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.

*

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 mytwitter.)

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.

dsc_3156

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.

dsc_3153

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.

dsc_3158

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.

dsc_3160

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.

*

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 mytwitter.)

Brian Evenson: The Warren

Evenon, Brian (2016), The Warren, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9315-9

warrenThe Warren is a short book – and one of the best books I read all year. In it, Evenson condenses a science fiction story about what it means to be a person, what it means to be alive, what it means to remember, into about 100 pages where not a single word is wasted. This is, in some ways, the antithesis to The Martian, a book which I expressed some misgivings towards in my review – the writing is that of“hard sci-fi,” but imbued with a strong sense of the stakes inherent in the topics broached. Physicality and the limits thereof are often used in fiction as toys, tropes employed by able-bodied writers whose imagination doesn’t stretch far enough to understand how physicality ties into language, memory and culture. Brian Evenson’s novel(la?) is almost painfully precise about the abyss of the body. Not to mention that Evenson is also an absurdly good writer. The writing is always sharp and manages to keep the reader moving forward, but Evenson is a genuinely good writer, line by line. His elegant and poetic writing is never obtrusive, but you can open this book to any page and find sentences that you’d like to show people: this is how you write! This is the first science fiction book by Evenson I’ve read but he’s written several and he’s clearly comfortable in the idioms of the genre, comfortable enough to burrow into them, and question many of its assumptions. It shares similarities with many sci-fi novels published recently, but easily outstrips them all. Evenson’s work that I have read often deals with religion and fanaticism, and without making it explicit, The Warren is certainly informed by that kind of thinking, by questions of truth and knowledge, and of the things we cannot speak about or don’t. This is the second time I find such a gem published as a slim Tor paperback, and all my complaints about design aside (read my review here), I am very impressed by whoever holds the editorial reigns here. You should buy this book, read this book, and then buy more copies of this book as a present for people in your life. This is almost certainly the best science fiction you’ll read all year and one of the best books, period, you’ll come across.

As I said before, I’ve read a couple of books by Evenson (review here and here), and interviewed him on Bookbabble, but I truly was not prepared for The Warren. Evenson’s work deals, I’d say, with the way communities control truth and certainty, at least in the books I have read, and he’s extraordinarily good at writing violence as something more than a transgressive action. There is a palpable connection of violence to the community around the violent event, and violent action is produced by less visible violence in the theology of the community, political and religious. I have always admited Evenson as a writer, but The Warren seems to be a high point even for him. The whole book is written in an interior voice, mastering it like few writers have since Kafka, from whom Evenson borrows some of the structure of the novella. Like we can’t all be Hemingway – we also can’t all be Kafka. In the hands of a lesser writer, that can get dull and formulaic fast – needing action and challenges to liven up the monologue. Not so here. While things happen, and twists are plotted, it is the interior voice that is the truly exciting part of the book. I cannot tell you “what happens” because discovering what Evenson has in store for his reader is part of the process. There are similarities between this book and The Girl with All the Gifts, a novel by comics scribe M.R. Carey. But Carey’s novel takes a unique point of view without being interested in what this means to language, self and contructions of reality. Instead, he quickly abstracts a few narrative parameters from his set-up and proceeds to unfold an extremely conservative zombie novel which gets more boring with every passing page. The early Deleuzian suggestions go by the wayside really quickly, and while he comes up with good ideas later on, as well, he treats them with the same intellectual incuriosity. Evenson’s interest, by contrast, is in the set-up. A person wakes up, tries to understand their environment, tries to understand their situation. The events of the book are not there for the events’ sake alone. Everything that happens sharpens the protagonist’s sense of their own situation, furthers their understanding, develops their sense of reality.

