Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Englander, Nathan (2017), Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Knopf
ISBN 9781524732738

In a tunnel, dug by a Palestinian “tunnel millionaire,” a Palestinian politician and an Israeli ex-spy meet up and have a dinner as the 2014 Gaza War flares up above their heads. Theirs is the Dinner at the Center of the Earth of Nathan Englander’s 2017 novel. It’s a curious, Salman Rushdie-esque moment, not just the dinner, but also the discussion that led to it. This is not the only humorous moment of historical drama in the novel that to me had echoes to Rushdie’s work – and indeed those are some of the novel’s best moments. That said – the book has a lot of good moments. It’s simply a very good book. I may be biased – despite my problems with short stories, I have always enjoyed Englander’s books. I can’t even entirely explain why. I think he hits some of my soft spots very exactly, and I have to say it always comes as a bit of a relief to see that the reading world at large often shares my positive opinion of Englander – because I sometimes truly have difficulties rationalizing my enthusiasm for his prose and plots, as well as his characters and charisma. It’s a bit easier, I think, to explain why I consider Dinner at the Center of the Earth such a good novel. It’s true – it’s a bit uneven at times, but this unevenness is baked into the whole. It’s supposed to be a bit off, to take some reading and rereading to fully gel. When I read the novel for the first time, I wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a combination of great and awful short stories awkwardly glued together. But what it really is is a masterful writer’s ability to hold several balls in the air at the same time, and make the whole circus act cohere. It does not cohere into a message, or one triumphant final tableau. In fact, the book’s two final scenes, one about a war that starts above ground while two lovers dine underground, and one about a suicide, are two versions of a darkness that few writers can articulate as well as Englander. There is grace and humor to the suicide scene, which is one of the strangest scenes of its kind that I can remember reading recently. And the eponymous dinner – framed in every way like a metaphor for political reconciliation, for hope in a hopeless conflict – ends with two lovers huddled in the darkness, scared, or resigned or both. Many of Englander’s decisions in the novel are a bit unexpected and this is part of what makes the novel such an interesting achievement.

The novel is written in alternating chapters following a spy story, the story of a black site prisoner, the story of a millionnaire and a Palestinian upstart meeting on a lake in Berlin, as well as – and that is surely the most unexpected of all the decisions – a story about Ariel Sharon’s death, which is told from two angles. From the angle of those watching him die, and from within Sharon’s own mind, who had been in a coma for 8 years before he passed. Englander never names Sharon, but he also doesn’t disguise him. His character, “the General,” has Ariel Sharon’s biography, but by eliding his name from the story, Englander allows himself to invent, embellish and adorn the death of Sharon. It turns his death and life into a tale – one with a broader purview than just the complicated life of a complicated man. Englander zooms in and out of realism in the story, and in and out of genres. He doesn’t name Sharon, but when he describes Ehud Olmert’s peace offering, he names Olmert specifically, and describes him clearly and sharply as “the least prime-ministerial person […] with his shadow of a comb-over, and his wiry, runner’s frame, and the exhausted, in-over-hishead, watery eyes.” One assumes this decision is connected to ideas about the narrative of nationhood, about the way acts of violence become part of national myths, and the fabric of the stories we tell each other about our realities. The General is a larger than life person, and he has shaped the fate of his country like few others, from the wars he fought at the beginning of his career to the big steps he took at the end. What’s more, his actions, before he slipped into a coma, felled by a stroke, determine the options that all the other characters of the novel have. If the novel is uneven and complicated, so was Sharon’s life, and the novel demonstrates what some statesmen offer their country, good and bad, and how far and wide these decisions cut. In some sense, the final pages tell us: this is who we are now, and this man, he is part of the reason why. We read Sharon’s thoughts and memories, but it is not living, breathing Sharon that speaks – Englander has animated Sharon on his comatose deathbed for us. The General finds himself in “a kind of sheol, a limbo space” which, before him, was shared by “other Israeli kings.” To leave it, he has to fully launch himself into myth, away from reality, into a place that is both national narrative and personal delusion.

And he is not the only one in this novel. All characters launch themselves in one direction or another. From small movements, like pushing off to sail on a lake, or the thrusting pushes of lovers, to larger thrusts, like the decision to follow one’s conscience, to flee, to kill oneself, to change one’s life in one way or another. As the book’s chapters alternate, so do times and places. Some of the book is set in 2014, some of it in 2002, some in 2003, etc., and that doesn’t even include reminiscences and memories. People and trajectories end up circling around Israel, this resilient little nation in the Middle East. Although Englander includes two central Palestinian characters, he isn’t really interested in them – he is more interested in the complexities of the Israeli experience, the Israeli conscience. There are no “civilians” in the book, really, with one major exception. Mostly, they are spies and politicians – and the General, of course. There is a curious balance that Englander strikes between the General on the one hand – he who doesn’t doubt his duty to his country, and who is willing to do things we might not all be willing to do, in order to, as he sees it, bring peace and security to Israel. On the other side are two spies who doubt their duty, who doubt the necessity of murder in order to achieve balance and peace. It is not, obviously, conducive to their safety, to harbor thoughts and opinions like that. And as there is no easy solution to the geopolitical problems swirling around Israel, there’s similarly no easy solution to Nathan Englander’s excellent novel. This includes the novel’s style of writing. Englander can command with some ease a specific style, a rich, embroidered language that he uses here to tell stories of weight and pathos. He is also incredibly deft with humor, particularly Jewish humor. And a scene written in one style, can often switch to a scene written in the other. And this doesn’t include the stories of espionage in Berlin, Paris and Capri, for which Englander often chooses a looser, slightly flattened language. All of this is incredibly readable. It’s hard to beat Englander for sheer enjoyment. If he wanted, he could write a simple tale of myth and Jewish kitsch, and have the result be utterly adorable and successful. It’s a sign of the author’s talent and – dare I say it, four books into his career?, importance that he built this book into something much larger, and much less obviously pleasing. It’s a book that reckons with a personal and political darkness.

