Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Last Rockets

This is the first of what is sure to be a series of articles noting a series of "lasts" for the shuttle program. This one hits especially close to home for me, because the Solid Rocket Boosters were at the center of the plot of The Time It Takes to Fall (both literally and figuratively), and the journey they take by railway to get to Florida is one of those randomly beautiful facts that novelists could never make up and can only be grateful for. In Dolores's words, from the epilogue:

I still think about that O-ring. I’ve learned that it was manufactured in 1985 in Brigham City, Utah, cleaned off like a newborn, inspected and measured and inspected again before being packed and shipped to Florida. That O-ring made an American journey by railway, across deserts and mountains, across the width of the American South to arrive at the coast of central Florida on October 11, 1985, at the marshy wildlife refuge, the improbable spaceport. There it waited to be unloaded into the Vehicle Assembly Building, unpacked and reinspected and remeasured and reinspected again, by my father.

Never again will a Solid Rocket Booster make that journey. Unless, of course, the retirement of the space shuttle is extended for a few more years...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Long Hard Slog

For those of you who don't read the Fiction Writer's Review:

1.You really ought to be reading the Fiction Writers Review. It's full of good stuff.

2. Like my recent piece.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Time It Takes to Blog recycle-o-matic

I recently discovered that the literary blog Metaxu Cafe has gone out of business. This makes me sad because I liked it. For instance, a regular feature was a recently-published writer discussing a "classic" that had influenced his or her writing. Great idea, right? Will someone else please pick that up?

Anyway, I was asked to write one of these around the time my book came out, and now that the site is gone, I will have to put it on my blog or it will not exist on the internet at all. It will be like it never even happened.

Margaret Lazarus Dean on Lolita

I first read Lolita when I was a teenager, much closer to Lolita’s age than Humbert’s. When I picked it up, all I knew was that Lolita was a dirty book, that it was a salacious account of a nasty old man’s lust for a young girl, a defense of his indefensible behavior. (Like many people of my generation, I got the false impression that Humbert was old from the song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police: “Just like the old man in that famous book by Nab-uh-koff.”) So what I found was a revelation. Humbert is not old, and his behavior is never excused. The subject matter is treated with a complexity and a decency I had not been led to expect. The portrait of Lolita that seeps through Humbert’s narrative is nuanced and sympathetic, even as he objectifies her—we are left with an indelible image of her monkey toes, her sunny curls, her slangy speech, her harsh high voice. And, of course, the language: Humbert is pompous and showoffy, but within and around that excess Nabokov gives him a caustic precision I adored. Most surprising: Nabokov’s treatment of pedophilia was funny, not in a slapstick way but in a tragically revealing way. So my experience of this novel was an experience of being surprised continuously and variously— maybe the ideal literary experience.

For anyone, to read Lolita is to be forced to look at a pubescent girl through a series of distorting lenses: she is reduced and amplified by Humbert’s lust for her, but also humanized by his developing tenderness, all of which is muddied by the haze of his recollection and by his knowledge that he will lose her. All this is refracted through the additional lens of the manuscript’s fictional editor, John Ray, Jr., Ph.D, who seems to feel a disturbing empathy for Humbert’s predilection for young girls. A reader might legitimately ask: is the book’s main character Humbert Humbert, or is it this series of frames and ciphers? We might assume that Lolita is a book about a man tormented by a girl-object; having so recently been such a girl-object, I felt certain the book was about the girl.

Lolita has very little power in this story, ruled completely as she is by people who do not love her—first her mother, then Humbert, then Quilty. Lolita reaches a certain age—nearly thirteen—and discovers a new power over men. Should it be any surprise that she starts having sex, or even that she initiates sexual contact with Humbert? Many readers feel that because it is Lolita who crawls toward Humbert in The Enchanted Hunters hotel bed that early morning, everything that follows is her doing, that Humbert is in fact a victim of sorts, as Lolita’s act robs him of his last shred of self-control. In the dictionary, a “Lolita” is not a victim of sexual abuse, but a sexually aggressive young girl. Anything that happens to her, it would follow, is her own fault.

