Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Josh Hitchens IS Jeffrey Dahmer (Again)


Those who read my blog on a regular basis know that I think that Josh Hitehens is a cultural treasure. Six years ago, Marianne and I had the privilege of seeing his original one-man performance as a serial killer in a play he wrote himself, The Confession of Jeffrey Dahmer. Last night, we saw it again, in the company of Samuel R. Delany, Dennis Rickett and Bill Wood. 

So, half a decade later and half an hour longer, how does the performance hold up?

It's still terrifying.

The basement space at the Art Church of West Philadelpia wasn't as scary a venue as the near-lightless garage of the original performance. But it's still an intimate experience that puts you very close to a man the likes of which you pray you never run into. (Chairs are set up for seventeen audience members -- one for each of the men and boys Dahmer murdered, though director Ryan Walter says that if anybody is absolutely desperate to see the play, he can slip in a couple of extra chairs.) And Hitchens does a miraculous job of putting the audience in the mind of someone at the extremes of human thought and experience.

This time around, I was struck by how funny the play was. After his performance, Hitchens returned to discuss the play with the audience. Everyone was free to leave if they they wished; nobody did. So I asked about those lines. "About 85% of he play is taken directly from Jeffrey Dahmer's only words," Hitchens said. "All the funny lines were verbatim."

So for ninety minutes or so, we got t live inside the mind of a monster--and a human being. Because the monologue's intent is not to exploit the sensationalistic aspects of what happened--though those were not whitewashed, either--but to give us an idea of what it would be like to be such a man.

There's a line from the original version, since revised, which I like to quote every now and then: "I slept with over a hundred men and boys and I only killed and ate seventeen of them. I think that should count for something." Imagine that said in a flat, affectless voice and now you have some idea of whether you want to see this or not.

But whether it's your sort of thing or not, it's an astonishing performance, a magnificent piece of theater, the sort of accomplishment that justifies is art and its genre.

There are still a few tickets left, I believe, though the run ends on the 17th.  If you wish, you can buy tickets here.

And I Cannot Resist  Including . . .

After the show I took a snap of Chip Delany and Josh Hitchens together. Two very brilliant creators, though in different media.

Note Ryan Walter in the background, aware of the camera and posing for it. That's a true man of the theater. I like his attitude.

Above: Photos by Michael Swanwick and free to use, so long as you include a credit. I should mention that the photo on top is of Josh Hitchens as himself; he looks quite different when he's being Dahmer.


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Carol Emshwiller, 1921 - 2019


Carol Emshwiller has left the planet. She lived for almost a century yet her friends -- pretty much everybody who knew her -- agree that her death came all too soon.

I have no memory of how we first met. One day, on seeing me, her face lit up and she cried, "Michael! It's so good to see you!" and I realized that we were old friends. This was, by the way, her response to all her friends. She was a beacon of life. It shone from her.

I also have no stories about her. Stories are about conflict and it's almost impossible to imagine conflict with Carol. But I do have one small anecdote.

We met by chance one day, as we occasionally did, and I said, "Carol! How are you doing?"

"I'm in mourning," she said. "I've just finished writing Ledoyt and all these characters I've been living with for over a year are gone. It's as if they'd all died. I'm bereft." Then she asked, "Don't you feel the same way when you've finished a novel?"

It's not all that often that writers talk seriously about writing. So I gave Carol's question some thought. Then I said, "No. I see it as a moment of liberation. I've been persecuting all of them for 400 pages and now I've stopped. I imagine them running down the street, waving their hands in the air, shouting, 'I'm free! I'm free! I'm going to buy a hamburger!' and 'I'm going to move to Poughkeepsie and nothing's going to happen to me there!'"

Which is, in part, what I value about Emshwiller's fiction. She wrote stories and novels totally unlike anything I've ever written. She gave me (and all the rest of us) windows into worlds we never could have seen without her.

I have no interest whatsoever in fiction I could have written myself. I found Carol's work intensely interesting.

I'm particularly fond of Carmen Dog.

Above: Photo by Gordon Van Gelder. He'd just given Carol a Nebula Award and thought the moment should be memorialized. Used by permission.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Happy Lunar New Year!


So it's a brand new year all over again!

The Chinese New Year celebration always reminds me of when I was a young father and my son Sean was still an infant. Marianne and I had business downtown, so we parked in a garage in Chinatown and hit the street.

