#Gaddis2020 – a start

Since Twitter is about to embark on a big group read of William Gaddis’ two first novels, what with NYRB reprinting them, I wanted to share my favorite quote from The Recognitions, which, together with JR, ranks among my favorite novels – though I do think A Frolic of His Own is Gaddis’s most underrated book. Not as easy to read as Carpenter’s Gothic, not as Bernhardian as Agape, Agape, and not as spectacular as the first two. And yet, it is very good. That said, below, three quotes from The Recognitions, a masterpiece. If you feel intimidated by its heft and erudition – Gaddis worked as a researcher before he published this book – Steven Moore’s excellent and extensive “Reader’s Guide” is worth bookmarking. In fact, I recommend it. I’m sure there isn’t a greater expert on William Gaddis on earth. I’m not a huge fan of these “group reads” – but if that is what gets you into these two novels, then so be it. The Recognitions was an absolutely eye-opening reading experience, which was among the small handful of books that set me on the path of reading that I am on to this day, hurtling after books, trying not to drown.

 

“Something like writing is very private, isn’t it? How…how fragile situations are. […] Delicate, that’s why they keep breaking, they must break and you must get the pieces together and show it before it breaks again […]. That’s why most writing now, if you read it they go on one two three four and tell you what happened like newspaper accounts, no adjectives, no long sentences, no tricks they pretend, and they finally believe that they really believe that the way they saw it is the way it is, when really…why, what happened when they opened Mary Stuart’s coffin? They found she’s taken two strokes of the blade, one slashed the nape of her neck and the second one took the head. But did any of the eye-witness accounts mention two strokes? No. […] They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them. […] Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all it’s dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just…sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.”

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“Do you know what it was? That everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted on vanity in His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today, that’s why your [Flemish Master’s] paintings are so cluttered with detail, this terror of emptiness, this absolute terror of space. Because God isn’t watching. Maybe he doesn’t see. Oh, this pious cult of the Middle Ages!”

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“What did you want from [this poet] that you didn’t get from his work? […] This passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour…what is it? What is it they want from a man that they did´n’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist but the dregs of his work? […] What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.”

Embarking on Ammons

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Birthday Presents

Among my birthday presents, arriving through the mail as I am between homes and houses, was the enormous two volume edition of A.R. Ammons complete poems. The astonishment, first, that it exists. His name had slipped to the back rows, the less than notables, the – if not forgotten ones, then the ones, whose names start to slip our mind. Transcendentalism in American poetry, wasn’t there this guy, what was his name again…? And beyond this astonishment, a small surprise at the size of this, his hefty, large oeuvre, coming, of course, with a preface by Helen Vendler, who else, maybe this is mainly for her, maybe she lost track too, as books somehow started to accrue.

How do I read Ammons? We’ll see – I own some Ammons and have read all of that, but it is dwarfed by the reality of his output, the voluminous lack of restraint of a poetic masculinity that I am not sad to see leaving the stage. I will likely find the books I know and adore, and see what comes before and after, how much context and words and air surrounds the Ammons I know. I have gone straight to some of my favorite Ammons and already, I have changed while Ammons hasn’t, he hasn’t even left the protective awning of Helen Vendler’s critical support. In “Garbage,” Ammons derides an unnamed female poet, citing her words: “if I’m in / touch […] then I’ve got an edge: what / the hell kind of talk is that,” offering instead a calculated ethics of writing and rewriting, echoing the praxis of poets like Lowell, of whom his friend Kathleen Spivac remarked: “I’ve never […] seen a poet rewrite his poems so much.”

Looking at these volumes, over 900 pages each, at first I wondered whether this might not be the right poet for our searching, environmentally sensitive times, particularly poems like “Garbage” – but Ammons is difficult, he uses his voice not always to shine a light – often he uses it to hear himself proclaim. His Homeric gestures in “Tape for the New Year,” written to the background noise of drums and an imagined chorus, have echoes in the self-importance of some male Beat poets; they, too, are difficult to read today.

