John Scalzi: Lock In

Scalzi, John (2014), Lock In, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8132-3

[A note: this review has somehow turned out very digressive, so here’s a quick tl,dr summary of my opinion: Lock In is an intelligent, fun, exciting science fiction novel built around a brilliant idea, somewhere between Merleau-Ponty and Michael Crichton and executed by one of the most prolific and best SF authors we currently have. If you like techno-thrillers and/or you like science fiction, read Lock In. It’s very good.]

DSC_1559So if you are not following what’s happening in English-language science fiction, it’s quite likely you missed quite a solid amount of drama. The magnificent Adam Roberts has summarized the affair succinctly here. If you don’t feel like clicking on links (another good take is here), the even shorter version is this: dismayed by a distorted perception of who is being fêted by the prize-giving crowd in science fiction, a group of mediocre-to-terrible writers have set up a list of “preferred” writers. Their moniker is “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” (technically two different groups, practically indistinguishable) and they feel they have to protest what they feel is boring, politically correct fiction. Recent Hugo winners and nominees include books that question gender, race and class, and writers like Larry Correia, who runs a gun shop and likes to shoot guns in his spare time (like, really likes to shoot guns) feel there’s not enough old fashioned ass-kicking and shooting going around, and very much not enough veiled (or not so veiled) xenophobia and misogyny. They are just, we hear, not enough fun. The Hugos should be awarding the fun books, the popular books rather than the books well loved by critics. I remember a similar debate around the Booker Prize and its dreary results [insert here a complaint about many recent Booker shortlists]. But the Booker is not a award that the public can vote on, so what the “Sad Puppies” did wouldn’t have been possible there: they organized a crowd of rowdy, angry, mostly white and male supporters and rigged the voting process, getting a disproportionate amount of “Sad Puppies” on the list. Now, the awards ended in a curious result, which you can find summarized here and here. But of all the essays and thinkpieces on the award, what struck me most strongly somehow was this Hugo analysis (and it’s follow-up here) which I was interested in for two reasons. One, apparently, without the Puppies voters, the award for best novel would have gone to The Goblin Emperor, a nice but not spectacular book (my review here). Two, and more relevantly for this review, without the “Puppy” books, John Scalzi’s Lock In would have been nominated. This is interesting. Neither The Goblin Emperor, which treats class and power with dubious sloppiness nor Lock In are boring-but-critically well received books. In fact, the closest non-SF point of comparison for Scalzi’s excellent book is Michael Crichton’s oeuvre. It’s a fast paced thriller, brilliantly conceived, with smart ideas and a sleek, efficient execution. If you like fast paced SF-y thrillers, read it. It’s a blast.

DSC_1557The reason I suppose Scalzi was not among the recommended authors is not this work in particular. It’s not even his work in general. Lock In is not some nifty exception to an otherwise more complicated and/or difficult oeuvre. It’s not to his oeuvre what Kraken was to Miéville’s, for example. In fact, his Hugo-winning novel Redshirts (2012) is similarly an absolute joy to read. It’s a story about Star Trek, it toys with genre, with conventions and characters. It’s absurdly funny. Sure, there’s a level on which it’s a clever take about truth and narrative, but we are at no point obliged to stop and consider this take in order to enjoy the book. In fact, the reason I never reviewed it here is because I thought it was lovely but a bit breezy and slight. Would I recommend it? Of course. It’s endlessly amusing. And I think the deeper its reader has fallen down the SF culture wormhole, the more enjoyable it is. So is this the kind of dour politicking the Sad Puppies warned us? It’s clearly not about popularity because Scalzi’s books sell like cold drinks in a hot summer. He’s so successful in fact, that Scalzi recently inked a 3.4 Million $ contract with Tor (read the man’s own explanation here). Scalzi is popular, he writes breezy, not entirely weighty books that are not super left wing (Old Man’s War is a good example) in an accessible style – the kind of style, indeed that would allow him to publish 19 books in 10 years. So the issue isn’t with his work per se – it’s with Scalzi the person who runs a blog that frequently discusses political issues in science fiction, and a Twitter account that does the same. For these reasons, Scalzi has become the bête noire of the “Puppies” crowd. And the most fascinating part about it is that Scalzi at no point in his recent work fills the role he’s expected to fill. There are practically no flat polemics, no open and excessive politics, nothing. Lock In is politically interesting, but not overtly so, and his asides that may be read as commenting on the debate are minor, such as when a character says to the other “I get that you’re used to saying what you think to anyone, anytime. That comes from being an entitled rich kid.” Compare this to, say, Rushdie’s grumpy asides on the New Atheism debate in Enchantress of Florence, for example, where he inserted anachronistic debates just to (I guess) make a point.

DSC_1556For all the baggage that comes with the name Scalzi and with the science fiction community and the Hugo dustup, Lock In is an intricate (but not overly so) techno thriller that happens to be SF, but reads in many ways like a novel by Michael Crichton. A new technology is introduced, it proves to be dangerous and influential people behind the curtain try to abuse it to their own benefit and it’s up to some detective-like character to figure it out. It’s not the first time on this blog that I’ve compared a SF writer to Crichton, and last time, it was Charles Stross’ lamentable Halting State. (click here for my review) – but there is a key difference. Stross copied the school of Crichton to a fault, from the narrative skill to the odd politics and even xenophobia. Stross presented a SF novel entirely denuded of all that makes science fiction such a vital and important genre. Because that’s another way that the “Puppies” got it wrong. Science fiction has always been full of exciting books that pushed the intellectual envelope, that managed to say things in the grammar of science fiction that couldn’t have been said equally well within the genre of “literary fiction” – Coreia, Beale and their ilk didn’t just misread and mistreat contemporary science fiction – they also seem entirely unaware of the genre’s proud and interesting tradition. Scalzi on the other hand – and unlike Stross- wrote a book that makes heavy use of the advantages of SF. That summary just now doesn’t really do justice to Lock In and that’s because the book, despite having a thriller corset, wouldn’t work as it does in a pure thriller structure. It’s SF skeleton are as important to the book as its thriller muscles. Unlike Halting State, whose speculative technologies are at best hair’s breadth more futuristic than the technology that Crichton’s more speculative books revolve around, Scalzi’s basic idea is the backbone, the most essential element of the whole book. In fact, in some of its slighter moments the book feels like the author competently-but-quickly fleshed out his ideas. There’s no complex structure to the book, it develops rather straightforwardly from its initial premise. Much like the idea of Redshirts, i.e. what if the characters on a TV show were somehow real, and script rewrites would inexplicably change the world around them. And what if they then managed to escape to “our” world and contact the actors and scriptwriters and producers of “their” show? The rest of the book just fleshes out that idea, expands on it, adds joke and easter eggs. In a more serious way, the same thing is true for Lock In. There’s a premise and the writing just fills in the gaps and wrangles a plot. That premise, however, is so good that it allows Scalzi to really go to town.

