Nina Allan: The Race

Allen, Nina (2016), the Race, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650468

There’s so much good science fiction coming out these days, it’s quite mind boggling. Not, I think, since the heyday of Delany, Blish, and Ballard have we had such ample riches of good science fiction, with the good, older writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville still actively contributing masterful work, and newer writers like Ann Leckie and Karl Schroeder offering astonishing contributions to the field. And even among all that competition, the Race, Nina Allen’s debut, stands out. It’s not even entirely clear that it IS indeed science fiction, depending on where you’d draw your line, but it contains science fiction, and as a whole offers a new direction in the genre, reflecting on the possibilities of the languages of science fiction, and presenting a story that is connected to present day concerns like violence, misogyny, race, fear and class. Nina Allen isn’t a great stylist, and in her debut, her cuts and shift are still a bit abrupt (she manages these much better in her sophomore novel) but the overall effect is enormous and stunning. I’m not sure who can read this book and not like it. It’s entertaining, smart, if sometimes a bit on the nose. It draws from all kinds of literature, in all kinds of genres, and it explicitly names Lessing, Murdoch and James Herbert as some of its parameters. It’s science fiction, and for that matter, hard science fiction, as it’s called. But it’s also literary fiction about science fiction. It’s careful and kind and generous, and truly unique. I recommend you go and buy it now, before you read on. I think this book is best read if you don’t know what’s coming, if you experience the book and its turns “cold.” And it’s not about not giving away a putative “twist” ending – the whole structure of the book should come as a pleasant and intriguing surprise to the reader. So, I mean, go, go, go.

I assume if you are reading this paragraph you have either read the book or are not planning on reading it. Or maybe you are in neither camp but still read on? So I’ll say more about the way the book is built, without giving away everything. The book has basically four major sections and one small one.

The first section, “Jenna,” named after protagonist and narrator, is the longest one. It’s a “hard SF” story about a literal “race,” a dog race that is. In an unspecified future in a place called Sapphire, people have developed “smart” dogs which can connect to human handlers through a process involving complicated technology which is sorta-kinda explained. The narrator is a woman whose brother runs a stable of such dogs. Her brother is in a lot of debt and one day, his daughter gets kidnapped. This child had developed a kind of psychic connection with dogs that doesn’t need technology. While we at that point don’t know who kidnapped the child, some aspects of the development had me thinking of Childhood’s End (I was wrong, kinda), but certainly, Allen’s science fiction story combines many other SF stories of human evolution, but Allen also weaves into it a different kind of narrative that I’m still not entirely sure how to pinpoint, but I think there’s a connection to some female centric YA literature in the way we are told about the protagonist’s involvement in making special gloves for racing the dogs. And finally, Allen makes a point of mentioning James Herbert’s Rats trilogy in that section.

James Herbert’s 1974 debut The Rats is a masterpiece of horror, structured in a simple way, absolutely terrifying, but offering a story that is both a kind of biological horror, and a metaphor for the state of the United Kingdom in the 50s and 60s, with suburbs disintegrating, and the darkness of poverty and marginalized existence breeding a new, almost unsurmountable terror, that will hunt you down, eat you and your children. The main terror coming from the rats is not their size and ferocity, though that contributes, it’s their intelligence. A few times in the book, Herbert has a human character look at one of the smart rats and feel how their intelligence changes the level of power. One is tempted to see in this fear the common fear of the establishment at minorities moving closer to power. Brexit voting in the UK and Trump’s ascendance in the US are examples of this fear. Herbert manages to both offer a metaphor, and the thing itself, marginalized communities and poverty, that is, in the same, rather slim, tale. Allen doesn’t reference the first, but rather the third book, Domain. The third book keeps the subtext, but moves the whole conflict into a postapocalyptic future, an obvious reference to the The Race itself.

The second section, “Christy,” is set in our time, and from the first sentence reveals that this section is narrated by the person who wrote the science fiction story of the first section. And immediately, Allan sets about not just complicating the previous section, but commenting on the writing generally: “You’ll imagine that I created Sapphire as an escape – from the ordinariness of my own life, from the difficulties I found in making friends, from the isolation I felt after our mother left. I’ve learned not to waste time denying this, some of it is probably true after all, at least partly – but my main reason for writing about Sapphire was because the place felt so real to me, and I wanted to imagine it in greater detail.” We get imagined places both as something that has its own logic, as well as something that has some undeniable connection to the “real” world, whether as metonymy, metaphor or allegory. Christy’s story also involves a brother, but it’s a much darker story of rape, queer love and suspected murder. It ends on a brilliantly written, harrowing, cinematically powerful scene. Christy also offers books as comparisons, particularly Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Memoirs of a Survivor and her Golden Notebook, as well as Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn. Briefing for a Descent into Hell somehow anticipates Nina Allen’s second novel more than it helps understand The Race, but the Golden Notebook (though the protagonist prefers Briefing due to its title) is actually very fitting in the way its chapters are structured. Lessing’s masterpiece, apart from being one of the many, many reasons she was one of the last deserving winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a complex meditation on the connection of life, experience and fiction, with journal entries, novel-in-novels, memoir and conventional literary fictional narrative.

I found this focus on Lessing an interesting choice (Say, Atwood’s Blind Assassin would also have been fitting in some ways), that points to the specific concerns Nina Allan’s novel has with female experience, British colonialism and race. Indeed, the third, the book’s shortest section, called “Alex,” concerns a black male character who has made an appearance previously and whose role it is to sort out some mysteries, to provide a different angle on Christy-as-writer and on the topics of masculinity and race. “Christy,” the second section, is intensely class conscious – it provides a very clear sense of how poverty limits the possibilities of children, teenagers and adults, and how education can helps navigate these limits, but cannot completely overcome them. We also see how gender interacts with these limits. What’s more, the second section contextualizes the science fiction we started with, by rooting and grounding its elements and concerns, which has two effects. It makes our original reading of the first section deeper, it also asks us to read the realist second section with eyes trained by reading the previous science fiction. And there’s a third effect – being so plainly and unsubtle prodded to connect section one and two, we’re also quietly asked to expand our reading of the many science fiction intertexts. Not James Herbert, whose own book is already doing the same things, but the unnamed intertexts, from YA novels to Clarke. The third section doesn’t add a ton to this mechanism, except to reflect on some previous assumptions regarding race. It feels like the third section’s main function is narrative, as it provides some kind of closure for the literary fiction of the second and third section, without answering all the questions.