Reading my way through Ammons’s poetry is a daunting task, but the work’s voice, and the poet’s awareness of form and material, of the warp and woof of textures and melodies, is worth persevering, I think.

 

Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
ISBN 978-1-4472-9757-4

I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.

The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.

Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.

I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.

Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.

So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.

Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.

If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.

This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.

Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.

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Catherynne Valente: Space Opera

Valente, Caterynne, Space Opera, Saga Press
ISBN 978-1481497497

One of my favorite science fiction novels is The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. The situation is simple: in the future, with humanity having colonialized the solar system and about to step outside, someone notices we exist and might be a threat, and, just to be safe, nukes the whole of humanity before coming in and mopping up what’s left. It is a dark novel that provides an unsettling answer to the Fermi paradoxon, and its logic is grounded in our history of colonialism and imperialism. Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera takes a very similar premise, and spins it into one of the funniest novels this side of Scalzi’s Redshirts (it’s funnier than Scalzi). Humanity has reached the brink of leaving for space, and now the sentient creatures of the universe are auditioning us for space adulthood. How you may ask? After a devastating civil war in the galaxy, a singing competition was instated to test sentience. You have to take part. If you are an applicant species, you can’t come last – if you come last, your planet is wiped clean and re-seeded. So one day, the universe is knocking on earth’s door and asks for humanity’s champion. That champion is a washed up British glam rocker: brown, queer and old. What comes next is hilarious – and smart.

The obvious comparison is Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its satirical phantasmagoria of space, but the most apt comparison to me is the work of Terry Pratchett. Like Pratchett, Valente suffuses her extremely funny writing with some ultimately serious thinking about who we are as a society and who we ought to be. Pratchett’s work is less about dwarves, wizards and inedible streetfood than it is about community and how we as humans – and more precisely, the English –struggle with and understand community and humanity. One wonders what Pratchett, who died in 2015, would have made of Farage and Brexit and Trump. Well this is an option: Catherynne Valente takes one of the big projects of post-WWII Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest (née Grand Prix Eurovision) and blows it up to galactic scale. She keeps the current rules (including the stupid stupid current vote split between popular and jury vote), and adapts them to a larger scale, with aliens of all shapes and sizes, and includes the genocide-for-losers option (though it only applies to applicant nations. Established nations who come last are merely shamed for it. Valente is an unexpectedly funny writer, the book’s joke density is extremely high, with standalone jokes, allusions to pop music, to Eurovision history, to books, and more wrestling for space, but even so, we’re always led by a clear political sense of what’s good and proper.

Racism, for example, isn’t, and Valente gets in multiple hits at it. This connects Space Opera to another novel that I can hear humming in the background: Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love. Gwyneth Jones is one of the most underrated and most brilliant writers of SF today, and her Bold as Love cycle focuses on a mixed-race British rock guitarist, connecting rock music with British politics, and for all the fantasy hijinks in Jones’s books, there is a serious contemplation behind it all, which Valente shares. Both Valente and Jones take contemporary culture, signifiers of identity and skew them away from assumptions of whiteness and “Britishness.” Valente gets explicit – once her protagonist, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes gets picked, the British public is upset: a brown immigrant from a Muslim background? Couldn’t they have picked someone….whiter? There is a tendency in some science fiction to externalize debates on racism to aliens and make it about purple beings discriminating against green beings – not so here. Like some versions of Doctor Who, Valente never disengages from actual racism, though she does use galactic racism as a canvas as well. In Space Opera, things are terrible on Earth, and things are terrible in the Galaxy, and one doesn’t replace the other.

