Jiles, Paulette (2016), News of the World, William Morrow
“Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” – If you think this is a great sentence, many of my criticisms of Paulette Jiles’ novel in my review will not apply to you as a reader. You’re bound to maybe like it. News of the World is a widely-praised work of fiction after all, turning up on end-of-the-year lists, shortlisted for the National Book Award and more. The sentence I quoted, stylistically, isn’t atypical of the novel’s style. Certainly, much of the writing in the novel is deliberate, albeit without the care and elegance you’ll find, for example, in Brian Evenson’s most recent book The Warren. Deliberate – in a way that reminds me of the writing in E. Annie Proulx’ novels, of which William T. Vollmann has offered a thorough, accurate and uncharitable assessment this year. It is certainly the kind of writing that lures some reviewers and readers into calling it poetic. It is not, finally, all bad. News of the World is tighter, more well written and sharper than much of the seemingly poetic guff that gets turned out by many of the MFA institutions around the US. There is a sense of Jiles understanding her material, working with cliché and tropes to do something that’s certainly unique enough to deserve recognition. This is not a bad novel, but it is also not a very good one. This is partly due to the material – it is enormously hard to do something interesting with the Western that hasn’t been done before, and been done better. This novel in particular raises themes variously treated by novels like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers, or Lonesome Dove, and by movies like The Searchers. Jiles’ novel is different – that much is true, but it is not necessarily an important or worthwhile difference. In many ways, Jiles, writing in a genre that has been constantly modernized and updated in the past decades, offers a quietly reactionary take on many of the themes of the Western. I find it really hard to come up with reasons why you should pick up this book – unless you want an inoffensive book present. It is indeed largely inoffensive (though reactionary and mildly racist), mostly reasonably written and hits enough of the right emotional beats (think Lifetime movie) to offer a pleasant overall reading experience. If you are looking for a present for a colleague, this is a reasonable option. If you are looking for a book for yourself – don’t bother. I promise you you’ve read much better and there are much better books out there dealing with these same topics.
News of the World is set during Reconstruction and its protagonist, retired Captain Kidd (yes, very humorous) is traveling through Texas, reading the newspaper to audiences for a small fee. He makes a small amount of money but he’s not motivated by money – he likes informing his audience by giving them a good mixture of news from the US (“Texas Readmitted to the US!”) and stranger news from abroad, say England or the Orient, almost fairy-tale like news items. His readings are performances, and he selects and paces his news items accordingly. There is an interesting tradition on the nexus between the Wild West and performance, from the ubiquitous saloons and dancing, to the multilevel meditations on performance and reality of contemporary TV shows like Westworld. I’d also count movies like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, I suppose. One of the connections these texts establish is the one between creating narrative and creating a national narrative, but they always also introduce a moment of unruliness, the carnivalesque, interrogating with one hand the same national narrative that they appear to establish with the other. It’s worth looking at these movies and books in terms of these negotiations and each text resolves these tensions differently. News of the World is a bit of an oddity in this respect – there is performance in the text on so many levels, but the novel is also absolutely unwilling to allow for any kind of shifting knowledge loyalties. Kidd as the curator of news is absolutely sure that what he does is, performance aside, a fair and balanced account of the world outside. The most telling aspect of this is one night when he arrives in a city where two gun-toting hotheads live who are absolutely sure that the newspapers just have to be full of accounts of their heroics. They expect the famous reader of newspapers to include lavish, ideally illustrated, recitations of their (frankly murderous) exploits. Kidd declines and doesn’t read at all. The choice between embellishing his usual readings or to give a straight reading that endangers his life leads him to decline giving a performance altogether. Surely it is no accident that in these times of slanted news and partisan embellishments of facts, Paulette Jiles chose to write a book revolving around a man of impeccable news-related ethics. In some ways, Jiles’ Captain Kidd is the Civil War era equivalent of a curated Facebook news feed. In News of the World, performance doesn’t undercut the serious national narrative – the national narrative and the straight-laced seriousness of truth and history kneecaps the possible literary effects of performativity, contributing to the dutiful dourness pervading the whole novel.
It’s not that the novel is without humor, there’s quite a bit of it, but it is the gentle, chuckling kind, primarily connected to the second protagonist of the novel, the ten year old Johanna Leonberger, a girl abducted by the Native American tribe of the Kiowa and recovered by the US army. Jiles did a bit of research into the matter and apparently, abductees quickly developed a loyalty to their tribe and unlearned the use of English, extending to basic matters of pronounciation. The tribe Jiles picked for Johanna is the Kiowa who are unable to pronounce an . So throughout the novel we see Johanna either elide the consonant or replace it with an . That has some slightly unfortunate consequences for the novel because Jiles insists on rendering all of Johanna’s dialog, even when its protagonists understand it perfectly. Thus, one of the more adorable aspects is Johanna saying “KEP-DUN” when referring to Captain Kidd. The plot of the novel involves Kidd being paid to take Johanna from north Texas all the way to the south to return her to her relatives. On the way, Jiles insists on parading her trek of oddballs past a lineup of Western cliché, including a very drawn out gunfight. There is the sultry widow, the gunslinger and his Native American henchmen, and different well known varieties of Civil War vets. I discussed the Caprtain’s occupation before the plot, because that occupation is the only thing in the novel that does not feel like a mosaic of themes and characters, mildly remixed, but essentially untouched. If you have seen some classic Hollywood Western movies, you have seem multiple versions of these same characters. Jiles does provide some odd quirks, but they are mostly to do with pacing. A suprisingly large portion of the novel is dedicated to one long gunfight while half the journey is summarized in about ten brisk pages. This imbalance is also mirrored in the novel’s descriptions: Jiles provides very long, detailed, almost jarring descriptions of defunct guns; while I suppose it is possible to read these as reflections of the Captain’s limited mind, we know he has other obsessions, and we know he does not provide nearly the same amount of detail on these. In these descriptions, as well as other places, we find the vicissitudes of a historical novel and the research needed for accuracy. Jiles lacks the light touch with reseach that would make for an overall harmonious narrative. I mean, I’m sure it impresses some readers, as so-called historical accuracy often does, but in the text I found it odd – and not in a good way.
Research also mars the issue of Native Americans. It is not just Johanna’s unfortunately rendered speech, which bears the marks of decades of racially charged use of language. The contrast of Johanna’s speech with the overall modern and clear speech of people around her is problematic. The whole thing is reinforced by research: Jiles’ conviction that the stories about abductions are right, and her thorough reading of them leads her to focus her novel mostly on non-Natives. Johanna, a girl of German ethnicity who speaks better German than English, is the novel’s representation of Indian-ness, in speech and behavior. She yells out the Kiowa war cry, she has to be physically restrained from scalping an enemy and she’s flabbergasted that she wouldn’t be allowed to bathe in the nude in the middle of a small town. She is curageous because the Kiowa are courageous and so on. The tired character tropes I mentioned previously have here found an ideological equivalent. We have all heard these kinds of stories. As a German, I know some of these stories from white Germans who have never been to the US, most famously Karl May (whose late work was adored by Arno Schmitt), a thief, liar and literary prodigy who wrote fantastical stories about courageous Indians and the white people who encounter them in wonder. Yet while the character archetypes Jiles uses are common throughout the history of the Western genre, Jiles’ attitude towards Natives is not very common among more recent novels. And by recent I mean most significant cultural output since the 1970s. Johanna is the Good Indian, and is contrasted not by one, but by multiple groups of Bad Indians. Dangerous Kiowa, plus the henchmen in the aformentioned firefight who are not just mean and dangerous, but also cowards, running away after hearing Johanna’s intonation of the Kiowa war cry. It is truly the oddest thing. The movie that is the closest comparison, The Searchers, from 1956(!), is a masterpiece with a difficult moral narrative. Its protagonist, played by John Wayne in arguably his best role, is an unabashed racist, someone who thinks miscegenation is evil and Indians having no place in polite white society. The racial politics of the movie undercut this character, and offer various gradations of other characters, including Martin, who is partially Native American and the abducted girl in question. The Searchers is genuinely interested in interrogating the nation-building narratives around race, which, as I said earlier, are so important to some aspects of the genre. And much as Jiles’ newsreader offers a contrast with that aspect, the novel as a whole also rejects the trajectory of the genre. In Jiles’ novel, white people are white people and Native Americans are Indians. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the novel of all colors (including Johanna’s relatives), but that’s never what nationalist narratives rely on. What’s important is the role of the other and as the novel comes to an end, the Other is safely banished, Johanna is married to a farmer and somehow, in their marriage and family, we can see a glowing image of Texas rising off the page.
