Janet Hobhouse: The Furies

Hobhouse, Janet (1993, 2004), The Furies, NYRB Classics
ISBN 1-59017-085-7

DSC_1914I’ve been reading two books on mothers and daughters this year and this is the one I finished first. And what an excellent book it is. A posthumous autobiographical novel about Janet Hobhouse’s life. It ends badly, and doesn’t tell a joyous story, but Hobhouse’s luminous writing, elegant, well paced, always balanced -if barely- above the abyss of despair, makes for a deeply satisfying reading experience. Janet Hobhouse died in 1991, at the age of 40. She died having published multiple novels, and having lived quite the life on different continents. I have not – let me admit this in advance- read any of her other novels, so I cannot say how this unfinished book compares to her more polished published work, but, apart from the odd lapse in style, and the occasional gaps in the narrative, this novel reads fairly polished, the product of a finely tuned literary mind. I assume that people might enjoy unraveling all the allusions and hidden names (Philip Roth is one celebrity among several that makes an incognito appearance in the book), but the joy of reading The Furies goes far beyond the typical appeals of romans à clef. In a way it is a (post)modern take on Portrait of a Lady, or, in many places, a dark revision of The Dud Avocado. It’s a book about being a woman and a daughter in the 20th century, and not quite fitting in with any of its fashions and movements. A book about being beautiful but desperate, brilliant but lost, a novel about secrets, about private and public lives. What an extraordinary novel Janet Hobhouse wrote, in a style that may seem conventional, but it’s a style that’s exceptionally malleable and convincing at the hands of Hobhouse. It’s an honest book – and by honest I do not refer to its autobiographical moorings. It doesn’t aim to manipulate or deceive, it stacks life’s events according to its own inescapable logic and not according to some narrative. Despite Hobhouse’s old fashioned, 19th-century pen, the novel is fantastically precise. It doesn’t ask us for pity. “I have survived,” she says near the end. The book asks us to respect her, that is all. Honestly. Just go and read the damn thing.

That the project at hand is one about 20th century feminity becomes clear as we are charmed and transported by the first parts of the book, which read like a condensed, melodious family saga, as we follow the narrator Helen’s ancestors from 19th century Germany to New York. This history is primarily a history of difficult and complicated women. Of ugly women, beautiful women, of headstrong women and women more happy to be part of larger family narratives. This early section (“Prologue”) doesn’t span a large amount of pages, and it certainly deviates from the rest of the book as far as style and pacing is concerned, but it establishes the parameters of what is to come. Being a headstrong, intelligent woman is a difficulty in a society that primarily follows the narratives of men. Families are units united by the husbands, the fathers, and continued by the sons. Mothers and daughters are cogs in a system, made to conform to expectations. Some, like the narrator’s grandmother, run away for a time, but families always catch up. Emma, the runaway grandmother, eventually “succumbed,” as her mother had done, settled down, married, and soon became mother to (eventually) three daughters. That particular household is remembered by Bett, Helen’s mother as profoundly unhappy. “I remember nothing but fear in that house. […] I was afraid of my father’s hitting me.” Being made to fit in the patriarchal mold is not a kind process, and not all the women in Helen’s family took well to it. As the years passed, the men died or were divorced so that, ultimately, the family became “its complete, exclusively female, self.” Soon after, the family’s matriarch died and the daughters and granddaughters spilled into the world. We barely need all this history, because few of the characters return in the rest of the book. But it serves as a foil for Bett’s and, later, Helen’s life. The connection to a larger family whole, which the matriarch had provided through her acts of “angelic” servitude to the larger concerns of everyone else, is severed by her death, and none of the daughters and granddaughters is pliable enough to knot these ties again. Willfulness, non-conformity and independence are behind many of the problems besetting Brett and Helen – struggling through lives not due to any personal faults but due to the hostility of the narratives that are expected of them.

Mutlu Blasing has pointed, in a discussion of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, to a line in Moore’s work: “Turn to the letter M […] / and you will find / that ‘a wife is a coffin’” Blasing later adds that “[t]he “letter M” links matter, mother, and mortality” – neither Bett nor the narrator, Helen, are comfortable being in that kind of coffin but the outside pressures do not make that life easy for them. That said, there’s also no comfort in each other – Bett is an awful mother, captivated by her own misery, her bad luck with men and money. In some ways, Bett lives a Holly Golightly life, only with child and the diminishing charms of middle- and then old age. She cannot provide sustenance to her daughter, whom she initially sends to a boarding school, described by Helen as “a kind of depository for the strays and the detritus of misfired adult lives.” Eventually, Helen gets to leave boarding school to live with her mother full time in New York. I say “gets to” because young Helen practically swoons with love for her mother, whose distance and neglect hurt her like mortal wounds. As readers, we find that distance, and the hurt contained therein, masterfully rendered in Hobhouse’s frequently long sentences, her offhand observations and her way of putting devastating revelations at the beginning of unassuming paragraphs. When eventually, her mother dies of suicide, the inattentive reader is apt to mis-read, to miss that moment. Her reaction to it is also telling: “The very first, clearest sensation is of weight lifting off my head and shoulders.” She is relieved, first, and then crumbles. Immediately before that scene, we are shown the last conversation between the two, a conversation that ends in a minor act of violence. This is the end point of a long and arduous mother-daughter relationship that shapes much of the book. Maybe my Holly Golightly association was unfair. In fact, Bett is a complex character. He distance is a sign of untreated depression. During her early years with her daughter, Bett retreated to the bathroom to deal with her incipient panic attacks, turning the radio up loud enough to drown out her sobs and sadness. What’s more, Bett is a talented, possibly brilliant woman who worked in jobs “below or outside her capacities” and “[n]ever once ask[ed] for a raise.” She even taught herself economics, wrote a 400 page book on privatization “which one NYU professor to whom she sent it pronounced ‘a work of genius’.”

