Kookaburras, Classical Music and Metafiction

I’m going to be coming up on five months in Australia very shortly. I’ve been here almost half a year, and it’s extremely weird – part of me feels like I just moved in yesterday and part of me feels like I’ve been here quite a bit longer. The other day I got to game with some friends from the states for the first time in a couple of months and they were surprised I haven’t developed an accent yet, and I’ve gotten quite a few questions as to how I’m enjoying being an American abroad.

I like it. For the most part it feels very natural to me. Full disclosure, growing up in relative isolation in the backwoods of Maine and keeping to night owl hours, I’ve had more friends from outside of the US than I did locally. I had a handful of people I hung out with regularly, close friends that ended up moving down to Boston or off to the midwest in search of better job prospects than our rapidly greying stage, and I always had a lot of acquaintances in the area, but for the most part a lot of my adolescence was spent talking with people from Europe and Australia. I knew a lot of the lingo and slang already and I’ve certainly trended toward things like gun control and universal health care for ages after seeing that good friends of mine managed to grow up fine and dandy in countries not beset by constant mass shootings and life-ruining medical bills, so I’ve found the transition easier than some I’ve known who stepped off the plane feeling like they were emerging on to the surface of an alien planet.

animal-1298886_960_720.pngThe one thing I find jarring is waking up to kookaburra song. As a native Mainer I’ve grown so attuned to the background noises of northeastern birds. Thrushes, warblers, phoebes, that’s the ambient hum to which I spent most of my life listening. Even when I moved down to New York for awhile there was enough bleedover in bird species that familiar sounds filled in the gaps between cars outside the apartment windows, especially since I lived fairly close to a major park. Here though, the three big noises I hear are cackling kookaburras, groaning Aussie ravens and the noisy miners. The latter are probably my favorite. They’re tiny, fighty little bastards who gang up on larger birds and have a wider variety of calls, including one specifically to warn the local flock that there’s a cat out in one of the lawns. It actually does sound a bit like cat-cat-cat-cat. Less loud but still cool to look at are Australian magpies, who I almost mistook for a corvid when I first arrived because they’re that damned clever and can actually remember people similar to how crows and ravens do. Really striking looking birds, all black with shocks of bright white and clever orange eyes that do study you when you walk past. Thankfully I don’t live in the territory of any of the really annoying birds like the lorikeets, who are absolutely gorgeous and a reminder what how subtropical a place I live in now but also swarm and produce a deafening cacophony once you get them in large enough numbers.

I’ve just about mastered public transportation here, or at least gotten to the point where I can find my way around by the everpresent maps. The other day coming back from a movie my wife asked me what I thought about it in comparison to New York (keeping in mind she’s someone who has done a lot more world travel than I have and grew up with public transit), and honestly, as someone who’s very critical of how little America puts into its subways and rail lines in general… it’s overall better here but I feel like they could steal a few things from New York, particularly the wealth of color coded lines mixed with the alphabet system. I have to pay a lot more attention here to make sure I’m getting on the right train, whereas when I lived out in Brooklyn I knew I could hop on almost any orange line and end up in the vicinity of Prospect Park, I knew the entire yellow trunk and the QNR routes like the back of my hand, the Lexington greens, so on and so forth. Part of that may be that I lived down there so much longer than I’ve lived here and I did more travel in the city, but I found it easier to dive right into by comparison. The trains and buses are way cleaner and more comfortable here but there are some rumblings about them yanking out most of the seating to really sardine people in, and that would suck. I can already tell I’m going to want a car here eventually too, something I never even considered in the big apple.

Oh, speaking of that movie we were coming back from, it was the new Star Trek. I enjoyed the hell out of it. I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was very young, I have fond memories of watching an ancient VHS copy of A Piece of the Action with my dad out in the den what felt like every week, and this movie felt as close to an actual TOS episode as I’ve ever seen. All the chemistry from the first two movies was present and the actors played off each other so well, and this time they weren’t reliant on constant easter eggs, references and rehashed plotlines to keep the story moving. It felt both original and like a mixture of everything there was to love about TOS. There were nods to events from the old shows but they were just there to evoke a passing smile if you were familiar. One complaint I have heard several places online, and one that genuinely surprised me, is people upset that this is a Star Trek where stuff like the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy are considered classical music. That’s… exactly the kind of thing that would happen a few hundred years in the future, though. One of my sisters was deeply into classical piano so I have more than a passing familiarity with some performers, and if you look at someone like Franz Liszt, his performances during his peak were looked at like crotchety people sneer at hard rock. He’d absolutely freak out at his keyboard, make wild gestures, he used to go on weird tours of hospitals and asylums to stare at dying people and had an obsession with the macabre that would put contemporary death metalheads to shame. Totentanz and some of his other works were considered quite shocking and I remember reading reviews about women fainting from how intense the music was at his concerts (obviously exaggerated, but demonstrating that moral panic has been around forever). I can totally see the alt-rock, rap, grunge, and other mid 90s cultural spikes being lumped together and looked at with the same reverence that we lay on “Baroque” as an era, especially three hundred years down the line.