Paulette Jiles is a Canadian poet, living on a farm in Texas, as far as I can tell and that means very little for the book. Her being a poet is not a boon to the language (unless you adore that first sentence), but then, Dorothea Lasky is a prizewinning poet and Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel prize, so, you know… And as for the Canadianness – somehow, comparing Jiles to some other excellent Canadian novelists who have written about the West, from Ondaatje to Kroetsch, one gets the feeling that living in Texas is more impactful for Jiles’ writing than anything else. There is nothing really redeeming about News of the World, outside of a general pleasantness of writing and tone, and, honestly, how an esteemed publication like LitHub decided to put it on a list of best novels of the year (and was slightly miffed the NYT didn’t do the same) eludes me completely. Maybe it’s me. But it’s not.
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Atwood, Margaret; Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain (2016), Angel Catbird, Dark Horse
I wrote the first sentence of this review before reading the book. Angel Catbird arrived here this afternoon, and I immediately noted down this sentence: “This is just a quick review to inform you that this awesome book exists.” So when I tell you that this book is a big disappointment, maybe you can chalk it down to my high expectations. This review is still going to be quite short, but the word “awesome” won’t be part of it, I’m afraid. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist and a very good poet and short story writer. She is not, based on reading this beautifully produced book, very good at writing comic books. Angel Catbird is a book with a great premise, it is drawn by a fantastic artist, and who among us wouldn’t like to see Margaret Atwood write a Golden Age style comic book? And yet! And yet, this book is much duller than it had any right to be. If anything, it shows us that transitioning to comic book writing is not a given, and maybe it helps us to re-examine the achievements of Brad Meltzer (who worked on Green Arrow, among others, though his work is a bit of a mixed bag), Marjorie Liu (whose new book Monstress is a magnificent read) and China Mieville. This book is so strange and bad that its failings almost make me want to recommend it. Atwood does not play it safe, and produced a book that cites different comic traditions, comments on environmental politics, on art and gender relations, all while telling a garish story told with a silliness that is almost admirably bold. For all the dismay that Angel Catbird caused me, it made me want to read Atwood write a whole novel possessed of a similar level of adorable shameless silliness. Additionally, my faith in Atwood’s skills is such that I assume she’ll eventually get better at this. Volume 1 of Angel Catbird is a mess and not a delightful mess. But it is a book of an author clearly enjoying herself, taking risks, and it is illustrated by gifted artists. If you don’t expect the next comic book masterpiece you may even be able to stave off disappointment. Finally: cats.
The book’s greatest strength has to be Johnny Christmas’ art. He did an excellent job on Brisson’s Sheltered, a creator-owned title at Image, and in Angel Catbird he does his utmost to keep the train on the tracks and moving in a forward direction. His work, and that of illustrator Tamra Bonvillain, does an enormously good job of working with shadows, backgrounds, and giving Atwood’s characters the exactly right amount of camp expressions and gestures. As the elaborate materials show, which are part of this edition, Christmas had to be prodded a bit by Atwood to embrace the truly extravagantly camp nature of this book. His work provides a guiding light between the various impulses the script offers, and Bonvillain’s colors provide another important key. Apart from her work with shadows and silhouettes, I think it is her insistence on working with backgrounds of few details that are heavily coated in one specific color per panel that truly sets her art apart here. It gives the book a uniform look, and also lends the sometimes erratic plot a firm sense of continuity. Before reading this book, I didn’t think this would be my opinion, but Margaret Atwood got very lucky in finding these collaborators, because this could have gone so much worse. I don’t mean one of the bad artists who somehow keep floating around comic books; even a serviceable journeyman like Dale Eaglesham, for example, would have been a catastrophe, I think, for this kind of book. And I say “luck” because Atwood was, according to her introduction, connected to not just Christmas and Bonvillain, but also to the team at Dark Horse, who did an outstanding work with the book, by Hope Nicholson. In Sheltered, Christmas is asked to find a visual language for an apocalypse-like scenario of a bloody meltdown at a cult-like community, and his touch is perfect for a serious tale of greed, anger, violence and a snow-covered desolation. It is impressive that he did such an excellent job with the much less serious tale of Angel Catbird.
The story of Angel Catbird is a light story of gene splicing, of a man awakening one day as a being half cat, half owl, half human. Of the strange existence of half-cat and half-rat communities and a fat evil half-rat villain who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the 1990s animated series Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Atwood clearly has a boatload of fun in this. Even before the feline revelations, we are introduced to the book’s conflict through the characters’ names. The main character is called Strig Feleedus, his love interest is Kate Leone and his boss (and villain-to-be) is Dr. Muroid. This sets the scene. In Atwood’s introduction she stresses how indebted she is to classic comics, from L’il Abner to Plastic Man, and in many ways you can read this debt in this book. Have you ever read a plot driven collection of classic superhero comics? I read a whole thick book of classic Dial H comics and while they are amusing in portions, after a while, it is tiresome to see all these thought bubbles explaining all the details. In the 1980s, superhero comics were incredibly condensed, panels crammed with details and text (have you ever read the original run of Days of Future Past? It all fits into two short issues.), Golden Age comics and early Silver Age ones were not as dense. There was no room for subtlety: all emotions had to be writ large on the faces of the characters and expressed in similarly unsubtle speech and thought bubbles. Atwood recreates this writing in her comic, without adapting, updating or really commenting on it. It is a fascinating comics experiment, a true pastiche – but the result is incredibly strange. The jokes are corny and generally unfunny, and there is no character development because the framework doesn’t really allow for that kind of character. This is the kind of comic, after all, where a bat/cat hybrid named Count Catula goes to sleep in a woman’s closet and wakes up with a small pink bra on his forehead. Adorable – but it can get tired real fast.
The whole book is underwritten by Atwood’s environmental ideas. There are intermittent info boxes linking the reader to informational material by catsandbirds.ca, and Atwood’s ideological purpose is twofold. On a simple level it is to inform her readers about how to treat cats (and birds), but on a larger level, we are also connected to the broader topic of science and nature. Atwood has in recent novels been very interested in postapocalyptic scenarios about how humanity and nature are intertwined, with some texts hinting at the liminal, ritualistic nature of science. It is not a complete accident that the period that Atwood borrows her tools from is the one between 1930 and 1970, a time when much that we consider modern science has been developed, in both good and catastrophic ways. Ludwik Fleck’s life and work is a strange encapsulation of that historical moment, as he was a scientist who wrote one of the most insightful books on the structure of scientific thought and the illusions and problems embedded therein, and he was also, as a Jew, interned in Buchenwald, which he survived. In some ways, one could say that the extraordinary feat of pastiche in this book serves as a counterpoint to Jameson’s idea of postmodern pastiche as a “blank parody,” a depoliticized “linguistic mask.” Atwood actively uses the pastiche here as a link to history and politics to make a point. One wishes merely that she was better at it. When Guillermo del Toro, a genius director and screenwriter, planned on writing a trilogy of novels, he didn’t do it by himself. He enlisted the help of a seasoned thriller veteran. Genre writing is often underrated, seen as less than, as easier. It is not. So many failed literary science fiction novels should be evidence of that. Atwood’s offensively dull script to Angel Catbird is more evidence of it. Read it, with caveats. Also, I think it gets better with rereads. Or maybe I just want it to be the case. Anyway. I recommend this book, bad as it is. After all, we should remember Faulkner’s famous critique of Hemingway, who, according to the chronicler of Yoknapatawpha County, stuck to the things he already knew he’d do well at, rather than risk failure by overreach. Atwood has never been a “safe” writer and if this book is a failure, it is a noble one. For a serious novelist to switch media, tone and genre so completely was certainly a risk, and I’ll take that any day over the everyday dullness of MFA routine.
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Reid, Iain (2016), I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Text Publishing
So this is a weird book. Not weird as in weird fiction, or weird as in unusual. Iain Reid’s novel is a fairly straightforward psychological (horror) thriller. If you have ever read a book or seen a movie or played a video game in the genre, you’ll not be surprised by the book’s twists and turns. Everything is very clearly telegraphed, to such an extent that I was, at some point, wondering whether the effect was intentional but I couldn’t figure out the goal of such a tactic, because apart from the pleasures of genre, there is nothing else to the book. Well, one thing, but I’ll return to that. The book is fairly short, short on pages, but also short on characterizations and linguistic inventiveness. If I wasn’t reading a genuinely terrible book as I am writing this review, I’d say that it has been a while since I have read a book so thin on language and character. The author clearly wrote this book with the genre tools in mind, hurrying through the early bits to get to the meatier final confrontations. He draws on a vast canon of horror literature, but without the joy and delight that those writers display in writing those kinds of books. When you read, say, a good Stephen King novel (or even a bad one), what you get is an author who is profoundly interested in his material, who is convinced of the necessity and inherent worthiness of telling these stories and who tells these stories from the ground up. King took up the 19th century concept of the uncanny and implanted it in the dull lives of small town Maine, telling stories of lives upended by the supernatural. These books work because we are aware of the stakes. Reid uses many of the same tropes, and his execution of them in the book’s last third is almost flawless, but there is nothing at stake. There is no story here, but also no language that would make up for that. And it’s not as if that was intentional either – because the first half of the novel is clearly trying to tell a story. The author is clearly aware that he needs to invest his readers in the story for the final twists to have any payoffs, but all that is just awful. I considered getting rid of the book multiple times while dragging myself through the book’s dull first half. The excellent execution of the last third and the capable injection of what felt like genuine despair barely makes up for that. I will say this. If you love the genre, you won’t hate this book, but I cannot possibly come up with a reason why you’d read this book rather than one of the many excellent other entries in the genre.