DSC_1913Bett was abandoned by her own mother, and this loss, this alienation, she hands down to her daughter. Decades later, mourning the death of her mother, Helen would destroy her clothes, swear off sex, because “[m]en were hers, and if she couldn’t have them any longer, then nor could I.” The late, great Barbara Johnson once wrote that poetry is “an attempt not to address the mother but to hear her voice” and suggested that the loss of the mother is the “primal scene” at the heart of much literature. This primal scene is repeated several times in the book, through abandonment and death, as well as small forms of abandonment, as when Helen waits for Bett to come visit her in boarding school. The book, consequently, is an attempt to find Bett in her life. We don’t hear Bett’s voice a lot, but we are walked through a lot of rooms, straining our ears for traces of Bett. The loss of her mother to suicide and the more general, at this point practically genetic, feeling of alienation pervades Helen’s attempt to make sense of her life. She constructs her past in long, flowing sentences, searching for memory, for help, for support. For, at least, some form of explanation. The first half of the book is called “Women” and it contains most of Helen’s time in schools, and her life with her mother, moving from apartment to (smaller) apartment. It ends with a family reunion of sorts, with all the surving women of the family meeting at Helen’s graduation. It’s important to note, if I haven’t made that clear so far, that The Furies is no fashionable ode to sisterhood, no belligerent attack of the patriarchy with a feminine model of solidarity. And support, any gesture of love is hard won, and a Pyrrhic victory more than anything else, considering the investment of emotional capital. At the same time, the book doesn’t contrast the cohesive big family with the fractured modern assemblage of single women. Hobhouse is extremely clear that the so-called unity not only produced its own share of depression and alienation, but was also only possible because one woman gave herself up to become the family’s Angel. Bett, while a bad mother due to situations and losses, is not a bad, lazy or stupid person. She fails, when she fails, because of a society that will not recognize her gifts and strengths and skills for what they are. Living a life considerably below one’s considerable talents would drive many people to depression.

The second part of the book is called “Men” and mostly follows Helen’s sexual adventures, starting during her time at Oxford. It’s called men in part because she moves away from her mother to live with her father, a similarly distant man in England. Hobhouse’s observations of England, of Helen’s place in it, and the way her presence manipulates and changes the places around her are absolutely astonishing. In a way it is as if we were privy to Isabel Archer’s voice instead of the narrator’s condescending drone. Helen’s way of dealing with men is, on its face, not unlike her mother’s ill-fated procession of dates. But in this case, we are hearing the story from Helen herself, and it is one of learning to deal with men while attempting to keep a sense of independence and self-respect. Helen, subjected to a cold kind of love from both her parents, needs amorous attention, and not just the romantic kind. And she passes it on. A lonely boy, Edward, who has so far only known “the expensively procured abuses of public school, the brute assault of the elders,” is taught a gift, “sex undivorced from love,” thus becoming part of “the lover’s ecosystem.” Helen’s heart does not get broken, instead she breaks a few, moves back to the US, marries, gets divorced, etc. I am loath to offer too many details, because while the main tension of the first half is in the dark mother-daughter relationship, the second half is more eventful. As readers, we can breathe more easily, although the end of the book constricts our hearts again. Given that the novel is openly and famously autobiographical we know what’s coming. The cancer diagnosis and the fight through it. At some point, she has dinner with one of the women from her family, her mother long dead at this point, and, asked for details regarding her health, declares herself to be well, noting: “Oh yes, this is exactly how it’s going to be. You cannot reach out. People will be frightened. This is something you have to go through entirely alone.” A bleak statement in a book with few joys.

There are many parts of the book where a reader would be reminded of the harsh and punishingly glittering work of Jean Rhys, but none as much as the last chapters. It is in these parts, the presumably least revised ones, that we find fewer and fewer of the beautiful, sloping sentences, just attempts at song, abandoned. Statements, and a queer hope, towards the very end. The Furies is one of the most beautiful books I have read all year and a book I can recommend to anyone. I have, unusually for my reviews, quoted quite liberally from the book because I can’t stop typing up lines and remarks. What a remarkable achievement this book has turned out to be: intelligent, harsh and sumptuously beautiful.


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Andy Weir: The Martian

Weir, Andy (2013), The Martian, Gollancz
ISBN 9781101905005

DSC_1911So I have become a bit of a science fiction fan in the past decade. I mean, I’ve always liked it, but it’s only fairly recently that I started reading more of it. My awakening, if we want to call it that, came when I first encountered the work of Samuel Delany, and so my early reading was more in the New Wave vein, plus contemporary weird science fiction. It took a while to read more broadly, but if you look at my reviews, it’s books by China Miéville, Adam Roberts plus that smelly thing you found behind your couch. It’s no accident that I haven’t read John Scalzi (who is fantastic) until this year. All this is to say that I’m a bit worried I might be a bit of a snob when it comes to science fiction. Not that I’m not willing to call trash what it is, but some books just make me apprehensive. The Martian is one such book. It was recommended on the internet as a ‘scientifically accurate’ book that would ‘make a great movie.’ All the comments on it stressed the accurate nature of its descriptions and the technical obsessiveness of its tale of a Martian Robinsonade. I evaded getting the book for months until I found it among my birthday presents. And as it turns out, I was both wrong and right. The Martian is damn, damn good. A book that I assumed to be movie fodder, it’s surprisingly clever in its structure, deft in its characterization and written in surprisingly effective prose. At the same time, for an exhaustively researched book that makes living on Mars, even just a few hundred days, believable and plausible in a way that even Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t managed, I was profoundly struck by the novel’s utter lack of imagination and vision. The effectiveness of the prose style is achieved through a kind of sleight of hand – Weir has his protagonist write a diary, in the style that’s current among Internet denizens today. The voice of his protagonist is clear and recognizable – because we know that person. Many of his early readers are, in fact, that kind of person, a white male narcissist. Which, to be fair, is the central character in many Robinsonades. Weir, however, stops there. He makes no use of the form, displays no real sense of the traditions he works in and squanders the potential of both genres he works in, science fiction and the Robinsonade. And yet, despite all this, do I recommend the book? Of course I do. Ultimately, it’s a big bag of fun and you’ll remember all its good parts for a long time. A vivid, exciting read. And smart.

