Friday, May 11, 2007

On Rap Music, A Wrinkle in Time, and Great Children's Literature: some random thoughts

I don't like most rap music. Most of it concerns a cultural milieu, that, not being my own, I find hard to relate to and uninteresting; it's not that I have anything against black-inner-city-urban-whatever-the-hell-it-is called culture, its just that it is not where my head is at, and thus, being as I see culture as a subjective, relative socially constructed phenomenon with no intrinsic value outside of it's own sphere of interrelationships, I just have no desire to listen to song lyrics—or "raps"—concerning values foreign to my own. I mean, it is not as if there are not certain aspects of it I like, such as the beats—sister Mary is astonished that I have not been lured in by the beats—but all the things that I like are found in ample supply in other musical formats, and the raps—that is, the spoken, rhythmic, delivery of poetry resting somewhere between verse and free verse—while fine bits of rhythm (what a weird word, rhythm, what with being pronounced with two syllables yet having only one vowel with is y of all letters; how Old English) often stand or fall before my tastes based on their content, which, as I said, I usually find either uninteresting, disturbing, or offensive.

Also, I think most of the backing noise is really just electronica by another name, and I prefer live instruments.

This is not to say I dislike all rap. Just that the rap that I do like I like on a case-by-case basis.

The one rap song, which stands above all others for me, is "I Against I" by Mos Def and Massive Attack.

I first heard this song in Blade II. It's the song on the soundtrack when Blade and all the Vampires are marching, all bad-ass and Reservoir Dogs-style, into the vampire club. There's a lot I like about this song. For one thing, there is none of that stupid intro crap that plague's most rap songs. I tried to listen to other Mos Def stuff afterwards, but almost all of this song's start off with the ridiculous "Hey. Yo. What's up? I'm starting this song now. Here's the producer's name. Did I state the year? Uh, yeah, well the year is [year]. Which is good. Oh, and uh, vague political statement, meant to sound important, and to show my Depth As An Artist, but, being a stock phrase, just sounds hackneyed. Yo."

None of that is this song. It starts with a metallic, menacing beat, then a clicking rhythm comes in, then the (fake) bass drum, then more white noise, which, oddly, produces a melody. then Mos Def comes in, and this weird, haunting melody that seems to float along ethereally in the background, enters. the whole song, while really just fading elements in and out, seems to be building continuously to some kind of confrontation. Which, of course, the lyrics seem to be about. On some level, the song is just your standard "battle rap," with Mos Def saying "Do not mess with me. I am very tough and can hurt you very badly. I will win if any altercation occurs." But the language of it is so epic, that it seems to move beyond "battle rap" to some kind of surreal Plane of Constant Battle. (Massive Attack definitely deserves a good share of credit for this effect.)

I against I
Flesh of of my flesh and mind of my mind
Two of a kind but one will survive
My image is reflected in my enemy's eye
And his image is reflected in mine at the same time.

Something like that. It seems to almost be more a psychological battle than physical one; is his opponent really himself, the battle between him and his divided self?

Anyways, the reasons I being all this up is that, for some unfathomable reason, this song reminds me of A Wrinkle in Time. Whenever the song starts playing, I think, "Yep, A Wrinkle in Time." It's kind of like how whenever I listen to Our Lady Peace's Clumsy, I get images in my head of old Batman strips from Archives Volume One, and Hellboy comics, since I read those two things while listening to the album over and over again (back when it was my only non-Beatles album). But this is different, because I hadn't read A Wrinkle in Time in ages when it first started happening. Just for some reason listening to it made me think of the book, and I couldn't figure out why. I think it had something to do with the the archetypal, near-abstract nature of the Conflict in the song being similar to the Conflict in the book. In fact, I ended up rereading A Wrinkle in Time recently, just to see what about the book made me remember it.

A couple of days ago, I picked a copy of A Wrinkle in Time at work that had the best cover art of any copy of the book I had ever seen. Charles Wallace, Meg, and Calvin O'Keefe are standing one behind another staring off into the distance. Standing behind them is Mrs Whatsit in winged-male-centaur form. The background is full of alien terrain, and hovering in the upper right, in the sort of surreal manner of poster art and book covers (this is where Darth Vader usually is in the old Star Wars posters), is the man with the red eyes.

Now this is all pretty standard book cover tropes, but what I liked about this cover was the way the characters where drawn (painted?). Each one of the characters is realistically drawn, as if from photographic models, but looks exactly as they are described in the book. Most book covers don't get this right; the models look like models, and not like the characters at all, or they look like the characters, but they are drawn as cartoons, so reading the books you end up picturing cartoons (this is a big problem for me with the Harry Potter books).