The two final sections, then, are two more science fiction stories, one, like the first section, offered in tone and font like the first, expanding on the tropes, ideas and story of the original science fiction story. It’s set in the same world and shares the same characters. The same, to an extent is true for the last section. But while the literary fiction in “Christy” implied that the first section was written by Christy, it is only the final section that is explicitly labelled as “written by Christy Peller,” which returns us to Christy’s assertion of the world having its own logic. Nina Allan never clarifies anything, but there’s a good case to be made that the science fiction of the book is not a “novel within a novel” kind of writing, but that as presented, it is a third space, not reality, not the “author’s” imagination, but something else, a new space, as only, it is implied by this book, science fiction can create. This is a topic that the sophomore novel The Rift would expand and improve upon, but it’s already clear in the debut. The Race is a complex book, with engaging characters, good ideas, and many, many worlds contained within.

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Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford

Cornell, Paul (2015), Witches of Lychford, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8523-9

Reading Adorno’s Kulturindustrie, people like to focus on his curmudgeonly complaints about popular culture. My favorite aspect of it has always been the idea that whatever noxious ideology we see displayed in the products of the culture industry are merely magnified versions of ideological tensions that have been part of earlier art all along. The unsubtle, obvious treatment of them in the culture industry merely makes them more visible. Something similar, on a smaller scale, is happening with Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford, I think. I have always meant to read a book by Cornell, but never got quite round to it. He’s been writing novels, comic books and scripts for TV, including some very good episodes of Dr. Who. So for some reason, this novella, published by Tor, is my first taste of Cornell on the page, and it’s a curious experience. Cornell writes his story with an extraordinary ease, assembles it from various parts, hints effortlessly at a broader backstory, develops interesting characters in just a handful of expert strokes. It’s quite extraordinary to watch, and that certainly makes the book worth reading. If you like stories about witches taking on elves and evil in a modern small town,it’s hard to imagine a story executed better than this one. What’s more, the book echoes a certain British kind of writing, of the Gaiman and Pratchett variety, at least for me, which has a comforting effect. Yet underneath all that, the book follows a curious discourse about money and power with a somewhat unpleasant cultural history. In this case: structural antisemitism, and it made me worry about many of the books in this tone or genre I had previously enjoyed. It’s Cornell’s excellent craftsmanship that has made certain discourses this visible in this novel or novella, because instead of couching the ideas in story and material, Cornell zeroes in on the more difficult parts of these ideas, because he has to, to create his music from the skeleton of notes that the short form leaves him with. I feel very uncomfortable with this book yet at the same time cannot but admire its execution. Cornell hits all his notes exactly. Honestly, it is books like this that I sometimes want to throw at some of the current literary purveyors of genre, the people coming from literary fiction who stoop to genre fiction, not realizing that genre fiction depends on craft and skill just as literary fiction does, and Paul Cornell demonstrates the mechanics of writing genre literature in this decidedly minor, but absolutely delighful, though poisonous, little book.

Witches of Lychford is creepy, but it’s also funny. It takes all of five pages to firmly place some of the book’s voice in a tradition of light, humorous English fantasy, the genre that was dominated for what felt like a century by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett, with the exception of some very early and some pretty late work, mastered a consistently humane and humorous voice: he created a parallel medieval world, into which he slowly introduced the foibles of modernity, from cinema and rock music, early on, to the postal system, telegraphs, banks and trains later on. His characters are sensible British people, usually men, with sensible, common-sense minds that were disturbed by intrigues, racism and other silliness. In Terry Pratchett’s world, being humane and kind always prevailed in the end, it would always show you the way, even if you were unlucky and died. Pratchett was critical of institutions but generous towards the people in his books. What’s even more interesting is that any careful reader was aware how thin the line was which Pratchett walked. Connecting fantasy races like dwarfs or elves to human racial tensions is difficult, and “common sense” can very quickly be used to excuse lazy thinking. If we’re asking you to include more complicated identities and preferences in the way you chart your world, being a common sense thinker is no excuse to exclude LGBT or people of color from the way your world works. And Pratchett never did that. Pratchett’s characters draw a line, but well-meaning people are always within the bounds. It’s bad actors who are left out: bigoted people for example. There are many examples of this British pastoral, grappling with modernity, but nobody executed it with as much kindness and care as Pratchett, which is his greatest achievement, I think. Second on the list was Pratchett’s skill with language, with moving phrases and objects just outside the reach of easy cognitive access, making our brains do double duty and re-assess things and words taken for granted. The book that Cornell is most likely to have had in mind while writing Witches of Lychford, however, is not a Pratchett novel per se. It is a collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, whose work has always been a bit disappointing, but has now also become boring.

That said, Gaiman’s appetite for storytelling in his early work was impressive and while not possessed of Pratchett’s gifts at defamiliarizing objects and language, his work repeated many elements of Pratchett’s, though in a more self-possessed, slightly unkind way. His modern city lacks the possibilities of redemption that Pratchett’s has; his view of modernity and its clash with the British pastoral is much more informed by the (infamous?) ending of Lord of the Rings, with the return to the industrialized Shire. Whereas Pratchett’s work follows many of the beats of the pastoral novel, despite much of it being set in the gigantic metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, Neil Gaiman implies the pastoral by its lack, by the decay, the destruction that modernity hath wrought. That’s not a very interesting topic for a late 20th century writer, and, if you insisted on doing it, one could at least ask for it to be done in an interesting way (Alan Moore, Gaiman’s contemporary, was interested in many of the same themes, but his work is compelling throughout; the difference between Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s very popular run on The Sandman is instructive here). Cornell’s novel(la) is decidedly written in a post-Gaiman and post-Pratchett environment (there are other writers relevant here, but I’m restricting myself to these two). The echoes to Good Omens, the Pratchett/Gaiman collaboration are loud, but throughout the whole book we find a mixture of various approaches to the light British fantasy dealing with modernity and community. Pratchett could rely on the reader’s awareness of the vast reservoir of characters making up his community, and played with new elements accordingly. Cornell has to do the introduction, background coloration and plot all at the same time, and he pulls it off with aplomb. His main characters are three women, implying the Shakespearean coven of weird sisters, but as it happens, and despite the title, only one of them is a proper witch. A second one is a newly arrived reverend, and the third one runs a magic shop in town, has had a year-long affair with a fairy prince, but is practically an atheist. The title, and the behavior of the women in the novel gives us a sense of female community, unlocking some of the non-obvious meaning of the word “witches.” The small town they all live in is a community too, and in a handful of deft strokes we learn how the three women are part of that community too, with even the new reverend having roots in the town.