In the novel, the General, Sharon, that is, remembers Ben Gurion telling him, after Sharon committed one of the most infamous massacres attributed to him, that “the world hates us [Jews], and always has. They kill us, and always will. But you, you raise the price,” and exhorts him to not “stop until killing a Jew becomes too expensive. […] You, put here solely to raise the bounty hung on the Jewish head. Make it expensive. Make it a rare and fine delicacy for those with a taste for Jewish blood.” At the end of the book, we hear Hamas’s rockets rain down on Jews, and Israeli retaliation. Looking at the results, we can all calculate the current “price” for ourselves, but clearly, Ben Gurion’s ideas, or Sharon’s memories of them, have not helped. Sharon himself had a change of mind later in his life, a change that is recorded in the novel as well. So what now? The novel has no answer – and sometimes borders on defeatist. But maybe it’s its form, and its language and the urgency of its propositions that are the real solution on offer: it’s us, all of us, and our voice, our art and our thinking that can change things. And kindness and generosity. All of this is contained in Englander’s novel, which gets better with every reread. In his acknowledgements, he mentions cutting this novel from the body of a larger work. I cannot wait to read it.

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Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky

Anders, Charlie Jane (2016), All the Birds in the Sky, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-7995-5

20171129_0244401773454544.jpgSo I love science fiction. And nothing bums me out more when a book or text or movie is marred by a lack of imagination or a conservatism that is both boring and extremely reactionary. I wrote an essay in The Fanzine on the topic. It’s particularly frustrating with books that are otherwise interesting and engaging. This brings us to Charlie Jane Anders’s novel All the Birds in the Sky which is a hybrid fantasy/science fiction novel that spans a long period of time, involves high school intrigue, adult disillusionment and a powerful war between science and magic. Oh, it also contains a very romantic love story. The novel contains so much. Written by someone who is clearly around silicon valley types a lot, the book discusses the atmosphere and thinking in tech start ups and how it connects to contemporary ways of viewing the world, it discusses magic and the romantic attitudes towards it. It discusses, movingly, the alienation of “weirdo” high school kids, and much of the novel focuses on a search for belonging – on how we make our communities, how we deal with ourselves, what role technology plays in this process and what role nature does. It’s an enjoyable read – but as with many fantasy novels, you’ll have to hold your nose about some aspects. In particular its oppressively anachronistic view of gender roles.

Fantasy has the most annoyingly persistent conservative attitudes towards gender and gender roles – and while science fiction has recently (and traditionally, see Delany) offered diverging and interesting takes on these attitudes, one feels like in this case, the fantasy component of the novel has dragged its science fiction portions into the same regrettable conservative hole. In a novel that is so fundamentally based on the binary – science and magic, destruction and creation, nature and technology, it’s very sad that the author’s apparent reactionary views mar it all. By making the story fit a very simple heterosexual frame, and by connecting everything in line with the usual, very typical associations, there’s a lack of tension and intrigue to the structure of the book. The female protagonist, of course, likes nature and magic, and the male protagonist likes technology and maths. This is such a fundamentally anachronistic view of gender roles that you can find a critique of it in Wollstonecraft’s classic treatise on the subject. These associations have been recognized by progressive writers as anachronistic and reactionary for longer than the whole modern genre of fantasy and science fiction have existed. Which is some kind of achievement, I suppose. Interestingly, it doesn’t mar the readability of the book. In fact, in some sense, this conservative throwback view of gender connects with the old fashioned way the story is narrated: a sweeping, traditional kind of narrative, unafraid of big moments and well executed sentimentalism.

20171120_2338471446691837.jpgHonestly, if this wasn’t partially science fiction, I wouldn’t have reacted negatively to its 1950s view of gender roles at all – if you are in the habit of reading fantasy novels, particularly epic fantasy, you know that this kind of thing is to be expected. Fantasy doesn’t usually, in my reading experience, enlarge the pool of possibilities in quite the same way as science fiction does. And All the Birds in the Sky downright teases us with its allusions to Donna Haraway, Deleuze and other theories of change, dissolution and new formations. There are so many possibilities, so much potential – the same thing that bothered me about the Luc Besson movie – and Charlie Jane Anders picks the most boring one, boring, that is, from a SciFi point of view. As fantasy, it mines a trope that works extremely well. Fantasy and romance are a great combination – with a lot of room to maneuver, too. Even in mainstream fantasy, one sometimes gets something not as GOP-approved straight as this one (Jen Williams, in her fantasy novels, has a remarkable hand at sketching gay attraction, for example), but let’s be fair – this is the norm. And it’s so well executed by Anders. Trust me, if you’re looking for romance, this is right up your alley. Not to mention that Anders is extremely skilled at writing erotic scenes. The whole package is wildly engaging. I have a weak spot for romance in fiction and on screen and boy did this novel deliver. Anders manages to pace her two storylines, one of the war between science and magic and the other one of the love story between her protagonists, extremely well, so that as one comes together slowly, haltingly, so does the other, and each story’s ebb and flow is mirrored on the other level, until the dramatic conclusion, which feels extraordinarily satisfying.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole set-up is that the idea of shifts and shape-changing, despite me mentioning Haraway just now, isn’t just a riff on the idea of the cyborg, or anyway not in the way you’d expect. Yes, the technological part of the story is in many ways a story about augmentation, about changing the limited abilities of human beings to achieve means seemingly out of reach. And to Anders’s great credit, the book isn’t full of artificial limbs or other boring feats of imagination. The very first invention we are made aware of is a clock that allows its wearer to jump just a handful of seconds into the future. It’s not a time machine, not anyway as you’d imagine it. Its effect is small enough that it works, indeed, like an augmentation, like a stronger limb or a better eye, but Anders picked an unexpected human ability to augment – to interact with time. The small amount of seconds truly makes it akin to moving a bit faster, or seeing a bit better. As time goes on, the gains, the leaps with technology get bigger, and less pleasurably surprising. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but Anders just settles more comfortably into various genre tropes. Artificial intelligences, wormholes, she uses many things that we know from science fiction, in the exact way we know them to work. She distinguishes herself in these sections specifically through her enormous skill. The whole book reads as if it went through a hundred drafts, because all the details work, the allusions, the structure.