It is entirely possible to read much of what I said in a much more positive light. The signposting of plot elements could be viewed as drawing the reader in, as suggestiveness. Yet given that part of the book’s mechanics uses and relies on twists, I doubt that this is part of the book’s function – because no matter what, the result is a less powerful reveal. I suspect, rather, that the signposting is a symptom of the author’s attempt to get his sea legs in this book, his first attempt at imaginative fiction, after writing two memoirs (I think). It reads as if he had opened a guide on how to write a psychological thriller and started to work through its prompts bit by bit. This would also explain the skeletal nature of the book which contains the absolute bare minimum of story. It is hard to tell you what the book is about because almost any detail I can give you about plot developments will spoil you, because everything has a purpose. It’s like an inept inversion of Chekhov’s pistol: there are no pistols that will not get shot later. No room or patience for characterization is the result. The book’s set up is a car trip undertaken by a couple to visit the man’s parents. Strange calls and signs accompany the trip until the catastrophe upends everything. The book is written from the girlfriend’s point of view, but the author is never really interested in her actual point of view; I will say, having read Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything just before reading this book has not helped, since Abbott, in her recent string of novels, has absolutely mastered the art of telling a thriller from a believable and rich female point of view. Other authors with similar plots have managed this part of the story with much more aplomb. The car ride is full of the most dull and banal dialogue, and while, yes, much of this has a purpose, as the end of the book reveals, it still requires us to slog through 100 pages of dull writing. And it is mystifying. If this was a first book, I’d understand. If this was a book by a misanthrope who never gets out and is now somehow forced to imagine how two people talk to each other, I’d understand, as well. But the author has written two memoirs – two prizewinning, well reviewed memoirs to boot. He is clearly able to figure out how to write characters that are full of life and depth. What has happened to the poor man? Did he get fleeced by the MFA equivalent of Trump university before he set out to write his third book and first novel? I am absolutely confused.
But even if we grant him the characterizations and dialogue and view them as another Chekhovian pistol – nothing explains the paucity of the novel’s style. I haven’t read Iain Reid’s other books, but he gets his prose regularly published in the New Yorker – he knows how to write well. What happened here? At its best the novel is filled with unremarkable, dull prose. At its worst, Reid goes for the odd short sentence prose rhythm used by high school boys who try to write interior monologue. With no teacher on hand to rap his knuckles, Reid unsystematically moves from one register to the next, from dull to bad and back to dull again. There is no obvious attempt to console his readers for the dearth of characters by giving us language that is enjoyable to read. So many sentences without verbs. Or sentences consisting of only one word, and that one’s a verb. Writing. How can you write like this? Write like that. Like this. If anything, these antics get worse as the book comes to an end, but at that point, we are excited, along for the genre ride and don’t care as much. I think style in horror gets a bad rep, and too little consideration. Read Stephen King and you’ll find he has a very specific way of shaping language that makes him a much more visceral writer than, say, Koontz, who is more interested in effects. I think, especially among ‘literary’ people there are two ways of dealing with genre. Either we are offered books that do not deliver on the promises of genre (excitement, fun, fear), because the authors are too far up their own backside to tell a proper story and offer some literary pap instead that works on no level. The exception to this rule is of course Gertrude Stein, whose Blood on the Dining Room Floor does not work as a mystery, but it is, as everything by Ms. Stein, a brilliant masterpiece of writing so nobody cares. The other direction, and that is where Iain Reid went, is the one of thinking of genre as being bad, but rule-bound writing, and offering, then, bad writing because it’s what you do. There is a whole host of examples of both categories in contemporary German fiction where something has convinced virtually all major writers to write some kind of science fiction recently, to sometimes deeply saddening results. So this is what I suspect happened here. Reid is convinced or was convinced that writing a thriller means writing in pared-down language. Nobody told him that writing simple prose is not a free pass to dullness (we had this before, see here, here and here).
And yet. And yet I cannot bring myself to hate the novel. In part because I am right now reading the worst book I have read in a few years, and I sort of try to review on a curve. So it could be worse. But more than that, the main character’s deep despair, which the last pages of the book circle in on (no spoiler, don’t worry) is, at the end, very believable. We know from page 13 of the book that part of the book’s discourse will involve suicide and the despair that pushes people to that point. And as I earlier suggested that I may be biased against parts of the book, I need to add here, that, were I not biased in favor of it, as a person who himself sometimes thinks of ending things, I might be even harsher on the book, because this discourse, it absolutely worked for me, personally. Potentially hokey sentences like “What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape?” gave me a bit of personal anxiety, which is obviously not a bad thing in the context of a thriller. This may not work for everyone. If you read those two sentences and rolled your eyes – stay away from this book. For everybody else, I think the book, once finished, does offer an interestingly creepy look at how it feels to be alienated, alone and scared. Nothing in the book feels original, really, and all the details of it also point to the genre, to such an extent that I am sure it is intentional. As a writing exercise, and cut to story size, this would be quite a nice riff on the genre. As a published novel, not so much. This could have been (and should have been) much better than it is. A shame.
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Anderson, W. Paul (2005), Hunger’s Brides, Carroll & Graf.
Everyone knows Randall Jarrell’s definition of a novel (“…a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it…”), which he wrote in his extraordinary review of Christina Stead’s wild and amazingly miserable masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children. Frequently, this quote is used to discuss the relative merits of shorter books as compared to longer books. The most perfect novels I know tend to be short of length, like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (possibly more of a novella, that one). The longer a book, the more writers are tempted to include mischief, to be undisciplined and a bit muddled. Hence Jarrell’s description, voiced in a vociferous defense of a novel that is both very messy and very, very good. Some of the book’s faults “are the faults a large enough, live enough thing naturally has,” he wrote. Me, personally, I prefer the messy, long and ambitious book to the short and disciplined one. I find it hard to overlook lapses and faults in a novel when it barely exceeds 150 pages, but a long book powered by literary ambition is much easier to forgive for its flaws and problems. Most of my favorite books are so-called doorstoppers, from Gaddis’ The Recognitions to A Glastonbury Romance. Not all attempts at voluminous ambition are as successful as those three, and yet I am always drawn to the big and alive books. Adam Levin’s gargantuan novel of Jewish prophecy and rebellion The Instructions was one of my favorite novels published that year and I still regret never having reviewed it. It’s very flawed, clearly longer than it should have been but ultimately, it’s precisely its length and implied scope and vision that makes that book such a joy to read. Even in genre fiction, size is a potent argument for me. Similarly, if I was to make a list of all the things wrong with Paul Anderson’s 1400 page behemoth Hunger’s Brides, it would far exceed the usual length of my reviews.
Having finished the book 1 ½ times I am not even entirely sure he’s a very good writer, but every time I browse the book I am itching to reread it. There’s just so much of it, and that statement exceeds questions of length and weight (I believe it’s much heavier than other books of similar length I own; this is a weapon, not a book!). There’s a novel-within-a-novel, a diary-within-a-diary, there are footnotes that are not instructive but integral to the story, there’s a film script, there’s poetry, there are scholarly discussions and there are, finally, translations from the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And despite all of this potentially overwhelming surfeit of material and the years and years of complex work that have gone into the book, the author has managed to present us with not one, not two, but three gripping narratives. There’s a contemporary novel of detection and mystery, there is the narrative of a young student’s discovery of the importance of Sor Juana’s work and thinking for her own life and that of other women, and finally, in the center of the book, there’s the story of the stubborn and brilliant Mexican nun herself who, despite many difficulties, wrote poetry, prose and theology at a time when women were not supposed to be participating in the public conversation. Through this story, we are offered an intense view of 17th century Mexico, but through the other layers of the book, we can see how Sor Juana’s work and story reverberates through the centuries. And finally, there are pages and paged of footnotes, carefully detailing scholarship and reception of Sor Juana, footnotes that interrogate the narrative, but also contextualize it within the broader and very colorful literary history of Sor Juana. Not all of this is a success. There’s so much that annoys me about this book, and so much that isn’t fully achieved, and yet – it’s a stupendous achievement to put all of this into a book and have it be so eminently readable. If you have the time, go buy a copy and then read it. Take it to the beach.