DSC_1914It’s more clever than it is actually intelligent, though. We don’t get the sense that Weir has thought about his form beyond coming up with a fun idea and working out the practical details. A comparison with a similar science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. The Martian is much more immediate, and its world unfolds in a much more palpable and believable fashion for the reader. At the same time, Weir’s secondary characters are all cardboard cutout caricatures. Not having seen the movie, I assume that losing the voice of the man stranded on Mars, Mark Watney, and getting more (quite literally) fleshed out versions of the other characters, the overall depth and verisimilitude of the story’s characters is more balanced. Weir’s big sticking point is the science, and he applies it well to create -and sustain- excitement. He is quite excellent at adding new elements to his world, new bits of knowledge, just at the right time to catch falling arcs of suspense and create new ones. Much like classic 19th century works of fiction, this book was written in small installments and you can tell by its structure. A Fall of Moondust is just as technical (although probably not as plausible today as it was then), and just as exciting, but instead of consisting mainly of one character’s ramblings, it’s an ensemble piece, with a large section of moon-inhabiting humanity involved in the accident and the eventual rescue. I’m not totally spoiling the book because, much like The Martian, it’s a story that is predicated on the excitement of following along. There is no abyss of unknowability, no postmodern darkness here. In my Scalzi review I mentioned the push by reactionaries for a more obviously and directly enjoyable science fiction and The Martian is really it. It might seem that Clarke’s book is an obvious predecessor – but that’s only superficially true. If you read Clarke’s work you know he doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – so why is this such a straightforward book? I always assumed that Clarke was aware of the genre he was working in and its traditions, the Robinson Crusoe line of writing, and instead of making the easy choice of just transposing the situation onto a different, more spherical, kind of island, he leaned on something that was actually rather common in old fashioned science fiction, contra Puppies, the idea of looking at a future society.

DSC_1918Make no mistake, Clarke doesn’t offer us any kind of grand vision of the future either, but there is a broader sense of community, of where he thought society might go in the time allotted between his time and the time he assumed we’d be living in lunar colonies. Unless I missed a major element (in which place, please comment), there’s really no obvious reason -apart from the actual technology- that The Martian couldn’t happen next year. Drop us the necessary technology under the Christmas tree (please?) and this story could happen in January. There’s no inherent reason why this has to be on Mars or in the future. My complaint here is similar to what bothered me about Charles Stross’ mediocre look at the near future, except it’s a bit more frustrating and that’s because while Stross draws on contemporary traditions that have limited potential as is, and he lacks the punch/interest to push them beyond what they are, Andy Weir is working in a line of writing that has, almost from the moment of its inception, produced interesting and exciting literature. Having man isolated from others, or a selection of humanity separated from the rest, this motif has led to some of the most memorable and powerful books. The ur-text of the genre, Daniel Defoe’s novel, is already much more complicated than you’d think. Defoe already has his stranded man tied into some important questions of his day. The question of owning another human being, selling them, how it ties into wealth and colonial narratives are, unexpectedly for anyone who hasn’t read the book, raised. Crusoe is sold himself into slavery, escapes with the help of a black boy, and then, deliberately declines selling the boy into slavery (but gives in and hands him over for a three year period of enforced labor) because “he had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own [liberty].” Just a short time later, he is convinced to embark on an expedition to buy and trade “negroes” for rich plantation owners. It is this trip that puts Crusoe on that island. After his escape, he returns to his “colony” which in his absence has become plentiful and Crusoe, almost by accident, has become a rich man. Intentionally or not, Defoe offers us a discourse on freedom, and on the way colonialism was built on the self-interest of the English despite knowing full well its harmful effects. Books afterwards kept adding to the debate. Frequently, they used the situation between Crusoe and Friday to illuminate power dynamics. Michel Tournier’s book is probably the most accomplished take on that. The Martian completely rejects this tradition, and declines absolutely to offer any sort of commentary or context. We even get odd, borderline racist, but definitely contemporary (for us) pieces of slang. Multiple times, a rough construction is described as “ghetto” by the white, definitely not “ghetto” protagonist of the book. If any thinking has gone into his book concerning contexts and futurism, it’s that the near future is just as terrible in terms of racial construction as the present. Harsh pessimism, if so, Mr. Weir.