DSC_1568The basic idea is that in the near future, an illness strikes a vast portion of the population, the so-called Haden’s syndrome. For a small percentage of those inflicted, falling ill means being locked out of your body. These people are basically paralyzed for the rest of their lives, with active brains and nerves, but without control over their bodies. And there is no cure for Haden’s syndrome. However, after a few years, technology has developed to help the millions inflicted. Many of those technologies involve the transfer of consciousness. Into a virtual community called the Agora, into robots, and into the brains of people who serve as carriers. These solutions are not permanent. The Haden’s victims still have their bodies around which need to be tended to and there is a transfer of physical sensation from the body to the consciousness, and if the body dies, the consciousness dies with it. The transfer is achieved via neural transmitters. Some people, born with the illness, never really encounter the physical world actively and spend all their life in the Agora. Some enter some means of transportation every day. There are CEOs, politicians and people from all walks of life who suffer from Haden and use robots to get around town. This technology is accessible to everyone because, until very recently in the book’s timeline, it was heavily subsidized by the government. The book’s protagonist is a famous Haden’s patient, Chris Shane, who we meet on day one of his new line of work: rookie FBI agent. Shane comes from a famous/rich family, but want to make it on his own. I think you can recognize the trope. On day one, he and his new partner, the troubled but brilliant agent Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of a murder involving Hadens. The book covers roughly one week during which their initial murder case leads them to uncover a conspiracy that involves more murder, corporate greed, terrorism and a popular uprising of those affected by Haden. The book moves quickly, as there’s just not enough time to meander, given all that happens, and it does it with efficiency and narrative excellence. However, just because the book doesn’t offer us digressive essays and pamphlets, it doesn’t mean the book is bereft of intelligent points on a wide range of things.

DSC_1555I have recently been reading (in PhD work breaks) quite a few genre novels and I am vaguely aware of the attempt to establish the term “slipstream”, which I mostly encounter in the writings of genre writers who want to sidle up to the “literary fiction” genre by claiming a kind of shared space. But good literary fiction does more than tell a good yarn, it offers us structures and ideas and an elevated level of prose. Some books, like the incomprehensibly dull The Doors You Mark are Your Own by “Alexander Tuvim” mistake the recent resurgence of narrative (I commented a bit on that resurgence in my review of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise) for some new literary license to sprawl without having the intellectual nous to actually say something rather than merely indulge. If there was a slipstream genre, surely it would involve books with genre trappings that also fill the shoes usually worn by what is generally perceived as literary fiction. The problem with that is that this is already amply covered, say, by science fiction. M. John Harrison, Iain Banks, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and China Miéville are as skillful writers of prose as many “literary” novelists (and certainly better than “Tuvim”), and intelligent and even brilliant ideas abound in science fiction, which has never confortably settled within any arbitrary set of genre conventions. The mere history of science fiction explodes that idea. I know the idea comes from Bruce Sterling who is always worth considering, but to me what he describes is more like a gothic alienating technique (which you’ll also find in the recent works of William Gibson), but I’m always open to being proven wrong about the validity of “slipstream” as a genre. If it hadn’t come from Sterling, I would have assumed it came from someone who doesn’t really understand the reach and power of science fiction. And Lock In is an excellent example of the reach and unconventional positioning of science fiction. Scalzi employs the tropes of thriller writing, with small but significant twists. At the same time, his reliance on his science-fictional premise allows him to implicitly debate issues such as the question of how society and the structures of knowledge intersect with disability. How do we construct a disabled body? Where does deficiency end, and identity begin?

DSC_1566There is a moment where the protagonist is offered a broken robot as his only option to get around town. The robot works, but its legs don’t, so the rookie agent is offered a wheelchair to get around in. It comes near the end and allows the reader to come to terms with the many other ways disability has been portrayed in the book. There are mental disabilities that are shown to be both limiting as well as empowering. We are confronted with the question of how connected our sense of humanity is to our corporeality. In many places, Scalzi appears to offer a riff on Merleau-Ponty’s famous discussions of the corps propre. Even as early as in his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty points out that “[l]’esprit n’utilise pas le corps, mais se fait à travers lui” – the consciousness doesn’t merely use the body as a host. It could not just be made independent from the body – despite the fact that Hadens can easily and quickly transfer their consciousness from and into different hosts as you would get into and out of different cars (the protagonists keeps traveling throughout the country by downloading into available robots). Very subtly, Scalzi also discusses the topic of race and how visibility and disability play into the cultural construction of race. Least subtly, and likely connected to contemporary American domestic debates, he offers a withering indictment of the opposition to government-supplied healthcare. And I’m not transposing some kind of reading on a more innocuous book – all this is really in there, and he uses plot and setting to offer a debate without having to stop for narrative breath. This is enormously hard to do in “literary fiction” because it’s not as easy to mold the environment to convey a philosophical argument as it is with the grammar of science fiction, and downright impossible to do while maintaining fluid readability. Lock In is a barrel of excitement – did I mention that it’s also humorous and witty? It’s just enormously good at what it does – and it does a lot. It#s the best book by Scalzi that I’ve read so far – although I am far from a Scalzi completist. This is very good and I recommend it to you with all the conviction I can muster. It’s a fantastic book, and the “Puppies” can go suck my big toe.

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C.S. Forester: The African Queen

Forester, C.S. (2006 [1935]), The African Queen, Phoenix
ISBN 978-0-7538-2079-7

DSC_1534 In my review of Cop Hater I mentioned being puzzled and intrigued by that book’s inclusion on a list of indispensable or classic books. One other book on the list similarly intrigued me. It was The African Queen by C.S. Forester. I have seen the movie based on the novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, directed by John Huston, multiple times. I was not, for some reason, aware that it was based on a novel. Similarly, I am aware of C.S. Forester’s work, but only of the most famous and enduring part of it, the Hornblower series of novels. It was profoundly puzzling to me that this early Forester novel, that I supposed was mainly known for inspiring a classic movie, turned up on a list of essential novels. So I sat down to read it. And even after reading it I can’t say I am entirely sure why it’s on a list of important or indispensable novels – yet unlike Cop Hater, it’s value is more than merely historical. It’s a truly enjoyable read, an early work by a gifted storyteller. It’s not, structurally, perfect, but it is frequently compelling and always readable, written in a limpid and clear style, with characters that are more complicated than those that Huston, James Agee and Peter Viertel ended up writing about in his script. There is an odd patriotism to it – although it’s less odd when you consider Forester’s biography – and a cavalier attitude to colonialism that can be put down in large part to the fact that this book was written in 1935. There are shots in the 1950s movie that are equally troubling and are less excusable. What’s much more remarkable is the way Forester writes his female protagonist. In his hands “spinster missionary” Rose Sayer is a strong, intelligent woman, who in modern parlance would be described as “badass”, which is lovely enough. But Forester also manages to contextualize her behavior in the patriarchal environment she was raised. It’s strangely progressive for a 1935 adventure novel, but all of it explains why Katherine Hepburn, upon reading the novel, immediately agreed to play Rose Sayer when asked by Huston. In fact, one strand running through her charming reminiscences The Making of The African Queen is her disappointment by the changes the script forced on the character and her fights to restore her as she’s presented in the novel. If you’re looking for an entertaining adventure novel with simple but interesting characters that’s confidently written – and are willing to read past certain anachronisms, read The African Queen.