You know who doesn’t have roots? The new superstore about to open up. The story of the superstore coming to town has had many many versions, some interesting, as in the underrated NBC sitcom Superstore, some more dull, as in Meg Ryan’s final box office hit Em@il for you. Often, we find a slightly troubling nativist discourse surrounding the arrival of the superstore, but it is rarely as obvious as in Cornell’s novel, where the superstore’s arrival literally means the arrival of Evil itself and the apocalypse. If the store is built, a Sunnydale-like hellmouth will open, and all hell will break loose. A demon is seen throughout the book, testing the boundaries in what feels like a nod to Terry Brooks and the second Shannara novel. God knows. That said, evil here is not the unknown corporate entity, it’s shown in the form of a kind of Satan light who tries to talk the town into building the store. He’s deadly but pretends he’s normal. He bribes the mayor, but tries to influence the town in other ways as well. The depiction of his evil is clearly tainted with the associations of antisemitic tradition. A cosmopolitan outsider threatening the nice people in a small British town? Someone whose evil is in his money (there’s a stack of money he offers as charity and it needs to be burned to ward off a danger late in the novel)? He even paints red marks on the doors of selected townspeople. Phara-oh no. This aspect has always been active at the limits of this British genre, from JRR Tolkien’s complicated relationship to Jewishness, to Corbyn’s devotion to the potatoes and leeks growing on his allotment. The countryside on the one hand, and the complicated, difficult modernity on the other, that is part of Britain’s long history (and dark present) of antisemitic sentiment that crosses party lines. Paul Cornell took a trope, the one of capitalism encroaching on proper British small town/village life, which had always been structurally problematic, and lays bare, unintentionally, I think, some of its foundations. The painted red marks on the doors are the icing on the cake, but really, in his narrative efficiency, he makes most of the elements of the book cohere wonderfully, all of them fitting this scheme. It’s a curious effect, in an overall very uncurious book. Witches of Lychford is comfort food, with a drop of poison.

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Wyl Menmuir: The Many

Menmuir, Wyl (2016), The Many, Salt
ISBN 978-1-784630485

So, to get things out of the way, this is a novel about grief, some of it quite affecting. Short books about grief are not uncommon. Max Porter’s debut novel(la) Grief is the Things with Feathers is an example of a well-executed book about grief and loss, as is Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel or Joan Didion’s memoir. The worst book I’ve read on the subject in past years was John W. Evans’s plodding and whiny Young Widower. Grief, whether autobiographical or not, is a powerful emotion for writers to mine, and I think it shows overwriting and overdetermination like few other genres. The stark simple fact of death and loss is so severe that it asks of the writer to be particularly mindful of the words and forms they are using, in contrast to writing about other strong emotions like love and desire, which can take a bit of overwriting, and in fact are sometimes enhanced by it. Max Porter’s examination of grief worked so well because he created a metaphor that carried much of the load for him; additionally, he used a language that was spare but not bland, with a fine sense of where to slip in and out of the events. Max Porter’s success was particularly interesting as he was one of the first of the recent wave of people from the “book industry” (Porter is a Granta Books editor) to come out with a fiction debut. Another one was literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel Did you ever have a family was longlisted for the 2015 Booker.

Editor and consultant Wyl Menmuir added his name to that list with his own Booker-longlisted debut The Many. It is a solid book, written by a man with solid literary taste, a clever imagination and solid literary skills. Like Max Porter, Menmuir opted to write about grief, and like Porter, he uses an allegory to carry the reader through the story. But Menmuir is what I like to call a meddler – he writes the allegory in a way that requires him to “reveal” the mechanism behind it at the end, and he keeps dropping hints, in a prose that’s sometimes simple, and sometimes egregiously overwritten. Curiously, his set-up didn’t need him to use some of the tools of (magical) realism, and yet, in the first 3/4ths of the book, that’s what he does over and over – and these are not his strengths. In German, we say of mixed affairs like this that they are weder Fisch noch Fleisch, neither fish nor meat. And that’s what you get here – a good idea, a powerful emotion, and a writer who kept meddling in his own book, adding stuff here and there, resulting in a book that feels mostly like a missed opportunity. The idea could have made for a much stronger book, a truly affecting, moving, maybe even terrifying little novel. Instead we get a book that’s in between genres, in between styles, in between registers. If this book didn’t have the Booker sticker on the cover I wouldn’t have read it – to be honest, I might not have finished it. It’s a solid book, and quite short, so…maybe read it?

I’m not giving away the novel’s resolution here, and won’t describe how the allegory connects. But for 2/3rds of the book, it’s not really material how the allegory works – it’s true, you can go back and some curious passages work differently after you have more details on the allegory, than they did when you read them for the first time. At the same time, you’re always sort of aware that this is an allegorical set up, with various elements too staged, too portentous to work as realism, even magical realism. This makes the novel sometimes difficult to assess – a first reading is, after all, the most immediate, most important reading of the book. The book that came to mind as a comparison immediately was Graham Swift’s masterful novel Waterland. Now, Swift’s novel is so good that it is practically sui generis; I’ve not read another novel even by Swift that can compare with it. That said, it’s hard not to feel Menmuir draw from the same well in his set-up. The setting of The Many is a small fishing village dealing with a recent death. A young man named Perran has died. There is a general sense of gloom, and much of it feels immediately isolated and allegorical, but at the same time, Menmuir sets up a sense of place that could well be a real fishing village. He draws on the same sense of interconnection of history and nature that drives much of Waterland. We have a real sense of how this fishing village economy works, including an ominous representative of EU fisheries regulations. Into this village comes a man who is himself burdened with a recent loss. This man, Timothy, takes up residence in the house that was until recently occupied by Perran and is still full of his things. Again, we get a real sense of how objects interconnect with the life and history of the village and the many superstitions, habits and rules that are part of that life.