DSC_1913But there’s more. The central conceit of Defoe’s book is (along the line of many books of his time) that the story is the journal of a real person and the book merely “a just history of facts.” The diary/journal has been enduring as one of the most interesting literary genres. Some takes on Crusoe’s story, like Coetzee’s masterful novel Foe, have examined the epistemological situation. What’s truth in narrative? The diary as a whole is interesting, as it is splayed wide between authenticity and artificiality. A few decades ago, in an essay that still holds up marvelously, Felicity Nussbaum painted a picture of the diary as a pre-modern attempt at constructing a public self. That explains why women, whose writing had been relegated to the margins for a long time, used the diaries to gain purchase for autobiographical narratives. One of the interesting aspects of the way The Martian uses journals as the primary way to record the story is that these diaries are half way between journals and letters. They are written with the express purpose of being preserved for people to find in case Mark Watney’s goose is cooked and his life on Mars ends ignominiously. This method would explain why so much of this diary is a performance. Stranded alone – one thinks of William Golding’s Pincher Martin as a particularly brutal variety – does not bring out the sadness, isolation, alienation of brutality one might expect or fear. In fact, Watney, isolated for hundreds of days, is as upbeat on his last day as he is on his first. This could be due to the performance aspect of the journals-turned-letters, a way, say, of putting up a facade for those coming after him. But there’s no undercutting of this attitude in the later scenes of the book where we see him interact with other people and we are privy to their points of view. In all the research that Andy Weir has undertaken to make his book realistic and interesting – one wonders how much of it was spent looking at anthropology, sociology and psychology. I do agree, as I said elsewhere, that bleak writing has become a tired and tiring cliché in and of itself, but the buzzing happiness in the pages of The Martian can be a bit grating.

This is a book that, carefully, intentionally, thoroughly, has NOTHING to say about people, the future, emotions, society – anything, really, that doesn’t involve the growing of potatoes on a wasteland planet. What it does express is a sense of social isolation of a certain class of citizen and writer today that exceeds the blindness of slave trader Crusoe. Crusoe was aware of how terrible it is to lose one’s freedom when he embarked on his slave trading mission. Defoe wrote this into Robinson Crusoe. Like many Europeans during colonialism, he just didn’t consider the treatment of black people a moral imperative that was more important than developing and growing wealth. Mark Watney – and by extension, Andy Weir – don’t even have that level of reflection. And yet – it’s such an expertly written book. The prose is never great, but always at least serviceable. The book is captivating and fun, and for a week after finishing it, I walked about town, partly living on Mars in my head. The Martian could have been more – but it’s a sign of the times that it is not. And what it is, is quite a lot.


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.)

David Duchovny: Holy Cow

Duchovny, David (2015), Holy Cow, Headline

holy cow 1This year I have stepped up the frequency of reviews a bit (here’s a list), and have reviewed some short/genre books. Still, I admit, this book is maybe an odd choice to pick for a review (rather than, say, read, chuckle and discard). The reason for it being both my great love for the TV work of Mr. David Duchovny, and my utter delight at just reading the plot summary for this, his first novel. So this will end up being my shortest review in years, but I would indeed like to draw attention to this delightfully nutty book. David Duchovny wrote a novel that is uneven, funny, moralizing, way too self aware and profoundly silly. It’s not as good as I hoped it would be but it’s still a great delight and I dare you to disagree. It’s a great joy to see an actor with a serious background turn to fiction and not have the book be a pale imitation of the already tired paradigm of the Serious Literary Effort. The worst example of this is Ethan Hawke’s prose, which is awful, derivative and makes you want to sue the editor. And at the same time, it’s very serious, very considered, very, for lack of a better words, ‘writerly’. Have you ever read a novel that was very obviously an MFA-produced empty, dolled up Literary Novel (I reviewed one here)? Hawke and actor/writers like him produce work like that, only with fewer critical readers involved in the process.

There should be more writers like Vollmann

There should be more writers like Vollmann

I will say that this goes beyond Hawke. I miss writers taking big risks, they don’t have to be big books (although that’s always great), but how many boldly conceived failures do you see on the shelves today? Even the big books, like Dave Mitchell’s work, tend to be on the safe and acceptable side. Writers like William Vollmann have become pretty rare. Even when writers go out and put out a big, juicy chunk of a book, they tend to frame it safely. Take Clemens Setz’ gargantuan new book. As far as I have read it so far (it’s very long), it pays for its scope with restrained, easy, nonliterary language that you’d expect more from a gossip magazine rather than a boldly imagined novel (which, otherwise, it is). So, no, David Duchovny’s novel is not the alternative, it’s not the great, bold literary statement that I’ve called for. It’s a lightweight, not really well written book that pontificates way too much, but it is genuinely silly. This could have turned out differently. You may know David Duchovny primarily as an actor, but he has a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature from Princeton and Yale respectively, and these are not James Franco’s post-fame prestige degrees, this is a genuine education. He even started on a PhD, but abandoned it in favor of a career in acting. If he wanted, I’m faily certain he could have produced a pastiche of The Serious Literary Novel. You know the kind. Short sentences, heavy looks, the kind of stuff only Richard Ford among living American novelists can pull off and even he’s no longer doing a good job of it.

setz ereader

So this is the edition that I’m reading the new Setz in, for…reasons.

So David Duchovny has the background to write a Literary Novel but instead he gives us this silly book. The story summary on the flap gives the entire plot away, and by this I mean the entire plot. There’s a reason for that – and it’s the atrocious pacing of the book. Duchovny was not issued an editor when he published this book, it seems (much as Morrissey’s List of the Lost appears to have come about without an editor), and so he gives himself completely over to the voice of his protagonist, Elsie Bovary (yup), a cow who, upon watching TV one night, discovers the unspeakable things humans do to her bovine kind. I’m not going to discuss this book in terms of its traditions, because, one, that would be unfair to the traditions and the book, which is not written to be set in a literary tradition, and mentions some of the most well known books in various chapters anyway. The second reason for this is that the Orwells of the liuterary world might not actually be its ancestors, properly speaking. If anything, the pontificating on eating meat and factory farming animals seems to fit a popular mode of unthinking veg(etari)anism, with books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals more likely to be an influence on the gestation of Holy Cow. If you have read any of those books, it won’t surprise you to hear that this portion of the novel is easily the weakest part.