This includes a character that tries to stop a catastrophe by finding the people who will cause the catastrophe and killing them as children or at least stop them from doing their evil deed. That person’s narrative is a roving narrative, it doesn’t fit the solemn binary nature of the whole book, and, consequentially, she writes this character differently. He wears his influences much less lightly than the two protagonists, he is much more obviously a compositum, and Anders’s very tone in the prose reflects this.

20171129_024737966625666.jpgBut to get back to why this book doesn’t use Haraway in the way you’d expect – it’s not just the technological parts that are augmenting. The natural – regrettably gendered female, as technology was gendered male – part of the equation is also about augmentation, and about becoming more, doing more, understanding more. The initial augmentation, the mirror of the tiny time jump I mentioned, is the ability to talk to animals, but not fluently, at will and at all times, but a stubborn, halting, difficult ability that could, in some ways, be seen as an augmentation of human empathy, human abilities to understand animals through gestures, tone etc. Making this ability this inaccessible, and hard to use, was an extraordinary authorial decision, that doesn’t fit the usual smooth discoveries of magic. Often, while actually using magic skill is shown to be hard, fantasy novels treat the discovery of mere magical ability like the discovery of someone, thrown into water, that they can, indeed, breathe under water. This decision, and several others, show us a writer who has done some careful thinking about genre and how it works and how it is usually presented. It is such a shame, and such a bummer that Charlie Jane Anders decided to stop there, and thus meshed this intelligent careful use of tropes with this medieval view of gender roles, not to mention class or race. Maybe she kept to 1950s attitudes because of the enormous colorful way the whole book works. I mean it’s so much fun, even in the dramatic parts.

One reason I may have been disappointed is that, at the same time as All the Birds in the Sky, I read and reviewed Gwyneth Jones’s most recent book – and Jones takes on a very similar topic, but she takes only the sci-fi aspects: as in All the Birds in the Sky, there’s a think tank that tries to find a way to save humanity, that tries to open something akin to a worm hole, and that spends approximately as little time thinking about the consequences in a race to push through a scientific barrier. Like Anders, Jones’s book touches on the ecological aspect (though Anders’s book is specifically about ecology in a way that Jones’s book isn’t). But Proof of Concept is a dark novel, and not ultimately as hopeful as Anders’s fable. Jones is daring in terms of what humanity means for our bodies, in a way that Anders is not, but one feels that to use all these ideas in the sharp way that Jones does would not allow for the engaging, joyful, almost, ride that All the Birds in the Sky clearly is. So I understand why Anders made the decisions she did. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. The book itself, outside of its medieval attitudes, I loved. If you don’t like the book, you don’t like fun. I don’t always need innovation. Sometimes, nigh-perfect execution and the sparkle of narrative is a lovely thing to have, also. Read the dang thing already.

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Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

Jackson, Shirley (2013 [1951]), Hangsaman, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-39198-4

I know little about Shirley Jackson, and Hangsaman is only the second novel I have read of this famous writer of the American Gothic. I have little context for this book, but ultimately, it seems the kind of book spoiled by context, by biographical or bibliographical explanation. Let’s say it now: Hangsaman is a brilliant, utterly unique, a terrifying book, that, published at the same time as Salinger published his Catcher in the Rye, offers a sharper, smarter, more scintillating take on growing up as a teenager in 1950s America. Jackson includes, though she names it differently, the “phony” adults, but there’s more: sexual terror, awakening. The book is full of symbols, it uses movies, books and songs to give the reader some orientation, but it doesn’t depend on any of them. It’s one of the most densely written books I have had the pleasure of reading this year, but it wears its complexities lightly. I complain on occasion about books that are leaning too heavily on a clever structure without offering the basic substance of story and writing to their readers – this, this is the opposite. It’s clever and funny, terrifying and intriguing. It’s a fantastic book, and I’m not entirely sure why Jackson isn’t more widely admired.

An award named after her is given out every year to horror and suspense writers, but Hangsaman should be read and taught among the best American novels of the 20th century, and not just the best American crime novels. I have no idea how widely read this book, not one of her most famous novels, was, but some of its inquiries into femininity and power, and some of the ways its symbols and ideas are staggered appear to have influenced other modern classics, like Atwood’s Surfacing. But while Atwood is a clean and skillful writer of prose, Jackson’s command of the sentence is almost Kleistian in its detailed rhythms, its musical shifts that follow the protagonist’s shifts of mind. It’s a rich, complex novel that I’m sure has more treasures buried under the surface – I’ve finished reading it 5 minutes ago, and one exits this book in a kind of rush, an excitement. This is how all books should be, one wants to write. Suddenly, the fact that I have only read two of her novels seems like a gift – so much more to read! If her other books are as good as Hangsaman and We have always lived in the Castle (the other one I read), a very dreary late summer/autumn is about to acquire some bright spots.

Please forgive the possibly over-emphatic tone. I am improvising this review to collect my thoughts and I am coming right from the book, like a man out of a pouring rain, dripping with water and misery. In the same way, I am coming to you, dripping with mystery and excitement and literary joy, so, you know, cum grano salis and all that.

