Wipe the Clock

I SPENT THIS weekend catching up with old comrades: I finally saw John Woo's Face/Off, finally listened to Son Volt's latest, Straightaways, and read--not too tardily--Will Shetterly's new fantasy novel, Dogland. I have taken these artists' past work under my skin; they said some truth aloud for me, and I have been suitably grateful.

Now, out of loyalty, I want to report that the reunions went well. Of course, that's not what happened: One felt like a practiced pleasure, one stumbled before it soared, and one actually embarrassed me.

I say "of course," as if I expected to be let down: But, of course, I wasn't expecting any such thing. I bought the ticket because I respected the name. Isn't this what good consumers do? Something makes you feel good, you pull the lever again. But why do such choices seem safe? The more I think about it, the more laughable that assumption looks. For one thing, artists change. For another, so do you. When she was young, Ferron sang, "The lines connect, but the points stay free," like that was easy; in the real world, when points--and people--wander, the lines between them often stretch thin and sometimes snap.

Take Shetterly. Since 1985, the ex-Minneapolitan has written a handful of tart, extremely smart fantasies: half of them sword-and-sorcery glosses and half what you might call magical punk coming-of-age stories. The latter, most recent books, Elsewhere and Nevernever, take place between human and elf realms on shifting borderlands, where teen runaways of both species party and battle, tangle and transform. These generous fantasies sport vastly vulnerable, carefully barricaded hero/ines at serious play within a maelstrom of identifying signs; even as Shetterly stresses the importance--and fun--of crafting individual personas, he's wryly uncovering what commonalities lie beneath the masks.

With Dogland, a magical realist novel set in early-'60s rural Florida, the characters' masks have to do with skin color and class. And perhaps because historical conflicts weigh heavier than theoretical elf-human misunderstandings, Shetterly's earnestness expands at the expense of his wit. His black people are all varieties of noble, his white people (who own the book's point-of-view) vastly more complicated in their guilt. After a lot of bumpy road, Shetterly does find some blurring mystery, some give, in his sun-and-shadow world. Dogland smells like transition, probably a necessary one. Shetterly's not lost me yet.

The prognosis is not so fair for Woo and Son Volt. Although I happily hyperventilated through much of Face/Off while yanking Straightaways off the stereo in horror, both were about as startling as daylight. I've seen the theme, technique, and tone before. Woo's movie at least boasts the virtue of excess (can he even imagine another good man/bad man two-sides-of-the-same-coin scenario now that he's forced his duelists to literally switch faces?). Jay Farrar's album may make no such claim--it sounds small(-minded) and prissy, the voice I once heard as passionately unbound now stubbornly hectoring.

I'm partly responsible for that felt deterioration--I am impatient with Son Volt's musical obstinacy as I wasn't two years ago. My ear has evolved; I want more from them. Plenty of other fans disagree. Last Memorial Day, I attended a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention in Madison called "Wiscon"; at a panel about author accountability to fans, an editor declared that the audience only desires more of the same. The writer panelists disagreed, but he had sales figures on his side: People don't buy their 10th John Grisham novel to be surprised. If the drill had altered, they'd feel betrayed. As, among some Uncle Tupelo fans, Farrar is exalted for "authenticity" because he hasn't changed, while Jeff Tweedy exposes his triteness through Wilco's willful metamorphoses.

I think I'm past demanding such artificial stability, and then, last night, I catch myself proclaiming, "I love Mike Leigh!" Like he was not an artist but an ice cream, a dependable bliss. And a taste that defines me somehow: "My name is Terri Sutton, and I am a Mike Leigh fan." What is my stake in aligning my star with his? Why does it matter so much--how can I even experience embarrassment--when a musician or author "lets me down," either by not growing along with me, or growing in a way I can't follow? I said that I valued my favorites for publicly speaking "my" truths--can it be that I feel so otherwise voiceless?

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