The book itself, as I intimated earlier, is structured like an onion, stories wrapped in stories, wrapped in stories. The basic conceit of Hunger’s Brides is that it’s a collection of edited, narrated and footnoted documents found and assembled by Donald Gregory, college professor, adulterer and all around swell human being. The documents he found are the diary and manuscript of Beulah Limosneros (pronounced “BYOOlah LeemosNEHRos” as we learn in the book). He assembles and presents it as a kind of defense in the case of her disappearance, because as it turns out, they were lovers once and he may or may not have had a hand in her disappearance. Both Gregory and Beulah are a bit obnoxious in their own way, but the college professor’s overbearing style and manner surely takes the cake. Paul Anderson takes care to carefully balance a characterization of Gregory through his words and style with the task of giving us basic information about the situation. Gregory may be an unreliable narrator, but he is all we have – and that extends to the task of factchecking Beulah’s documents. The fact is, Gregory is also the one who wrote the footnotes at the back which both enlighten us as to other literature on the topic, and explain certain allusions and other opaque passages to us, as well as give us additional information about Gregory’s relationship to Beulah. Paul Anderson did 12 years of research on this book and he does not wear his research lightly – but he made the choice of letting his two protagonists carry the burden of being know-it-alls with a flowery diction and a dire need for editorial toughness. Anderson does an excellent job of controlling both his research as well as his characters, using the frequent infodumps and research humblebrags for great literary effect. With their help, he constructs two characters who are very dissimilar, but united in their obsession for scholarship, Sor Juana and the life of Beulah Limosneros.
The major source of research for Beulah is Octavio Paz’s magnificent book on the Mexican poet. If you want solid information on her, that’s the book you should read, or grab one of the many translations that are available. Hunger’s Brides is not interested in giving you the truth, if by “truth” we mean historically accurate and verifiable truth. Early in the book, Gregory offers us a disquisition on literary liars, by which he means novelists who have written books on a historical topic and who were less than truthful. He puts particular emphasis on noted teutonic trickster Karl May and concludes “if you want to better understand the true, study the liar.” I will say that the biography of Sor Juana is not a complete fabrication. Much of it dovetails nicely with what I read from Paz and some other sources, but Beulah, who is the ‘author’ of the story of Sor Juana, embellishes and, more importantly, fills gaps in the fairly spotty historical record. Her method is empathy, and part of her research involves an intense trip to Mexico. The journal that she keeps during that trip, before and after, is the second layer of the onion. Her writing is curiously purple, riddled with mixed metaphors and an entirely authentic intensity as you’d expect from a young grad student with very strong personal convictions. The first time we meet her is when she walks up to Prof. Gregory after a class and confronts him with weaknesses in his syllabus. He is attracted to this young student who doesn’t walk out but “sways out of the room”, and who has also read “everything [he] published”. Feeling flattered and sexually stimulated, Gregory quickly turns into the kind of professor readers remember from books by Roth, Updike or Coetzee and like those writers, the story quickly develops overtones of a male/female struggle for power. Paul Anderson brilliantly draws on these archetypes in order to interrogate some of their underlying assumptions. The figure and example of Sor Juana and the nuns who preceded her help him destabilize some well worn binaries of the campus novel.
The main contrast is the one of the young, passionate and nubile woman, and the old, rational and angry professor. Anderson has his protagonist grouse about his “horror of magical realism” and recounts his preference to “approach[ing] Beulah’s story […] scientifically, methodically”. This contrast, which we know even today as beig put forth by some writers on gender was particularly important in Sor Juana’s time, especially for a woman pursuing the kind of writing and influence she did. As Grace Jantzen points out, “Emphasis on the intellect marginalised women because they were considered to be ‘misbegotten males’, deficient alike in intellect and in morality.” Jantzen and Stacey Schlau point out how this emphasis on “charismatic” women, as contrasted with the more deliberate and intelligent men, served to put female theologies under constant threat. At a first glance, Hunger’s Bride’s writing seems to support rather than undermine such mindsets, as Gregory’s framing story and footnotes appear to be much more openly intellectual than Beulah’s documents, many of whom are emotional, empathetic searches for the real Sor Juana. Since much of the book’s excitement comes from following her mind down those winding roads, I can hardly detail them here, but what’s interesting is that Anderson takes care to constantly nudge us away from the binary view of Beulah as the natural, empathetic one and Gregory as the rational intellectual. Not only is Gregory’s comment constantly fraught with paranoia, self-love and fear, as he himself is trying to evade prosecution and find out what happened to Beulah; more, Beulah herself is frequently led to situations where she has to acknowledge the limits of her academic conception of reading and readers, and the ensuing economic assumptions. One particular striking encounter is the one with her guide through the mexican wilderness, Xochitl and her daughter. At one point, early in the book, she exclaims, in shock “You read books?” That’s not far from Saul Bellow and the Zulus, and yet she is presented to us as an enlightened young woman, well skilled in the theories of the day. This serves us to understand how these oppositions are not just entrenched, but also unstable and can shift. One is reminded of the poverty of today’s identity-focused discussions (in contrast to, say, theories by Foucault or Cassirer).
Moreover, it’s not as easy as seeing the diary as an inferior form of writing as compared to Gregory’s footnotes and commentary. The choice of diary as the form in which we encounter Beulah’s writing is actually quite inspired. As Felicity Nussbaum points out, “[women’s] journals, diaries and fragments of autobiographies may be devices to construct, imagine and declare an identity [and they] undermine ideologies of recovering and representing reality.” and Gillian Ahlgren states that, while it eventually came to be a liability, initially, the role of laywomen in charismatic, empathetic, experience-based discourses was a method to escape fixed roles. Hunger’s Brides is subtitled “A Novel of the Baroque” and the notion of the Baroque is rather helpful in understanding the way this novel works. Through Beulah’s diary and her story/novel of Sor Juana’s life, notions of truth and perception are jumbled. I think the term of the Baroque as used by Deleuze, with the figure of ‘the fold’ that reverses and confuses ideas of interiority and exteriority is apropos here. Sor Juana herself, we learn in Stephanie Merrim’s book on the poet, offered a very complex disquisition on knowledge and Holy Ignorance in a poem that’s sadly not in my selection of her work. Paz’ elegant and very learned book on Sor Juana has done much to emphasize the depth of her engagement with tradition and myth and literature, but he occasionally falls prey to the same condescension that many students of Sor Juana’s work have brought to the table. Her autodidacticism has kept many people from truly valuing her achievement, as Stephanie Merrim’s monumental study, which Anderson surely knew when writing his book, points out in exhaustive detail. There is a sense in Hunger’s Brides of us seeing this bias in Gregory’s writing and in Beulah’s strides towards knowledge and truth. At the same time, the woman we get to know in the diaries is not a genius, and I can’t help but feel as if Paul Anderson’s emotional protagonist Beulah is a strange foil to use in a discussion of the undeniably brilliant Sor Juana.
Because Sor Juana’s life and work really engages our ideas of feminity and writing, and because Anderson’s book is such an overwhelming grab-bag of ideas, locales, genres and characters, much of it seems to fit in one way or another. And this is not an exercise in guessing intentions, but we know from many sources like Frank Warnke’s lovely book on the Baroque that the theater, both as a genre as well as a trope and metaphor, were very important during that time. Is this enough to see the film script at the end as a clever commentary on, to quote Warnke, “the concern with the illusory quality of experience which runs obsessively through the literature of the first two-thirds of the 17th century”? Or is that just postmodern exuberance and a feeling of just trying things out? Reading the book and rereading it, I sometimes feel like it’s more the latter. Hunger’s Brides offers us a lot of ideas – but it also offers us a lot of space to spread those ideas. There’s a distinct lack of writerly and editorial discipline, and it’s not like in the similarly flawed (but more engaging) The Instructions, where the leisurely speed at least corresponds to the chosen genre. Anderson is clearly not on Sor Juana’s level, and the open ended, mystical way he deals with historical knowledge indicates that he knows this -but it still makes for a slightly awkward reading experience. I will say this. I don’t know that I would instantly grab whatever next book Paul Anderson publishes, but with all its flaws, Hunger’s Brides is a unique book, a large book by a writer with not quite that large a literary talent. Its faults don’t grate, however. They feed into the book, they add to its characters and they add to the overall fascination that book has with Sor Juana, with history, and with the quest of writing about yourself and about history. In a way, it throws up its hands about history, especially the buried, neglected and abused history of women in a way that reminds one of Absalom, Absalom: “It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know.” Go read this book. It’s a ton of fun. It really is.