None of this is necessary for the allegory, mind you. If you step away from the text, you can see the allegorical bones of it, with the house, some of its furniture, the village and its inhabitants and a forbidding line of container ships that forms a taboo barrier for the fishermen. All the magical realism, all the Graham- Swiftness of the text is additional, it’s not needed by the text – you could argue that the damp atmosphere of the novel is important, but even it can do without most of these touches. What’s worst is that in order to make the book work despite all the additional weight, Menmuir pushes in a ton of flashbacks that keep us on our toes and sometimes focus us back on the overall structure. They are inserted awkwardly sometimes, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Menmuir can’t leave a good thing alone. There’s the woman, maybe from the EU, who pays the fishermen for their catch of diseased dogfish. She stands on the docks, silent, with a grey coat. There’s a lot of weight in these descriptions, and a lot of power in the set-up, but Menmuir, in what feels like anxiety, keeps piling on, with sentences like “Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it.” I’m not even here to judge the quality of that sentence as a piece of prose, but it makes very clear the author’s anxiety to really nail down all the meaning and foreboding he wants to nail down. Or, earlier: “He realizes then he is not fishing but hunting, and he watches for Timothy the way a hunter waits for a stalked deer.” The hunting metaphor is almost immediately discarded, and doesn’t add much to the text that the reader wouldn’t have seen themselves.

This overdetermination is a pity. I cannot say whether the novel, executed with a more focused sense of form, and with sentences that are sharper and clearer and more consistent, would indeed have been better. Looking at the simpler sentences, it’s not clear that this is a strength for Menmuir either, but anything would have been better than this hodgepodge. And there’s so many good ideas in here. There’s an early indication of an interesting comment on masculinity and communion, on intellectual work, on the meaning of family and communion, and some of the many, many dreams that swamp the book are very well done. But the most interesting part is the connection the author establishes between private and public grief. If Max Porter’s book is indebted to Ted Hughes, then Manmuir’s book surely owes a debt to Eliot. The village is indeed an “unreal city” and the title of the novel reminds us of that Dante line that Eliot incorporated into The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” There is an overwhelming urge in the book, particularly towards the end, to connect the private catastrophe with a broader public narrative. It is such an enormous sentiment, that it deserved a somewhat better novel built around it. An example of an excellent novel built around a coastal village, dealing with death and loss is A.L. Kennedy’s extraordinary story of young adulthood, aging and suicide, Everything You Need. I mean, as a reader, when I closed The Many, I almost felt a sense of loss myself: the loss of the good or even great book that this could have been. In my head I heard the lines from Donald Hall’s poem “Without” from the collection with the same name, mourning his late wife Jane Kenyon: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean”

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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.)

Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept

Jones, Gwyneth (2017), Proof of Concept, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9144-5

So I am biased, I suppose. I love science fiction, and I love every Gwyneth Jones book I have ever read. Regrettably, that’s not a ton, because she hasn’t written that much. So coming across a new novel, however short, by this outstanding writer in the genre was a great delight for me, and I would have probably liked this book even had it been remarkably mediocre (see Williams, Tad). Thankfully, Proof of Concept is absolutely excellent. This is everything you want from science fiction: a riveting plot, plausible (to the layman) science, and most importantly, a brilliant literary mind using the unique narrative and tropological tools offered by SF to say something interesting, complex and maybe profound. Jones has done it before: in her novels about the Aleutians and their invasion she took the science fictional tradition about physicality, race and identity and ran with it, creating a meaningful literary discourse about these issues. If you have read any of her recent novels there can be no doubt she should be counted among the major British writers. Compare the Booker shortlist with her 2010 novel Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant. Using the language developed in earlier books she takes on James, Conrad, Greene and contemporary discourses of identity with an ease that puts the whole shortlist to shame (and I liked that Galgut novel). Proof of Concept is not on the same level as those novels, but it’s a smaller novella, anyway, working through its ideas on just over 100 pages. This is the closest that I can remember Jones coming to a technological thriller, and the best, most condensed example of an interrogation of that form itself that I can remember reading. The assumptions regarding knowledge, necessity and, again, identity are all put into play here, and a complete, complicated plot is introduced and seen through all the way to the end. If you like science fiction at all, you want to read this. I cannot vouch for a scientist’s view of the science here, but if you are an interested layman, proceed.

This will be one of my shorter reviews because I am loath to give away anything of the plot and the scientific concept, because the slow, precise unraveling of these two things is one of the major pleasures of reading the book in the first place. The novel is set in a future where earth has been horribly affected by climate change. Humans have colonized the nearby planets, but that’s not a solution in a situation where all of humanity is in danger of being wiped out. All humans live in so-called hives. They keep up the pretense of nationality, but really, they are all part of one of three distinct clusters of humanity, all three controlled by corporations. Outside the livable cluster is the Dead Zone. It’s not really “dead,” but the plant- and wildlife is largely poisonous to eat, and one cannot survive without gas masks, if survival is possible at all. The book itself explicitly connects the Dead Zone to Chernobyl, with all the attendant tropes and traditions. Here, as in other places, Gwyneth Jones gestures towards a genre and asks of us to follow and understand. There’s a specific discussion half way through the book that reads very metatextually, where a character, deprived of the main bulk of some important information, infers the majority of it through allusion and metainformation. Jones, in her fiction generally but in particular here, asks of us to do the same. The same applies to her vision of the future, dominated by corporations, and a dying earth. It’s not new, but very blatantly and carefully so: Jones relies on us seeing and understanding the trope so she can move on. The future of mankind hinges on getting everybody off the planet and far, far away. To achieve this, Dan Orsted, a populist, and Margrethe Patel, a scientist, pool their public funds and influence and embark on a year-long experiment underground called The Needle. The team consists partly of Orsted’s team, mostly young, virile people whose life is one big live-streamed social media feast, and Patel’s team, a group of younger and older scientists who will work on the actual engineering and science. Jones’ protagonist is the most essential member: a young woman named Kir, who was rescued from the Dead Zone as a child and had a quantum computer implanted in her head without her consent. Kir is brilliant, but as the book develops, she notices that the computer in her brain, an AI called Altair, has some doubts about the project. And then, people get murdered.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? And it really is! Having a suspense plot turn around an intellectual mystery and a murder is what moves this novella so forcefully into technothriller territory. I am very fond (see this review and this one) of comparing science fiction novels to the works of Michael Crichton, due to his outsize influence on the literature of suspense and (bad) science, and the way various ideologies come together in his books. Additionally, Crichton, no stranger to bending science to serve his ideology (see particularly the “climate change is a hoax by fat cat scientists” novel State of Fear) or plot (Timeline seems particularly worth noting here) always seemed curiously self-limiting in what he could say or show, keeping certain ontological assumptions close to the vest, and I feel, among the “technothriller” SF, you can distinguish hacks (Charles Stross) from real, intelligent writers (Jones or Scalzi) by the way they deal with the genre as coded. I think many of the good recent works of SF can be read with Giorgio Agamben’s work in mind. The idea of a state of exception and the way he explores, in his recent Stasis, how a civil war, for example, draws on the private and the public but is of neither, can, I think, be considered in connection with Jones’ novel and the way it deals with sexuality, identity and humanity. Also, after finishing it, I pulled Malthus from my shelf to look up some things, and wandered over to Deleuze and ideas of becoming. I really enjoy science fiction that invites me to look at the philosophy shelves behind my desk and consider some of its implications. Agamben, Malthus, Deleuze, I think that’s the core of the book, with some light waffle about social media as an appetizer. But I think I am drifting off course. This book is primarily a thriller. A very well done one, with a moving emotional resolution and a complicated moral arc. It doesn’t talk down to you, but it does cajole you into keeping up, rereading older texts and finding a way in which this story fits into how you think about the issues it raises. It’s playful more than anything.