Honestly, however, I don’t think I will greatly adjust my opinion later. The book shifts gears rather rapidly between its three parts, but this movement of the book overall is reflected in the micro-movements of the protagonist’s thoughts, fantasies and the author’s sentences. While there is possibly a rape in the book’s first third (it’s marked, like Kleist marks sexual congress in the Marquise of O., by an elision), and occult elements in the book’s last third, this is in no way a horror novel, or even a psychological thriller as we understand the genre today. It’s a small-scale Bildungsroman, equal parts Hesse, Musil and Atwood. We meet the protagonist, a girl named Natalie Waite, in the first part, we learn about her family. Her father is a failed mediocre writer, whose miserable existence is foisted on the child, who is forced to write texts that her father then corrects. The dynamic between father and daughter is uneasy throughout – Jackson writes this first third of the book with a masterful sense of the claustrophobia that the big ego of a small bourgeois mind can create in a family, especially in a time when men were the ones in control, and women, like Natalie’s mother, had to give in, give up, give over to the men in their lives. The real cruelty of this situation is that Jackson has Natalie muse about what it means to become an adult: “There was a point […] where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities.” That last phrase, “believable possibilities” is really the clincher here. Natalie’s mother, as well as other female characters, are not obedient, they are fully conscious adults, but society was built in a way that cut down on their “believable possibilities.” Reading this book about growing up female in post-war America makes the insouciant pale dullness of Holden Caulfield’s rebelliousness even more galling, I think. There is a sharp realism in Jackson’s book, but it’s different from a lot of socially conscious novels I remember from the period. Natalie’s father is no Man in a Gray Flannel Suit – and Jackson really doesn’t particularly care about sussing out the motivations of the men in her book. What she cares about are how their behavior corrals, restricts and harms the women of the book. The second section is basically an academic satire, often funny, sometimes depressing, always told with a remarkable economy and flow. In it, we find another married couple, practically the younger version of Natalie’s parents. We also find other girls in Natalie’s dorm who have different ways of dealing with masculinity. The extent to which Jackson shows, without being preachy, that all these ways are different kinds of negotiations with power, is remarkable.

I thought of Kleist when reading Jackson, because one of the extraordinary qualities of Kleist’s prose is the way he manages to be both emphatic, pushing and following the ebb and flow of the plot and action, and at the same time build his sentences with careful, unerring elegance. There are almost no sentences that offer unnecessary simplicities – everything is rigged tight, yet the writing often seems over-bordering with linguistic energy. Of course Shirley Jackson isn’t Kleist, but the way the book’s prose seems to be tailored exactly to the protagonist’s thoughts and the plot’s movement, without sacrificing linguistic energy and elegance, did remind me of him. Usually when you admire a skillful prose architect, they build their novel from the linguistic and syntactic possibilities of their work – their sentences are always recognizable. Shirley’s writing bends to its content – but it doesn’t break into stylistic ugliness or incongruity. She does offer the occasional commonplace observation or statement, but in a way, as a reader, I’m actually quite thankful, because it allows me room to breathe. The whole middle section is more widely spaced, airier than the first or last section. There are more people in it, real, not imagined people, more time passes, and language often moves us from event to event, rather than from one place in Natalie’s head to the other. In that sense, the occasional bromides are not superfluous at all, but add to the book’s musical structure. Another connection to Kleist is the way the movement of his sentences always reflected his sense of the weight and power of the people he described and moved through his stories. His syntax would bend around powerful people, offering us a syntactic mirror of the social pressures of his time. Again, Jackson isn’t Kleist, but Jackson’s sentences expand and contract to reflect the weight of speech and of the social status of the people represented by that speech. The third way is Kleist’s ease with representing, in drama or prose, difficult mental states and unequal access to reality. In fact, Kleist is one of my favorite writers in matters of liminal mental states, passions, mental anguish and madness. In this, Hangsaman is almost his equal. Shirley Jackson moves from interiority to exteriority with unbelievable skill – literally unbelievable, I had to reread some pages just to fully enjoy the enormous writing.

Natalie is, ultimately, I think, a Deleuzian schizophrenic – though I don’t mean this clinically at all. But if I remember Deleuze and his partner in crime correctly, they offer the schizophrenic as someone who has unusual access to the real, because the border between things and words have become permeable, and because the usual connection of desire with lack (we desire what we don’t have) doesn’t exist with schizophrenics, instead desire becomes productive. And indeed, Natalie is “shocked by her own capacity for creation.” She is easily able to hold two conversations at the same time, one created by her own mind, and one happening in the physical, real world. In fact, the third part of the novel offers multiple mappings of reality, as Natalie and her “friend” Tony play multilevel games the board of which overlaps with the real world, but not completely. This section sums up everything that the previous parts have slowly accrued, we are pushed into thinking the world with Natalie, after the first two parts have trained us to be good readers of her voice and her creations. There is nothing supernatural here, and yet we struggle with distinguishing reality from fantasy, as we are thrust into the unstable symbolic world of a brilliant adolescent. The book’s conclusion is strange, exhilarating and breathtaking.

I cannot possibly imagine someone not liking this book, which is the best book I reviewed this year so far by a country mile, and I didn’t expect it to be this good. It’s looser, pushier, louder than the other Jackson I read, We have always lived in the Castle, but that one is also an examination of liminal states, of conflicts between interior and exterior, of femininity and patriarchal power and violence. The latter, Jackson’s final novel, is also a really complete, almost flawless and I expected Hangsaman, her second novel, to be more of an apprenticeship, a trying out of language and reality. Instead, I encountered a masterpiece. I said earlier that Jackson should be more famous, but equally, it’s a mystery to me why Hangsaman isn’t a more famous novel. I did write this review top to bottom within an hour of finishing the novel, so there are bound to be exaggerations and blindnesses, but I don’t think my overall appreciation of the novel is wrong. This is really, really good. Everyone should read this.

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Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes

Campbell, Sophie (2017), Shadoweyes, Iron Circus Comics
ISBN 978-0989020725

Sophie Campbell is one of my favorite people in comics. She’s been publishing comics for a long time now, sometimes as artist and writer, sometimes “just” as artist. It’s been a while since new work written by her has appeared in print: that’s all the more reason to celebrate Iron Circus Comics’s new reprint of her Shadoweyes comic book, originally published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2010. Trust me: you want to read this. Sophie Campbell’s art is gorgeous, the story and ideas are cohesive, moving and complex. If you are tired of the usual stories about vigilantism and superheroes, you might like this one. Campbell best and most well known work is the sharp sequence of graphic novels called Wet Moon, of which 6 volumes have appeared so far, and in some ways, Shadoweyes is its polar opposite: Wet Moon is conscientiously realist – offering a story about real lives in a way that isn’t usually presented in comics. Campbell’s characters are queer, of color – and colorful, struggling with money, sexuality, love and other issues, with a palpable physicality that similar books, like Terry Moore’s classic Strangers in Paradise, lack. In fact, if you follow Campbell’s work, the topic of physicality, of change, is tied into her examination and interrogation of feminity. Shadoweyes reads like an early attempt as synthesizing all of her themes in one powerful image: of the young vigilante who turns into a kind of alien monster, without losing any of her humanity. It’s about the inevitability of some physical change and about the way we deal with it. I’ll be honest though: the main reason you should read this is because Campbell is an amazing, gorgeous artist, and while her black and white work is great, her work in color is beyond description. This new edition of Shadoweyes is in full color, which the original wasn’t. Coloring assistance is provided by Erin Watson, who does a great job.