holy cow shalom

The book comes with illustrations b< Natalya Balnova

In part, that’s due to the fact that the discussions of animal rights and animal feelings and welfare break with the book’s basic mode of silliness. They are serious, in a book that’s very much not so. The voice of Elsie is a delight, however. She’s spunky, if not very smart, and she is cast as the author of the book (dictating the novel to a certain Mr. Duchovny), relating to us reactions of her editor, toying with form. The novel really takes off when it introduces her two travel companions as she prepares to flee the farm to go to India where cows are revered and not eaten. Those companions are Jerry, a pig that changes its name to Shalom and becomes more Jewish as the book progresses (including a scene of the pig going to a mohel to have a circumcision performed) and decides to go to Israel for similar dietary reasons that convinced Elsie to go to India. The third member of their club is Tom, a turkey who hasn’t read up on the world outside the farm as much as Elsie and Shalom have and is convinced that in Turkey no-one will surely kill a turkey, the bird being the country’s namesake and all. Although he asks for one detail to be observed

Just as an aside, however we get there, can we not go through that country called Hungary? It sounds like a nightmare for all of us. Just the name makes me shiver: Hungary. And all the scary, hungry Hungaryarians that live there.

Again, there are plenty of fairy tales involving disparate groups of animals going on adventures, but the book merely nods to those traditions. It makes no use of allegory, really, except on the most superficial level. What follows is a silly, picaresque adventure through Turkey, Israel and India, in the course of which the three manage to unite Israelis and Palestinians, being hailed as peacebringers.

holy cow 2Look, the book is just a ton of fun, and it’s best read with one eye closed to the occasional pontification. It’s published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a highly reputable house, and according to the acknowledgments at the back, Jonathan Galassi, translator extraordinaire and current publisher of Farrar Straus and Giroux, personally encouraged Duchovny to write it. I have no doubt that this attention is similarly motivated by Duchovny’s pop cultural stature, as Frank Bidart’s endorsement of James Franco is, but at the same time, this is not a bad book for what it is. There are, for example, approximately five pages of punning and very broad Jewish humor just in the middle of it, and the book somehow straddles the divide between having animals behaving like humans, reading books, flying planes etc. and yet not being actually able to speak. Duchovny just sidesteps any inclination to explain anything, make anything more realistic. The primary question in the creation of the book appears to have been “is this funny?” and it really is, most of the time. The lovely black-and-white illustrations by Natalya Balnova and a surprisingly good fit. I will admit, you need to bring a certain sense of humor to the book, an affinity to silliness and sometimes really, really well worn jokes, but all books in a way demand things of their readers. Ultimately, with all its flaws and the silly vegetarianism and the odd pacing, I really enjoyed reading Holy Cow. And for me, that’s enough.


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.)

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van

Darnielle, John (2014), Wolf in White Van, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 978-0-374-29208-9

DSC_1530I feel as if upwards of 50% of review intros that I post these days are disclaimers somehow tied to my personal bias towards an author, or fat books or genres or things like that. I mention this because there’s no way I can review this book without admitting to similar bias. It is, however, a bit contradictory. Let me start by saying that John Darnielle is the lead singer, songwriter, (sometimes) producer and all around lead person of the American band The Mountain Goats, a celebrated band that has been putting out records for decades. The Mountain Goats is one of my favorite bands, and I consider John Darnielle one of his generation’s most talented songwriters. At the same time, I think I am a bit of a snob. However much I admire Darnielle’s craft, I think I approached Wolf in White Van with a bit of condescension. Look, I admire Neil Young, but his memoir Waging Heavy Peace is fairly lightweight. It’s a lovely read (and highly recommended), but its rambling writing is nowhere near other excellent memoirs. I admire the Silver Jews, but I’m not a great fan of David Berman’s poetry. There are musicians I admire whose books I have decided not to read for now (how good is Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, once we strip away the reverence for her musical achievement? No, I’m asking. I haven’t read it yet). As you can see it’s a fairly long list and something I’ve been giving a lot of thought. So let me say that, first of all, Wolf in White Van is a very good novel. It has some structural issues, there are flaws in the writing, but it’s a very good debut novel, intricately structured, and emotionally powerful. Unexpectedly, it’s literary and wildly ambitious, telling a story about suicide, deformity, a story about survival and about storytelling itself. It’s intensely original, which is its main virtue and which covers up many of its flaws. I have never read a novel quite like it and I’m willing to bet you haven’t either. At the same time, it’s written with a kind of reckless intensity that means it’s really not for everybody, much as I dislike that phrase. The book doesn’t care to introduce you to its skewed way of thinking, or ease you into it. It’s 200 pages that are equal parts dense and loosely self-indulgent. It’s very good.

DSC_1573The story mixes various points in time, from the protagonist’s teenage past to his long hospital stay after an accident, to his adulthood. Sean Phillips (that’s his name) makes a small amount of money off a very old kind of role playing game. The so-called play-by-mail game requires the players to send their moves handwritten (or typed) to a postal address, which then returns the result of the move. If this sounds familiar, it’s also the way correspondence chess works. There are many, many varieties of this, but Sean’s business involves players taking part in a kind of choose your own adventure situation. They are presented with a long description of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and then have to decide what to do. They are not given choices, but Sean has structured the descriptions in a way that all choices fall into different but recognizable categories. Then Sean returns them the result in the mail, which is another long description. The game he invented and scripted and developed, is called Trace Italian, and it’s constructed so intricately that at the time the book is set, no player has ever completed it yet. In a not terribly subtle fashion, the game and players’ progress in it, is presented as one among many metaphors for life in the book. For Sean, writing the various scenarios and scenes of the game helped him find his footing after his accident, it’s his life’s work, and it’s intermingled with the actual events of his life.