As for the writing, well, it’s hard to say. It’s good, but it’s not as exact as it could be. It’s the kind of writing where you don’t notice it – it won’t bother you, but you also won’t stop to admire sentence construction. Strike that – I went back to the book after writing the last sentence: Jones’ writing here is definitely beyond what one might call dismissively ‘serviceable’ – her prose in this book has to do a lot of work: moving a plot forward, making scientific concepts understandable all while not losing sight of the emotional core of the narrative, and it does this remarkably well. In fact, of you look at the language on the page, you can tell how well Jones manages the limited real estate offered by a novella, how she shifts perspectives and manages events and dialogue. So, while I didn’t notice anything while reading the book, I can see the writing’s power now that I go back to the page. I don’t teach an MFA course, but some of these pages could easily be used as illustrative material. I just looked at last year’s Booker nominees and except for Levy and the tumultuous Beatty, none of the writers, including the inexplicably lauded David Szalay, are as remarkable on the page as Jones is, if you look closely what the language has to achieve and what it does achieve.

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Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown

Dillon, Glyn (2012), The Nao of Brown, Selfmadehero
ISBN 978-1-906838-42-3

naobrowncoverSo this is some odd coincidence. Fresh on the heels of reviewing a book that is artfully crafted but does not, ultimately, feel like a success, I have just read another book which is both enormously well done and which, on the other hand, feels like an awful failure. Glyn Dillon’s British Comic Award-winning The Nao of Brown is a book about many things but it can’t quite decide on which to focus. It suffers terribly from this lack of focus, from it’s odd characterizations, its god-awful ending and some other things. On the other hand, it’s absolutely spellbinding and beautifully drawn. Dillon, in this book, is an artist who is able to change the tone of a scene with just a tiny adjustment to his characters’ eyebrows. His characters feel fully realized, intense, warm, living, especially the protagonist, a half-Japanese, half-English woman called Nao Brown. Her story is one of paternal abandonment, professional confusion and, most of all, a story of Primarily Obsessional OCD. The racial, social and emotional situation of Nao is complex, and it’s not clear that Dillon is extremely interested or skilled in exploring as fraught a character as Nao. At the same time, he hands her, if we forget the ending, quite a bit of space, letting her spread out over large panels that soak up her expressions. The men around her, in love with her and wary of her at the same time, are somehow both less well realized and sharper in focus. In a book where the main character constantly chides herself on being oblivious, Dillon presents us two supporting characters who are the most obtuse bags of nerd-testosterone you have ever seen, and yet, in a curious attempt to mellow out his book, Dillon lavishes them with understanding and care. All of these situations are difficult to parse and the fault lies in the woefully inadequate writing that, towards the very end of the book, just collapses upon itself and drags even the divine art with it, offering us four dismal pages of badly written text that should have been visually realized. Overall, the book is a real mess, but in being a mess, it also connects back to many other narratives of Asian experience in London, it connects us queerly to other graphic narratives of mental illness and presents an odd sort of cultural imperialism, all at once. You should really read The Nao of Brown, because the art is just so enormously beautiful (and Selfmadehero did such a fine job in creating the book as an object), but be prepared to occasionally squint with frustration at the writing and structure of it all.

If your brain saw the title of this review and started thinking “Dillon, comics, wait, wasn’tkindlyones there something…?” you are on the right path. Glyn Dillon is the younger brother of Steve Dillon, who, as co-creator of the classic comic book series Preacher, should be regarded as a heavyweight in the industry. This year, among other projects, Steve Dillon will be penciling Becky Cloonan’s highly anticipated take on The Punisher. Glyn’s comic book CV, in contrast to his brother’s, is much more sparse. The only book of his that I read prior to The Nao of Brown was an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman all the way back in 1994 (collected in The Kindly Ones). .Most of his work before and after Nao was focused on TV and film. We know from Raymond Williams’ classic study on TV how that medium forces us to adapt our messaging and communication and somehow Glyn Dillon’s book reads like an imprecise hybrid between two traditions of visual storytelling, with the additional tradition of manga, anime and French comics somehow grafted on to the Frankensteinian endeavor. The extraordinary art and the loving way Dillon tells Nao’s story indicates, as does the introduction by Jessica Hynes, that the book had been a labor of love, but I have never read a book that so badly needed an editor and regular discussions with said editor to get the book into some proper shape. The book tells its story on multiple levels, at different speeds. There are multiple ways of summarizing it: Nao Brown, hafu, half-Japanese, half-English, falls in love with a chubby alcoholic mechanic called Gregory Pope who quotes Hesse and has his own demons. Or: Nao Brown, a young aspiring comics professional deals with the difficulties of suffering from OCD and maintaining a functioning private life, until a catastrophe sorts out her priorities. Or: Nao Brown and her Nerd friend Steve Meeks (oh, speaking names, how have we missed you?) have a silent and frustrating love affair, which, in an ambiguous ending, may or may not be resolved following a calamitous incident. Or: Nao Brown, abandoned by her father and suffering from mental illness, parses a modern life in London while constantly negotiating her role vis-à-vis various father figures, and the concept of maternity, until a complex ending gives her answers to her questions. My descriptions may sound clichéd but that is genuinely the level of self-reflection that the narrative employs. It’s made worse by the fact that no non-spoilery description can do justice to the hackneyed way the book deals with what are really two endings. Much like A Clockwork Orange, this book would be better off with its last chapter chopped off.