Campbell’s art, particular when colored, is transformative. She is an artist who takes care of the little details: hair, clothes, smaller accessories are rendered with a focus that is unusual, because Campbell, I think, truly understands how dependent often people’s identities are on what we might call these little things. In her own books, her excellent writing may overshadow sometimes the enormous lifting her art does. There are two titles that appeared in the last 5 years that should change your mind on that: one are the two trades of Glory that appeared from 2012 to 2013. The writing on the book, by Joe Keatinge, is very good, though a bit rushed by the end (had the book not been canceled I think the latter half of the story might have fared better), but it is Sophie Campbell’s art that truly lifts this title to a higher level. Keatinge took a character invented by Rob Liefeld and turned her complex and humane, giving her a tragic, moving character arc. None of this would have mattered if not for Campbell’s approach to the main character. You can always recognize a panel drawn by Campbell within seconds, and many characters in the book are very Campbellian: soft shapes, big eyes, unique hair style. But Glory, the main character is not human, her physicality, as established by Liefeld, is the one of an overpowered superhero: but Liefeld drew her as a pin-up (click here for Liefeld’s Glory), her physical power implicit in the actions, not her physique. Campbell’s Glory’s power is evident in her size, her thick, muscular body. Glory is tall, muscular, yet also feminine, and her life and emotions are extremely carefully designed by Campbell. Glory is a warrior and so her body is drawn with ripples of scars – what’s more, the big, muscular female in comics is often de-sexualized. Not so with Campbell who created Glory to be fully rounded, the various possibilities of life reflected in the various aspects of her physical appearance. There is a physical change that Glory goes through, as the story develops, and all the changes flow from the same, unwavering sense of aesthetics that is the artistic mind of Sophie Campbell.

Now, Glory is gorgeous, but extremely bloody and brutal. Sophie Campbell’s next major collaboration, Jem and the Holograms is neither of those things. Like Glory, Jem is a reboot of older material, in this case an animated series about a rock band that has the power to transform into anything they want thanks to a supercomputer named Synergy that can create life-like holograms. Not every part of this story makes equal sense, but why would you dig deeper when the story on offer is fun? That’s all equally true for the comic book, written by Kelly Thompson, who has used this book to jump to a very active writing career in comics, with art by Campbell (and colors by M. Victoria Robado). It’s odd to me that Thompson is the breakout star of the book when the major advantage of the book is Campbell’s art. The animated series has Jem’s band be in a constant conflict with a rival band called The Misfits (no, not those Misfits) and Campbell creates a clear design for both bands that is both believable and realist in its use of clothing, hair and other accoutrements, and at the same time absolutely, gorgeously fantastic. In Jem and the Holograms, we find Glory’s flowing hair again, the long limbs, but this time they are woven around music. The conflicts here are personal rather than apocalyptic, but we follow everything with rapt attention because of the world Campbell has created. Some of the writing is weak, some of the plot could have been better managed, much of it moves from bullet point to bullet point with an almost mechanical abruptness, but I dare you to be bothered when the delivery method is this glowing yet sharp and precise art. It’s not even the story itself that’s at issue, after all, Campbell had a hand in it, it’s the smaller details of writing that left me underwhelmed, but the art, truly, makes up for everything. So why isn’t Campbell the breakout star with her own book right now rather than Thompson?

The reason may lie in Campbell’s vision that is one that exceeds simple narratives of physicality and identity. In her books, people are damaged or change and then they live with that change. Sometimes people are not who we (or they) thought they were, but they push through that, adapt, move on. There is no simple episodic ‘back to the start’ for Campbell. The zombie tale The Abandoned ends on a complicated note of betrayal and unknowable future, ending at the story’s messiest point, and similarly, the limb lost in Water Baby remains lost, and the trust between some of the book’s characters is damaged. We change, we move on, that’s a pattern that keeps recurring in Campbell’s books and that isn’t that common in comic books. Plus, as a trans artist, Campbell’s voice isn’t as easily amplified as that of other unique comic book writers of today like Brandon Graham, about whose developing universe I’ll write something one of these days, or Matt Fraction, say. I will talk about Wet Moon in more detail some other time, but the fact remains that it is a complicated, untidy book – the comics industry, for all the genre’s potential for undermining simple narratives, is often remarkably conservative. Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise was a revolution, simply for writing a plain story about regular female characters, dressed and behaving like regular female characters. Wet Moon, with it’s more physical queerness is a more difficult proposition. These days most (all?) work that Campbell publishes (I can’t figure out which trades of TMNT contain her art, regrettably) is pencilwork for other writers and I suspect she has become most well know for her work on Jem and the Holograms and Glory. To these people, I recommend Shadoweyes without reservation, because it’s spectacularly gorgeous, combining, in some ways, two kinds of art that Glory and Jem split into two different directions. But Shadoweyes is more: it is also an unbelievably well told story about identity. In some ways, Shadoweyes serves as a key for some of Campbell’s other work, as it connects, through its intersex character Kyisha, the way preternatural transformations, common in superheroes and monsters, are a metaphor for the way people born into wrong or conflicting bodies deal with their identity. That’s not a popular topic, and not an easy one, but you can even find it in books Campbell didn’t write, just drew. That’s because her art is transformative. You should read her work. Start with Shadoweyes. It is good. Then read everything else. I promise you will not regret it.