The-african-queen-1-The plot of the novel is almost identical to the plot of the movie, except for the ending. It’s set at the beginning of World War I, in what was then known as German East Africa, one of Germany’s four major African colonies. It included what are today Mozambique, Ruanda and Tanzania and it bordered British and Belgian colonies. When WWI broke out, a German general took over German forces, committed to waging war on British troops in Africa to tie as many troops as possible in Africa, so they would not be used in Europe. The particular historical event that is specifically referred to is the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. As the book opens, German troops have just razed an African village including its church. Left behind is a missionary and his sister. Shortly, the missionary dies, leaving his sister to fend for herself. She is, however, in luck, because there is one other white person left in the area, who is not also German. That other person is Charlie Allnutt, a jack of all trades who works at a nearby Belgian mine as a mechanic and runs a steamboat called “African Queen” on the Ulanga river. All of this happens in the first dozen or so pages of the book. All this does is set up the main plot of the book and the characters’ various motivations. The cruel Germans, the lost Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a Missionary’s sister with a profound dislike of Germans. Much more than the movie, the two are set up as different classes from the beginning as Forester has Allnutt speak in a very strong Cockney dialect, and handing over the novel’s point of view to Rose Sayer, whose thoughts are always calm and collected, even in moments of anger. The narrator is strictly speaking an omniscient narrator, but for much of the book he chooses to convey to us Rose’s point of view. That decision is one of the main reasons the book is so enjoyable and can frequently rise above its anachronistic politics. It doesn’t, honestly, start off well. Rose is driven by a thirst for revenge and a loud and strident patriotism. She wants to “strike a blow for England” and she intends to use Allnutt and his boat to achieve this goal. Set as her efforts are halfway between revenge and support for the war effort, the outspoken patriotism sat a bit queer with me as a reader.

DSC_1536That said, having a woman fill in the role of intrepid wartime adventurer (adventuress?) is a welcome change, and Forester doesn’t stop there. The plan, as it’s quickly decided upon, is to go down the Ulanga river, which leads into a large lake. On that lake, a big German ship, the Königin Louise, is holding sway, dominating the banks of the lake with her far reaching canons. Since the African Queen has some explosives on board, the plan is to glide into the lake and use the boat as a kind of torpedo to blow up the Königin Louise. Between the village and the lake, however, there are treacherous rapids, waterfalls and a German fort overlooking a part of the river. Once the two makeshift sailors get on board the roles are quickly distributed. Rose steers the boat, picking up nautical terms and facts on the fly, and Allnutt tries to keep the boat’s faulty old steam engine running. Steering the ship through the dangerous waters of the Ulanga river is a fulfilling experience for Rose: “Rose was really alive for the first time in her life,” we learn. As it turns out, her life with her brother was dull and empty. She would be left to tend to his household, was not allowed to mingle with men and had to frequently ford the torrents of his angry moods, leaving her apprehensive of the violence and dominance of men. The book is extraordinarily clear on these things. Until she had met Allnutt, she had always submitted to all the men in her life – her father and brother, and in her quarrels with Allnutt regarding tactics, “she seethed with revolt and resentment.” The river – like a bilious, eddying metaphor, carries her in a few hours and days towards emancipation and maturity, at the ripe age of 30something. And at the height of it, at her fullest sense of self and freedom, after a particularly dangerous and successful ride down a series of dangerous rapids, her sexuality blooms and she and Allnutt kiss and have sex right there on a bank of the Ulanga river. All this development reads exceptionally modern, and one worries that it’s not inherently placed like that in the text. I like to think about it as a complexity engineered by an unusual text. After sex, Rose slips immediately back into submissive mode, for the first time since meeting Allnutt – but even that is explicitly reflected by the text as her assumption of a role. Rose is shown to be navigating gender roles very narrowly, working on interactions with her father and brother only, leaving her no room for fluid interpretation.

That's the only Hornblower book I own and I haven't even read it - hence I can't really comment on Forester's work beyond The African Queen.

That’s the only Hornblower book I own and I haven’t even read it – hence I can’t really comment on Forester’s work beyond The African Queen.

And it’s not just 21st century me that finds this in the text – Katherine Hepburn, who read the novel upon being offered the role of Rose Sayer, suggests a similar line of fascination in her account of The Making of The African Queen. The movie, as she says multiple times, fails to do justice to this interesting, strong character. Much as I worry reading a postmodern sensibility into this text written in the 1930s, the script more or less imposes a morality and reading on it that appears to be more conservative than even 1950s Hollywood. The movie takes the word “spinster” and appears to attempt to do a “historically accurate” reading by making Rose an exceptionally prim character. Whereas book-Rose bathes “naked”, film-Rose bathes in frilly, “grotesque underwear,” to quote Hepburn, literally straight out of a museum. Whereas in the book she learns steering on the fly, the movie inserts a scene of her being clumsy at it and having to be shown the ropes by Humphrey Bogart. The most significant scene however comes during pouring rain. Rose is asleep in a sheltered part of the boat and Allnutt, drenched by the storm, comes in from where he was sleeping to seek protection from the storm. In the book, Rose’s reaction is an involuntary urge to hold this wet, strange man, and a practical question of “What can we do?” The movie script replaces this with a loud shriek and Hepburn’s Rose yelling “Get out! Get out!”, sending Bogart’s Allnutt back into the rain. Movie-Rose ends up allowing him back in, but this strident assertion of propriety that’s added to the book is a misreading of what “a straightlaced lady” would have done. It strips the book of its interesting, counter-intuitive and explicit wrestling with gender roles and replaces it with “straightlaced” primness and morality. To be fair, the movie, taken on its own is fantastic and one of the rare cases where you should see the movie first, because it deserves being seen without the critical eye that compares book and film. Huston’s direction and Hepburn’s and Bogart’s acting transcend what’s, quite honestly, a rather mediocre script. And the contrast with the movie adds another layer of fascination to the already intriguing book.

DSC_1540The danger, of course, of taking away the progressive gender angle of the book (whether that’s intentionally there or not) is that it leaves us with the more unpalatable parts of the book’s politics. Like many books then (and quite honestly now), The African Queen unfurls in front of us the drama of white people in Africa without being particularly interested in the Africans’ plight. There’s a Belgian mine near the village at the beginning of the book, and historically, we know how the Belgians treated their colonies. I mean the mere fact that one of the three colonial forces depicted in the novel had historically committed genocide in Africa, another one came close, and the British record in Africa included the invention of concentration camps, this is completely ignored. We know it happened, we know the historical background, but the writer is utterly disinterested in any of it. What’s more, this blatant disinterest violently clashes with the gung-ho patriotism espoused by the book that leads to Rose attempting what is essentially a suicide-bomber-like mission. The book is set in an area where many different tribes live, but for the book (and the movie) they are all just the same variety of “negro.” This political or racial indifference is the biggest mark against this book and and keeps it from being more than what it ends up being – an above-average adventure novel. As I said the reason I came upon this book was its inclusion on some list of ‘essential’ books, and while it’s better by far than the other bewildering inclusion on that list that I’ve reviewed, The African Queen has less of a reason to be on any list like that. At least Cop Hater is a foundational text for a genre that’s dominating a good chunk of crime writing today, whatever its individual failings. But unless I am missing something, there’s no such effect for this book. It inspired a brilliant movie and its writing is superior to the movie’s script, but there are many equally good books. It’s unfair to judge the book by this arbitrary list, and on it’s own it’s entirely fine. It lacks the scope of the Hornblower books, it lacks the excellence of other (almost) contemporary books on Africa, but its psychology is interesting and its writing is entertaining. Look, entertaining is enough. Read this book. But watch the movie first.