If you, however, attempt to purchase the book, make sure to get the right one. The author and publisher have also published a second book that contains just one of the many narratives of the book. The two book covers are very similar, but the second version is a 750 page abbreviation, almost half the length of the original book. Going by the title of Sor Juana or the Breath of Heaven: The Essential Story from the Epic Hunger’s Brides, it contains the novel-within-a-novel about Sor Juana, but, judging from the summary, also portions relating to the present day. It’s not quite as radical an excision as The Whalestoe Letters, the very slim book of mother-son letters drawn from the larger and more difficult novel House of Leaves, but it clearly aims to present a “readable” version of the original novel. So be careful. The book’s existence itself is a bit of a puzzle to me since the original novel is not a difficult read, and is, overall, exciting and often even spellbinding. I understand the issue of length, but I don’t think the reading public is much more reticent to buyy into a 1300 page novel than into a 750 page novel. Danielewski’s Whalestoe Letters are a mere 80 pages, a significant enough difference that its excision and separate publication makes financial sense. And lastly, I take issue with the idea that there is an “essental story” to be cut from the larger body of Hunger’s Brides. The book itself, repeatedly, undertakes a defense of the baroque, the luxuriant, large project as contrasted to Puritan simplicity and discipline. It’s not just over-bordering richness, it’s also using the baroque as a figure to express larger aesthetic concerns with meaning beyond what’s easily put into words. The abbreviated book is an odd betrayal of the original novel that I am personally not convinced translates into significantly better sales.
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Moore, Lisa (2010), February, Chatto & Windus
February is the first book off this year’s Booker longlist I finished, and I am not happy. Luckily, it was not shortlisted. Originally published by House of Anansi Press in 2009, this novel, Canadian novelist Lisa Moore’s third offering to date, is an interesting little critter though. In slightly more than 300 pages, Moore attempts to present an account of loss to her readers, the loss suffered by a family when Cal O’Mara, husband and father, suddenly dies in a terrible accident, leaving a surprisingly large family. In a flurry of short chapters, Moore shuffles her reader through different points in time, looking not just at the fateful day when the family learned of Cal’s death, but at various small events between that day and the day, 16 years later, when his son becomes a father himself. This sequence of events suggests a saccharine ‘circle of life’ kind of rhetoric and structure, but Moore tries her utmost to sidestep this danger. Most noticeably, the sequence of events does not directly correspond to the sequence of chapters in the novel as the reader jumps back and forth between various points in time until dates start to matter less and less as various events start to develop a kind of synchronicity. Moore doesn’t dwell on the details of the accident, they are important only inasmuch as they matter to Helen O’Mara, Cal’s widow, and her process of grieving. Her focus on small everyday details and emotionally fraught observations function as attempts to ground Helen’s grief in a common understanding of depression and emotional duress. We feel with Helen because we recognize parts of what she is going through. At the same time, the book scorns actual realism, unfolding, rather, like a strange, melancholic dream. All this is interesting, intriguing, even, but Moore isn’t content with letting her material work its magic on its own, and so she laces her writing with sentences that try too hard, structuring her chapters like short stories aiming for the utmost effect. This makes for many moments that are at best precious, at worst terribly, terribly annoying.
On 15th February, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 267 kilometers east of Newfoundland. All 84 men who had worked on it died as a Rogue wave struck the cumbersome vessel and caused a chain reaction of malfunctions, that ultimately led to the rig’s capsizing and striking the bottom of the ocean. February looks at the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger disaster, taking a fictive family to illustrate the plight of the 84 families who were devastated by the events during Valentine’s night, 1982. In her acknowledgments, Moore tells us that she has researched this incident thoroughly, and throughout the book the only obvious inventions are the O’Mara family members themselves. All the details of the oil rig sinking seem/are genuine and well-researched. Given the recent oil spill catastrophe in the gulf of Mexico, Moore’s novel might seem oddly timely and prescient, but on the other hand, ecological concerns play at best a very minor role in a book that is concerned with the impact of such catastrophes on those who are left behind, the workers’ families. In fact, Moore’s book doesn’t need the exact incident in order to work, its emotional gambits are relatively independent of this exact incident, there is nothing in it that is intrinsic to this specific catastrophe. On the other hand, once picked, Moore makes the best out of the material at hand. She -excuse the pun- floods her book with maritime images and metaphors, linking her novel to a vast and rich literary tradition that contains the Bible, Herman Melville, Anatole France and countless more recent books (think The Perfect Storm). This, though, feels added to the book. Reading the book, we get an odd feeling of incongruity: on the one hand there is the emotional, personal aspect. With occasional flashes of great emotional insight, Moore works on the particulars of everyday feelings, confronted with loss and age, with childbirth and responsibility, with love and heartbreak. Her voice is very well suited to express this kind of discourse.
This has its advantages and disadvantages. Lisa Moore opts for short sentences, writing, now and then, almost punchlines, but basically, her unsubtle and sentimental use of short sentences is yet another instance of the the stylistic miasma that Hemingway popularized in Western literature. Short, trenchant sentences that clearly aim for depth and miss far too often. It’s raining. We never slept. Fall apart. Not all sentences are like that, but Moore scatters them strategically throughout the book, and after a while, we read even hypotactic phrases with a glum low note at the end. To enforce these kinds of readings, Moore also often replaces the question mark at the end of a question with a full stop, giving her readers no choice but to strike a low note again. The same effect is produced by her constant need to repeat bits and pieces of dramatic monologue or dialogue, but in a shorter, glum voice. What’s more, from the evidence of this novel alone, Moore’s literary talent seems to be closer to the short than the long form. Almost all of the short little chapters are structured like short stories, and what’s worse, short stories tailored on O’Henry’s and Hemingway’s example. They tend to end on moody, emotional last paragraphs or even phrases, and they are weirdly closed affairs, in the sense that many of them produce puns and repetitions and allusions that point not to other places in the book, but that are restricted within the individual chapter. All of this is evidence of strong attention to craft and structure: there’s nothing accidental about these things, as they all feed into the overall mood and emotions of the book. Isolation, loneliness, fear are pervasive everywhere, and with this deft move, Moore manages to compare the surviving family emotionally with their husband and father who died hundreds of kilometers away from the coast, dying of hypothermia in the vastness of the ocean. If this sounds complex: it’s not really. In tone and depth, the book is closer to bestseller epics of the quotidian, for example Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, Nick Hornby’s mush or any book from Sophie Kinsella’s growing repertoire.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think that February works best if you can connect to it in some way, if you recognize some of the details. I mean, despite a certain touch of the clichéd, I think many observations, while realized in cheaply sentimental writing, do hit their targets. The way the protagonist worries about aging and attractiveness, the way children can cling to their mother or become strangers to her, and small details, the smells of cooking, and everyday sounds rebounding off the walls of family homes. The plot isn’t as important as the characters are and their observations and the relationships between the characters. There is Helen, widowed by the sinking of the rig. Helen is no idealized wife, we know that there are tensions between Helen and Cal, and in the face of his death, she doesn’t behave as we would expect. She is helpless enough to allow her oldest son John to take over as head of the household. Despite being barely a teenager, he quickly assumes responsibility, starts to work early, and matures within few years. This rapid emotional and personal growth has left him scarred. His mother’s weakness didn’t leave him an opportunity to come to grips with his father’s death, and so he grew into a man who was afraid of open water, yet also a man determined to achieve anything he wanted. Highly successful professionally, we are led to assume that his personal relationships with the other sex are slightly aloof, and stop short of commitment. When an affair of his (the relationship lasted all of a week) tells him she’s pregnant, John panics and turns to his mother for advice. This is how the book starts. As a character, John is less well realized than his mother, and I think that the book, although it is about a circle of life coming together, and a deeply wounded family coming, finally, to terms with Cal’s death. See, although the small chapters are not linked by a narrator and although each chapter is related from the point of view of the specific character which that particular chapter focuses on, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that most of this, in a way, takes place within Helen’s upset mind.
Or within her dreams and memories. Because here is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the way that Moore weaves this tale of ordinary loss and emotional empathy into a highly literary web. Yes, observations and language are pretty down-to-earth, but within all this lurks a very literary sensibility. The moodiness and gloom, the surfeit of maritime images, allusions and metaphors, and the way that not just the chapters, but the whole book is like a mirror cabinet, references pointing to points within the novel rather than outside. This book, explicitly written with a real catastrophe in mind, based on sound research, seems, at times, almost like a fantasy. I think Moore herself realizes the strenuous and difficult relationship her book has to the real world and extra-literary facts: towards the end of the book, Helen first tells us about the incident by paraphrasing witnesses from another ship that was ready to pick up survivors. Then, after a paragraph that ends, typically, with a three-word phrase (“He is gone.”), Helen shifts gears and tells us: “But this is not a true account of what Cal faces, and Helen knows it. It’s better to keep to the true story […].” What follows is an imaginative account of Cal’s last hours, not based on witnesses, but based on speculation and empathy. And here’s the fun part: we know that Cal, unlike his rig, is an invention, and the description of his death is anything but “the true story”. The part before was crammed with real world facts. This complete reversal of facticity in a book that uses, remember, the actual name of a real catastrophe, is endlessly fascinating. What Moore offers us is a different kind of truth, a poetic truth, and she liberally, and not without deftness and skill, employs the tools of her trade to get at this special truth. The dreaminess, the internal consistency of images and metaphors, the almost allegorical way plots unfold, all this is not in the service of being precise in a realistic way, it is in the service of being as truthful as possible, and more truthful than simple realism would allow for.