“The unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian’s opening move – that’s me. [That player] has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he’s headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain.”

Sean never quits providing the game despite rapidly dwindling numbers of players as “most players just drift off eventually. Their focus wanders; their interest shifts.” He feels responsible for his players, for the labyrinth of moves he sent them into. The absolute nature of the game and the way Sean and many of his players are immersed in it makes the reader think of cultural histories such as the classic study by Johan Huizinga, as well ideas of similacra and simulations by writers like Baudrillard.

DSC_1529With Huizinga, whose work on the middle ages I love and strongly recommend, we have this intriguing idea of how play informs everyday life and is both a force in and an antagonist to politics and violence. The idea of play as an all-enveloping phenomenon is nicely complemented by the (much less substantial) ideas of notorious Frenchman Baudrillard and his concepts of simulations and simulacra. Look, John Darnielle sets up his novel so powerfully, so beautifully at the crossroads of ideas of how life works, and of life simulations, and he keeps mirroring motifs. There is, for example, the present tense situation, where Sean has been sued by the parents of two players of Sean’s game. These two players left the game, as far as Sean knew, they stopped writing, dropped out. At the same time, they decided to take the game into real life, treating the world, our world, our shared reality, as if it was Trace Italian. Eventually, their survival trip through this Trace Italian simulacra came up short, and they were found, one dead, one close to it, somewhere in a ditch they had dug for warmth. One of the oddest parts of the book is that there’s really no conventional plot to any of it. There are things happening, but the situations still feel stationary, and the novel’s effect mostly derives from giving us – and juxtaposing- three situations, three slices of Sean’s life at different times of his life, making us read all three from the context of the two others, forcing us to make an interpretation of Sean’s life. We have his parents, the dead couple’s parents and friends, all of whom turn up in the book, trying to read Sean themselves. In a way, in one of many motif repetitions and mirrors, the three basic situations or rather times of Sean’s life are themselves like Trace Italian move results. It’s as if we had written in after the first situation and then we got to the next point. There’s an eerie feeling to it of responsibility and necessity. Sean, for all the awfulness that his adult life has sort of turned into, never becomes maudlin, never feels sorry for himself. In another set of interpretations, it might be worth it to sorts through the book’s imaginary to find mirrors and repetitions of biblical narratives or stories, because at times, without ever explicitly committing to it, it feels like a fragmented, heightened version of a morality play, informed by a Christian, though not fundamentalist, perspective. Neither in the middle nor the last part do we really see the move, we just see the situation. The only time a scene resolves into Sean really taking a move, deciding on one option among many is the earliest, when teenage Sean decides on a difficult, and badly executed, course of action. At this point I have to warn you that I will explain that situation, which is a minor spoiler and (if you need this kind of stuff?) trigger warning in the last paragraph.

DSC_1572Meanwhile. in this review’s first paragraph, I kept calling Wolf in White Van Darnielle’s debut novel. That’s not entirely accurate. While Farrar, Straus & Giroux refer to the book as a debut novel in the book flap, the question of whether that’s really true depends on your definition of “novel”. Back in 2008, Darnielle published a volume in a book series called 33 1/3, published by Continuum. If you come across any entry in the series, I recommend you pick up a copy of its small, slender paperbacks. The series collects various critics’ and writers’ takes on classic rock, pop and hip hop albums. There is a great variety of authors. For example, Dr. Dai Griffiths of Oxford University wrote on OK Computer, Ric Menck, drummer of Velvet Crush, wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef authored an entry on If You’re Feeling Sinister. They are short books usually explaining the context of an album with a personal anecdote or with a broader comment on the time of its publication. Much what you’d expect. John Darnielle’s book, titled Master of Reality, is a novel/story about someone locked into a psychiatric institution who is allowed to keep a diary and alternates between unhinged rants and explanations of the songs on Black Sabbath’s seminal album. It’s not a novel, and it’s also not very good as fiction, much more along the lines of what my snobbish expectations had in store for Wolf in White Van. Darnielle writes songs about desperate characters, depression, and about heavy metal. In the little book about a foundational record of the genre, Darnielle offers us all three. The book is torn between filling the role of books in the series and telling a fictional story at the same time. It does well in the former, but flounders terribly when it comes to the latter. In Master of Reality, Darnielle has no good grip on where to take this teenage voice, where to rein it in, where to let it go. Unless you’re interested in the Black Sabbath album, it’s not really worth your time – but for the reader of Wolf in White Van there are interesting connections between the two books.

DSC_1528In a sense, Master of Reality frequently feels like a very early dry run for the much more accomplished later novel. In it, Darnielle stretches and pokes at this teenage character who is both knowledgeable (about the things rock-obsessed teenagers are obsessed) and naive. It’s frequently annoying and if Darnielle’s name hadn’t been on the cover I wouldn’t likely have finished it, despite my interest in the subject matter. That same teenager (at löeast the same archetype) could be said to also be part of Wolf in White Van, but only tiny portions of the book revolve around that teenage character, which is an excellent decision, given Darnielle’s inability to properly master that voice. As I said, of the novel features that character, Sean Phillips, as he is a badly adjusted adult, making a small amount of money off an odd and outdated business, and mostly living off insurance payouts. When he was 17, Sean shot himself in the face with a shotgun. On the list of efficient/painless suicide methods, shooting yourself is not rated very highly unless you’re an excellent marksman (despite its high ranking here). The most famous literary example of people killing themselves with guns, young Werther, lived about 12 hours in terrible pain until he finally died. Goethe goes into unpleasant detail on this. A solid amount of inexpertly performed suicides with guns never even end in death, just in terrible mutilations. Sean Philips is one of those unfortunate people. After his attempt, he ended up with a terribly disfigured head. There’s a chance I spoiled you by telling you this, because Darnielle doesn’t detail the “accident” that leads to Sean’s disfigurement until the last chapters. It’s also those chapters that most closely resemble the teenage voice of Master of Reality, but the author has accrued enough ideas over the course of the rest of the book that he doesn’t need to lean on that voice to add something to the text. The final chapters are mainly used to fill in gaps, rounding out the story and making the topic of role playing and storytelling that are interwoven throughout the book, much more meaningful. There are many possible paths we can follow. Sean, letting them all play out, decided on this particular one.