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Pénélope Bagieu – Cadavre Exquis

Bagieu, Penelope (2011), Cadavre Exquis, Folio BD
ISBN 978-2070444953

cadavreI’m currently kinda, sorta on holiday and yet here we are. Another (very) short review. This one is of a book I picked up in this lovely little French bookshop in Bucharest, a book I read while hiding from the grueling heat in pleasant shadows here and there. The book is Pénélope Bagieu’s first standalone graphic novel Cadavre Exquis. I’ve come across her work here and there, especially bits from her blog Ma vie est tout à fait fascinante, which has also been published in book form. The book that had drawn my attention was a more recent one, but Cadavre Exquis is the one I ended up reading. Her blog, and her serial graphic novel Josephine are, or appear to be from what I saw, autobiographical and a cursory look at the protagonist of Cadavre Exquis and a photograph of Bagieu would suggest a similarly inspired story – that approach would however, leave the prospective reader unprepared for this amusing, clever, even a bit poisonous book. Bagieu tells us a story that is many things at once, and she never gets her emotional registers tangled. Cadavre Exquis is a touching coming of age tale, a mild satire on the literature business, a double play on the ‘death of the author’, and what’s more, she writes a story about the importance of reading, more than the importance of writing. It’s really a book about reading and being read, in many ways and also, which is why I hesitate to reach for bigger terms, a story that feels very delicately balanced, a book that might not deal so well with being too closely analyzed. It’s interesting that according to Wikipedia, most of her followup books are not written by her, or not written by her alone, because I can see this kind of writing, which is so precariously set up, turn bad with worse luck. Some parts that currently work just the way they are might end up being rushed, some ideas too cute, some too labored. Bagieu has a fairly large portfolio as an artist now, and I greatly enjoy her art in this book, but it’s the development as a writer that I would be most interested in. Yet Pénélope Bagieu is still very young, we might get a sophomore book yet that’s fully written and drawn by this most intriguing artist and writer. Meanwhile, all future anticipations and worries aside, her method, such as it is, has worked extremely well here and I can recommend this book to all who would like to spend a few moments reading an adorable story of love, writing and authorship set in the colorful Paris of our time.

As most of us probably know, the title of the book refers to the well known game that I’m sure we all played as kids. Invented by French surrealists like André Breton and Yves Tanguy, it chops up language on the basis of a fixed rule to produce a new effect. Here’s a definition

Based on an old parlor game, Exquisite Corpse was played by several people, each of whom would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution. The technique got its name from results obtained in initial playing, “Le cadavre / exquis / boira / le vin / nouveau” (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine).

The rule is fixed, and produces the final text (one thinks of American poets like Jackson Mac Low and his work on non-intentional writing. At first glance it’s a strange concept to be the title of a book that’s as warm and lovely and charming as Bagieu’s graphic novel. But the book makes multiple uses of the title. On the most simple way, there’s a rather unusual -if not exquisite- kind of corpse that’s prominent in the book. This use of the title is, I admit, not clever or subtle, but it is adorable, and given Bagieu’s art, ‘adorable’ is clearly one of the desired qualities. The book does go further, however. In a way, having scuh a culturally deeply rooted title allows the author to string along various plot elements that could seem banal, but are shown to cohere. Bagieu’s protagonist is an ill educated young woman who spends much of her life living with a lazy, rude, unemployed man, running away from home to work, which is not a lovely place either. She works as a hostess, paid to look pretty and point to various goods, from cars to cheese. Men frequently grope her amd she works long hours for little pay. There’s a melancholic dreariness to her life that we quickly realize as being a setup to a kind of romantic comedy. The book works through this early development efficiently. Within a few pages the plot goes rolling and we are rolling with it. The book appears to take care to take us with it, playing on the usual registers with exuberant ease and Bagieu’s lovely art is the perfect accompaniment to this story. If you hate that kind of story, it won’t help you when I tell you there’s a sudden change at the end, because the book relies on its readers eating it all up.

Let me repeat. This is not a cerebral exercise. This is a light, enjoyable read. Its skill and cleverness is the proverbial icing on the cake, but the cake itself is soft and light and lovely. If you don’t like that, the book is not for you. Even when it suddenly morphs into a (light) satire of the publishing industry and the easily manipulated taste of the reading public at large, including critics, the main goal is to entertain us. Its satire doesn’t present new insights. There are good books on how critical and ppopular taste is construed, how we judge art and how the various elements in the cultural system interact to create opinions. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith is probably the go-to choice here. But like any good satire or criticism, Bagieu’s comments can be turned around to be used to comment on the book itself. After all, criticizing the cult of authenticity may feel a bit rich coming from an artist who made her bones writing autobiographical stories and who keeps drawing cute, large eyed protagonists that look an awful lot like the artist herself. But Bagieu doesn’t care. That’s one advantage of the lightness of her approach. It can take the self-recursive nature of its criticism, accept it with a laugh and move on. And this laugh is not the snide, self important laugh that Frédéric Beigbeder’s exceptionally annoying faux-ironic books have. It’s a light, summery laugh. And it’s the same light tone in which the author, towards the end of the book, delvers a critique of masculinity and the way the concept of authorship is designed to buttress and please the male ego. Again, the insight itself is not original. There are libraries full of books on the topic of the way the cult of originality is tied to masculinity and its crises. But the book’s spin on the ideas is fresh and remarkably straightforward and unapologetic. However much I enjoyed the book until the final few pages, seeing and reading its endgame and final twist made me enjoy it even more. The end comes rather suddenly, but that’s just as it should be. As I said in the beginning, this is a well balanced, enjoyable little book.

As I wrap things up here, let me come back to the title. For book that’s ultimately so prominently interested in the absurdity of claims for originality, using a surrealist method, authored and distributed by a circle of male writers is already intriguing. The book is written in a way that lets us apply the game of its title in multiple ways, but one particularly interesting way, is the method with which the book folds and unfolds the protagonist’s life according to similar rules, but the elements are replaced in surprising and unexpected ways. At no point could Bagieu’s protagonist have planned to end up where she does, in fact, she could barely have conceived of this possibility. So while the book is entirely contingent, the life contained within is its own exquisite corpse. Really. Cadavre Exquis is a good book. Trust me.

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Akhil Sharma: Family Life

Sharma, Akhil (2014), Family Life, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-31426-3

DSC_1513I have an endless fascination for immigrant narratives. It’s probably easily one of my favorite genres – because on the one hand I can relate, and on the other hand, in my experience, as pointed out here, they are frequently filled with more urgency and interest than other genres. There’s something at stake – questions of identity, loss, grief, of cultural conflicts and of understanding are all over those books. And when they are written honestly, i.e. not with an eye on easily digested spectacle, they rarely fail to produce an interesting book, regardless of the author’s level of talent. Let’s face it, not every writer is Salman Rushdie. Not even Salman Rushdie is “Salman Rushdie” all of the time. The sorry second half of Ground Beneath Her Feet is surely proof of the way that migrant and immigrant narratives can fail even when written by a masterful writer. So when Akhil Sharma’s sophomore novel Family Life was published to great fanfare last year, and reviews pointed out the straightforward writing and the talent of the author, I was greatly intrigued. A novel 13 years in the making, the followup to a critically acclaimed and prizewinning novel, surely this would not disappoint. And ultimately it didn’t. Is it the stone cold masterpiece that I half expected it to be? It’s not, but 13 years of intense labor and revision have produced a carefully composed, well balanced, smart book about growing up as an Indian immigrant in the US. This Bildungsroman setup is framed in a harsh story of family drama and suffering, as brain damage and alcoholism take a toll on a family that doesn’t appear to be one of Tolstoy’s dull happy families in the first place. With great judiciousness and enormous skill, Sharma evades the traps of writing his kind of story. Nothing in the story really appeals to your pity, to your empathy in a cheap way. The author could have played up and detailed the juicy details of his family’s bad luck, but instead he opted for a cerebral and controlled novel that is frequently elegant and always intelligent. I didn’t love it, but the author’s enormous skill is undeniable. They say that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration (and by “they” I mean that’s what I vaguely remember reading somewhere) and if that’s true, Sharma’s genius skews more 99% to 1%, but there is very little I admire more than well executed literary craftsmanship. Family Life is a well crafted, well considered novel about childhood, immigration, illness and fear. It’s probably worth your time.