And while all this is interesting, and well realized, it clashes massively with the direct, realistic way her characters experience all this. Lisa Moore wants to have the cake and eat it too. She wants to write characters that are believable, that are realistic, that her readers can connect to instantly; and at the same time she wants to fill the gap in the known facts with poetry, with literary flourishes. She manages to do the first by sacrificing literary artifice and produces, to my ear, third rate sentimental mush that depends on emotional contact in order to work. She manages to do the second by sacrificing realism. The result is a book that is smaller than it could be, less powerful than it should be, and not a very good book overall. It’s not a bad book, by all means, but one can’t shake the impression that Moore has shrunk it on purpose to fit her goals. It’s not enough for me. It might be enough for you. It will not rattle your cage. It will not change your life. You’ll probably not reread it nor recommend it to others. It’s a small book with a huge subject. It may be enough for some readers. That’s the best I can say.
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O’Malley, Bryan Lee (2004), Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Oni Press
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I think that Bryan Lee O’Malley is a genius. Or brilliant, anyway. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is the first book of his that I read and it blew me away, or rather: it riveted me to the chair I read it in. It is the first volume of an ongoing series about Scott Pilgrim, published with Oni Press. I’ve almost finished reading the second volume and I itch to get my hands on the other volumes that have been published so far. The book is an exhilarating ride, a barrelful of fun, an amazing book, in short and his writer, if this book is any indication, is one to cherish and to keep an eye on. Yes, this series of his is written in a limited register but he owns that format, that tone so completely and utterly, he has mastered the genre so completely that I have faith in his achieving great things in the world of comics. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life may seem slight but it is a great achievement, a book that bursts with a manic, joyful energy, that takes hold of you and doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Yes, I sound a bit empty there, slinging cheap phrases around, but that’s because I don’t really have the words to truly express how I feel about O’Malley’s work.
Maybe I’ll start somewhere else. When Cornelia Funke, probably Germany’s most well known living writer of children’s and Y.A. Literature, started publishing her Inkheart books (review forthcoming), I was already a fan of her work. She used a fresh and original language, vivid and funny characters. Whenever I extemporized about how good children’s lit could be, I always mentioned her work. Inkheart was (is) a huge let-down. It’s competently written but direly dull, in too many places. It’s smugly literate and annoyingly adult, in all the wrong ways. It’s clearly written for kids but it lacks the spark that animates the best of children’s literature. Before I picked up Inkheart, I never quite knew what drew me towards good or great literature written for young adults, but when I found it sorely lacking in Inkheart, I knew: it was the spark. It can be strong and pronounced, or subtle and quiet, but I found that in all books I admired, it was there. The difference to ‘adult’ literature is, however, frequently read the wrong way. Too often writing for teens is just an excuse to produce shoddy writing. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (review forthcoming) is a particularly horrid example.
Bryan Lee O’Malley, in contrast, does everything right; the spark leaps right off the page the minute you open the book. There’s not a page, not a panel in the book that I would ever label a letdown, a disappointment. Instead of stiffening the dialog Meyer-style, shriveling it up like a raisin, O’Malley’s pen is deft and quick, his language is always fresh, frequently surprising. To my ear he appears to perfectly catch a certain youthful register, but then I’m old, basically inherently lame (saying this is somewhat lame already I’m afraid) but then I’m not here to judge an authenticity contest, I am the reader of this book and for me it all worked magically, perfectly. O’Malley knows when to slip into a teenager corniness, into cool swagger, teen sarcasm etc. This musicality, sureness of tone is further emphasized by the book’s concern with music. Not only is the name ‘Scott Pilgrim’ inspired by a single by the moderately well known Canadian rock band Plumtree, Pilgrim, the character, is also a guitarist in a band and we hear several songs and at one point, O’Malley actually includes the chords to one of those songs. Music also has strange powers; at one point, a band plays a song that regularly knocks the whole audience out.
Speaking of strange powers. The plot is also somewhat strange although it’s, to a large extent, a conventional romance, I guess. The book starts off with Scott Pilgrim on the defense as his friends find out he’s dating a high school girl. Scott is 23 and the girl, Knives Chau, is all of 17 years old, going to a Catholic school, and she’s of Chinese ancestry to boot. She falls in love with Scott, but he, meanwhile has fallen in love with a mysterious American girl, Ramona Flowers, who first appears in his dreams and whom he then meets at a party. As it turns out Scott has a “subspace highway” going through his head. Although Scott is a bit confused about this, this is more or less taken in stride and it’s no oddity in this book where strange, vaguely magical things keep turning up. Scott and his band, for example, have strange powers, but most significantly, Ramona Flowers is not an easy girl to date. We find out that in order to go out with her, a suitor has to fight her seven evil ex-boyfriends first, the first one of which shows his vengeful, jealous face in this book, another one showing up in the next. They are diligent, well-organized and committed. Good thing that Scott Pilgrim is a good fighter, and quite generally awesome.
Bryan Lee O’Malley’s art suits the writing perfectly. Generally speaking, it’s very rough, very simple. It’s fueled by a mad teenage energy, no panel is drawn indifferently, reading the book is like taking a fresh breath of air. The characters are drawn in a few broad strokes, with O’Malley’s concentrating upon a few salient details. It’s cartoonish but the difference from many contemporary animated cartoons which it resembles superficially, is in the precision that O’Malley brings to his art. O’Malley manages to get the right angle, the right stroke of the pen to express something, to really animate his drawings. The low level of detail in his panels further accentuates this, his ability to foreground characters, to imbue them with life. His art is simple but it’s also economical, he uses its simplicity in a way that makes further detail, further refinement seem unnecessary. The teenage hyperbole of its writings, the gushing energy, these things seem to ask for this treatment. And, again, unlike many superficially similar animated cartoons, O’Malley not only borrows from the cinema, he puts angels and constructions borrowed from cinema to great use. Despite its simplicity, O’Malley’s art appears, at times, downright glossy, epic.
One last aspect of the book that needs to be mentioned are video games. I think that video games may even be the most important frame of reference here. Not to deny the cinematic aspect of some frames, but the aesthetic frequently is reminiscent of different video games and even the cinematic aspect could have been channeled via video games; one game especially that is mentioned, Final Fantasy, has always had incredibly refined, movie-like cutscenes. The plot, too, is part of a video game aesthetic, the sudden fighting, the fact that defeated enemies disappear and leave money behind (in the second volume, one of the defeated enemies even leaves behind items), the weird special moves and abilities, all this is part of that. And then there are the direct quotes, such as, for example, objects from classic jump and run arcade games that appear in the second volume, or, most significantly, the name of Scott Pilgrim’s band, which, in fact, can be said to sum up an important aspect of the books. The band is called “Sex Bob-omb”, a “bob-omb” being a walking bomb from the classic Super Mario Bros video games.
The combination in the whole phrase that is the band name is probably as apt a description of the cultural locus this book situates itself in, a mixture that makes for great, great fun. The first (and second, so far) volume of this ongoing series are, to use one of this book’s most frequently used words “awesome”. Yes, it alludes to other issues, too, gender, sexuality, perception, but I didn’t have the heart to approach a review of this book from that angle. It’s certainly a rich work of literature, but it’s as certainly not for everyone. If the description appeals to you, don’t hesitate. If you like graphic novels and trust me, don’t hesitate. As for the others: it’s your loss. Seriously. Don’t miss the spark.
Doctorow, Cory (2008), Little Brother, Harper Voyage
Here’s the thing. I’m not one of those weirdos who make a distinction between good books and fun books. When I had fun reading a book, I had fun and that’s a good reason to recommend any book. But with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, and his first young adult novel, I must say, I don’t know. Cory Doctorow is no relation to the great American master E.L. Doctorow, as far as I know, but if he were, the apple, as they say, would have fallen far from that beautiful tree (or has it?). Among several flaws, I’m tempted to call the writing sophomoric (but I’m not going to, for reasons detailed later) and, most damagingly, the novel appears to have been conceived in the early 1990s. Hackers, anyone? That said, the book was a whole lot of fun. Thursday on the train to Wuppertal, I was giggling with joy so much that people looked at me strangely (even more than usual). Also, I have ordered it for a friend’s birthday immediately and will continue to recommend it in the future. It’s an insane amount of fun, plus it’s smart and really educational. Any novel for kids that references Emma Goldman and contains a bibliographic essay that recommends Ginsberg’s “Howl” is very commendable. And really, it’s an awful amount of fun.