Which was when we discovered that it was the first day of the Year of the Rat. The streets were filled with celebrants and young men with cigarettes dangling out of the corners of their mouths were setting off string after string of firecrackers. It was gloriously noisy.

I was worried, of course, that the noise would frighten Sean. But instead, his eyes grew wide and he peered about him with wonder. Looking at his face, I could see exactly what he was thinking:  At last! The big people are doing something sensible!

To all my friends in China and everyone else who celebrates this holiday, let me wish you a Happy New Year.

The one day a year on which we big people put aside our ordinary concerns and do something sensible.

Above: Sean, some years later, celebrating the Western New Year at Gardner Dozois' and Susan Casper's apartment in Society Hill.


Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year! (Part 3)


You've seen the runners-up. They were all worthy. In an ordinary year, any one of them could have  won. But this was no ordinary year.

Two works stood head and shoulders above all others for their towering bleakness and uncompromising refusal to even pretend to acknowledge the existence of the spirit of the season. When it came time to choose between them, even the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family could not find a rationale for choosing one above the other.

The adventure began with Sam Jordan's conceptual deconstruction of the traditional Christmas card. That's it immediately above.

Long term readers of this blog may remember Sam as last year's winner of the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year competition. Which victory was achieved by writing a threatening seasonal note on a meat cleaver, burying the cleaver in a bloody turnip and then leaving the whole on the back porch in the dead of night. It was truly a breathtaking piece of work.

Mr. Jordan's submission this year was a genuine work of conceptual performance art. As the accompanying note says, "The Card is INSIDE the Ornaments." The accompanying hammer, complete with festive bow, implied that there was an obvious way to read the card.

One could, of course, employ tweezers. But to do so would be to show the white feather. So...

The hammer was raised.

And lowered.

It must be said that there is something exhilarating about deliberately smashing a Christmas ornament.  It explodes beautifully. It is an act of vandalism akin, one imagines, to flinging a stone through a stained glass window.

This is the first season's greetings I've ever received that made me feel complicit.

Inside the ornament was the message: This "card" represents the last of my creative ability as the depression tightens it's (sic) grip.

The solecism, it must be said, did nothing to lessen Sam's chance of winning.

So... you may well ask... What could possibly offer any competition to so remarkable an effort?

Simply this:

The seasonal card from Judith and John Clute is always an event because Judith Clute is a serious artist (you can find her web page here) and the card is a serious work of art.

Serious, it goes without saying, does not necessarily mean joyful.

The title for the original etching that became the card is 2666, which clearly refers to Roberto BolaƱo's novel of the same name. Which, you will recall, involved an unsolved series of murders of women, the miseries of the Eastern Front in WWII, academia, mental illness, and other such matters.

A familiarity with the book is not necessary to recognize that Ms Clute's work is dark indeed. The woman in the center looks happy and confident -- clearly, she's got it all together. But darkness impinges upon her from either side, with images of death, war, and suffering.

As one member of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family put it, this is a picture that says: No matter how happy you may be, the common fate of all is death --- death in the past, death in the future, death everywhere.

From a lesser work of art, this would be easily dismissed. But Judith Clute is, as has been said, a real artist.

For a very long time, the debate went back and forth. Could Sam Jordan's conceptual piece be disqualified as an obvious attempt to win the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year  competition? No, it was decided. What could be more godless and atheistic than wanting to win such a competition?

Could, then, Clute's card be downgraded for being aloof from the entire competition? Also, no. Its sincerity had to considered an asset.

For the first time ever, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family was deadlocked. Nobody could bring him or herself to vote either way.

And then... And then...

And then, a Christmas miracle happened! One of us moodily smashed another of Mr. Jordan's ornaments:

And it contained a message saying: May this ornament find you in good health for years to come!

"Christmas," somebody gaped, "is saved."

With a palpable feeling of relief, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family declared that this warm message of good will moved Sam's offering one degree off of negative zero. It was declared first through tenth runner-up.

And the title of Godless Atheist Christmas Card of 2018 went to Judith Clute's 2666.

But it was a squeaker.

And for the second time in a row . . .

I have to apologize for being a day late with this post. I had it half-written when a certain family swept me away to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. By the time we'd watched and discussed it, built a fire in the wood stove, mixed Manhattans, and settled down to dinner, I had forgotten my obligations entirely.

For which I am sincerely sorry. The movie was good, though. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the superhero genre.

Would it be a spoiler if I told you that Spider-Man dies? Okay, then, forget I said anything.