In fact, Valente’s novel is a perfect example of the possibilities of science fiction. Yes, it is a endlessly hilarious take on Eurovision, but it also exemplifies what Samuel Delany has written about science fiction expanding literary language and possibilities. It takes a genre considered bad (Delany says “When far-future sf fails, we usually call its degenerate form “space opera”) and elevates it. Valente uses the camp and exaggeration inherent in the form to speak to a larger issue about violence and war and, most of all, community. If you have read any of her other books, in particular what I consider her masterpiece, the 2009 Palimpsest, you won’t be surprised at the precision and craftsmanship throughout the book. Jack Vance, one of the SF legends, had written a tongue-in-cheek take on space opera in his 1965 Space Opera, but somehow Valente’s book exceeds this and many other novels like it. There is no flab, no fat on the bones of this novel. Even her very prose is complex and dense with allusion and humor. Her humor is not harsh, not cheaply ironic. It is full of puns, verbal energy – it’s like a three ring circus act. What’s more (and important to understand) is that Valente (like me) unironically loves the ESC. The book comes with quotes from some favorite songs and a long dedication to its founder in the afterword. Irony is cheap. This book is not. The book demands to be re-read in delight, excitement and admiration. Space Opera is very funny, very serious and very, very good.

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Zinzi Clemmons: What We Lose

Clemmons, Zinzi (2017), What We Lose, Penguin
ISBN 9780525505051

In German journalism, there’s been a shock recently: Claas Relotius, an award-winning journalist, admitted to having invented the majority of facts and descriptions in his long, meandering tales of Syrian orphans or Yemeni prisoners or Texan racists. Apart from all the implications regarding the SPIEGEL fact checking system, and the institutional racism that underwrites the whole affair, some have noted the recent confluence of journalism and fiction, primarily about how journalism has taken up the tools of fiction. Now, if you make a point about journalism, you’re wrong about it being a new phenomenon. But there’s a particular aspect in the way it bleeds into fiction, not the other way around. I’m not talking about nonfiction novels, per se, either. There appears to me an increasing amount of fiction written with the journeyman routine and simplicity of journalism. I’m probably wrong about when this started, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all the novelists that sprang up around journals like n+1 wouldn’t have been one of the first waves of this happening. Look, we live in a time of memoir. There are so many excellent memoirs being published recently, it’s hard to keep up. Depression, mormonism, motherhood, Lord knows everything is somehow covered, and because no two stories are exactly alike we are not tiring of it. Most encouragingly, the recent wave of memoirs or memoirist essays, is largely led by female writers, with Tara Westover (Educated) and Terese Mailhot (Heart Berries) being two especially stunning examples just from this year alone. It seems however, as if this has started seeping into fiction – the tone, the structure, and, regrettably, the style.

This is not to say that the memoirs I mentioned are badly written. They are not. But they are written with an eye for a specific kind of simplicity – and many of the fêted autobiographical essays that have been published on the internet and shared thousands of times, are often even more simple. It has become so recognizable a style that I can’t help but recognize it in the pages of Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel What We Lose. There is much to admire about the book, and there are many fascinating aspects to what Clemmons does here – with blind spots sometimes as intriguing as moments of insight. But all of this is told in a language that you could call “restrained,” as I have seen reviews call it. You could also call it bland. Almost everywhere, wherever you open the novel at random, it is written in the style of the well meaning personal essay, published by one of the many great online journals. There are two exceptions: sometimes, Clemmons employs short, declarative sentences and line breaks for poetic effect, which never, to my mind really works. And sometimes, greatly emotional moments in the book do benefit from the language, which, on a handful of pages, creates an exciting tension. But it’s never the tension of fiction. Many of the nonfiction novels that arose from New Journalism managed to tell a fact based story, a report of some sort, with the effervescence, the linguistic breadth, the power of fiction. The New Journalists were more than journalists, they were brilliant writers, and they married a brilliance of style to the craftsmanship of journalism and managed to get a bit closer to what we imagine truth is than mere journalism could. There’s no real comparison to the SPIEGEL affair – part of the reason Claas Relotius was never suspected was that his (in hindsight, obvious) inventions were cloaked in the drab and predictable language of SPIEGEL journalism. He just lied, he didn’t extend the vocabulary of journalism to reach for something more, something deeper.