naobrownpanelAnother thing regarding those descriptions: you may notice that her racial status plays no role in the way the plot plays out and that’s easily one of the most frustrating things, because that’s not at all how the novel starts. One assumes that the author just at some point during writing this 200 page book, somehow lost track of this part of the story and a few others. The novel begins with Nao on a plane back to London after having visited her father. She is in a difficult professional situation, with freelance illustration work sparse, so she gets a job in a “kidult” toy shop full of ‘japanese’ toys and trinkets. This part of the book moves along fast, and is peppered with clear-eyed observations about family, race, culture and imperialism, if not always in those words. Nao starts her story by telling us that she seems to strangers “the exotic other.” She also explains that her mother is “a proper Paddington girl” and that, living in England with her, “it’s funny to think of Dad as the ‘exotic other’.” She displays signs of “double consciousness,” being enormously aware of how she and her heritage appear to others. She is also confident of her identity, using it to cut down an early attempt by Steve Meeks to explain Japanese toys to her. At her first date with Gregory, when he launches into a racially stereotypical speech about Japanese women, she realizes his obtuse and offensive speech, declaring it “really weird…and a bit horrible…” It is very odd that this very statement is practically the last extensive treatment of race in the book. The Nao of Brown isn’t exactly dismissive of race as it is helpless in dealing with it. The mentioned elements show that the author is aware of the issue, as is the fact that Dillon uses the social and racial geography of London cleverly. “British Asian” usually refers to South Asian people, but London also has a sizable Chinese community with its own issues of racism. Japanese communities, by contrast, are usually more well off and smaller. The book is mostly set in the areas of London where most of the small pockets of the Japanese community are situated, but it offers some interesting tweaks on it. Japanese (and Asian culture, generally) is shown to be completely appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist apparatus. A “Buddhist center” is full of English people, with an English teacher, the toy shop is aimed at English people, and so forth. In 1991, Masao Miyoshi famously claimed that the Japanese economy was the first powerhouse economy without any cultural capital. The anime and manga boom of the early 2000s, as well as the elevation of mediocre novelists like Murakami to literary superstar status, has changed that, but recent developments suggest an American or generally Western-led process of appropriation of these Japanese cultural products, limiting the impact of Japanese culture to its distorted reflection by imperialist media structures. The first third of the novel, using real and invented Japanese products, hammers home this point, culminating in the scene with Gregory that I just mentioned, where he, Hesse-reading idiot, genuinely regards Hello Kitty as a fair representation of Japanese women.

binkybrownNao also fills us in on the fact that she is “a fucking mental case.” and in a series of well paced vignettes, we quickly learn, though more by inference than by explicit comments, that the illness is Primarily Obsessional OCD. She, like most sufferers of OCD is enormously self aware of herself, and suffers from shame regarding her condition. This quality of OCD is hauntingly similar to ideas of “double consciousness,” without wanting to pathologize racial tensions. The book never clinically describes or explains Nao’s illness, but it does an interesting trick to sidestep that: despite Nao’s apparent lack of a therapist, she manages her outbreaks with the help of dialectical behavior therapy methods, including a form of ERP that may not be something real sufferers of OCD would use. The point in the novel is not accuracy, however, but verisimilitude. Dillon wants us to understand how it works and so he has his protagonist use therapeutic methods that externalize a very internalized illness. The result is that it looks like ‘real’ OCD for lay readers of the book, used to media depictions of fussy OCD people like TV’s Monk. It’s an interesting tactic. In my limited experience of reading graphic novels, they have a fascinating relationship with Foucault’s theory of the History of Madness. Books like Nate Powell’s sublime take on schizophrenia, Swallow Me Whole, or David B.’s masterful Epileptic, or more recent, web-published comics on depression, offer both a disquisition on the modern clinic, as well as the pre-modern tableau of madness that Foucault found in Pieter Bruegel’s work. Many of those books are autobiographical, but not confessional (using here Susannah Radstone’s distinction here), with a few confessional books marking specific cultural moments, most famously, Justin Green’s classic Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a book, like Dillon’s, concerned with Primarily Obsessional OCD. The Nao of Brown is neither testimonial nor confessional – it’s not autobiographical at all, which may explain the shifting of priorities as the book progresses. There is no urgency behind its story, and no consistent discursive interests. Towards the last third of the book it is the stale romance that primarily occupies the book’s interest. This is not because it’s fiction, this is because Dillon’s a very mediocre writer. But a work of autobiography would not likely have dropped those elements, even if it was similarly bad in execution.

