Transformative Explications renewed

Technically, this is the first post of this blog. But it is the second incarnation of Transformative Explications. The old version, which was located elsewhere, no longer exists. However, all of the posts from the previous version have migrated here. So, nothing is lost.

Here you will also find the posts from my other blog, RandM Thoughts. That blog has now reached its end. But it too finds a new lease on life here.

If you arrived here after visiting RandM Thoughts, do stay. You’ll find what you are looking for.

If you arrived here after searching for the old version of Transformative Explications, do stay. Again, you’ll find what you are looking for.

And if you arrived here with no previous knowledge of those blogs, do stay. You might find what you are looking for.

In any case, this is where you’ll find me.

Transformative Explications is a blog that explores my thoughts on literature and creative writing as well as, periodically, observations on technology, open source software, and more.

Do join in. I encourage comments on my posts. Agree, disagree, head off into left field — I’ll usually confirm the comment and probably respond.

Stay in touch. You can add the RSS feed for Transformative Explications to your favourite RSS reader. Or you can sign up for email delivery of new blog posts.

I hope to hear from you often.

And now on with the show . . .

Randy Metcalfe

Chucklit, or the rise of the man-boy novel

I’m an eclectic reader. I will read serious literary fiction as well as Star Trek spoofs. I will read classics as well as contemporary fiction. I will even read works in translation. I’m an eclectic reader but I’m not uncritical. There are many types of novels and there are better and worse examples of each.

Recently I’ve spotted a new novel type. It has probably been around for a while, so no doubt it is only newish to me. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it ChuckLit.

Chucklit is typically written by a male author. Its protagonist is also male, usually over 30 but under 40.  He is presented as an everyman but a special breed of everyman. He is smart but under-appreciated. He is financially comfortable either due to his own efforts or the largesse of some fabulously wealthy friend or relative. He has male friends who range from the aggressive loudmouth to the emotionally fragile. But they are all good guys. The kind of guys you would go out to a bar with weekly (or more frequently). They stick up for each other and have been friends probably since they were teens.

In ChuckLit, the protagonist has a low self-image yet seems, perhaps miraculously, to be surrounded by young, buxom, and entirely available women who think he’s great. But it’s so hard to choose! Or having chosen, to stick with your choice.

These are relationship novels. Although there will eventually be some form of violent action at a moment of crisis, in reality the acting out is all about the restructuring of the protagonist’s self-image.  (Despite appearing somewhat weedy, the protagonist will typically summon inner strength that manifests itself in the form of punching some guy who really has it coming.) Once that self-image has been restructured, he is capable of new/better/different/longer-lasting/fulfilling relationships with one or another of the available buxom young women.

And that’s about it. There may be some glancing nod to a topical issue or superficial psychological insight. But mostly it’s about a man-boy becoming, not exactly a man, but at least a new and improved man-boy.

There is something tiresome about such books.

It’s not just the laddish behaviour. Or the gratuitous scenes written as though the real goal is the movie deal the author may be able to negotiate. (Thus there are typically one or more scenes set in bars where bands are playing, which offers opportunities for a cool soundtrack for a movie, and one or more scenes set in strip clubs, which offers opportunities for some gratuitous nudity that the lead actresses may not wish to partake of.) It’s not even the disproportionate relationships with entirely average guys taking up with incredibly beautiful women. That can happen.

It’s the lack of effort, honesty, and insight in the writing that I find disappointing.


The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Picking up almost immediately from where the first novel of Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy concluded, The Story of a New Name traces the lives of Elena and her friend Lila from ages 16 to 23. Superficially they are on utterly disparate trajectories. Lila, married at 16, undergoes humiliation after humiliation, beatings and abuse from her husband, scurrilous gossip and innuendo from relatives and neighbours, and financial ruin. A brief summer of adulterous love spirals out of control and leaves Lila with an infant son, no husband, no lover, and, ultimately a need to re-establish her name as Cerullo, scrubbing away the years she has had to endure as Signora Carracci. By contrast, Elena goes from one academic triumph to the next, obtaining both her high school diploma, and, after gaining a scholarship to the university in Pisa, eventually her university diploma as well. To top it off she writes a much-praised short novel that is published not long after she finishes at the university. But we would be wrong to think that Elena and Lila’s lives are any less entangled than they were in their first youth. The ‘Elena Greco’ on the cover of her novel is as much a constructed name and identity for Elena as the, now, ‘Signora Cerullo’ is for Lila.

I couldn’t help thinking of the relationship between Elena and Lila as comparable to an elaborate dance. Ferrante has structured their lives in such an intricate formal pattern (even their sexual relations are matched), yet the wonder is that the novel never once becomes forced or contrived. Each step in the dance seems both compelled and entirely free. It is so well done that it can take your breath away.

Ferrante’s writing matches her two protagonists. At times it becomes almost formal and argumentative, as when the increasingly educated Elena tries to think through her emotional confusion. At other times it soars with near poetic and existential angst. And yet again it can be as basic as the most basic functions of life in the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples. Riveting. The only disappointment is that I will now have to wait impatiently for the final volume to appear. Highly recommended.

