Elizabeth Hand: Generation Loss

Hand, Elizabeth, Generation Loss, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0279-0

Hand, Elizabeth, Available Dark, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0278-2

Over the past year I have read quite a few crime novels in between doing work and other things, and I’ve increasingly felt that there are two specific things a good crime novel will do well: it will have mastered the generic structure of uncovering a crime (subverting the structure is its own kind of mastery), and it will be about something unrelated to the murder business. I find I am easily tired of the Elizabeth George type of contemporary crime novel – where characters and setting basically fill in the gaps in the mystery structure. I understand the appeal – and a well executed generic mechanism can be a thing of beauty, and is often underrated by “literary” critics. Novels that do both aspects well, however, are rare. One such writer I enjoyed greatly is CJ Sampson whose novels set in Henry VIII’s time work enormously well as crime novels, but who also use the historical context as more than attractive setting. Similarly, some of the most lauded crime novels of the past years take on the topic of racism in the American South, like Lori Roy’s Bent. Moreover, it appears to me, writing a novel that connects both spheres – or just writing an exceptionally tightly structured crime novel – can be like catching lightning in a bottle – often, previous and subsequent attempts fall far short of the mark.

All this is to say that Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss is an almost perfect example of what I enjoy in a crime novel, and the one sequel I have read of it, Available Dark reads like an underdeveloped print of what made the original book succeed – and indeed I am apprehensive of reading the third and most recent installment. Generation Loss is not Elizabeth Hand’s debut – far from it. Hand has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1980s, but for her 2007 novel Generation Loss she switched into realism, producing a noir crime novel that seems quite unique in setting and outlook, but underneath the hood of this remarkable book is a finely tuned generic crime mechanism. The introduction of characters, of the central mystery/crime, the small revelations that drive the plot and finally the big confrontation and resolution are both generic and extraordinarily well paced. But just as a lot of midsize cars built by the same company have the same motor but appear to be different brands, what makes Generation Loss so unique is Hand’s choice of setting and characters. Much of the plot may be mechanical, but Hand’s mastery is so deft that the plot’s movements seem to derive from an internal logic of settings and characters rather than from the execution of a genre-based mechanism.

The protagonist of Generation Loss is Cass Neary, who works in a bookstore and is generally quite miserable. She is a photographer – or rather, she used to be a photographer, who produced one well regarded book and then fell into obscurity. When the novel opens, she barely makes a living as a clerk in a bookshop. Like Elizabeth Hand, Cass Nearly is a craftsman – when she talks about photography, and when she takes her own picture, we quickly find that her relationship to her art is not one of vague ramblings about the nature of art and photography. Cass is interested in the mechanics of what makes a good photo – how to manipulate film, focus etc. I cannot tell whether her comments will seem insipid to a real photographer, and of course, many of the comments take the form of information dumps in convenient dialogue for readers like me, but it never seems overwhelming or bothersome. It is always tied to Cass’s personal approach to art – Cass’s first and only book featured dead and destitute people of the 1970s/1980s punk scene, and her ideas about photography, as well as the artists she admires, are all centered around this concern with (and sometimes paradoxical seeming distance from) reality. The book starts when Cass is offered a job to interview a legendary photographer who lives on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. She arrives, only to find that the photographer knew nothing of an interview, there are children disappearing in the area, and one morning, the photographer is found dead.

Cass’s interest in photographing the dead becomes a central element of the book’s resolution, but more importantly, Hand quite cleverly connects the genre of realist noir to the protagonist’s preoccupation with realism in photography. Many of the character’s musings on her art can be applied to the book’s own genre, with the conventions of realism being questioned quite intently. The conventions regarding what passes for real, and what does not translate not just to the mechanics of plot, but also to the minutiae of style. Hand’s style is self-consciously modern and hard-boiled. She uses pathos that’s quite typical of the genre, in order to shift into certain emotional states that she does not want or need to explore in details not typical of the genre and not expected of this kind of naturalist fiction. Not having read her other novels, I’m obviously speculating, but since this is her first noir contemporary novel, and it is written in a pitch perfect noir contemporary style, she must have created it for this book – and it never reads as parody. Additionally, though Hand is far from the first one to do it, she inserts a female protagonist into a male genre – thus drawing additional attention to questions of gender. This also gets repeated on the level of photography – or the art world in general. On the island(s) off the coast of Maine, she encounters not just the legendary photographer she was sent to interview – and who is a woman. She also meets male artists, and as if to drive the point home, there is a child that connects these two characters. Art, biology, and the anxiety of influence appear and reappear in various guises throughout.

That’s what sets this book apart – it’s not the female centered take on noir, it is not the excellent execution of crime genre writing. It is, instead, the fact that somehow, despite actually running on the rails of genre, it appears to be motivated and pushed and formed by art, and by the protagonist’s obsession with it. Cass Neary is a close cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher, an artist brilliant and talented enough to be able to recognize genius and to understand the gulf between her talents and that of the true standout artists of her genre. Cass is obsessed with art, and it is only fitting that the final confrontation is between her and another art obsessive. Everything fits and clicks.