And this is the strangest thing about Clemmons’s novel. There’s some autobiographical link, given that both the novel’s protagonist and Clemmons share some biographical facts – and as a long autobiographical essay you’d praise this book. It could be tighter you might say. It could interrogate some situations better, you might say. But this would absolutely be an interesting portrayal of a mixed-race woman with South African ancestry, who struggles finding her place in the world, struggles in relationships, and struggles with loss, both loss she lived through, and potential loss. Given that this is a novel, you’d imagine Clemmons somehow expands this brief, reaches for possibilities beyond what the autobiographical essay allows for. And she is playful with form. She includes pictures, graphs. Some quotes are not immediately marked as quotes, allowing for a text that sometimes swims between facts and invention – and I feel someone needs to write an account of the various ways WG Sebald’s outsize popularity among writers in anglophone countries has shaped a certain kind of fiction, but that’s not the place to do it. But none of this really pushes the book into a new place. Sebald, particularly in translation, reaches, and in the best moments achieves, a kind of sublimity that is uncommon, and that stems from the way he uses memory and objects, literary texts and observations, to situate himself in an inbetween world of text and reality. It doesn’t happen in What we lose. It’s curious: Clemmons cites various memoirs, from Obama’s to Mandela’s and Lorde’s, and makes a point about how they are tethered to a moment, how textuality limits the trace of autobiography, but then doesn’t really go anywhere except constantly pointing out small moments of indecision, where the life of her protagonist shifted but didn’t have to.

Her protagonist, who is very certain of her own intelligence, never engages with life – her own or that of others, and sleepwalks through her life, as she sleepwalks through that account of her own life. It is so striking that it made me wonder whether the blandness and obliviousness was intentional. If the bland style reflected the protagonist’s unhurried, superficial account of her life. I mean, it’s a lot. The protagonist’s family comes from a rich part of South Africa, and she’s terrified of the country. Clemmons juxtaposes her protagonist’s privileged musings with a study about real and imagined levels of crime in Durban, South Africa. She quotes at length from that study, which makes for compelling reading, and then – just moves on. The study functions as a reproach to the protagonist’s tense opinions, but the next time she returns to South Africa, this topic doesn’t come up again. Some of the book’s effects are effects of juxtaposition, where quotes and citations outshine the things we learn from the protagist’s own point of view. If the idea of the book is for us to critically read the memoir-style narrative for its failures and blindnesses, this still sticks the reader with a lot of blind, bland writing, even if the overall book is critical of that. The protagonist points out the gaps in the heroic narratives about Winnie Mandela, notes the violence in her biography. She then declines to further examine the topic. Or does she? Are we supposed to read the memoir-style passages with Winnie Mandela’s myth-making and her violent actions in mind? This allows for intriguing analyses of the novel – but not necessarily for a great reading experience, because, as I’m sure I’ve written before: writing things in a bland style to criticize blandness, still forces the reader to sit through the generic internet blog memoir style blandness for a whole novel.

That’s it though – as a metafictionally heightened comment on a bland woman’s encounter with grief and loss, there’s much to love about the book. The book shines most when you describe it, not when you quote it. The way the chronological structure of the book creates a genealogical continuity, all while focusing on loss and fear, is exciting. Meanwhole I can’t find any paragraph or sentence in the book I would love to quote to illustrate this. It’s odd – but as a novel, the writing has to be relevant here, and as interesting as the book is in many ways, it reads bland at best. This is the life of a woman who is terrible at self-reflection, and the book makes this clear constantly. It does not provide the literary tools to elevate the resulting text into great fiction.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Elizabeth Hand: Generation Loss

Hand, Elizabeth, Generation Loss, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0279-0

Hand, Elizabeth, Available Dark, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0278-2

