anime adaptations of all these), there’s also a series of seven anime movies, considered to be quite excellent. Kara no Kyōkai, being actually the first piece of the three-parts creation and worthy in its own right: “While considered by many to be the prototype of Tsukihime, it is much, MUCH more complex, sometimes to the point of being Mind Screw.”

Between that and Chaos;Head (and later on this post, Lain), I’m also reminded of this (director: Sion Sono).

Another chunk of relevant Visual Novels is represented by another writer, Romeo Tanaka. Whose only two main works are available in english: Yume Miru Kusuri (15 hours playtime) (whose subtitle fits well with the theme: “A Drug That Makes You Dream”), and especially CROSS†CHANNEL (25 hours playtime). The latter, along with another title, Ever17: The Out of Infinity (30 hours playtime), being the signature “mind screws”.

What’s left? Umineko. An 8-parts Visual Novel (about 10 hours every episode, so a total of 80 hours, the script is HUGE) that thrives on mystery and speculation. A kind of detective story heavy on supernatural elements. This got quite a big following and only the last chapter is waiting an english translation. As a whole is one of the hugest works (it passes easily the million in wordcount), “epic” in its own right. And finally Muv-Luv. Considered the greatest of the VNs along with (the ancient) YU-NO (44 hours playtime) (with another insane flowchart and also with an imminent english translation). Muv-Luv being a kind of special case as it is a product of “genre shift”. Divided into three parts (consider 30 hours for the first two, and 40 for the last) where only the last is where it builds its reputation, and going from harem comedy to hardcore mecha. The trope “Anyone Can Die” is a synonymous of Muv-Luv. This, and other stuff, is being translated by the excellent Ixrec (where you can also find other very good reviews). Other good reviews I found on The Escapist. Especially Deskimus Prime and NeutralDrow (check their posts for more).

There’s another mecha series with an high reputation that’s still untranslated (it would be another huge effort) and that even has some insane gameplay included. This pretty much closes the chapter “Visual Novel”. Playing five minutes of Chaos;Head would give a very good idea why these all righteously belong in Post-modernism.

Stepping slightly aside, I’m now watching Serial Experiments Lain. A Japanese anime that again fits perfectly, including stuff I previously mentioned on the blog, from the wikipedia:

Likewise, the series’ Deus ex machina lies in the conjunction of the Schumann resonance and Jung’s collective unconscious (the authors chose this term over Kabbalah and Akashic Record).

Enough keywords in there to find more stuff and more interesting links. The anime is packed with symbolic meaning and it will be fun to parse (and to watch alongside Fringe).

This reminds me I’ve just ordered Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which also has a companion book, like The Gravity’s Rainbow (that I own already). Also sitting, if not leading, righteously in the Post-modern genre.

Another book to look into is Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut:

Breakfast is a personalized account of the phrase “perfect paranoia is perfect awareness.” Pontiac salesman Dwayne Hoover becomes obsessed with the work of sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, eventually spiraling into acute eruptions of anxiety when he believes that he is the sole human combating a world of reificated humanoids. Black satire at the peak of its powers.

Or TvTropes:

It’s taken to it’s logical extreme in Breakfast Of Champions, in which the author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., appears at the end of the book, is attacked by a dog from a previous novel and apologizes to one of the two main characters for making his life so miserable.

But I was talking about anime and forgot to mention the pinnacle of Kabbalah and Post-modernism. Not Evangelion (that is so blatant that it’s implicit in the list, like Infinite Jest) but The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s so sublime (and postmodern) that I refuse to spoil. This just has to be experienced. Trying to find a correct watch-order for the anime is already an impossible task (all episodes are “scrambled” chronologically, and then across two series). And it goes to extremes (Endless Eight) that are utterly unbelievable and masochist.

Then, maybe, watch π (the guy best known for Black Swan). I haven’t yet seen The Fountain, but they are closely related. In a certain way The Tree of Life too, but of that I already written on the blog.

I was forgetting, I found Christopher Priest because Adam Roberts reviewed his recent book (whose link to ergodic literature is another fascinating discovery).

And to cap this journey, another movie: Synecdoche, New York.

For thousands of years, fiction made no room for characters who changed. Men felt the need for an explanation of their baffling existence, created gods, and projected onto them the solutions for their enigmas. These gods of course had to be immutable, for they stood above the foibles of men

Rogert Ebert thinks it’s the best movie of the last ten years. It’s Charlie Kaufman directorial debut and he’s known for penning the scripts of some utterly crazy (and awesome) works, like: “Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (these all movies being great). Working often with Spike Jonze, but also Michel Gondry, whose The Science of Sleep deserves to be on this list (including the Dream Argument).

Last namedrop is Richard Linklater, probably best known for Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”, but it’s Ebert review of Waking Life that draws my attention.

To not have the answers is expected. To not ask questions is a crime against your own mind.

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