But on this cover they get the details right. Calvin is a tall, thin red-haired boy; attractive, but not in a cover model way, and so as it's believable he might have an attraction to Meg, who is shy and awkward looked, with glasses and bushy brown hair. the kind of girl who could be construed by others as Not Pretty, but could also believably be the daughter of Mrs. Murry, who is consistently described throughout the book as being almost achingly beautiful. Then there is Charles Wallace, a small child, yet with the look of oceanic intelligence in his eyes, which gives him a slightly eerie quality. Oh, and Mrs Whatsit looks like a properly beautiful angelic creature, and the man with the red eyes looks like a nightmare vision: surreal, inhuman, a little out of focus.

The book cover made something occur to me, an answer to a question that I hadn't known until then to formulate, which is the question of how one makes Great Children's Literature. Now, Great Literature, as we know, usually has encombant upon it's title, a certain elegance, or masterful use of prose (a word I am starting to hate; it always seems to pop up in a highfalutin context). Great books read like the author knows how to put words on the page. This means the language has to be complex, polished, to perfectly convey the precise meaning. Yet how can Children's Literature, which, by definition, requires simple, uncomplex language, and no big words, ever hope to be considered Great Literature? Are young readers simply condemned to read bad literature, and there is no way around this?

I suppose one of the reasons I started thinking about this is that I wondered if A Wrinkle in Time would be considered Great Literature by the people who decide such things. Probably not, I thought. The writing is too plain. It is meant to be read by children, after all. But then, I thought, the book's been around for, like, fifty years. Damn right it's Great! So how is it Great, if it doesn't quite meet the qualifications of Great Literature?

And what the cover made me realize is that it is all in the images. Great Children's Literature is, think often based around the use of great images. Not luridly described prose trying to convey things, but the way things are shown in relation to one another. I remember reading a C.S. Lewis quote somewhere about how Narnia started for him without plot but by a bunch of images, such as the lamplight standing on the edge of the forest. Something like that you don't need to describe in detail, and it is still vivid in the mind. What's great in great children's literature is the way is that it can arrange images in a way that imparts something to the reader, hints at deeper depths of feeling without having to beat them over the head.

A Wrinkle in Time is almost wholly revolves around the images and how those images cause a reaction in the reader. The appearances of the Murray's. The abandoned house. The three old women. The alien planet, where Mrs Whatsit shows the children the dark cloud. The inhuman precision of Camazotz (echoed in The Giver, I feel). The man with red eyes. The evil disembodied brain that is IT.

It helps that there are ideas. Great, big interesting ideas, like tesseracts and Evil and Love. Any Great Book needs stuff like that. But the way they are used, and commented on, is all in the things shown, not in the way they are described. That is, while most Great Literature is about trying to capture experience with descriptive words, the human condition can also be captured through the things that represent that experience. The fact that the man with red eyes has red eyes evokes his innate evil just was well as some long elegant description of the way his mind works.

Images also allow the reader to learn a lot about characters through inference without having to explicitly state anything, or even comment on it at all. The fact that Meg is consistently described as plain and awkward, while her mother is described at incredibly beautiful, over and over again, allows you to infer a whole lot into Meg's relation to her her family without the author (who is Madeleine L'Engle, by the way) ever needing to go into Meg's mind. We the readers can fill in for ourselves how this contributes to Meg's inferiority complex (though there are other sources for it as well, of course).

I suppose it's the visual nature of A Wrinkle in Time that made it occur to me while listening to "I against I." The song's mood just fits the images of A Wrinkle in Time so well for me.


I haven't been writing much lately. Mostly, it's been random scribbles in notebooks, all crossed out; random thoughts not committed to paper, left floating in the ether. I need to get those out, man, but it has been a no go lately, hence the light posting. The New Job, which is a kind of thrilling psychological test for mice combined with someone's personal private version of hell, possibly mine, has been consuming most of my energy, so that I never feel like committing my self to the bashing, aggravating process of writing. Also it splits up my freetime; I am awake for about three hours after work and four or five before, and I never want to write just then. After work I am too tired to think, and before work, it's like I have the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head; I am in a state of constant state of agitation which makes committing time to writing feel like wasting time. On the other hand, I am gaining lots of material from the job that is helping develop a story that I have been thinking through was stuck on (this is all plot-talk here, I haven't written anything yet). However, I am now starting to get used to my weir,d unhealthy schedule, and am adjusting to it, getting to know how to use it. Hell, half the point of this post is just to show to myself that I can sit down and write something if I commit to it.