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Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

Strout, Elizabeth (2016), My Name is Lucy Barton, Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-7952-7

I’ve actually read this novel twice. Twice! And I am still not sure what to think about it. It appears to be written and conceived so clearly in many ways, with various structures and strictures in place to deal with some forms of sentimentality, a style that conveys emotionality and openness without lapsing into soft and soppy imitations of poetic diction, qualities I am particularly receptive to after trying to get through Janet Mock’s interesting but horrendously written memoir in the past week. And yet – particularly as the plot or rather the protagonist’s life story unravels (or develops), the book’s previous flirts with cute sentimentality (“And yet I think: nobody comes from nothing.”) become more of a foregrounded stylistic element or annoyance, depending on your taste. Yet even that is reflected in the book itself, which is on many levels a metafictional exercise about how to write the life of a woman in 21st century America. Thus, narrative structures in the text come to be equivalent to family structures in the plot, for example and it becomes hard to see any sentimental streaks in the novel as having an existence beyond signifying the stylistic element “sentimentalities” for the literary discourse of the novel. It is all very interesting, and in many ways very accomplished and honestly intermittently moving, even, but to me, it sometimes also felt like a very dull undergrad MFA course on how to write and not to write a novel about female experience in our time. I cannot tell from the author’s bio whether she’s ever taught a course like that, but this novel feels like a very didactic (but very nimble) result of a course of that nature. The way the novel looks at life, love, nature, family and art with the same didactic lens that it then also turns upon itself feels greatly like some 18th and 19th classics in the very development of the genre. So. Is this a good novel? Maybe? Will I read a new book by Strout? Probably not? Here’s where I stand: it does what it does pretty darn well. I may not care a ton about what it does. But a lot of people love it. You may too. I liked it. I think.

The split that passes right down the middle of the book – of intellectual thinking and sentimental wallowing is something that has been part of literary history for a while. There’s this recent-ish study on the legacy of Charlotte Smith by Claire Knowles that is very insistent on the difficulties of female writers and poet to deal with the charge of sentimentality and the attempts to get out from under it. The result can sometimes be a meatless over-structuring, as in Valeria Luiselli’s novel(la) Faces in the Crowd (see my review here). Writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the rich emotionalism of female life stories are on the other side of the divide, I suppose. And in the middle are books like this. Toward the end, the protagonist’s daughter says: “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it but when you live with someone for twenty years that is the novel and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” The last fourth of the novel is full of those kinds of remarks, peppered with “my dear daughter” and “my most tenderhearted daughter” – and despite all the emotional or sentimental value of these remarks, they are also serious comments on structure and on female life writing. After all, the novel’s very title invokes unreliable narrators like Moby Dick’s (who starts the novel with the invitation: “Call me Ishmael”) and a whole genre of biographical fiction. The split I feel dominates the book – it’s also right there in the book’s language. Much of it is clean and sharp, shepherding the book’s many small stories and memories into short chapters that never extend long enough for sentimental whimsy, but sometimes, usually compartmentalized into individual paragraphs, the book blossoms into small, warm, emotional dictums, analogies or just pure declarations of emotional loyalty. None of this really breaks with the overall structure and narrative, until the last fourth of the novel, which, in turn, is specifically framed as a text with a freer relationship to structure. And yet, despite this intellectual framing of everything, most of the stories in the novel are filled with life, plausibility, warmth, the kind of storytelling skill that Luiselli’s book lacked.

All of this is extraordinarily well controlled, in part, one feels, as a way to combat the generic expectations of this kind of book, the (feigned) autobiography of a female writer. In her study, Knowles cites a movie review by Philip Hensher, mediocre novelist in his own right, who reviewed the movie Sylvia. Hensher disapproves of the treatment of the two poets as equals with, perhaps, Plath coming out on top. “Hughes’ [story],” he writes, is “too complex and rich to be reduced to a weepy narrative.” Plath’s own life, however, isn’t granted the same complexity by Hensher. This critical suspicion is, one feels, one of the impulses driving My Name is Lucy Barton‘s construction, and at the same time, Strout isn’t giving in to the gendered critique – she offers an écriture that is both feminine and intellectually sharp enough to escape the charge of being a mere “weepy narrative.” In this, I feel, the main intertext here is The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s classic novella, a terminal illness leads the protagonist to reevaluate his life. His relationship to his family, to his own life, to progress, all of these things get an airing, and none of these things fare well as Ivan Ilyich shambles towards death. Yet as he comes to accept his family, comes to see his life and theirs with compassion, the fearful presence of death disappears. The central conceit of Strout’s book is also a mysterious illness that ties Lucy Barton to her bed and forces her to reconnect with her mother. Most of the novel is set in the hospital room, with the relationship to her mother as the main storytelling impetus. Much like the elements of the room, the illness and the restricted choice of visitors shapes Lucy Barton’s life, these same elements shape the novel. The shortness of chapters, the sharpness and sometimes simplicity of the writing, the resistance to sentimentality, they can also be read as symptoms of the cautious, insecure relationship of the protagonist to her mother. In other words, the cagey, resistant kind of writing may reflect a resistance towards a certain relationship with motherhood and feminity, and as the character connects with her mother, so the book connects with a different literary tradition, leaving critical suspicions behind as we, in comparatively few pages, catch up with the rest of Barton’s life.