naobroannocoverBinky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary is actually directly mentioned by the book itself but this reference to Binky Brown sits oddly athwart the book’s issues and problems. Apart from sexual and religious guilt, the book also narrates an interesting racial situation, of the half-Jewish boy who goes to a Catholic school and feels guilty about both communities, like a dark, sexual and secular version of the epiphanies from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. And Binky Brown is situated pretty precisely in a time and place. All these things suggest questions to ask of Glyn Dillon’s book. How does place work? How does he deal with racial tension? What’s the role of pathologized guilt? Most crucially: what does it say about masculinity? And not only does Dillon answer almost none of those questions despite a beginning that appeared to address all of them (talk about bait-and-switch), it is the last two that I found resolved in the most strange way. See, the book is aware that its male characters are idiots. A moment of mental stress by Nao is countered by Gregory in the most insensitive and ignorant possible way. In no way sensitive to her struggles he demands a rational explanation before he allows himself to help her. Her friend and employer, Steve Meeks, clearly smitten with her, employs the dubious tactics of passive aggressive Nerd courtship. None of this is inferred by me: the book states it plainly and clearly. There is no doubt the book knows that its men mistreat its female protagonist at every turn. Talking over her, talking down to her, not helping her with her illness; in fact, sometimes they themselves create situations for her illness to flare up. And yet, we find no trace of guilt, none of the vulnerable masculinity that was so central to the confessional moment in literature. In fact, the book, in its muddled and awful ending finds excuses and explanations for their behavior. Gregory is the only one who gets to explain himself in writing. The book oddly resembles few texts as much as the British male popculture novels by Nick Hornby and other ‘lads’ of his generation. We get quirky pop culture references, and namedrops of bands like The Fall. The longer the book continues, the less it is interested in Nao’s point of view. Nothing shows this change as starkly as the fact that the book begins with Nao’s words of self-explanation and ends with Gregory’s dire Hesse-influenced waffle, no longer an object of criticism by the book. It begins with the picture of a little girl, and it ends with one of a little boy. This change, much of it happening in the book’s last third, is not announced earlier, it feels like the author just, upon writing, found a character he liked more than the protagonist he started out with. For the reader, this is utterly frustrating and even infuriating. There is a great book somewhere in The Nao of Brown, but Dillon does not have the skills of writing and drawing 200 pages of it with a consistent level of concentration. As it is, the book is still good, because, despite all the frustration, it has an excellent first third, and the art is extraordinary throughout.

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Max Porter: Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Porter, Max (2015), Grief is the thing with feathers, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-32376-0

grief1When you don’t have a lot of time to read for entertainment, you can get the impression that you can’t really be surprised anymore. At least this is how it feels to me. I pick up books that turn up in my usual circles of reading and recommendation. That’s why so many of my recent reviews start by referring back to other recent reviews. And then there’s books like this one. Mentioned on Twitter by a Bishop scholar I admire, I picked it up on a whim, without any expectations. There was a Dickinsonian title with a twist, and a pretty cover and that was it. I had never heard of Max Porter before or the book (nor have I looked him up in the meantime) . And yet – what a tremendous, what an enormous achievement this little book turned out to be. A strange, odd, moving novel(la) that moves between genres, evoking Ted Hughes implicitly and explicitly, an overwhelming book that deals with the grief of a husband that lost his wife, of two boys that lost their mother. I didn’t read any reviews or interviews regarding Porter’s book. I don’t know whether the fictional tale in its pages is powered in any way by real, extratextual grief, but I don’t really care. This book is intense and emotional. It makes me feel, palpably, its narrator’s grief, it’s a strangely effective way to make its readers feel the topsy-turvy world that a family finds itself in once the mother/wife suddenly dies. Routines and reality are upended, people have to relearn normal behavior. In order to achieve that, Max Porter introduces a mystical beast, Crow. It’s hard to think what else one might expect from Max Porter in the future because this is such a strange book, but this is excellent, from the first to the last page. Read it at your earliest convenience.

yooslettersCrow isn’t just any crow. Porter’s protagonist is a Ted Hughes scholar (and, in modern parlance, a Hughes ‘fanboy’), at work on a book unenticingly called Ted Hughes’ “Crow” on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, and it’s immediately obvious that Crow, “a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast” is the same mythical bird that populates some of Hughes’ best poems. This is interesting, as it opens inquiries into questions of autobiography, myth and literature. Ted Hughes remained interested in Crow even when he stopped writing poems about him, “pulled back onto the autobiographical level,” as he said in a late letter to Keith Sagar, and connected Crow to various myths and literary characters, among which King Lear provides a strange but interesting tangent for the book. But don’t let these remarks fool you. Grief is the thing with feathers is no mere academic exercise: its effect is powerful and immediate. The fact that it’s fiction may have helped it to bridge the gap between providing an aesthetically interesting text and a moving discussion of grief. I had recently started reading the memoirs of John W. Evans, a (sorta, kinda) acquaintance, who lost his wife in a terrible accident in the Romanian mountains and had to abandon her. It’s awful, and I decided not to review it here. Writing about grief is hard. Writing about various extreme emotions, yes, but grief is particularly strange. Evans chose to basically polish a bunch of essays he wrote for his therapist into book form. They deal with his guilt, with how wonderful his wife was, how unhappy he feels now. Except for the bizarreness of the accident itself, there’s nothing noteworthy about the writing or form of the book, and wading through a middle aged teacher’s self pity gets a bit tiring after a hundred pages. Self pity in exceptionally mediocre prose is just hard to take. The thing is, I’m sure I couldn’t do any better. It’s a genuinely difficult task. Even the great ones struggle. In his letters Hughes admits again and again to the overwhelming demands of writing with grief in mind.

yoospoemsThe oddness of the story and its impactful nature may well be due to the non-autobiographical nature of the book. Not all books on grief are as flat as the aforementioned memoir. Books like Sharon Olds’ recently published collection Stag’s Leap, or Hughes’ own late work (for example Birthday Letters) can be quite effective, not to mention such extraordinary efforts as James Merrill’s late elegies to dead friends. But few people have the talent and wherewithal to write as powerfully and directly of grief without sacrificing some aesthetic appeal. Sharon Olds, discussing her book, described the process of its writing as “[j]ust being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.” It is a not entirely felicitous end point for the long but not lovely tradition of confessional poetry that started with careful and formally accomplished poets like Lowell, Berryman and Plath and ends today in such platitudes about writing “without distortion,” as if that was a way to frame any kind of utterance, much less poetry. It is, I think, these contemporary readings of autobiographical writing which for many scholars complicate the reading of mid-20th century ‘confessional’ poetry. A recent, very good study of Berryman spends a whole chapter clearing its author of the apparently heinous accusation of confessionalism. Max Porter’s decision to use Ted Hughes’ Crow as the mythology driving his book is interesting in this light, giving Hughes frequent opposition to confessionalism which he “despised.” At some point, during the late 1970s, I think, he asked Keith Sagar to write a book on him “as if nothing at all were known about me personally – as if my name was a pseudonym.” As Heather Clark points out, Hughes advocated the use of masks and “Crow may have been Hughes’ own ‘mask’.”