DSC_1515Despite the fascination I declared in the first sentence of this review, I have actually been slacking in reading books of this kind. Especially the immigration narratives by writers from India or Pakistan have been impatiently sitting on my shelf, including the last two books by Jhumpa Lahiri, a writer I generally admire, if more for her stories than her novel. Short stories is the medium in which I remember reading – a long time ago- other narratives about Indian immigrants to the anglophone west. Rohinton Mistry’s severely underrated short story collection Tales from Firozsha Baag and especially the story “Swimming Lessons” also come to mind. “Swimming Lessons” has been on my mind while reading Sharma’s book in part because of the centrality of the swimming pool to the events in Family Life. Ultimately, comparing it to other Indian immigration narratives wasn’t the most natural connection my brain offered while reading (and partially rereading) the book. Instead, I kept thinking about Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep. I have probably repeatedly expressed my deep admiration and love for Roth’s debut, which ranks among the best books I have ever read – and one of the best books I’m ever likely to read. If Sharma is 99% perspiration, Roth reads as if he was 99% inspiration; if Sharma casts a doubting and mildly satirical eye on his culture’s religious inclinations, Roth fully embraces and struggles with his culture’s religion. None of this diminishes what I felt were strong similarities between the Jewish immigrant Roth and Sharma’s Indian immigrants, similarities so strong that I can’t help but feel an intentional bond. But while family dynamics and other details (both children experience a kind of unusual epiphany, for example) provide interesting correspondences, I was most interested in the way Roth and Sharma handle the linguistic and epistemological challenges of immigration and how learning is complicated by the interaction with other children. The details differ, but in the way Sharma’s protagonist tries to strike up a friendship with local boys, and in David’s ill-fated connection to Leo in Call it Sleep, I saw additional similarities. Look, I’ll admit that the connection is mostly in my head, and in large part due to me not remembering enough immigration narratives. The basic formula of the Bildungsroman genre, with or without immigration, is strong enough to find all kinds of barely plausible connections. What about the relationship between father and son that Roth and Sharma share? Maybe they are both connected to other classics in the genre like The Way of all Flesh and its powerful take on that relationship?

DSC_1517Ultimately, Sharma’s craftsmanship means that while his novel rings in many elements of the genre, and connects them competently, the book doesn’t go out of its way to establish intertextuality, except in a very strange and interesting passage that I’ll mention in a moment. These comparisons, fun though they may be (or not), mostly help readers like me to figure out the way the book is positioned within its genre context. And much of that positioning is done not by similarities, but by contrasts. The main contrast between Call it Sleep and Family Life is probably the intensity of Roth’s writing and the clarity of Sharma’s perceptions. Roth’s book is not an analysis of the immigrant’s life, the epiphanies under the influence of electricity are not clinically analysed and described. Instead, we are cast into the roiling river of an intense life. Not so with Sharma. While the events of the eponymous “Family Life” are tragic and cruel, Sharma has taken great care of not allowing his prose to be caught up in the emotions of the events. The book is narrated by Ajaj Mishra, an Indian boy, who, at the age of 8, moves to the US from Delhi. His family consists of an older brother named Birju, and his parents. His father has found a job in the US and the family follows him as soon as they can. Once arrived, both boys start showing academic promise, but the older brother, one day, jumps into a swimming pool, misjudging the depth, and hits his head on the bottom tile. As a result of having been without oxygen for too long, Mishra’s brother falls into a coma first and when he wakes up, it’s with severe brain damage. From that point on, the whole family life is centered around taking care of Birju. Whether at a nursing home or in their own home, whether it’s figuring out the right treatment or letting religious nuts do their snake oil salespitches at the bed of the poor boy who can neither speak nor really understand language. Mishra’s social life is similarly dominated by his brother’s unspoken demands, but he never really indulges in showing how it affects him emotionally, how hard it is for him to deal with them. The same is true, sort of for his father’s alcoholism, but there the embargo on describing the narrator’s misery is lightly lifted.

If you're going to read only one Mistry novel, make it this one. A genuine masterpiece.

If you’re going to read only one Mistry novel, make it this one. A genuine masterpiece.

And yet, Mishra isn’t wholly silent on the issue. The distancing effect is one that Sharma achieves through his clever prose. He makes sure his words don’t escape his grasp and that his story is always well tempered. One way he does it is through severely stripped down language. At first I assumed that Sharma was intent on mimicking an 8 year old’s level of language, but he never adapts the writing to reflect Mishra’s growing education. Plus, the book isn’t written from the 8 year old’s point of view. The first chapter sets in after the father’s retirement and then loops back to the time when the family resolved to leave Delhi. With the smaller vocabulary also come long and circuitous descriptions. They always seem just a smidgen too long in a very precise way – a sign that these descriptions are not stylistic faults but choices. It’s a hard to describe impression. Take this sentence.

“We have gotten our airplane tickets, nanaji,” Birju said.
Hearing this I wished I had said it so that then I would be the one bringing the news

Another tool that Sharma employs are repetitions of similar phrases within the same short paragraph. After a while I started marking them down in the book. “This frugality meant…” is followed two sentences later by “This close engagement with things meant…”. The two sentences in the middle both offer an example, and both sentences start with “When…”. This structural repetition happens again and again. It’s an excellent tool to take out drama and excitement out of the book, and replace it with sober empathy. We like all the characters in the book, we are amused by their stories and we are sad about things that happen, but never do we genuinely suffer with or for them. This is by design. Short, declarative sentences abound (“It occurred to me that my mother was taking Mr. Mehta seriously. This surprised me.”) and longer sentences often fall prey to the phrase repetitions I mentioned. But interestingly, the simplicity, and slowness of delivery doesn’t have an exclusively calming effect.

DSC_1514Early in the book, the author offers us an unusual paragraph. It describes his protagonist’s confusion upon being placed in his new school. The floors all look the same and the dang white students all look the same. Mishra keeps getting lost and after a few months his fear of never finding his way out of this maze of a school is so strong that he doesn’t go to the toilet any more, scared of never finding back. Unusually for this book, it’s a tension filled paragraph that builds from a description of the situation to the almost absurd sounding fear with which it ends. There’s so much energy in it, and the school-as-gothic-mansion idea is extraordinarily effective, but then it ends and the author goes on to different topics. It did make me think about many of the underlying tensions. The sublimated horror of the Gothic novel, in technique, if not in content came to mind, and the genre’s obsession (if I remember correctly) with unreliable narrators. Family Life implicitly asks us to trust its protagonist, by never really undercutting him, but one storyline of the book is his inclination to tell tall tales to impress his fellow students. If anything, Family Life is an anti-tall tale, underselling a story that could easily have been sensationalized. The school-as-gothic-mansion image is abandoned after a paragraph but in a way, it stays with us in the book. Mishra is constantly confused by the things that happen. Not existentially confused, but at no point is he secure about what to do and where to go. And this maybe allows us to loop back ourselves to the Mistry short story I mentioned earlier. In it, his narrator says at one point:

It was hopeless. My first swimming lesson. The water terrified me. When did that happen, I wonder, I used to love splashing at Chaupatty, carried about by the waves. And this was only a swimming pool. Where did all that terror come from? I’m trying to remember.