But Lolita is not a sexual predator; she is a child, with a child’s need for attention and a child’s propensity toward selfishness and sweetness and goofiness, and one of the hallmarks of Nabokov’s genius is that we can see her as a child, even through this series of distorting lenses. No one has ever read my novel and said it was reminiscent of Lolita (nor would I expect anyone to), but my book is infected by that book, as if by a blood disease. My protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl named Dolores, and her precocious sexuality is an expression of a gene planted by Dolores Haze, her ghostly great-aunt. My Dolores chooses to initiate sex with an older partner—hers is eighteen, less shocking that Humbert’s thirty-eight, but still quite illegal. Of course, the scene feels significantly different told from the point of view of the girl rather than the man: we can understand her motives and can only wonder at his, rather than the other way around. The novel does not spend a great deal of time on this sexual relationship—readers can expect to learn much more about the space shuttle program of the 1980s than about Dolores’s sexuality—yet I have heard from more readers about this scene than any other. I think the scene disturbs readers because, while Dolores does pay certain costs for having sex with an adult, she is not irrevocably changed by it as Lolita is. Seeing the scene from the girl’s point of view, we can see that she is not a predator, but a child with few other choices available to her. Yet it’s hard for some readers to see Dolores make this choice and get away with it. This is the form our prudishness takes now: a book containing such a scene will no longer be banned as pornography, but we want to see the girl punished for her choice. Like Lolita, Dolores is a child who has discovered this one power, this one loophole, but Dolores is spared the stigma of being a “Lolita,” a girl reduced to the barest outlines of her body. Fifty years after the publication of Lolita, with younger and younger girls sexualized more and more, you would think this scene would have lost the power to shock. I’m still not sure whether this reaction is shock at the audacity of a girl using her sexuality to claim power over a man, or shock that her circumstances offer this as the only source of power she has.

Reading Lolita for the fiftieth time, I’m still moved by the fact that Lolita wants only the things we are all supposed to want, like love and autonomy. One could argue that the choice she makes in that hotel she makes out of a desperate hope of achieving these. One could argue that she eventually succeeds.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No Moon

For as long as I've been reading about the history of NASA, it's fascinated me that there seems to be little correlation between a person's political ideology along the conservative-liberal spectrum and their feelings about publicly-funded manned spaceflight. This "publicly-funded" piece is key, by the way, as some people think that spaceflight is great as long as their taxes don't go to support it. One blog commenter I came across recently called Constellation "the socialized moon project" to differentiate it, I suppose, from a capitalist moon project. (Note to venture capitalists: moon travel is probably not a great investment).

So it's been interesting to watch, in the past couple of weeks, the space enthusiasts of the internet try to express their feelings over Obama's decision to ax the moon project in political terms. A lot of the people most upset about this decision, understandably, are NASA employees, who tend to skew (for multivalent reasons) conservative. Well, you can imagine: Obama plus cutting Constellation equals full-on Glenn Beck style rage. But as much emotional sense as it might make to rage against the guy who just axed your job and everything you've ever worked on, raging against Obama as a liberal doesn't hold much water. Not only because conservatives are supposed to like privatizing things, but also because this entire thing-- the whole send a man to the moon and bring him back safely before the decade is out thing-- was introduced by Kennedy, generally not embraced as a role model by conservatives.

A couple of people have asked whether I was sad about this decision, and I have to admit that I'm not. First of all, we have to acknowledge that part of this decision involve increasing NASA's budget quite a bit, a detail that often gets set aside in the Obama Bashing. Also because I never believed we would really be going to the moon any time soon in the first place. What Bush created when he called for Constellation was what politicians call an "unfunded mandate." He took credit for the idea and the excitement and left the money for future presidents to beg. Obama calculated that he can't spend the political capital to make Constellation happen, and he's right.

It cheered me slightly to see that Buzz Aldrin feels the same way I do (thanks @Irving Flashman for bringing this to my attention), and it cheers me all the more because I happen to know that Buzz watches a lot of Fox News and doesn't think much of Obama. That he would call this Obama's "JFK moment" means a lot, especially from someone who cares so deeply about getting to Mars.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Challenger Day

Twenty-four years later...

Challenger day has snuck up on us once again, and this one seems especially significant because this is, presumably, the last Challenger anniversary on which we can still look forward to more shuttle missions. The space shuttles are slated to be retired from service, one by one, as they complete the last five missions over the coming year, with the last mission to launch no later than September.

When I try to imagine what the Challenger crew would say to this, a few things jump to mind:
1) "You're still flying those birds? They're 18-26 years old, y'all!" (Columbia would be the oldest, at 29, if it hadn't broken up on re-entry in 2003.)

2) "What do you have lined up to fly next? A super cool new space ship, right? I mean after all, it's 2010..."

By the way, is it weird that I am imagining dialogue with people I never met who have been dead since I was 13? Not really, because I think sometimes the dead can help keep us honest about what we do next. These seven people believed in the promise and coolness of spaceflight so much that they were willing to risk their lives for it— I wouldn't want to have to explain to them that we haven't decided to get out of the spaceflight game so much as we've just sort of let it peter out without any clear decision-making or fanfare. That's lame, right? If we decide it's not worth the money any more, fine (well, not fine, know what I mean)—but we should take responsibility for making that decision. If we want to do something else now, something cheaper (and let's remember that the entire driving force behind the space shuttle system in the first place was its cheapness) that's fine too, but we should be honest about that too.

Also, NASA seems to be selling off some space stuff and I'm trying to figure out how to raise some quick cash.