So, since I just reminded myself of the fun, I’ll start with the good stuff. The story, set in San Francisco, is about four kids who are engaged in a game of Harajuku Fun Madness, which is a quiz/geocaching type of game. The four of them are high school kids who are talented computer/tech whizzes. Marcus Yallow, the main character, has loaded up on gadgets and trickery to circumvent his high school’s increasingly oppressive surveillance tricks. He is the captain of their Harajuku Fun Madness team, and almost indecently paranoid. His home computer, which he has built from scratch, by the way, downloads his email from the server once per minute and then deletes it from the server. During that game of Harajuku Fun Madness, something happens. Terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands in the process. The four kids are near the site of destruction and in the ensuing chaos they are picked up by a group of masked men and thrown into a van. As it turns out, the masked marauders are actually agents of the Department of Home Security (DHS), who suspect the four of being perpetrators of the attack or at least associates of the perpetrators. The fact that they have backpacks loaded with technical devices that are, as I mentioned, indecently well protected, isn’t helping either.
In the course of the next days they are tortured, mostly because the DHS agents are irritated that someone who is so paranoid and thorough with encryption would have nothing to hide. When they are turned out again, one among their number is missing and Marcus and friends are in a state of complete shock. The city, meanwhile, has stepped up the surveillance, control and persecution as we see the DHS taking control of the city. Marcus, humiliated, concerned for his friends, comes home to a father who is trumpeting patriotic hooey, to a school where social sciences has been taken over by a class where patriotism and the importance of the DHS are taught, etc.. The hacker can’t believe his eyes. Powered by a different kind of patriotic fervor (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are quoted roughly 6 or 7 times throughout the novel) he decides to do something. Among other things this involves creating and maintaining an underground Internet-ish web (ok, before we continue here, let me just state that I am probably the most inept guy of my age group when it comes to computers and technology and related issues, so ’tis is very rough and probably wildly inaccurate. If you know my other reviews, you know I’m bad with details, but this is worse. I won’t even attempt to describe what the kid does with Xboxes and chips I never heard of.), and building devices which turn some of the surveillance mechanisms in place into a farce. This then evolves into a nonviolent guerrilla war, complete with a war for media control and the truth. As I said: loads of fun.
And it’s educational, too. Every kid who watches the news and starts to believe the toss about security, Doctorow hands him the intellectual tools to understand the idiocy of such statements, by putting all of this into context. He evokes hallowed American icons such as the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of dissent and revolution. This is a point worth making: Marcus is in strong disagreement with the way the society around him changed, and he rebels. He stands up and takes action. This is no dystopia, the America depicted is not much different from the America (or Germany) today. These changes are all imaginable and quickly implementable. Doctorow is suggesting to his young readers: what would you do? In the final chapter, with everything cleared up (Oh c’mon, it’s a genre novel.), Doctorow has his protagonist work at a company that seems very similar to Doctorow’s own boingboing.net, making it easy for his readers to make the connection to the here and now. In a way his is a fictional enterprise similar to Philip Roth’s The Conspiracy against America, but whereas Roth’s smooth end that blended into history as we know it, was the most damaging weakness of an otherwise great novel, Doctorow’s last chapter invites his audience to do as Marcus does. Read online material, rethink your ideas, stand up for your convictions, hack something.
Here is where my two main gripes with the book come in: ideas and audience. We’ll start with Audience. The book is strangely written. The style is simple and artless, it is functional and generic, which is not a bad thing necessarily. The book is not badly written. To write a book in a way that makes for fluid and fun reading is no mean achievement. What bothered me is something else. A novel that talks about a scene as specialized as Marcus’ and about technologies so far removed from everyday speech habits, needs to make sure that those in the know are not bored and that everybody else knows, roughly, what all the hullabaloo is about. The most obvious way to do this is to include a nincompoop who needs to have all the complicated ideas and terms explained to. This is not just the most obvious way to do it, it is also the most usual. So it’s refreshing that Doctorow’s tactic is different: he opts for the direct address: Marcus appears to talk to someone. Since he turns into a semi-professional blogger at the end it is safe to assume that Little Brother is some kind of extended blog entry. There are two problems with this: one is disappointment: direct address can make for great effect, as all sorts of books have shown (I’ll review two of them within the next week). The other is awkwardness. There are numerous irksome phrases. For instance, each time the word “h4wt” comes up in a circuitous, generic phrase I cringed. Doctorow clearly has trouble fitting these two registers of speech. But then, see, I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.
The same applies to to my second main gripe, his awkward juggling of ideas. His discussion of revolutionary action takes place on a backdrop of American patriotism. The Internet, and especially the hacker scene has, if my outsider’s perception is right, always been highly international. Doctorow is having none of this. He does sprinkle his stars-and-stripes menu with a few international guests, but they are always just that, guests on the sideline. The most impact that other countries’ journalists and hackers have is this:
Most notable is the global attention the movement has received. […] The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation’s National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC’s website noted that BBC America’s version of the news did not carry the report.
This is criticism of America, but patriotic, righteous criticism: look what these countries are doing! Why are we not doing this? Thus, it fits the rhetoric, that the journalist, who finally steps up to the plate, is not just an American journalist, but a local one. But compared to other aspects, this is no major problem.
What is one is this: the American system is shown to be fundamentally sound. Again, there are hints: his friend Jojo is trying to cut down on his activities in the revolt because he is likely to be targeted first, as a Chicano American, but the fact that he’s merely afraid of this is a joke. The events after 9/11, in most western countries have demonstrated, that repression is not color-blind. Jojo makes his point well, he criticizes the racial bias of the judicial system:
White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the streets and feel a little safer. Brown people see cops on the streets and wonder if they’re about to get searched.
But Jojo isn’t caught, and in the prison where Marcus and his friends are held and tortured, Marcus sees a few Arabs, but that’s it. This discussion feels forced, and in contrast with the main points, it falls by the wayside, and fails to make any didactic impact. If this were not as didactic a novel as it is, it would not be its fault. But it is, and it is. I won’t even mention the fundamental affirmation of capitalism that Doctorow’s romantic idea of hacking puts forth. Well. The book has a clear didactic goal and a laudable one, as well. Doctorow may have chosen right when he decided to narrow his focus as he has done in this book. And this is something he shares with the great E.L., whose novels are also often very focused upon a didactic goal, trying to drive one particular point home. And the results, in E.L.’s case, are masterpieces such as The March. Does Little Brother fall short because the vision it presents it too pedestrian? Maybe.
For a different take on the topic, tune in next week, when I’ll review Charles Stross’ SF novel Halting State. Minus points: no Emma Goldman. Plus points: less flag-waving. I’ll see you.
Mark my words. Stephen Marche will be enormous, one of the greats of English language literature, if his second book, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, is any indication. This is is an excellent book. Well conceived and well executed, this is a book the kind of which is rarely encountered. It is a book of fictions that is itself a larger fiction that touches upon many interesting and necessary issues. Before I lose myself in the alleys of my mind, let me tell you: I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is doubtless among the best books I’ve read during the past months, and Stephen Marche may well be becoming one of my favorite living writers, if he can sustain this quality in his future work as well. This book has many ancestors but perhaps none so obvious as Borges and the divine Nabokov, author of a book that is quite similar to Marche’s masterpiece, in several regards: Ada, or Ardor. It is also heavily informed by theory, especially poststructural and postcolonial philosophy. Marche quotes luminaries of the fields in question such as Homi K. Bhabha or Jacques Derrida, but the work is never bogged down by these references and I will try to steer clear of Derrida and Bhabha in this review as well.
“Shining at the Bottom of the Sea” has a lot to say but it does it in a light and enjoyable manner. The fat sweaty man of theory that so often rolls upon the unsuspecting reader in books concerned with postcolonial issues, is luckily completely absent here, although the basic premise and structure suggests elsewhere. The book claims to be an anthology of writers from a former British colony: Sanjania, a Caribbean island. It is completely fictional, as is everyone of the 21 (unless I miscounted) Sanjanian writers included in the Anthology. Stephen Marche pretends to be merely the editor of the volume, who provides an informative preface and a glossary of the writers included in the anthology. The anthology contains Marche’s preface, an introduction by Leonard King, the most famous living Sanjanian writer, three sections of stories and one section of literary criticism by Sanjanian critics and others (including a letter by Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos). The scholarly parts of the anthology are (formally speaking) perfectly annotated and bibliographed, most references, of course, being completely bogus.