Despite its brevity, Evenson’s book contains multitudes. On some levels, it is a (blasphemous, I suppose) discourse on Creation, and in the purpose imbued in the natural world through Creation. It also offers, certainly, a gloss on various ideas of selfhood, and on the way we construct the world with set assumptions about who we are and who Others are. It is hard not to see in many of the book’s twists and turns an engagement with Levinas, who, in texts like Noms Propres, suggests that even in solitude, we encounter an Other. Leaning on a reading of Proust, Levinas unfolds before us the idea of a true alterity which is an absence, a reflection of a self, a strangeness of encounters with a mysterious Other. Not to mention Levinas’ ethics of the Other, the way that encountering another person creates an ethical situation in which we are not free. There are two kinds of encounters in Evenson’s novel(la) and he carefully shifts and adapts them as the book goes on. I can easily imagine a science fiction novel written from the point of view of another character in the book, enountered by Evenson’s protagonist, and that route is the easier one to take – exploration, not understanding, interrogation, not self-examination. Again, I apologize for being nebulous about the book’s plot and characters but it is such a rush, such a delight to have the book unfold as it does without knowing what’s coming that I cannot possibly take that away from you. Apart from Levinas, and maybe a Deleuzian sense of becoming, there’s also an engagement with theories of the body as found in the work of Butler and particularly Donna Haraway. How do we create our bodies, how does technology interact with our sense of self and how do we negotiate thinking and understanding with these augmented or remastered, altered physical realities. What does it mean to be complete and how much of what we consider selfhood is intricately connected to what we consider an intact physical form? Who speaks when we speak and to what degree can we separate our body from the tools we use?

Evenson’s discipline in telling this story is quite astonishing, There is no fat on the bones here – the story is all muscle fiber. There are no long expositions, no indulgent explanations of history and technology. Evenson explains things here and there, but only exactly as much as he has to for his readers not to get lost. And despite this, the intellectual and narrative density, the book is also emotionally powerful, almost exhausting, really. I sometimes complain about science fiction books. THIS is why I read science fiction. This is why I read books.

*

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 mytwitter.)

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Wilson, Kai Ashante (2015), The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8524-6

wildeepsThis book is very good. Very good. Unbelievably so, for a debut. An exceptional novel. Now, somewhere to the left or right of this paragraph will be a picture of the book under review. I considered not including one, but then, upon ordering it, you’d see it anyway. The cover is awful. Tor is doing a lot of things very well, many of which involve the editorship of Ann VanderMeer. Guessing from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, cover design isn’t one of them. This book looks tacky and cheap (the book as object is nicely produced, however), but any guesses based on the cover regarding the book’s content would be way, way off. This appears to be Kai Ashante Wilson’s first novel and what a novel it is. For a fantasy novel, it is fairly short, but no line, no page, nothing is wasted within its covers. This is a truly masterful novel. Not: “a great fantasy novel” – this is a masterful novel with a fantastic setting. Look, there is a tendency to judge genre texts on a curve. That’s how I end up praising Brandon Sanderson‘s excellent work – its immediate compatriots are not Otessa Moshfegh, Sinan Antoon or A.L. Kennedy, but Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Peter Brett, and Sanderson’s intelligence, inventiveness and productivity put him above these writers. So if you like epic fantasy, read Sanderson. If, on the other hand, you don’t like it, many of his books won’t be enjoyable for you. Kai Ashante Wilson’s novel is just plain good, whatever awful ideas may have driven this cover design. There’s no “if you like this sort of thing” here because everybody except those who will only read hyperrealistic fiction will enjoy this, and those guys can go to hell anyway. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is smart, it is written with a keen intelligence, and an enormous care for words that is too rare in contemporary fiction. Wilson draws on a broad literary tradition, but closest, I think, are writers like Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany and James Kelman. Not that I think he drew specifically on those writers (the Kelman in particular is a bit of a reach), but the way his book approaches speech, dialect, power and bodies reminded me of them. As the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement is approaching (my (terrible) picks here), Wilson can remind us of what we need to be praised in World Literature and that’s not the precious little miniatures by unoriginal little Frenchmen. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wilson Harris write work that, with exquisite literary skill, interrogates questions of language and power, and unlike writers like James Kelman (who should be on Nobel lists) and László Krasznahorkai, who address similar questions with at least equal skill, writers outside of Europe can address them differently, with a different, much needed perspective, especially given the lack of imagination and empathy in European (and American) politics today. Kai Ashante Wilson is no Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but his novel makes me excited to read more. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is excellent, important and deserves a better presentation by Tor.