grief3The Dad of the book and his two boys fill their days with clear and palpable detail – May Porter’s book is dedicated to the stink and rub and ordinariness of everyday life, refracted through the demands of grief and loss. The figure of the Dad doesn’t seem quite anchored in the daily life of the family. His disappearance becomes threat and nightmare to the boys, and meanwhile, Crow, of the dark world view, and the harsh speech, picks up the educational slack. His influence becomes most obvious in the way the mother’s death quicky turns into a kind of myth. It appears as if the boys and the book itself are working through what critic Jonathan Ellis (in an essay on Keats, Bishop and Hughes) described as the feeling of doing something illegal: “Talking to the dead as if they were alive feels ‘illegal’ because of the contemporary taboo that forbids prolonged mourning.” The boys’ parts of the narration are mostly told in hindsight. They are stories that are “mostly true” and telling the truth is a way to “be nice to Dad.” Meanwhile, the Dad does his own part in shaping truth – he is very selective about which parts of his wife’s life he wants to remember, and that selection does not include his wife’s death. Crow, in his primitive, feathered (ir)reality is a way to hold the family together, to keep enduring grief instead of breaking apart. The boys grow up to become dads themselves we learn and Crow becomes part of family mythology. Max Porter does an impressive job of translating grief both into this mythical, literary figure of Crow, and into minute, convincing details. Such as when Dad tells us about how her absence affects his life, his perception of his surroundings: “She won’t ever use (make-up, tumeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith’s novel, peanut butter, lip balm).” Meanwhile, the boys have their own way of making grief part of daily life: “We pissed on the seat. never shut drawers. We did those things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” Due to the compressed nature of his narrative, Porter picks events that are resonant with physicality and meaning, often to the point of overdetermining some chapters/poems in the book, such as when the boys admit that they have lied about their mother’s death to schoolmates. When Akhil Sharma had his protagonist lie about his brother’s accident, it was part of a larger theme of truthtelling, of assimilation, of storytelling as part of identity formation. With Max Porter, what we get is boys telling schoolmates that they killed their mother, a lie that is so rich in associations that it’s bound to overload the short, less than 10 sentences long chapter this lie is in.

dickonsonA chapter that ends with their mother giving them permission. Because of course, the book isn’t rich enough without the dead mother appearing to all its characters (but unlike Crow, this is not a shared hallucination). To refer back to Ellis, what we see enacted is “the belief that the dead person remains here […] not as object, as ashes or body, but as active subject, living, speaking, writing.” So what we have is a book that is a haunted house in itself or rather – to speak with Emily Dickinson, “a house that tries to be haunted.” Maybe that’s a way to describe Porter’s method: he’s offering us a structure with multiple ways to fill it with artificial, spectral life. And his success: that he did it in such a sometimes heavy handed way without crushing the life within it, without making it a pale exercise. There is a way to read the whole book as a long, emotional comment on Ted Hughes’ work. Ted Hughes who lost his wife, Sylvia Plath, who left behind two children (though not two boys). Plath haunted the life of Hughes and her children, much like the absent mother in the book haunts the family here. There are lines here that correspond to Hughes, some poems appear in form and structure to refer to Hughes’ work, and the choice of Crow itself, as I said earlier, has significance in the context of grief and death. Even as outlandish a detail as hallucinations of the dead mother have echoes in Hughes. He wrote, for example, in anotebook entry, that he “[d]reamed as if all night Sylvia had been brought back to life.” It’s tempting, but not feasible to make a list of all the references, the sheer overwhelming Hughesness of the whole text. It adds an interesting richness – given the connection between Crow and the historical myth of King Lear, as detailed by Hughes himself, I feel that the father, in some of his guises and absences turns not into Lear but into Edgar, or rather Poor Tom.

DSC_1587The title – and the books epigraph, finally, are not taken from Hughes at all. The title is a play on Emily Dickinson’s most famous line (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) and the epigraph is simply a complete (short) poem. This is such an interesting choice, since Hughes has, from the 70s on, been the subject of attacks by readers of Plath and feminists in general, and he’s never been particularly gracious about it. Porter’s protagonist is not just a man, but one that lacks the capacity to be critical of Hughes. His book, when it appears, receives a write-up in the TLS, and it’s praised as a “delight to true fans of [Hughes and his poems].” So Dickinson is interesting here. Frequently, literary reception will read Hughes as cerebral and distant and Plath as emotional, following tired gendered lines. The divide between intellectual poetry and confessionalism is often an either/or situation, and female poets draw ire and censure whatever side of the divide they are said to fall on. Susan Howe’s inspired book on Dickinson, My Emily Dickinson, did much, when it appeared in the 1980s to re-center the image of Dickinson as a poet who is direct and personal, but also highly intellectual. Contrary to the image of the spinster who writes introspective, hermetic poetry in her chamber, Howe showed conclusively that Dickinson was a brilliant reader first of all, of Dickens, Browning, Barrett, Brontë and others, and that her work answers earlier works of literature. Similarly, in an essay also from the 1980s, Nancy Walker points out how Dickinson used her letters to toy with a persona, she “consistently used the strategy of roles to explore her relation to the world. Her letters as well as her poems display a wide variety of tones and voices“ and “[i]n her letters, as in her poetry, writing is a form of art that can conceal, not reveal.”

grief 2This may all just be a coincidence, and Max Porter may have chosen the title for other reasons, just toying with the average reader’s knowledge of the Dickinson line to create intrigue, but Dickinson works as a reference for many of the techniques of voice and storytelling that Porter’s book rests on. Yet, ultimately, it’s not necessary to know Hughes to enjoy the book or to do some kind of literary speculation. The book works extremely well as a moving text about grief and loss. It’s not just the ultimate loss either. Passages like this one, describing a short lived relationship that Dad engages in

She was soft and pretty and her naked body was dissimilar to my wife’s and her breath smelt of melon. But we were on the sofa my wife bought, drinking wine from glasses my wife was given, beneath the painting my wife painted, in the flat where my wife died.

will resonate with people who put a long relationship or a marriage behind them, as well. And yet, for all the praise I have for the book, it’s clearly someone’s debut; it’s too much and too little all at once. It’s too smug and clever, and sometimes not intelligent enough. And I can see all these things while absolutely loving this book. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed this year and I’ve reviewed a lot of good books. I don’t know what’s next for Max Porter and his prodigious talent, but I’m looking forward to it. If he can improve on Grief is the thing with feathers, we are in for some great stuff.

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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.)

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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