234_1.jpgFinally, I’m continuing my progress in The Dark Tower. Since last time I posted I’ve finished off The Waste Lands, Wizard & Glass and The Wind Through the Keyhole and I’ve dug into Wolves of the Calla like a tick. What has immediately jumped out me through the last two in particular is how well the metafiction works. It’s a weakness of mine and something I’m an immediate sucker for in literature. Nested stories within stories are like catnip to me because they’re rarer than they should be. They demonstrate the characters’ appreciation for fiction and that immediately makes me feel more sympathetic to their cause. I know that if I was on a road trip from hell with three or four good friends we’d spend every layover trading stories, not stoically glaring off into the distance like so many protagonists seem to do on these questing tales. I also like how he’s played around with metafiction in a way I found similar to Alan Moore’s later work. A lot of MF deals with romanticized fiction from bygone eras, which is where we’ve got the obsession with western European knighthood, steampunk and now a retro 80s thing. By framing the primary world of TDT as being a place where the future has happened and collapsed, the remaining nostalgia can be for a time that we’d consider contemporary and almost banal, and the antagonists/stumbling blocks are a great blend of goofy and quietly menacing because they fall into this literary uncanny valley. Like, yes, that’s a werewolf version of Doctor Doom wielding a lightsaber, and that’s so absurd as to be funny, but he also just violently murdered a character to which we’ve grown attached and that makes the absurdity horrifying. I also love the Sergio Leone on acid aesthetic of the piece, like he was hired to direct The Once and Future King as an HBO adaptation set in a post apocalyptic wasteland full of mutants and cast-offs.

It’s not devoid of flaws. As I said early on, I’m holding off on passing a lot of judgement until I finish the series as a whole, but there’s a marked shift in not just the style but the themes between books 4 and 5 (which, considering King’s life at that point makes some sense) and I feel some elements I don’t care for from his horror novels seeping in. Some foreshadowing that goes so far as to remove any tension for me and some of the weird juxtaposition with magic and disability are sloshing around the edges, and I don’t know if I find the whole concept of the roont twins disturbing because of how it exists within the context of the story or because I’ve become much more aware of how damaging it is to have throwaway characters and the concept of “making” someone retarded as a plot device feels skeevy to me, up there with throwing in sexual assault not to actually further any story but as shorthand to show what a bad person the antagonist is. That stuff is coming out much more here than it did in any of the prior books in the series and although it doesn’t outweigh the good parts, I’m definitely looking at it more askew than with the giddiness of earlier entries. I have been told by multiple people that the last two books recover well from the stumble, so I’m not too worried.

Outside of that, I’m going to try and throw a book recommendation at the end of each entry, either something I’d read lately or an old favorite. Obviously it’s gonna be more of the latter while I’m knee deep in King novels, but here’s the first.

51LOisaoSPL.jpgReanimators is exactly what I look for in a contemporary Lovecraft story; it’s building on the original and making it feel even more finished. The first Reanimator is, frankly, kind of boorish and weak for Lovecraft and I believe its following is more due to the B-films it inspired than any merit of its own, and I say this as a pretty big fan of old H.P. It’s extremely straightforward with little in the way of twists and turns. That’s where Rawlik’s book comes in, it plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the original tale and fills in a lot of blanks, turns the protagonist of the first story into an antagonist when seen outside his own head, and turns the rather straightforward reanimation process into something more sprawling and horrific. Great narrative voice, doesn’t require a whole lot of familiarity with Lovecraft’s story, and takes you from sleepy college towns to the front lines of WW1 and back into the darkest woods, traipsing through a variety of mythos stories and tying something as basic as zombie reanimation to the greater cosmic themes of the shared setting. It also leads into an interesting sequel by the same author that takes things a few steps further. Extremely re-readable too, I ended up snowed in by a massive blizzard and lost power for a long weekend right after purchasing it back in 2013 and ended up reading it twice over, practically back to back.

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