Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Science Camp

Keyword: camp, pulp, violence, sexuality, superscholar

I would like to respond to Conor’s post, as he made a point that I myself came upon many times while doing the reading. At many points in the story, the writing just seems… bad. The characters are mere sketches, each one consisting of a job description and one defining feature: there is a botanist who “likes mushrooms,” a commander who has a tragic past, a dancer who is also beautiful, and a M’Cwyie, who is ostensibly both a keeper of mysteries and Gallinger’s ultimate antagonist, yet seems to serve only to agree to whatever Gallinger asks to do at any given point in the story. Finally, the dialogue flips between ridiculous one liners and grandiose lecturing. Some of the pontificating near the end by Gallinger is most egregious, the cringe-worthy, “I’m not a holy man, just a second-rate poet with a bad case of hubris,” (99) especially sounds like a parody of some sort of cheesy hardboiled film noir story. Normally, I would side with Conor in taking the “so bad its good” camp mentality, but in the case of A Rose for Ecclesiastes the ham-handedness just bothered me, and I wonder why.

It occurred to me that it might simply be a matter of my associations with camp. To me, camp is most closely associated with action or horror, the genres which are often most brazen in their appeals to the readers’ base emotions. In these genres, the pulp hero makes his way through the work mostly through brute physicality, often through violence or sexual prowess. Thus, the dialogue or narration becomes completely secondary to this physicality, and we forgive the pulp novel for its shortcomings in these areas. Consider James Bond, who we watch for his ability to dispatch baddies and bed women, and either relish or casually ignore his terrible one-liners. Nobody goes to a Bond movie for the dialogue, but rather the action, so we can ignore the one liners because they are “not what the film is about.” However, Rose’s lack of a clear delineation between these two aspects of the narrative calls attention to these shortcomings by confusing what the reader is meant to enjoy, and what they are meant to casually ignore. Rather than the muscle-bound action hero, Rose has a condescending “superscholar,” one who makes his way through the plot with ridiculous feats of mental ability (such as learning a new language in a manner of a few weeks) rather than strength. However, if the man is as scholarly as his “campy” feats of ability would suggest, then wouldn’t we expect his dialogue and narration to be a little more cerebral? In the adventures of such an idealized aesthete, it seems remiss for his dialogue and narration to remain like that of a cardboard cutout of a scholar. If the dialogue of an action novel or film is forgiven because of the action, then what is Rose’s excuse? Rose even seems to be somewhat self-conscious of this failing, and includes its own instances of violence and sexuality, in Gallinger’s instantaneous courtship of Braxa and his equally effortless defeat of Ontro, as a form of compensation and a hearkening to the more classic expectations of camp.

In that vein, I found We Can Remember it for you Wholesale to be far more palatable than A Rose for Ecclesiastes, despite similar levels of dubious pacing, minimal characterization and blunt dialogue. There are still silly lines of dialogue, such as bluntly explanatory “He knew what I was going to do, but I did it anyhow,” (118) but I did not mind as much. Perhaps I should have, but I feel that Quail never promised himself to be any more than what he delivered.


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