Already, Wilson has surpassed work by American novelists like Michael Chabon, whose Gentlemen of the Road (I talk about it a bit in my review of The Copper Promise) is a surprisingly close analog. Yet unlike Chabon, Wilson’s novel isn’t a simple version of “fun and games with Leiber and Burroughs” – he draws, with some specifity, I believe, on novels like H. Rider Haggard’s She and Beckford’s Gothic classic Vathek, as well as on the towering literary figure of Samuel Delany. While Chabon, who has written beautifully on the value of genre writing, clearly brings to bear a great love and understanding of the genre, Wilson’s achievement is greater. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a novel that manages to have a fantastic setting that is both essential, and strangely irrelevant. Yes, there is an adventure in it, with a properly suspenseful finale. There are the characters you’d expect from adventure fantasy, gruff, funny, taciturn, irate. There are characters who like to talk and characters who are mysterious and brooding. There are fantastic beasts, Gods and monsters. Yet Wilson is in no way interested in doing the “worldbuilding” that is common and expected of fantasy. The world the novel is set in feels complete and entirely coherent, but it is not alien to us. The way we know this is Wilson’s use of language and dialect. The majority of the book is written in a clear, elegant, yet ever so slightly off-kilter English. It is hard to put my finger of it, but in recent fiction, I do think Samuel Delany comes very close to Wilson’s extremely deliberate English, which carefully modulates register ever so mildly. Sometimes it switches to poetic, sometimes it is more precise, sometimes it appears to be citing genre expressions, sometimes we are offered a very modern, clear tone. Yet this is not what is most important. The clincher is Wilson’s use of AAVE, or African American Variety of English, in his novel. The novel’s protagonists are, in modern parlance, of color. They are marked as black by other characters in the novel, but importantly, while the world of the book is not North America today, the characters employ different varieties of current African American slang, from “Nigga” to what is known as “th-fronting” where /θ/ is pronounced as [f] (“stremf,” in the novel, for example, for “strength”). Writers of fantasy, or just fiction in fantastic settings do frequently use today’s dialects of English to signify something about a culture. Many fantasy writers opt for some version of faux Irish dialect sometimes, for a certain kind of simpleton. What Wilson does is substantially different. The dialect he uses is so strongly connected to a specific culture and a time (ours, some details about the dialect are rather current) that it is hard to see it as just signifying any old kind of dialectical speech. What’s more, Wilson ties it to race.

Some of Wilson’s characters speak a variety of AAVE, and they are seen as black. Black not as color (although skin color is a topic of conversation), but more importantly: black as a cultural and colonial signifier. The book’s plot is about a group of, I guess, mercenaries, paid to escort a carawan of rich people (a culture clearly Arab inflected) through a dangerous area. A significant portion of the novel is set in an Oasis, where the mercenaries are treated with disdain. Not just by the rich merchants, but also by the fort soldiers (known as “fo-so’s”) who also speak in AAVE. Thus, we hear complaints like “Naked-ass bush savages. Shouldn’t even let they ass up in here.” I reviewed, a while ago, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia fantasy novels set in a kind of African mirror image to the usual fantasy worlds. Durham, like his genre compatriots, treated class and race with a broad and imprecise brush, but the exciting element of his book was the way he upended the usual home/invader paradigms. Usually, the “normal” people are English or European, the invaders dark, black or Asian (even outspoken liberals like Tad Williams cannot escape this). So that’s what Durham did and for the genre it was set in, it was nice and well done. Kai Wilson’s view of race is closer to the complicated worlds of Toni Morrison. From the acidic treatment of race and colorism and self hate in The Bluest Eye, to the densely colored conflicts of Paradise, which famously starts with a black/white conflict but then turns interior, Toni Morrison (a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Prize, unlike that French exploitative tourist of limited linguistic gifts Le Clèzio) has written one of the sharpest treatments of race in English outside of Africa (where racism is a frequent topic among the many writers the current Nobel academy does not consider white enough or genteel enough for a Nobel prize). The world of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is, like ours, a world dense with conflict, but Wilson has removed all the nonlinguistic specifics and replaced them with an Oriental fantasy world. This is doubly important. It allows him to display some conflicts relevant to us on a canvas that does not distract us, and makes us see causalities that we would otherwise link differently; it also drives home a point about how, much like orientalism, as Said many decades ago has stated so accurately, is a way to structure knowledge about the “oriental other”, so are certain accepted fictional and linguistic strategies.

Prof. John Rickford has called AAVE “spoken soul” and closed his landmark study of it with the following remark:

“True, the vernacular has been abused. […] But we must reclaim it. We must stop importing this shame that is manufactured beyond our communities […]. We must begin to do for language what we have done historically (in some cases only very recently) for our hair, our clothes, our art, our education, and our religion […]. The crucial thing is that we hold the yardstick, and finally become sovereign guardians and arbitrators and purveyors of our culture.”