Immigration defamiliarizes known and loved routines for Mistry’s character, alienates him even from himself. This process, much more imbued with emotional prose and power by Mistry, could in a way be read as what’s ailing Akhil Sharma’s protagonist.

catttAlternatively, the distanced style could also just be the result of working 13 years on the same damn book (and we’re not talking a Hunger’s Brides sized book, quite the contrary.) I have not read anything about the author, not have I read his debut, but surely this is a possibility. It also explains the book’s weirdest quirk. After a good deal of everything that happens happens, the author decided to rev up the “Bildung” part of Bildungsroman and has his protagonist read a bunch of books. But he’s not reading novels, he’s reading literary criticism of Hemingway’s work. At that point, we are informed, Mishra hasn’t cracked the spine of any Hemingway book. He learns about the work exclusively from secondary literature. Mishra then describes to his audience the various theses brought up in the academic writing. This goes on for pages and pages. And here’s where it gets interesting: much of what I have said about Sharma is also said by Mishra – about Hemingway, especially the lack of emotions, Hemingway’s “way of tamping down emotion”, the structure of syntax, things like that. And it feeds back into the book. The reason why Hemingway’s characters are not “psychopaths” is because “all of Hemingway’s protagonists are noble,” we are told and “what probably matters in a book is its emotional truth.” It’s the strangest thing because on the one hand, the feedback loop asks interesting questions: are Sharma’s characters noble? Is that assessment of how that style works correct? On the other hand, the implication of the whole passage is that Hemingway is a great writer – and we’ve just sat through pages and pages of a description that is too close to the author’s own work for comfort. It feels like a way to deal with your own writing, to defend and interrogate at the same time the method you picked to tell your story. The author’s bio doesn’t allow us to see how close the novel is to the fact’s of Sharma’s life, but the anxiety about telling a story truthfully, and telling a story’s essential truth, rather than its facts, is explicitly woven throughout the book, but primarily anchored in these Hemingway pages. “I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story” we learn and we are told that some things are worth telling and some things are “too undignified and strange to be converted into literature.” Of course, the author follows the last statement up with examples of events that should not be in his own book.

It is at this point that the book suddenly speeds up. Mishra starts writing himself, he excels in school, he meets a girl, everything happens all at once and we jump forward in time repeatedly. It’s a strange book to describe, overall. It’s really well done. These are 13 years spent honing a book repeatedly. Not stylistically, maybe, Sharma is no James Salter, but structurally, certainly. But at the end, it’s strangely hard to recommend. Mishra, while perusing secondary literature on Hemingway starts worrying about the actual books by the bearded Nobel laureate . “I wondered what it would be like to actually read Hemingway. Would I find it boring?” – and that’s the question here, isn’t it. And I have to admit: it’s a bit boring. If you are looking to be swept up in an exciting story, this is not for you. For people interested in craft and in an unusual (if barely so) immigration Bildungsroman, go ahead. Give it a whirl.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

KENNEDY WHO?

In case you missed it (because I also missed it) A.L. KENNEDY JUST PUBLISHED A DR. WHO NOVEL. Sorry for the all-caps yelling. I can’t help it. GOOD GOD. Apparently she picked the Fourth Doctor (which, yeah, that would be her Doctor). If you follow this blog you know I am a huge fan of her work. This is wonderful and entirely strange news. I am speechless (sort of). Maybe I should repeat it: A.L. KENNEDY JUST PUBLISHED A DR. WHO NOVEL. Doctor Who- The Drosten's Curse

Ed McBain – Cop Hater

McBain, Ed (1956, 2003), Cop Hater, Orion
ISBN 978-0752857916

DSC_1300So this is another brief review, like this one – and for similar reasons. There’s really only one reason I read this book in the first place: I was familiar with the author’s name, and when this book turned up on an otherwise mostly literary list of “1000 (or so) books you should read”, I was puzzled and intrigued enough to give this one a spin. Primarily because of its interesting title and the fact that it’s the first of Ed McBain’s series of novels set in a (fictionalized) New York precinct. Let me just get this out of the way: it’s not great. If you are looking for a crime writing gem, using sparse but exquisite language to sculpt an exciting plot, go to the hardboiled classics. Or to this book. Or if you want a less well known one, try Richard Hugo’s only novel. But don’t read Cop Hater. I will say this, without having read his work, I am fairly sure that McBain gets better later in his career (after all, he wrote, among other things, the script for The Birds). Cop Hater is his first attempt at a kind of writing that was fairly new at the time. Do read Cop Hater if you are interested in an example of very early procedural police novel where not one mustachioed detective or elderly lady come up with the murderer after 200 pages of careful rumination (or in the case of Elizabeth George, 500+ pages), but where the detection is the result of a whole precinct’s carefully detailed police work. Throughout the whole book you can see the author grappling with various parts of the concept, putting elements in place, elements that we now know from a plethora of TV series and novels. It also shows some of the less pleasant elements underlying that genre. As a pioneer work, it’s certainly worth your time. It’s not exciting or well written -but it’s interesting.

 

First things first, there will be spoilers. One, because one thing that’s interesting about the book is the title, and it ties directly into the identity of the murderer, and two, because at no point are we really excited to find out who the murderer is. The book acts like that’s the case, but McBain at that point in his career hasn’t really learned how to let clues pile up, build up excitement or anything. His vast and prolific work in other genres has not prepared him for this. And I can’t help but feel as if the author is fully aware of this. Like me, his interest seems mostly to toy with the title and its implications, a case bolstered by the fact that the film poster to the 1958 movie version gives away the ending straight away. When Cop Hater was published in 1956, Ed McBain had already published about 10 novels under various pseudonyms and names. Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, he changed his name in 1952 on an editor’s advice to Evan Hunter. Ed McBain is one of Hunter’s numerous noms de plume (including Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Dean Hudson, Richard Marsten, Ezra Hannon and John Abbott), but clearly by far the most successful one. In the foreword to my edition, McBain explains how eventually, writing his 87th precinct novels took only about a month, but that Cop Hater took much longer, in part because of his research. Limiting his plots to the geographic realities of New York City, he created a fictional New York (Isola) that’s both similar and unlike the real thing. Closer to the actual New York than Gotham, and further from the actual New York than David Simon’s work is from the actual Baltimore. According to the foreword he kept talking to and calling the police to add accuracy to his writing.

