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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Black Dossier, Top Ten, Stepmother

Posted by John Holbo on 01/18/08 at 08:12 AM

Finished Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier [amazon]. Jonathan asked what I think is going on at the end. Well, some sort of Prospero-Dionysus in 3-D thing. Clearly. Possibly this page contains some hints and/or spoilers.

Here’s an interview with Moore:

The planet of the imagination is as old as we are. It has been humanity’s constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, and since we first came down from the trees, basically. It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn’t have it. Fiction is clearly one of the first things that we do when we stand upright as a species - we tell each other stories. Now, Nature doesn’t do things for decorative purposes, except like giving peacocks wonderful plumage so they can attract a mate, but since there seems to be little point to telling each other stories all the time — except there must be. We have depended upon them and to some degree the fictional world is completely intertwined and interdependent with the material world. A lot of the dreams that shape us and, presumably, our world leaders, are fictions. When we’re growing up, we perhaps base ourselves on an ideal, and even if that ideal is a real living person, there is every chance that living person may have based themselves on a fictional ideal. This is actually ground that we do cover in ‘The Black Dossier,’ and in the final soliloquy, which is delivered by Duke Prospero. We’re talking about this very thing: the interdependence between the world of fiction and the world of fact. It is something that interests me, and has come to dominate my thinking on the series. I’m not exactly sure why, but it feels as if it might be important.

As it so happens, I was just having the kids read “On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense”. Plus bits of Birth of Tragedy. It all fits together.

I enjoyed Dossier, but not as much as other Alan Moore stuff - including quite recent stuff. I think Top Ten: The Forty-Niners [amazon] is better, for example. And, in many ways, it’s thematically similar. It’s not just that Top Ten is more comprehensible. It seems to me it’s more organically constructed, and the deadpan banter is more dead-on. Dossier feels like Moore just trying his hand at genre parodies and stringing them together. Oh, it’s fun, don’t get me wrong. I think in a way the sheer audacity of throwing so many fictional elements together in Dossier leaves them not enough time and space and language to simmer together into some truly satisfying soup.

Here’s a bit from Forty-Niners.


You get the idea. Another metafictional mash-up. Characters from various sub-genres brought together. But brilliantly done. And I love the art.

I also just read Robert Coover, Stepmother [amazon]. It was recommended to me as an example of a subgenre I have expressed interest in: retell myths and fairy tales with incongruous quantities of complex psychology thrown in (call it what you will). I was quite knocked off my feet. Here’s a short excerpt at McSweeney’s:

Look at it this way, love, I tell her: no more slops to empty.

I get no rise out of her, game as she is, my poor desperate daughter, her head is locked on one thing and one thing only: how to escape her inescapable fate. How many I’ve seen go this way, daughters, stepdaughters, whatever—some just turn up at my door, I’m never quite sure whose they are or where they come from—but I know where they go: to be drowned, hung, stoned, beheaded, burned at the stake, impaled, torn apart, shot, put to the sword, boiled in oil, dragged down the street in barrels studded on the inside with nails or nailed into barrels with holes drilled in them and rolled into the river. Their going always sickens me and the deep self-righteous laughter of their executioners causes the bile to rise, and for a time thereafter I unleash a storm of hell, or at least what’s in my meager power to raise, and so do my beautiful wild daughters, it’s a kind of violent mourning, and so they come down on us again and more daughters are caught up in what the Reaper calls the noble toils of justice and thus we keep the cycle going, rolling along through this timeless time like those tumbling nail-studded barrels.

When we finally get to meet Stepmother’s nemesis (this bit I’m typing in myself):

He loathes the lazy, the impertinent, believes in punishment and piety, is troubled by quarreling brothers and amused by stupidity and freakishness and spooky places, and he has a soft spot for those luckless lads like Old Soldier who have risked their lives at war, then been discharged with no more reward than a chunk of stale break, a copper coin or two, and the clothes on their backs. He gives them a break when he can ... Nakedness fascinates him, but only either as a trial - he always watches closely when terrified maidens, running barefoot through the forest, tear their dresses on the thorns - or as a further humiliation for the condemned. He never misses an execution, and can be seen at them, hunched over his pointed nose, his gaze fixed on the dying, dressed and undressed, and muttering to himself as if embroiled in some furious inner war, having not to do with issues of punishment and mercy, but with the methods being used and what those methods might express and how to speak of this.

Old Soldier is a great character, too. The book is just fantastic - a creepy, moving, joyously parapornographic dream about what all the naughty bits of fairy tales are up to.


Alan Moore’s work is particularly deft and brilliantly disturbing when he references “real” reality and history through some off-hand reference by a character in one of his narratives.  In Watchmen, the brutal and sadistic masked adventurer Comedian says, apropos of the victory of the US in the Vietnam of that fictional universe, something to the effect of how a defeat in that war would have seriously messed up the American psyche, the irony being that the world on the verge of annihilation in that narrative is nevertheless eerily evocative of our own world of the war on terror and the occupation of Iraq.  Moore’s Comedian puts his finger on the seeds of a lethal political polarization as well as of the uprooting of liberal democracy by populist nationalism (such as National Socialism): the myth of the back-stabbing political establishment and cultural elite, such as the cowardly politicians who supposedly lost WWI for Germany.  Julian Delasantellis has an interesting piece in the Asia Times where he talks about how the support of the US public for the invasion of Iraq is based on the implicit acceptance of the revisionist view of the Vietnam War - that it was the weak-willed politicians and bleeding-heart protesters who prevented the US from unleashing its full destructive power in that war which ensured failure and defeat:


The texts you mention in this post compels me to draw your attention to Bill Willingham’s Fables, the premise of which is that characters from the fairy tales are living incognito, for the most part on two blocks of Manhattan, after being driven from their homelands by an empire builder they call the Adversary.  The Adversary’s explanation for his conquests is not unlike that of the defense of globalization: he is building a political order which began as a project of reform and good government that turned out to require perpetual expansion in order to maintain itself.

By on 01/18/08 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How does Promethea fit in this?

By The Constructivist on 01/18/08 at 01:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, that list of annotations revealed--let’s just say--one or two things I might have missed. Perhaps it was just the mood of the final section that seemed to come from a Jerry Cornelius novel.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 01/18/08 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Upon further reflection, it appears that Moore is seriously trying to compete with Gaiman on his own ground over the past several years.

By The Constructivist on 01/20/08 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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