Otherness, identity and shame loom large over this novel and the focus is not just race, but also, in equal measure, queerness. I haven’t touched on it because this is a brief review I am typing during a lunch break, but queerness is important here – two of the protagonists, the most physically strong and masculine, have a sexual relationship. Wilson builds on Delany’s sexually charged fantastic fiction set in the world of Neveryon, and like, Delany, also on a large tradition of gay literature that was sometimes explicitly gay, and sometimes more implicitly so. To me, the secret-but-passionate love affair between the two men recalls novels like Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund or E.M. Forster’s Maurice. If the (recalled in a memory) moment when the two men admit their mutual attraction doesn’t make you think of Alec climbing up to Maurice’s window, I can’t help you. To get back to my point: the central concern is with otherness and self, both in terms of race and sexuality. Famously, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of alterity do not include animals (I believe there is a very readable critique by Derrida) – but scholars have used his approach to also discuss animals and animality. For Levinas, the self, the “I,” is created in a confrontation with a “Thou,” a you. Building on Martin Buber, Levinas rejects Buber’s concept of reciprocity in that encounter. The Other, for Levinas, is completely, radically, Other. The encounter with it creates both an ethical responsibility and, with E.S. Burt, a sense of self. You cannot kill, because killing is an encounter with a face (cf. Abraham & son). Not so with animals. Yet Wilson offers us something else. Not an animal, but a leviathan, something that is inherently other, so much that it is capable of shifting and changing realities. Many of the characters’ actions are about dealing with yourself, with who you are, what role you are expected to fulfill and how to cope with all of that, but the book’s big showdown is a literalization of an encounter with an Other for two people whose sense of self is complicated and tender. It asks of them to fully embrace who and what they are, and it shows how dangerous that is.

It is impossible to convey how well crafted this book is. The brevity itself is an example of formal mastery, as is the density of allusions and theoretical and philosophical ideas. The careful writing, the extraordinarily deliberate and beautiful prose, it is really all very good. The prose easily beats the one written by recent Booker nominees or winners (*cough* Barnes *cough*), for example and when I say easily, I mean it. Hard to believe that this is Wilson’s first long piece of fiction. What he managed here is enormously hard to do, and even harder to sustain, but I am hoping for great things from this amazing writer. One would hope that the label “fantasy” would not mar his reception, because this book is just plainly excellent literature, among the best novels I read this year, but the presentation by Tor certainly does not help. Not just the terrible cover, the comparison to mediocrities like George R.R. Martin (good fantasy writer, mediocre writer overall) in blurbs on the cover also suggests a bad direction. Kai Ashante Wilson is an unbelievable writer, period. He is part of a coterie of excellent young African American novelists that include Colson Whitehead, the incandescent Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson. If you’re tired of the pale literary culture that brought you Jonathan Safran Foer, “The Help,” Ayelet Waldman and a million trite MFA products, read these writers. Read Kai Ashante Wilson. He’s on fire.

*

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 mytwitter.)

Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
ISBN 978-1-4721-0689-6

marbels coverYou know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.

marbles 4

A page from “Marbles,” depicting mania and the patient/therapist situation

Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.

hyperbole1What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.

marbles 5

A page from “Marbles”

I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by  Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.

cotter 4The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

hyperbole 2

A page from Brosh’s book

Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.

cotter 1

A page from Cotter’s book

Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.

marbles 3

One of the many journal pages depicting an attempt to visually capture depression.

For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.

marbles 2

Yeah…

The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 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.)

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

*

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.)