 

220px-Cop_Hater_posterGiven McBain/Hunter’s background in speculative fiction, it’s understandable that he tried to overcorrect his fabulist tendencies. The effect on the book is interesting: there is a lot of dialogue and characterizations that appear to be the result of careful (if distorting) observations, but occasionally, McBain throws an infodump at us that is really odd. It’s like watching CSI-type stories learning to walk when McBain has a character offer a disquisition on how lab technicians can figure out a blood type, or how they can figure out from the type of someone’s hair whether they are children, teenagers or adults. There’s even a little table on the latter fact. Problem is: no one in the book asked for these facts. And not only that, but there are characters saying “why are you telling me this, it’s an irrelevant information.” Today’s reader can see the roots of CSI in this scientifically framed and expressed information, but what about McBain’s contemporaries? Given McBain’s meteoric success, it’s hard not to believe that they found it interesting, that it added to the overall vraisemblance of the writing. That’s probably what it was intended to do. The dialogue shows that McBain is aware of the potentially annoying nature of the information, but his goal is to create a believable, real, blood and guts police precinct that people could believe is in a real New York borough. He is, to repeat what I said earlier, not particularly, at this point, interested in building a consistent case with suspects, leads and developments. The murderer in question is caught, but that’s mostly because he more or less presents himself to the lead detective on the case, voluntarily, surprisingly, murder weapon, motivation and a co-conspirator in tow. It had nothing to do with everyone’s initial suspicion, but it’s that suspicion that lends form to the whole book. The closest we get to a lead on the real suspect is the lead detective’s intuition that basically just says (and I paraphrase): “maybe we’re wrong and it’s someone completely different?”

 

The murder(s) in question were two successive murders of police officers, with a third following later. Clearly, the murderer must have been a cop hater. But that doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects. As a detective explains early on: “This whole goddamn city is full of cop haters. You think anybody respects a cop? Symbol of law and order, crap!” This is not an insult, this is a sense of frustration and entitlement, a toxic cocktail that has only recently boiled up again in cases all over the US. And following the detectives through their work, it’s not hard to see why someone might “hate” them. A decade before the Supreme Court decided the “Miranda” case, we find the police in fine form, pressuring, bullying and attacking mostly innocent citizens. They are shown to be at least mildly corrupt, and they are not above wishing death on the press and gang members. And yet the author sides with them, using dismissive irony when discussing press coverage that stresses these very problems. Sure there are cops that go too far, but these, the author assures us, are not well-liked by other cops either, and plus, some goons jumped them so you’ll have to understand their preference for beating up prisoners. If you are at all wondering why the American police has been doing what they’ve been doing, it’s not easy (or pleasant) to imagine the 87th precinct as depicted in Cop Hater and equip them with the freedom to do whatever, and military-grade equipment. It’s interesting that in their search for a cop hater, the police talks to people that have been previously imprisoned or terrorized by the police. The way the system is structured becomes quickly apparent. But Cop Hater goes even beyond an examination of that bias. It also offers us the broader way that the police is integrated into the larger world of restriction and punishment.

 

The most relevant study of what McBain is doing here is probably The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller a study on 19th century detective fiction that is really really good. Most relevant here is Miller’s assertion that “a policing power is inscribed in the ordinary practices and institutions of the world from the start” (talking about Wilkie Collins). While there is a police here, the border between police work and the policing in every day practices is very flimsy. The murder ends up being the brainchild of a woman, who convinced some brute to do her dirty work for her. Now, this woman is odd from the beginning. She is first shown us as a sexpot who does not offer her husband the sex he craves. In fact she teases him and turns him away. Strike One. Then she dresses slightly provocative at a funeral, enough to get a detective to have dirty thoughts. Strike Two. Finally, she transformed an apartment into some feminine nightmare that a manly police officer cannot possibly want to live in. It’s enough to terrify the lead detective on the case. His encounter with the woman ends thusly: “He was beginning to feel a little more comfortable with Alice. Maybe she wasn’t so female, after all.” – But of course she is very female. Strike Three. All these indications are not of course, real indications of crimes being committed, they are simple misogyny in action. However, the book uses the reader’s bigoted disapproval of nonstandard (submissive) female behavior in order to build a case against Alice that runs parallel to the police precinct’s borderline competent work. And when we finally see who did it, the book allows to quietly let these elements fall into place. In fact, Cop Hater even offers us a “good woman” in contrast: a woman who is literally unable to speak, who has no will of her own, who exists to love her boyfriend and be self conscious about her own shortcomings.

 

So, it really is an interesting read but the writing is horrific and all the learning and stumbling upon developing this modern genre can grate on the reader. Plus, the awful misogyny, while throwing a light on the “roman-police” as D.A. Miller termed it, is not necessarily pleasant to read, especially since the author does nothing to undercut it. If you have a historical interest in this, go for it. It’s short and despite the writing does read quickly. Would I read it again if I had the choice? Probably not.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees

Grjasnowa, Olga (2012), Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, Hanser
ISBN 978-3-446-23854-1

[English translation: Grjasnowa, Olga (2014), All Russians Love Birch Trees, Other Press
Translated by Eva Bacon
ISBN 978-1-590-51584-6]

birch3In reading and reviewing books I have certain recurring interests, which may lead to similarities in my introductions to the books I’m discussing. So stop me if you’ve heard this before. But do read on. Because this writer and this book is definitely worth your attention. I have never had a great love for German postwar literature, with a few notable exceptions. I have found, consistently, that between 1945 and 1990. the best literary work in German came from Austria or the GDR, and it’s not particularly close, in my opinion. There is a third group that has produced exciting work for decades and that’s immigrant writers to Germany. Many of the standout immigrant writers are easy to look up if you are so inclined. They have received the Adelbert von Chamisso award, a prize in honor of the German writer who was born in France. The prize is awarded to the best immigrant writer producing their work in German (not necessarily exclusively). Since the GDR group of writers slowly dried or died out (again, with notable exceptions), there has been a bit of a hole to fill. Consistently, that hole has been filled with young immigrant writers. I do feel like many of the best ones do not choose to settle in Germany. In this review I discussed the mysterious attraction of Switzerland to young Romanian writers. Other writers settle in Austria. Still, a few settle in Germany, and of those, there are some truly admirable writers. Some are of Turkish origin, like the spellbinding novelist and playwright Emine Özdamar. A surprisingly large section of writers, however, sprang from the carcass of the former Soviet Union. Artur Becker is one of them. Katja Petrowskaja has won a few prizes last year. And then there’s Olga Grjasnowa. Younger than most of the writers I admire, my god, younger than me, she wrote a debut novel that is unfinished, jumbled, a novel that screams “debut” too often to count. But it’s also a magnificent novel. I I read it twice cover to cover just to really take it in. I have sometimes high expectations of novels dealing with certain topics, and for female Soviet Union emigrés writing about love and loss in Germany, the high water mark is the scintillating and frequently brutal work of Natascha Wodin, whose best novel has been translated into English many years ago and which you should pick up immediately. Olga Grjasnowa manages to write a book that is so deeply suffused with brilliance and talent, with emotion and thinking, with historical ambiguity and emotional clarity, that she promises to eventually be among our best writers. All Russians Love Birch Trees is already one of our best books. Write her name down. You’ll need to remember it.