There is a caveat here: this is a careful book that does not sweep up the reader in a ravishing feat of storytelling, although Marche certainly would have the chops to pull this off. No, many stories here not terribly engaging nor are they supposed to be: most stories take less up less than ten pages, and the reader is not allowed to settle into them before he is thrown out again by the scruff of his neck. Some stories we are sad to leave, sad stories about love and death, pride and humiliationsome, I’m sorry to say, just pass us by. It’s a credit to Marche’s powers as a writer that we don’t feel this as a loss, it all adds up the big picture. Because this is, after all, what the pattern of stories is about. The stories manage to convincingly recreate a whole culture, the culture of a fictitious country, no less. With the very first story, the very moment Marche steps up to the plate, a swashbuckling history called “The Destruction of Marlyebone, the Private King” by a “F.R. Fisher”, we are captured by Sanjania. This story is three pages long but it packs the punch of a dozen more pages at least.
This story demonstrates many of the strengths of the whole collection. It never descends into low trickery, it does not fiddle with orthography or funny accents. There is a fine line between representing a voice and slipping into racism, and funny orthography is frequently amusing, but not necessarily evocative, certainly not in and of itself. Marche avails himself of an English that is predominantly modern, even in these early stories, supposedly written at the beginning of the 20th century (we’ll return to this in a moment), but he puts a peculiar spin on it, creating a tone that is all his own and that, after a few stories, we will recognize as “Sanjanian”. There are small tweaks on the syntax, but the larger part of the tone is carried by composites such as “oceanshrouded”. Marche fits these words snugly into the fabric of the stories, they never feel odd or like curios, instead we as readers accept that this choice of words is part of the rhythm of Sanjania. Marche’s success works on two levels, this one, the immediately pleasuring power of his writing is one of it.
The other level is cerebral. There is, as would be expected of a project like this, a double bottom to it all. This book is so carefully, intelligently, yes, slyly, constructed it provides hours of cerebral entertainment, even before we come to the “criticism” section. After all, in the first third of the stories, we have yarns that read like 17th century stories, or 19th century Romantic recreations. From the biographical notes, however, provided for each writer, we learn that they, as previously mentioned, are contemporaries of modernism. The style is clearly anachronistic, even within the fictional framework, Mr. “F.R. Fisher” undoubtedly intended it as a stylistic throwback. It’s propaganda, reaching back to one’s cultural roots to strengthen one’s cultural identity against the colonizer, in this case, the “Britishers” as they are often referred to in this book. A second detail that most will immediately remark upon is the very name of the island, since it refers both to the largest and most well known British colony (India) and to the odyssey of the Zoroastrians who fled what is know today as Iran and trekked all over Asia until they settled in India, where they are known today as Parsi.
This kind of cultural fluidity with a strong inner core that travels well (see Clifford and others) works as well for Sanjania. Both culture, that is, cultural travel and identity, as well as geography, literal and metaphorical, play an important role. In a central story, “Flotsam and Jetsam”, a bookseller expounds upon his theory that Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was written by a Sanjanian and is set in Sanjania. Travelers, i.e. people, ideas and books, are just so much flotsam and jetsam, thrown into the river of time in distress, with all the stories expressing a yearning for the time when the shipwrecks of old Sanjanian culture sailed under full sails (yes, with all the problematic issues associated with that). Again, not to be too repetitive, but the very fact that I can write this attests to Marche’s evocative capabilities, evoking a culture that does not even exist, and doing it in a light and readable manner to boot.
All of this raises numerous questions about culture and colonialism, not least because Marche’s method works from an English core, a colonial norm, everything here reaffirms the strength of the culture of the colonialist, and displays the maze one is sent to when one seeks out one’s own cultures central ideas with the tools provided by the colonialist. It also shows to what extent we’ve all become cultural colonialists, to what extent we’ve become readers who have, theory be damned, accepted certain framings of the story. Marche’s book does a merry jig in our frames, toys with them, by constructing a world without representing an actual world, solely with the constructs we use. He is a jester, laughing at us: this book does not evoke a world in the sense of representing it, it just taps our convention of how a world is to be evoked, read, (re)presented. Marche does not hit us over the head with these ideas, he lets us realize them, as we glide through a sea of stories, flotsam, all of us. This is a very good book. Read it.
I am not sure how to approach this rather short review so excuse me if I digress. It appears that in the last two decades a certain kind of philosophy has turned into “theory”, and many of its adherents seem to believe that within “theory”, philosophy’s rules no longer apply. Mentioning “gender”, “class” or “race” is quite enough, or dropping the name of enough canonized theorists. Thus, essays that do “theory”, often resemble lists of books and writers, containing barely a shred of actual argument. This is not restricted to any kind of theory, it can happen in a deconstructive reading of Dickinson as well as in that unbearable book on Merrill by Gwiazda. When non sequiturs become the main structural principle of an academic work you know you’re in trouble. The only thing that matters in such books or essays is the amount of texts mentioned and the degree to which they fit that book’s idea of “theory”. I have read a review of a biographical study of Elizabeth Bishop where the reviewer’s main complaint is that a passage in the book in question is plausible but “undertheorized”. Huh. I bet it’s also badly argued since the point is tough to argue (the necessity of biographical readings for understanding Bishop’s work) but that’s beside the point.
To return to the novel at hand. It has been praised quite a lot but if you look at the blurbs on the back, you can just imagine the reviews. “Theory” reviews of a “theory” novel. For this is what “Ana Historic” is. The writer is clearly well versed in theory of all stripes. Narrative, gender, power. It never drops the requisite names, but otherwise it’s like a big checklist and most readers will have all the right bells ringing in their heads (Foucault! Butler! Etc.). Often complex novels will make readers think of theory, some writers seem to be eerily conscious of the philosophical implications of what they write. The complexity of Beckett’s or Melville’s prose, Merrill’s poetry etc. will make reader’s minds reach for the thinkstuff. Then there are the less subtle writers, the most brilliant of whom is probably Heiner Müller, who write after or during the advent of theory and whose every scene or line betrays that knowledge. But it’s still exciting, interesting, which is more than I can say about Marlatt. Marlatt will, from time to time, stop and insert blunt pieces of theory, explicitly pointing out some presuppositions in the narrative as the gender roles or power structures. At times this reader had the impression of reading an analysis of a text that never appears on its own. This would have been interesting as well.
However, Marlatt is devoted to be a spoilsport. After doing some analysis she lapses into ‘regular’ writing again, interspersed with some tedious poetry (Marlatt must be an awful poet, if this text is any indication) and, less and less often, “theory”. She is not a good stylist, her prose is flat and uninteresting, sometimes I even had the impression of it’s being intentionally dull. Her being a spoilsport can be demonstrated by opening the book at random but this passage is among the most telling. IT starts out well enough:
not, not…all these elements knotted into the text.
The reader may sigh with slight annoyance, but more often he will chuckle with goodwill. Everybody likes puns. But how does she continue?
not, not…all these elements knotted into the text. silent k. for what? kiss. xoxoxo in code. kisses and hugs. omitted.
See what I mean? Sometimes this book appears to be committed to make this book as straightforward and uninteresting as possible, sussing out every ambiguity or pun and uncurling it. And from beginning to end it’s always the same dull style. And this despite a really good plot.
It’s a book about a woman in our time reimagining the life of a woman in 1873 who is mentioned in brief in some official records. Her notes and imaginings reflect on the way that those who write determine who is remembered and whose story is told and that the circumstances and the society around you determine who writes and who doesn’t. It’s about the power of naming things and people and about the lack of personal choice one has in a society. The book turns out to be a meditation on the limits of writing and thinking as a woman in this culture and language that is still dominated by men and their structures. It is about repression and about discipline, today and then. About questions of power and how they’re interlaced with questions of sexuality. And it does all these things, it bears repeating, in the dullest way imaginable, although, near the end, ten or twenty pages really moved me (the end, again, is awful, awful.).
There is a basic difficulty in judging a book like this. It is based on the difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal society and a female writer writing in a patriarchal language, and I, a white male, am bound to misread it. The axiomatic canon I use in judging this book may be wrong and not applicable to “Ana Historic”. But then, the question is, what sort of system is it that Marlatt is submitting her book to. If it’s theory/philosophy, it’s not well argued and not original at all, there is not a shred of originality in the whole book, apart from the research plot and the plot is not part of the system. Or is it literature, then the flat writing and the terrible boredom is an important and damaging issue. I have, however, intimated that Marlatt may be an intentional bore. Make people think not like the book, maybe Brecht all over? I get the feeling Marlatt is trying to somehow straddle both systems and is relying on her poetical muscle to make it all work, since she was, when the novel was first published, a noted and acclaimed poet. Also, Marlatt, as many current practitioners of so-called “theory”, seems to believe that you only have to say enough of the ‘right’ things and say them often enough, to make her text work.Sadly, it doesn’t work, none of this. This plot deserves a better writer or a better thinker. It is not well served with Daphne Marlatt.
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