Phil LaMarche: American Youth

LaMarche, Phil (2007), American Youth, Sceptre
ISBN 978-0-340-93803-4

lamarche 2I went into this book knowing nothing about it or the author. Someone recommended it to me and I decided on a whim to read it. Not knowing anything about it, I was surprised at the way the book’s title’s relationship to the text keeps mildly shifting. From a vague description for much of the book’s personnel to the name for “a small group [where local kids] get together and discuss politics, activism, that sort of thing.” The kids in question are all right wing nuts, if you can call adolescents that, but the book loses interest in politics with remarkable speed given how central they are to a significant portion of its characters. Rather than examine the way politics insinuate themselves into youth culture, American Youth is a novel about a a small town that was hit hard by the recession and a Bildungsroman of sorts where a young boy discovers guilt, politics, sex and redemption, in this order. Phil LaMarche tries his hand at a version of America that has already been well examined by the likes of Richard Ford, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Thomas McGuane or Daniel Woodrell. This is not a very good novel, but there’s a very good novel in it somewhere, which makes it a bit maddening to read. The first half of the novel is quite intriguing, until the second half, which reads like a dutiful tying up of lose ends and narrative strands, really ruins the whole thing. The impression is that Phil LaMarche decided to end the novel on a redemptive note, and shaped the later acts of the story accordingly, rather than ride out the story as is, and see what its implications and possible directions are. It’s rather like seeing an object grow before your eyes only to find that it’s a bag full of hot air. And it’s not even particularly well written. Not bad, mind you, but the simple prose aims for early Hemingway, particularly some of the early Nick Adams stories, without having early Hemingway’s gift for compression. It is no surprise that this book and its author is an MFA product (you may have read my misgivings here and here), because the book reads (though it apparently isn’t) like someone’s thesis, dutifully taking an idea and putting it through the gears of what a “good” realist novel dealing with small town America should do. Alternately, it could be a result of a short story writer grappling with the very different task of building a novel. I imagine if Bonnie Jo Campbell ever gets round to writing a novel, it might be very similar to this one. And yet, despite all this, I can’t say I regretted reading it. It is a quick read, with good characters, and a really good first half. Look, it’s fine.

lamarche 3The characters and the various ways they are interconnected is the real achievement here. A kid dies early in the novel, and the guilt is curiously deferred: the killer bears some responsibility, but it was an accident brought about by age and inexperience; the novel’s protagonist, an experienced user of guns who loaded the gun only to leave it in his friend’s hands also bears some, as do the victim, shot when the two kids were grappling over the gun and the protagonist’s mother whose distracting noises prompted the protagonist to leave the gun in his friends’ hands. This is no spoiler, we learn this fairly early, but it shows us the way the novel connects its characters. Shared guilt, shared hate, shared pain. All people in the novel are somehow connected to all other people by a sad game of six degrees of shame and fear. The construction of the novel is so well done that I would not be surprised to learn that the author used a complex diagram to draw up the characters and the story. Sometimes, the effect is almost Checkovian: any character who we are introduced to that is not an immediate source of misery for the protagonist will eventually turn out to provide a solid dose of it – this is very impressive but, especially towards the end of the book, becomes more annoying that enjoyable. LaMarche’s treatment of guilt and shame gets more heavy handed as the novel slogs on. One can almost hear the author’s urge to include and clarify certain elements beyond ambiguity. The guilt for the killed boy is palpable and informs even simple observations. It is also mostly unspoken, weighing heavily over everything. This is how it should be. Similarly, boyhood betrayals and loyalties are debated with unspoken feelings of guilt and anger, expressed with body language and sullen words. When, however, towards the end of the book, a budding love, and the protagonist’s first sexual encounter, turns sour amid accusations of rape, we get an unholy amount of paragraphs of the protagonist debating the guilt or lack thereof for the act of rape. The original encounter, which is clearly a form of rape, was described clearly enough. No reader would have needed the copious debates of how the accusation shocked the boy who thought “it was not like that” and then his insight that maybe he did cross some line, and his debates of the topic both with other boys as well as the girl whose pleas to stop he ignored in the first place. I’m not advocating treating a terrible act with less condemnation, but the step by step discussion of it in the book, again, has the whiff of college debates on rape culture and an author who was trying to ‘get it right,’ even at the expense of the literary quality of his novel.