See also

Google Nexus 7, 2nd generation

I had one of those heavy birthdays last week. The kind of birthday that prompts your spouse to purchase you something geeky and electronic to make you smile and possibly not feel quite as old as you are. (Isn’t every birthday like that?) On this birthday, after some advance negotiations (“I’m not getting this unless you tell me you will definitely be happy with it”), I received the recently released second-generation version of the Google Nexus 7. And yes, I am very, very pleased with it.

For a long time I hesitated between the iPad mini and the Nexus 7. My wife got an iPad a couple of years ago and has been delighted with it ever since. About eight months ago her father got an iPad mini and he too has been delighted with it. And since cost, on this one occasion, was no bar (these heavy birthdays really do only come around rarely) I could easily have gone with the iPad mini. But everything I’d been reading about the new Nexus 7 suggested that it was more than equal to the challenge of the iPad mini. Plus, I was a bit concerned that we were getting painted into a corner here with our iMacs and the iPad; perhaps it was time to branch off into a different paradigm with an Android device (well, actually it’s probably the same paradigm, just a different company/environment). Then there was the much-vaunted beauty of the new Nexus screen. And finally, even though someone else was buying this for me, there was the cost difference, which here is about one hundred dollars. And that does mean something.

Choice made, heavy birthday survived, now it’s time to report on the joys (or not) of actually using the Nexus 7. Reader, I can safely say that it is wonderful.

The set-up of the device was painless. I found the apps I was looking for in Google Play, initially adding them to a wish list until I was ready to begin installing them. I’ve got the apps you might expect, I suppose: Facebook, IMDB, BBC News, LinkedIn, Dropbox, CBC News, Skype, Twitter, Flickr and more. There are a few apps I have installed based on recommendations from across the net. For example, Duolingo, which is a language-learning app, turns out to be fabulous (it is available for the iPad as well). I’m sure I will find lots more in time, but I’ve got enough to be getting on with.

One thing that was expected was how easy the move to Android is if you’ve already been enjoying a variety of Google products. Gmail, Drive (Google Docs, as was), Maps, and such just work the way you would expect. The browser is Google Chrome, which is fine with me. And there are apps for Google Earth, your Gmail contacts, and for Google+ (for which I’ve yet to find a real use).

Of course one of my goals for this device was to use it for reading e-books and other e-materials. To that end I purchased a subscription to The New Yorker magazine through Google Play Magazines. The subscription cost was reasonable and I’ve got to say that the magazine looks great on the device. It is easy to navigate, easy to read, and it has lots of additional multimedia content. I figure this will get me in the habit of reading on the device and that will make the move to reading books here easier. To that end I have added the Overdrive media app, which is what our public library uses. And of course there is also Google Play Books should I wish to purchase any e-books (though I’m so stingy it will take a great deal to break down my reservations on that).

Mostly I’m just having fun with my new Nexus. I still have a bit of a learning curve ahead, no doubt, but that’s no bother. Oh, and one last thing, my Nexus 7 is now housed in a nice Snugg case/cover. I guess I’m set.

Canada by Richard Ford

Is a man born a bank robber? Is he born a murderer? And if not, at what point does he become a bank robber or a murderer, such that in describing him we might, rightly, note that his bank robbery or the murders he commits were there in him all along? That transition, the border between what might be and what is, fascinates the narrator of Canada as he looks back over 50 years to his life as a fifteen year old boy in Great Falls, Montana. Dell and his twin sister Berner are the children of Neeva and Bev Parsons, who, in the course of a very few days transform themselves from ineffectual parents to ineffectual bank robbers. Dell struggles to see where or when precisely the transformation took place. It is almost a metaphysical transformation, something abstract, yet with real consequences. Those consequences include further transformations for Dell and Berner and their flight from Great Falls – west for Berner on her own, and north to Canada for Dell where he will learn that having bank robbers as parents is not the worst thing that can (and does) happen to him.

Ford’s writing here is lean and awkward, like the boy in whose voice he recounts these events. Only later, when we realize that Dell is really narrating his story from his vantage point as a 65-year-old high school English teacher, do we begin to appreciate how subtle Ford’s narrative has been. In the first third of the novel Dell sounds like a stilted, backward, child, almost implausibly naïve. When does he himself transform into the man he will become? Is it when he crosses the practically non-existent border into Canada (these events take place in 1960)? Or does it take something more, something definite? At one point a character tells Dell, “Doing things for the right reasons is the key to Canada.” And that might be our cue. It is actions themselves that make things what they are. We see this in Dell’s fascination with the game of chess, whose rules he has studied and stratagems imaginatively exploited, but which he never gets to play. But it is in the playing, one move following another, that a game becomes what it is.

Canada draws deep on Ford’s Montana stories (e.g. Rock Springs) and in so doing sets a markedly different tone to his Frank Bascombe novels. Thoughtful and deliberate here, as against frenetically immediate there, one can only admire Ford’s range and mastery. I think this is a novel that bears rereading and that it will become more significant on each pass. And on that basis, I recommend it.