This, of course, also has a literary tradition. I believe it was Teresa de Lauretis who coined the term “the maternal imaginary” for the wave of books of fiction, poetry and literary criticism that explored the relationships of female writers with their mothers, often explicitly meant to provide a counternarrative to Harold Bloom’s Portnoyian obsession with writers and fathers. In one of her last books, Barbara Johnson suggested that poetry is an attempt to hear the voice of the mother, and it is surely no accident that My Name is Lucy Barton is a story about a woman writing her life, who, in the story, meets a writer who teaches her some fundamentals about writing, and who, for the largest portion of the book, finds herself locked into a small room with her mother, forced to talk to her, listen to her, re-assess her memories of herself, her life and her marriage. And in a book that isn’t exactly short on metafictional narrative devices, the central one is one of the most famous ones: a serious lingering illness. Susan Sontag wrote a whole essay about the way illnesses are misused as metaphors for all kinds of things, including narratives of “strength and weakness.” Particularly relevant to Strout’s novel are a few remarks by Sontag regarding illness and cities: according to Sontag, “[b]efore the city was understood as, literally, a cancer-causing environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer.” This connection of city life with a false, unsustainable, unconnected, unnatural life is maintained in Strout’s novel, as well. That’s also where the main connection to the “maternal imagery” of the novel is from: Barton is originally from a poor rural area, and many of the stories her mother initially tells are stories about people “back home” – reconnecting Barton not just to her mother, but also to her community roots, and, later, to a more natural, unrestricted kind of writing. There are more themes like this, the way the curious way the novel treats gay people and HIV, the way it works with insider/outsider figures, but after a while one returns to the initial impression: there’s a lot of stuff in here, and the book certainly has enough material for a whole book of undergrad essays, but the sum of it all, the controlled, hyper-determined way all the levels of the book appear to be examples and mirrors for other elements of the book on lower/higher levels, it feels too much like a textbook for an MFA course.

And going through reviews, this impression of mine may be my own problem. Certainly, many people only read the book on an emotional, emotive level. But that would, I think, underrate the author’s considerable achievement here. I don’t know that I like this book a lot – but I can certainly admire its execution. If this sounds like equivocating – it is. I wish I had stronger emotions about this book, positive or negative, really. But, apart from admiration for its craft, I don’t. I can appreciate it as a book in a long tradition that books like Claire Knowles’ have illuminated, and I can appreciate the nuance in Strout’s prose, but there’s a limit to my appreciation. I’m sorry if this has made my first review after a longer break a bit of an odd read but there you go. I think you should read this novel, if you care at all about the themes I laid out. That’s it.

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Paulette Jiles: News of the World

Jiles, Paulette (2016), News of the World, William Morrow
ISBN 978-0-06-240920-1

img_20161213_091117“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.

searchersposter-billgoldResearch 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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Marjorie Liu et al.: Monstress

Liu, Marjorie and Sana Takeda (2016), Monstress, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632157096

Gibson, Claire, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland (2016), From Under Mountains, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632159441

_20161215_142408Marjorie Liu is slowly but surely growing into one of the mainstream comic industry’s most interesting figures, at least for me. She is not one of the steady writers, who write creator owned or licensed titles every year, but she’s also not one of those novelists who dip a toe into comic books here and there like Brad Meltzer or China Mieville. Liu has only a few titles to her name, but they are all important and worth reading, working with Marvel characters like X-23 (who is the new Wolverine in the current line of Marvel comics) and the X-Men (where she engineered the first gay wedding). This year, she wrote Monstress, a creator owned comic full of gorgeousness and brutality for Image comics that I would consider one of the four most beautiful and original comics to come out of mainstream comics this year, two of which I will review here. The second one under review is From Under Mountains, co-written by Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland. From Under Mountains is a comic by a writer and artist who I never heard of and I don’t remember what made me preorder the trade, but I am very glad I did, because its story of war and peace, of spirits and men, is worth reading and rereading. Both it and Monstress have created their own mythology, both of them based in fantasy worlds other than the typical European medieval environments we usually find. And both comics are true collaborations between writers and artists that found a unique visual language for a story that is complex but also as simple as any myth is. Sana Takeda’s sumptuous, rich art, which barely requires Liu’s dialog, is just as essential for Monstress as Sloane Leong’s angular lines and flat colors are for From Under Mountains. Neither comic is without flaws, but I recommend both very strongly.

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The first page from “Monstress.” Protagonist gets sold off in a slave auction, naked and without an arm.

Monstress, despite the adorable young girl on the cover, is brutal. Its story is a rough retelling of the aftermath of colonialism, as it happens in our world, but heightened with myth and metaphor. Liu’s story is set at the frontline of an uneasy truce between humans and a world of magical beings, the Arcanic. The book’s events are informed by the brutal war that preceded the truce, with a horrifying calamity forcing humans to accept a temporary peace. Humans are superior in every way to the retreating world of magical beings, but the unspecified calamity has convinced humans that the magical army possesses a terrible weapon that they will deploy with unspeakable ruthlessness. The basic opposition of modernity and myth has played out in many stories and movies, but I’ve never seen it expressed in such a physical, grounded way. Liu’s characters are former or current soldiers. They bear the scars, inside and out, of war, and the traumas thereof. The politics of the world Liu portrays are full of shifting loyalties and betrayals – the horrors of war makes people change sides, hide secrets and offer cruel compromises. The most convincing element, however, is the physicality of it all. Like a handful of good writers, Liu’s concept of magic involves the bodies of its practitioners. Magic is an ability that is bred into people, it is in their blood, and using it is a physical skill. So far, so common. Yet Liu, writing a world of realpolitik and brutal war, follows through with her ideas, and invents a specialized cadre among humans, the Cumaea, the so-called nun-witches, who extract material from the magical beings through various methods, none of them pleasant. People lose limbs, by and by, to satisfy the appetite of the voracious human military apparatus, which is increasingly dependent on its magical cadre.