birchIn just under 300 pages, All Russians Love Birch Trees offers us a story that is attempting a whole lot at once. She doesn’t have the density of writing that, for example, Grigorcea showed in her debut, and so much of it is slightly underdeveloped. Yet at the same time, Grjasnowa has an unteachable knack for understanding how many political, personal and historical issues are interconnected and she offers us these connections with clarity and purpose. It’s hard to describe what kind of book it is, if that requires us to summarize it in a single sentence. That’s due, in part, to the book’s frequent pivots. The book starts out as a story of personal grief in a German hospital and ends up in a field in Israel. Blood, suffering and confusion are the only connections. And we get there from here not with labored cuts and jumps (although these happen occasionally), but through a cohesive sense of how identity works for someone who has to constantly fight to maintain hers. Like Grjasnowa herself, her protagonist Mascha was born in Azerbaijan, fled during the upheavals in that country and settled in Germany. Like the author, Mascha is Jewish and ends up spending some time in Israel. Mascha’s full name is Maria Kogan. If that sounds like a simple name to you – it doesn’t feel that way to some of the German characters in the book, like a doctor early on who says “your last name is a bit complicated – may I call you Maria?”(note: I read the book in German, any quotes are rough translations, not quotes from Eva Bacon’s much more considered work). Grjasnowa herself, with a last name sporting many more syllables, must have had similar problems. That she chooses to have her two-syllable protagonist run into this problem very early points to an important discussion that will re-occur througout the book and that is maybe closest to what I was looking for in terms of what kind of book it is. It’s a book about translation and understanding, and how openness and willingness are important elements in the way to achieving them. On the one hand, you have the Germans who run on pure closed-minded condescension. There’s the doctor who refuses to understand that simple name. There’s a a professor at her university who loves his ideas of multiculturalism and poverty porn, and whose idea of support for someone who appears to be “foreign” is to be condescendingly generous to them. There is a lady from Germany in Israel who jumps at the opportunity to criticise Jews (“If you see the news, it’s quite natural to start hating the Jews”). In contrast to all them is Mascha, who speaks multiple languages and trains to become an interpreter.

birch1If these examples made it seem like the book can be a bit heavy handed, your eyes did not deceive you. Indeed, subtlety is not one of Grjasnowa’s strengths even though she does a great job at undercutting easy readings by interesting juxtapositions. Her main achievement is the way she wove personal and political story into the fabric of the same story. There is, I think, no doubt that the first half of the novel is significantly better than the second. And that’s because that half is not as plot focused. Before she knuckles down and really digs into Mascha’s present life and lets her plot run free, she spends half the book telling us who that woman is and what happened to her. We learn about her German boyfriend, Elias, and how his death devastates her. We learn about her childhood in Azerbaijan and the way it corroded her sense of family and safety and the trauma she suffered there and hid away for years. Grjasnowa makes us understand how cruelty, desire, lust and sadness can be sides of similar coins. There is a small episode early in the book, where she kills a rabbit in an attempt to improvise some pagan ritual to have her boyfriend survive a difficult operation. Before smashing that rabbit’s head with a stone, she speaks a Jewish prayer, asking God to exchange lives. When that fails, she takes things into her own hands. Throughout the book there’s a definite sense of history being both hard on individuals, and kind of malleable, depending on one’s action and view. Grjasnowa’s protagonist does her utmost to fight and battle loss. Her personal and family history is one of devastation and melancholy. Her parents, well educated and with good jobs in Azerbaijan have to settle for alienated (and alienating) poor existences in Germany. Mascha is a driven woman, and her achievements, by all accounts, are considerable, but she is consistently and tragically alienated from her surroundings herself. Trying to find a connection in sexual liaisons with men and women, trying to find accepting communities, all of these are doomed and complicated by Mascha’s thorny sense of pre-determined alienation. She pushes the world away from her at the same time as she longs to be embraced by it. And none of this is helped by the omnipresent bigotry of people around her.

Admittedly, Grjasnowa doesn’t always choose the best way to express these things. Believe it or not, at some point, Mascha looks her mother in the face and says “everything and everyone around me dies.” I am not a supporter of the “show not tell” school of thought, but some young novelists do need to do less telling, especially when the telling is as clichéd as that. Much less cliché is Grjasnowa’s treatment of Jewish issues. Having a Jew travel to Israel to connect to her heritage may seem like something we’ve already seen (too) many times, but Grjasnowa’s book is very explicitly a German novel written by someone from Germany in German. Grjasnowa uses contrasts judiciously, but she is particularly interesting when she shows how Jewishness triggers various German cultural mechanisms, including those of Muslims in Germany. She has ill-informed philosemites in the book who, at the drop of a hat, turn antisemites in later portions of the book, she shows how Germans are involved in Israel itself, and most of all, she shows how her own conflicted heritage leads her to challenge, change and adapt assumptions about herself and the communities she’s a part of. Much of this, while interesting, is not thoroughly worked through in her writing, much of it is more idea than finished literary product, and now and then, she settles for too simple phrases instead of working out her thinking more thoroughly. It is too rarely that we can see in her work, as Bishop said about Hopkins, “a mind thinking” – instead, we see the thoughts in the ideas and tableaux rather than in the actual writing.

514qGj9igGL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_At the same time, her writing is never actually bad, unlike some others, much more praised writers I could think of. It’s frequently inventive and always clean and well considered. Moreover, we are shown an awful lot and it should affect all but the most closed-minded of readers. In fact, the seared and searing emotional core or the book compared well to Natascha Wodin’s masterpiece Einmal Lebt’ Ich, translated into English by Ian Galbraith as Once I Lived, published by Serpent’s Tail and currently tragically out of print. Get yourself a used copy now. Seriously. Wodin’s short but powerful novel, the best book of her absolutely extraordinary literary achievement (I can see at least one more review on this coming up) is a searing hot story of a Soviet immigrant to Germany who struggles to find connection and support in this strange and condescendingly hostile country – all of which isn’t helped by her father’s alienation that has pushed an already cruel man to punish, police and violate his daughter. Published in 1989, this novel and novels like it are the wellspring from which mediocre books like Katerina Poladjan’s deplorable debut feed (I discussed it a bit here). But it has also fed and empowered writers like Grjasnowa, whose sense of sexuality and violence, of immigration and alienation, and especially of the way that being a woman puts you in even more difficult situations than you’d be as a first or second generation immigrant alone, I can’t help but feel to be in Wodin’s debt. That second point, of feminity and how it feeds into the general malaise is interesting. Another topic she brings up, and a topic that Wodin similarly connects (but in a different novel, the strange and melancholy Erfindung einer Liebe) is homosexuality. Grjasnowa is clear on the fact that being a woman, and being gay allows for power to be projected on you in additional ways. There’s a term invented by African American theorists that’s called intersectionality and it describes the way that people are often touched by different vectors of oppression and that this creates a more complex picture. Now, I don’t think Wodin, or Grjasnowa, really, would have all that much patience for this terminology, but both are insistent on looking at the way individuals move through society and note that the path for immigrants is a harder path, and that being a woman – or gay – makes the progress even more difficult.

birch2I will say that, in contrast to Wodin, Grjasnowa’s protagonist is nor mired in a slough of despond. Indeed, while she cannot quite muster Wodin’s formal or linguistic qualities, in some sense, despite the book’s ending, she offers a more confident path. There’s a purpose to Mascha’s sexual misadventures that seems like it would not have been possible to offer in a book published in the 1980s or before (although some female GDR writers would be an exception, possibly). Mascha declines to offer us the suffering and complaints we may have come to expect from a certain kind of narrative. Mascha looks at her losses and moves on, pushing on, trying to deal with an increasingly heavy psychological load, until her troubles finally just take over. Maybe this is Grjasnowa’s greatest achievement in her book: offering us a character that’s both suffused with literary tradition and bucking it at the same time to explore new territory. There’s a lot about this book that’s good and lovely and even sometimes great and I already own her sophomore novel even though I have not had an opportunity to look at it. Purpose, urgency and intelligence are lovely things in fiction and they cover up many flaws. All Russians Love Birch Trees has all three in spades and Olga Grjasnowa is one of the young German novelists I most readily admire. Get this book, but also, get Natascha Wodin’s novel (and maybe bully Serpent’s Tail or the NYRB imprint to get it back into print). That is all.

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