That makes it a bit of a disappointment that her next novel, Available Dark, does not rise to the same heights. We appear to meet another art obsessive, we appear to be drawn into another maze of the arduous space between art and life, as Cass Neary is flown to Helsinki to help assess the value of a set of photographs. Instead, in this book, photography and the art and technique of it is incidental. Available Dark sidles up even closer to noir conventions, with Neary sometimes merely following the winds that blow her across the icy Scandinavian plains of a baroque plot. As the resolution presents itself I was more irritated than anything. A lot of stupid people doing stupid things and killing other people for even more generic, stupid reasons. I know that a lot of crime novels are centered around the stupid things that stupid people do (and the half-clever ways they try to cover it up), but that’s not what I find interesting. There’s a disturbing thing that happens at the end of Generation Loss that I am unwilling to spoil, but it is entirely in line with that book’s general theme, but it expands it, and opens up Cass Neary’s world into another direction – it’s tough to see it fall by the wayside within the first couple of pages of Available Dark, serving merely as motivation for Cass to take that Helsinki job. However, whatever misgivings I may have about Available Dark, they don’t tarnish Generation Loss, which is fantastic. Read it if you like that sort of thing. It’s good.

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A brief appreciation of Uwe Johnson

Uwe Johnson. Man. In a turn of luck for anglophone readers, the complete Jahrestage is now available in English, in a brand new translation. I have few words for how much I admire Johnson as a writer. There are no reviews of his work here (apart from these letters) because I find it difficult to explain exactly why I admire his work so much and how exactly it’s made. The book I make people read to explain my admiration isn’t, by the way, Jahrestage. It’s Mutmassungen über Jakob, his debut novel.

Mutmassungen has been recently published in a scholarly edition that I of course own though I haven’t read it yet. Mutmaßungen is a book about East and West Germany, about heritage, about family, about the epistemological limits in dictatorships. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the best German-language novels of its time, and yet and still it is far from Johnson’s best novel, which mainly speaks to Johnson’s unbelievable skill. And while you can describe the book in this language that describes what this book is about, for me, the real kicker is the writing. I just took the book from my shelf and started reading.

It starts with a simple declarative sentence – with an implied question. “Aber Jakob ist immer quer über die Gleise gegangen.” – ‘But Jakob always crossed the rail tracks.’ The language is simple and unmarked. The next three sentences are pieces from a dialogue, first restating then interrogating that initial statement. They are written in colloquial language – but halt! It is not merely colloquial. The syntax is glittery, moving with uncommon elegance, managing the colloquial and the tentative dialect with a powerful sense of stylistic sureness and exactitude. Johnson’s use of colloquialisms, his absolute dedictation to the way language and places intersect, interact and identify each other is almost Faulknerian – as is Johnson’s sheer linguistic prowess.

Next Johnson includes a description of someone crossing the rail tracks at night. Is it maybe Jakob? “…war vielleicht Jakob zu erkennen.” This small phrase in the middle of a description that’s otherwise precise and clear as early morning air in Mid-winter, undermines what we know that we CAN know here. It introduces us to the fundamental sense of insecurity over what we can know. In the next paragraphs we return to the dialoge – between who, we don’t (yet?) know.

And then we have a small passage in cursive, the interior voice of Gesine Cresspahl, who is also the protagonist of Jahrestage, reflecting on her father and, following that, a straightforward paragraph about her father, Heinrich Cresspahl. While the beginning of the novel, with its dialogue, its questions, its insecurities about what we can know or say – is most characteristic of what kind of novel Mutmaßungen is, it is those two paragraphs, the half-sentence in cursive, and the half-page introduction to Heinrich Cresspahl that give us Johnson most fully.

In them, Johnson uses a style that is both traditional and old-fashioned, as well as modernist and clever. Johnson is fond of inversions and slightly outdated, even archaic words and constructions. “…er entbehrte seine Tochter” isn’t quite right for the time. There’s a sense of mild stiltedness to much of this – but it’s never accidental. Johnson, a young man, just graduated, his teacher the underrated Ernst Bloch, has, from the first book, an uncanny sense of style. The stiltedness and occasional archaic turn contrast with Johnson’s skill at making syntax glide, of moving in between places and topics with a well placed comma and an unexpected inversion.

And then, man, then we’re off to the races. what I described, these first two and a half pages of the novel, they tell you what’s to come – fragments, a mystery, and a unique stylistic voice. I have never really reviewed Johnson (I once submitted/gave a conference paper just for the opportunity to write SOMEthing about Johnson), on this blog or elsewhere and that’s because I find it so hard to explain how unique and enormous this writer is, was.

Everything in Johnson’s work follows from this book. Stylistically, thematically, morally. There’s a beating moral heart to this book that finds its conclusion in the towering achievement of Jahrestage, but we meet it for the first time here. Writing, speaking, understanding, these are moral endeavors, these are things asked of us as writers and artists – and Johnson always persevered.

Johnson wrote with obsessive attention to detail, he typed and revised his letters, he didn’t try ti drown out other voices, even in the strange moral missteps such as the paranoid-but-brilliant Skizze eines Verunglückten, he’s still present and what’s present until the last page is his unique style and voice. Even in the sloppier third installment of Jahrestage, it never entirely abandons him. He’s always Uwe Johnson, to the last.

And if I want to remember why I can’t write about him, I just open Mutmassungen über Jakob to the first page, read the first pages until I am speechless, breathless and moved. Uwe Johnson. He’s the real deal. One of the titans of literature, even if other, vastly worse writers in the German language have garnered more praise and attention. It’s good that Jahrestage get all this attention now. They deserve it.

Mur Lafferty: Six Wakes

Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
ISBN 978-0-316-38968-6

I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.

It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.

And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.

The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.

Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.

And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.

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Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.

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When you start reading a book

in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.

(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)