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A temple of the Ancients from “Monstress”

It’s easy to see these elements, as I said, as metaphors for acts undertaken by colonial powers in our world. The greed for knowledge and the piecemeal devouring of the native people are framed in ways that make them enormously fitting, and makes much of the book’s story ride piggyback on our cultural memories of war and colonialism. There is an emotional narrative, but the book only occasionally touches on it, with the biggest revelation coming as a cliffhanger at the book’s end. The main impact is, so to say, political. It makes us feel the cruelty and brutality of slavery, genocide and colonialism. Yet Liu interestingly balances these metaphorical effects, where she blends a thing in our world with a similar (but different) thing in the world of the book, with clashing effects, such as her interrogation of the role of women in our histories. Liu’s book is centered completely on its female characters, which has interesting implications, as has her use of the trope of the witch. Sana Takeda’s art is more than just helpful in all of this. She creates an overwhelmingly decadent visual language for the book, replete in browns and blues and gold. The décor seems sometimes Asian, I think, without really using orientalist stereotypes. It draws from multiple sources including fin de siècle decadence. It is impossible to express the enormity of Takeda’s achievement, who creates full landscapes and buildings, deep in color and rich in detail. Nothing is neglected, everything has the patina of history. Going through the book’s amazing art, you get the feeling that Liu had to write a story as harsh and impactful as she did, just to keep up with the extraordinary power of Takeda’s art nouveau panels. Takeda’s art mirrors the complicated strategies of metaphoricity that Liu pursues in her writing by offering art that is both recognizable and alien, giving us details that remind us of things we know, and elements seemingly plucked straight from a drawing room in 1900 in Paris or Shanghai.

dsc_3157Monstress is, thus, both beautifully disorienting and gloriously immersive. Just so we’re clear: it’s not a perfect book. Liu’s dialog is nowhere near as good as Takeda’s art and the contrast is sometimes not entirely pleasant, and Takeda’s art forces the book into a very slow pace, with its preference for big, immersive panels rather than quick story-oriented smaller sequences. Liu’s decision to drop us into medias res without long expositions adds to the book’s atmosphere, but also gives the reader an impression of having to catch up sometimes. But these are small quibbles in an overall greatly entertaining book. Small quibbles are also the only things I can mention on the negative side when it comes to From Under Mountains. I have not heard of any of its creators up until I read the comic, so the book’s quality took me by surprise. Much as Monstress, it does not offer any slow world building at the start, throwing us right in the middle of a court intrigue, a wizard’s scheme and the aftermath of a war, expecting us to catch up and add up all the elements to a coherent background. The writing is much sharper than Liu’s, but the story, despite its intrigues and complications, is simpler and not as complex as Liu’s, because Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland are not as interested in creating a similarly complex web of myth and reality, history and fantasy as Liu did. This may be due to the fact that From Under Mountains is a spin-off of sorts from a creative project masterminded by Brandon Graham, one of comic’s most original writers, whose run on Prophet is a breathtakingly brilliant science fiction comic. I have not read any comics from that project called 8House, since none have been collected into trades yet, but if Graham’s past work is any indication, they won’t be simple. Thus, it stands to reason From Under Mountains was conceived as a simpler tale told in a more turbulent universe. I don’t know. In any case, the simpler structure of the book is not a bad thing. And it just means less complicated than the byzantine world of Monstress. Gibson and Churchland have written a world that is not without its own complications and difficulties.

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full page from “From Under Mountains”

At its center are three characters, whose stories intersect: Lady Elena, daughter of the Lord of Karsgate, Tomas Fisher, a war hero with a dark secret past and a present full of debauchery and shame. The final protagonist, bleeding through the stories, connecting them, is a young thief who one night witnesses Lady Elena’s brother, the heir to Karsgate, get murdered by a spirit. From this murder, the three stories fan out. An impending war has to be prevented, the murderous spirit needs to be caught and personal demons need to be encountered and dealt with. Like Monstress, Gibson, Leong and Churchwell work with a large backdrop of history and intrigue and have no exposition to deal with any of it. In fact, the broader politics of the realm, with its apparently incapacitated king, its marriage policies and its way of dealing with supernatural threats, is barely touched upon in the pages of the first volume, simplifying much. Indeed, the clarity of the art and the less overwhelming politics of the book may give From Under Mountains an appearance of simplicity, but Gibson and Churchland approach narrative almost associatively. The three protagonists and some side characters slip in and out of their story so that when one of these stories, the arc of the Lord of Karsgate, is somewhat resolved, there’s a great feeling of narrative tension being released, with a myriad of other threads still in the air. The complicated arrangement of the protagonists’s stories makes for compelling reading in a trade but I cannot honestly imagine how this worked for readers of individual issues. The series appears to be on a hiatus for now, and if that had anything to do with sales, I can guess why. Much as with Monstress (and Prophet), this book appears to reap the benefits of a less tight editorial reign. From Under Mountains reads and looks like a completely realized artistic vision. The story is excellently orchestrated, and the dialog is much better – moreover, the book frequently contains silent panels, sometimes for several pages at a time, never losing narrative tension.

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Silent full page vision from “From Under Mountains”

Much as with Monstress‘s Sana Takeda, this book is unthinkable without Sloane Leong’s art. It mirrors the flow of the narrative, it sometimes provides the book’s only language and overall dominates the whole book. Leong uses panels very freely, using the whole page for her effects. All pages are set in specific pastel hues, and the space between panels, when there’s such space, is colored in that hue so as to increase the immersive effect. Leong’s control of pace is masterful. Her broad, flat art is very static, but she uses panels within panels and blending with other panels to create time and focuses on attention as needed. Whereas Takeda in Monstress prefers big splashy pages deep and rich in detail, Leong’s backgrounds are sparse, but the artist constantly zooms in on small details, giving panels to hand gestures, flowers, flying insects, creating a story that draws you in without overwhelming you. As you can tell, I clearly lack the vocabulary or training for these descriptions, but suffice to say that visually, From Under Mountains is at least as virtuoso a performance as Monstress. And this doesn’t even include the attention lavished on dresses (there is a primer in the back about the different dresses for the different classes of people in the book, from peasants to nobles) and presentation. The way the book presents gender and race, visually, is intriguing, and the creative team appears to have decided to move some of its ideas in that department onto the visual level rather than have a disquisition on those ideas in the story which is exciting but conventional. If you’ve read mainstream fantasy comics these days, the story may have reminded you, for example, of Anthony Johnston’s very good Umbral, but whereas Johnston’s collaborator Christopher Mitten is fairly conventional (if very good), the end result of From Under Mountains is much more unique. This makes it so puzzling (and intriguing to see, on the comic’s final page, that the next trade/issues with end Leong’s run on the book and Gibson will continue with a new artist.

Anyway. If you trust me, you should go read these two books. You’re almost certainly not going to regret it.

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