I have reviewed other books dealing with suicide, like Édouard Levé’s Suicide, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and A.L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting. John Darnielle adds something genuinely original and unexpected to a literary tradition, a unique and cerebral examination of choices. The difference between games like Trace Italian, as they actually exist today, and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books, is that Trace Italian is life-like in the sense of having to pick an option from contextual clues, there’s no-one that sheperds my options into three easy to read versions. There is a hopefulness to this otherwise frequently dark book: it’s the plurality of options, and the call to make a choice, any choice, and see what’s your next move.

Maybe this next move is supporting my blog? As always, if you feel like it, and like what you find here,, 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.)

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Tyler, Anne (2015), A Spool of Blue Thread, Ballantine Books
ISBN 978-0-8129-9928-0

DSC_1546In my review of John Irving’s In One Person, I pointed out that I (we all?) have problems with certain writers in figuring out whether my enjoyment of their work is strictly personal or whether these books are more broadly speaking great literary achievements. It’s not just Irving for me. Another writer who I find similarly troubling is Anne Tyler. Now, unlike Irving, I have not read all of Anne Tyler’s work, but what I have read I found instantly enjoyable. A friend on a literature forum I used to be on recommended Tyler to me and I purchased an omnibus volume of three of her novels, a horribly ugly book by the way. I stared with The Accidental Tourist and with that, I was off to the races. I have never not loved Anne Tyler’s work, but she’s not always been critically well regarded except in a mildly condescending manner. A Pulitzer winning novelist, Tyler has often been pegged as a soft family (or women’s) writer. In the post-The Wire era, who among us would volunteer her name when asked, during the recent race based crisis in Baltimore, which novelist to read to get a sense of the city? And this despite her dedication to Baltimore and her careful social and historical examination of its residents in book after book. Anne Tyler is not a remarkable prose stylist, but she is a fundamentally good writer of prose. Her writing, in some ways, could be compared to the great chronicler of Maine, Stephen King, in their unobtrusive efficiency and their dedication to the rhythms of ordinary life, but her prose is considerably more literary than that. With Tyler you never feel as if she wasn’t in control – and it’s a control that has been refined with each new book. Maybe the point of comparison shouldn’t be the rough-and-tumble efficiency of King, and rather the elegant refinement of John Updike. She lacks Updike’s olympian notes of stylistic beauty, but she shares with him not just the refined and yet unshowy language, but also the sense of effortlessness. Updike famously did not overly revise, and so his prose is a testament to his elegant brilliance (brilliant elegance?) – the same is true for Tyler, even though I don’t know how many revisions go into a page of her prose. Ultimately, Tyler, despite her accolades, her popular success and her Pulitzer is an underrated writer in the American canon.

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

I only wish that I had picked a different novel than A Spool of Blue Thread to make this point. Because, apart from some truly excellent chapters, this book confirms rather than challenges the prejudice against Tyler’s work held by many readers. Her twentieth novel mostly walks down well-trod paths, with her skill inducing not admiration as much as a kind of leisurely boredom. The novel is extremely well crafted, well structured, full of believable characters, and an admirable empathy with these lives, but in many places, the novel is a bit of an indictment of Tyler’s middle-class sensibilities, and her frequent blindness to lives outside of her immediate purview. Nothing in this book feels urgent, there’s no obvious reason that this book exists. And yet. And yet the book, as often as I was midly annoyed by its Tylerisms, also gave me immense pleasure and it has standout moments that truly surprised and moved me. It’s as if there was a fresh and relevant novelist hiding in Anne Tyler the accomplished routinier, not coming out except for small moments, a chapter here and there. It’s this book that has been nominated for the absurdly redefined new version of the Man Booker Prize and you know what? It may not be the best book on the list but it’s heads and shoulders above many recent winners of the award. A Spool of Blue Thread has empathy, skill and a clear-eyed observation of a particular stratum of society. Far too few books (and god-awful Booker winners) do these days. For all the sentimentality and unsurprising sepia toned nostalgia in the book, Tyler’s novel feels original in the sense of specifically composed to convey this story, line by line. She has told similar stories before, but you never feel as if she feeds you Coelhoesque stock phrases and stock emotions. Meanwhile, here are quotes from Julian Barnes’ Booker winning The Sense of an Ending. Click on the link, I dare you. I repeat. Booker. Winning. Anne Tyler takes no shortcuts. A Spool of Blue Thread is almost 400 pages long, with an exceptional sense of which scenes should run for how long to achieve the maximum effect. The book doesn’t turn on small individual paragraphs, on a pithy line or two. It’s the accumulation (and juxtaposition) of lives that creates the book. Right now as I type this there’s a niggling sense in the back of my mind of me talking myself into liking the book more than I liked it while reading, but I do honestly recommend it. And if you’re stuck halfway, irritated at the Whitshank family, I promise you, the book gets better.