richard fordCuriously, he doesn’t get it right, despite the tedious extended discussions of the act. His failure here is less one of misreading rape, and more one of the role he allows women to play in this story and particular in this part of the narrative. The victim of rape basically drops out of the story after the accusation makes the rounds, reappearing only to assuage the protagonist’s feelings of guilt. Calling what happened between them rape becomes less an accurate description of what happened (though it is) and more of a weapon wielded by other boys and a source of resentment, anger and violence. The girl’s motivations and feelings suddenly disappear from a novel that was originally very interested in them and very clever in how it introduced them. This is due to two defects in the novel. One is its massive disinterest in its female characters. After setting them up, they become mere catalysts for the male characters’ actions. This gulf between the depth of the characters as we are introduced to them, and the shallow actual use of them is due to the second defect and that’s the novel’s slavish devotion to structure. There is no room in the third act to examine the girls’ motivations and feelings because the beats of the story demand that something else happens now. There is no room for the mother of the killed boy to have a complex reaction to the violent events because the only room the tightly scripted story allows her to have is as a forgiving catalyst for redemption. That’s also why the politics fall by the wayside. We need them in the first act, to connect the protagonist to that right wing group of teetotaler boys called “American Youth,” but the arc of the story does not have an opening for any examination of politics or of the way that that small town really deals with politics, so it really never comes up again, except in small phrases here and there. And with all that tightness the book still doesn’t really have a dense texture. The second half, which is almost single-mindedly dedicated to finishing the story and hitting all the right beats, and tying up all the strands of story in the right way is pretty flabby because as the author loses interest in all the strange and exciting characters that populate the book, he falls back more and more on the protagonist’s thoughts and ruminations. The second half of the novel could be cut by 60% without losing anything truly significant. It shows where the author’s interest and priorities lie: in construction. He spent so much effort setting up the story that it feels as if the second half of the book is just a quick, unedited filling in of gaps. As I said before, this makes for a maddening reading experience. And not in a good way.

lamarche 1American Youth is set up as a book about small town life, about politics, even sexual politics, about how right wing politics are fueled by anger and frustration, about guilt and redemption, but ultimately, it is only the latter and the way a young boy matures into a young adult. The final chapter of the book, and especially the final paragraph, with its cheesily formulaic outlook into the future finally jettison all the darkness and bleakness that was a part of so much of the novel, and replaces it with a contemplation of what this young adult plans on telling his child. It feels as if the author is exceptionally blind to the possible implications of his story. There is a big unmarked, unexamined heart to the story where everyone is male, white and has whatever vaguely centrist politics Phil LaMarche himself has. Everything that doesn’t fit this basic assumption of normalcy is introduced as needed and jettisoned as needed. Thus, the politics of the book. The “American Youth” right wingers are the only people in the book whose politics are discussed, really, and then some politically correct newcomers. There is, as with so many other aspects of the book, a moment where we find a fissure in the text, an instability that might be used to cleave open many assumptions. It is the moment when the protagonist’s mother, trying to find out about a police officer’s stance regarding the killing, asks a friendly police man: “is he like us?” That was an extremely smart way of showing how the town’s loyalty works, and it tied into another strand of the story that examined boyhood loyalty. Yet as we enter the second half of the story it is as if the question had never been asked. The implication being, somehow, that we the reader are assumed to be like the author. In a book on the construction of whiteness as “a bounded cultural identity,” Matt Wray suggests that dismissive terms like “White Trash” serve as “boundary terms,” that help manage disparate lines of social loyalty. In a way, much of American Youth is concerned with offering us elements that are not “like us,” sharpening the books sense of who belongs to the ‘in’ group and who does not. Liking guns is good, being obsessed with gun rights is weird and so is not liking guns at all. Drinking a bit of alcohol is good, getting drunk off your ass is weird and so is not drinking at all. Doing the beast with two backs now and then is good, abstaining from sex is weird. And so on. None of these are awful, but when it comes to the book’s gender politics or its dubious racial politics, the picture is a bit less savoury.

Overall, the problem is not of the book focusing on loyalties and marking insiders and outsiders. Writers like Daniel Woodrell are excellent at doing that in similarly set stories. But Woodrell creates closed worlds where the demands of the story dictate the way it moves. He replicates the closed world of the stories in the closed form of the novel. Phil LaMarche’s novel has no loyalties to its characters or its story. It is about white male experience and could conceivably be set in a different place among different characters, if the story beats are mostly maintained. It acts like a story about places, a novel invested in local cultures, but we soon see the lamb hiding beneath the wolfskin. At some point, I think, the book even quotes Cormac McCarthy and while the man’s recent output is less than inspired, the man’s work contains books so infused with a sense of place that we almost drown in it. Suttree this ain’t. The disappointment I felt on reading American Youth makes it hard for me to predict where LaMarche’s path as a writer will take him. One hopes that he learns to shake off the MFA guidelines and learns to trust the story, trust his characters.

*

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.)