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

One early problem I had while reading the book is that I couldn’t see the point of it. In Tyler’s variations of middle class life in Baltimore there’s always an idea, an emotion, a big character flaw or oddity driving the story. It took me a long time and hundreds of pages to see that point in her new book. The book consists of four parts, which get smaller and smaller, with the first part, “Can’t leave till the dog dies” the longest and least fractured of the four. These four parts are subdivided into numbered chapters, which don’t always function the same way. That’s, incidentally, another reason why I had to think of Updike’s lack of revision when considering Tyler’s novel. There’s a sense of slightly disintegrating discipline as we move through the book. The first two or three chapters of part one are relatively clear as having a uniting theme. While the book (with the exception of part 3, is more or less sequenced chronologically, there is some temporal overlap at the beginning, as we get to know the Whitshank family by looking at the role of some of its individual members. Tyler has done this before (this phrase is applicable to many parts of the book, sadly), with more direction and purpose, as when, in the 1983 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, she offers us a Rashomon-like look at childhood, and the different ways family experience is coded for different family members. Not until the last part does Tyler really shift the perspective this time around, however. The Whitshank family of A Spool of Blue Thread is one of Tyler’s typical oddball families, consisting of the parents, a very dedicated and loving couple, and their odd children. There is their son Denny, who leaves home early, bouncing around the world without ever really telling his family. He comes out to his family on the phone but next thing they know he is engaged to a woman. Next time they hear of him he’s marrying still another woman, and having a daughter with her. And next time they hear of him, he is single again. He is the outsider because the rest of the family strongly values being connected to each other. This is one of the themes as is a kind of subdued upward mobility. Comfortable middle class life, with a stable, traditional marriage is implicitly and explicitly the goal – and the supposed takeaway from the book, as its final pages pivot to Denny’s point of view, revealing his intention to follow the Whitshank family tradition and establish his own middle class household.

DSC_1549The first (and last) chapter, featuring Denny is one of the ways Tyler offers up her message of middle class desirability. The first chapter, showing Denny’s deviancy as a contrast, as a way to define what it means to be a Whitshank is interesting. Being a Whitshank is not a question of DNA. The adopted family son, Stem, is, as many people point out, more of a Whitshank than Denny, the roaming, possibly bisexual, unsteady black sheep of the family. He does not hold a good, steady job, and the family embarrassment for him is palpable. He moves in and out of the story, and is never really expected to draw the reader’s sympathies. He is a mild irritant. This definition of class by exclusion is interesting in the light of recent events in Baltimore because that’s also the way race is defined, by having a clearly marked Other to distinguish from us. And this leads me to the other way Tyler offers her middle class message: the house the Whitshanks live in has been built by the just deceased grandparent generation. The inappropriately named Junior Whitshank, father of the current family patriarch Red Whitshank, has built the house, but not for himself. Builder by trade, he had built it for a different, richer family. He was lucky enough to be able to eventually move into the house himself. The Whitshank family history starts with this movenment into middle class respectability. Nobody knows where Junior Whitshank came from, what his background is. The family is tied to the house, it’s self made in a very literal sense this way. And I’m not giving away too much when I tell you that at the end of the book the house is sold. Not for poverty reasons, but due to unforeseen events. Many elements of the book resemble elements from previous books, and if you know Tyler’s work, you will recognize many of its characters and subplots, but one feels as if Tyler tried hard, this time around, to do two things at once. Tell a believable, warm-hearted story – and provide an allegory of sorts about the American middle class as a transitional phenomenon of social stability. I’m not sure she manages this divide awfully well, because in order to pull it off she has to add enough plot details and observations, to properly supply both “books” with support.

DSC_1547That said, there is a point where Tyler suddenly breaks with the narrative to go back in time to give us the story of the marriage of Junior Whitshank and his much younger wife Linnie Mae, the parents of Red Whitshank and originators of the Whitshank family as it exists in the present of the book. Their story starts off with a crime and a surprise but I will not offer any details except to say that the two of them originally came from the south and worked their way up from being out on the streets with only 7$ to their name to living in an upscale Baltimore neighborhood. I don’t want to give more details because the 80 pages allotted to the life of Junior and Linnie Mae are the most intensely pleasurable and readable of the whole novel. I didn’t care about structure, I didn’t take notes, nothing, I was completely swept up by the story. The greatest tragedy of the novel’s writing is that Anne Tyler could conceive of and write a character like Linnie Mae and have most of the novel be about the simple, kind but unspeakably dull present day Whitshanks. We care for them, sure, but Linnie Mae is a thunderstorm of a character. Smart, strong-willed, and deceptively kind-hearted, she is the kind of character described in blurbs as “she knows what she wants and she gets it” – but since the 80 pages are mostly from Junior’s perspective we get only bits and pieces of the character that she is. And at this point in Anne Tyler’s work, maybe that’s why Linnie Mae sticks out so sharply in the book. She has not been ground into the broad dough of what we have to call the Tyleresque novel. There are no mind-numbing quotidian details to soften our impression. The love story of Junior and Linnie Mae, if we can even call it that, is complicated, and frequently even surprisingly dark, but makes for exceptionally compelling reading. In fact it#s not just these 80 pages. The whole last third of the novel ties up much of the rest of the book and shapes it, making much that seemed like superfluous detail meaningful in hindsight. It’s a novel that truly rewards rereading and punishes those who bail on it halfway through. A Spool of Blue Thread is far from the best novel in an oeuvre that has quite a few remarkable highlights, but it’s also extremely well crafted, smoothly written, and for a brief time, very compelling.


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.)

John Scalzi: Lock In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Akhil Sharma: Family Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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