Over the past year I have read quite a few crime novels in between doing work and other things, and I’ve increasingly felt that there are two specific things a good crime novel will do well: it will have mastered the generic structure of uncovering a crime (subverting the structure is its own kind of mastery), and it will be about something unrelated to the murder business. I find I am easily tired of the Elizabeth George type of contemporary crime novel – where characters and setting basically fill in the gaps in the mystery structure. I understand the appeal – and a well executed generic mechanism can be a thing of beauty, and is often underrated by “literary” critics. Novels that do both aspects well, however, are rare. One such writer I enjoyed greatly is CJ Sampson whose novels set in Henry VIII’s time work enormously well as crime novels, but who also use the historical context as more than attractive setting. Similarly, some of the most lauded crime novels of the past years take on the topic of racism in the American South, like Lori Roy’s Bent. Moreover, it appears to me, writing a novel that connects both spheres – or just writing an exceptionally tightly structured crime novel – can be like catching lightning in a bottle – often, previous and subsequent attempts fall far short of the mark.

All this is to say that Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss is an almost perfect example of what I enjoy in a crime novel, and the one sequel I have read of it, Available Dark reads like an underdeveloped print of what made the original book succeed – and indeed I am apprehensive of reading the third and most recent installment. Generation Loss is not Elizabeth Hand’s debut – far from it. Hand has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1980s, but for her 2007 novel Generation Loss she switched into realism, producing a noir crime novel that seems quite unique in setting and outlook, but underneath the hood of this remarkable book is a finely tuned generic crime mechanism. The introduction of characters, of the central mystery/crime, the small revelations that drive the plot and finally the big confrontation and resolution are both generic and extraordinarily well paced. But just as a lot of midsize cars built by the same company have the same motor but appear to be different brands, what makes Generation Loss so unique is Hand’s choice of setting and characters. Much of the plot may be mechanical, but Hand’s mastery is so deft that the plot’s movements seem to derive from an internal logic of settings and characters rather than from the execution of a genre-based mechanism.

The protagonist of Generation Loss is Cass Neary, who works in a bookstore and is generally quite miserable. She is a photographer – or rather, she used to be a photographer, who produced one well regarded book and then fell into obscurity. When the novel opens, she barely makes a living as a clerk in a bookshop. Like Elizabeth Hand, Cass Nearly is a craftsman – when she talks about photography, and when she takes her own picture, we quickly find that her relationship to her art is not one of vague ramblings about the nature of art and photography. Cass is interested in the mechanics of what makes a good photo – how to manipulate film, focus etc. I cannot tell whether her comments will seem insipid to a real photographer, and of course, many of the comments take the form of information dumps in convenient dialogue for readers like me, but it never seems overwhelming or bothersome. It is always tied to Cass’s personal approach to art – Cass’s first and only book featured dead and destitute people of the 1970s/1980s punk scene, and her ideas about photography, as well as the artists she admires, are all centered around this concern with (and sometimes paradoxical seeming distance from) reality. The book starts when Cass is offered a job to interview a legendary photographer who lives on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. She arrives, only to find that the photographer knew nothing of an interview, there are children disappearing in the area, and one morning, the photographer is found dead.

Cass’s interest in photographing the dead becomes a central element of the book’s resolution, but more importantly, Hand quite cleverly connects the genre of realist noir to the protagonist’s preoccupation with realism in photography. Many of the character’s musings on her art can be applied to the book’s own genre, with the conventions of realism being questioned quite intently. The conventions regarding what passes for real, and what does not translate not just to the mechanics of plot, but also to the minutiae of style. Hand’s style is self-consciously modern and hard-boiled. She uses pathos that’s quite typical of the genre, in order to shift into certain emotional states that she does not want or need to explore in details not typical of the genre and not expected of this kind of naturalist fiction. Not having read her other novels, I’m obviously speculating, but since this is her first noir contemporary novel, and it is written in a pitch perfect noir contemporary style, she must have created it for this book – and it never reads as parody. Additionally, though Hand is far from the first one to do it, she inserts a female protagonist into a male genre – thus drawing additional attention to questions of gender. This also gets repeated on the level of photography – or the art world in general. On the island(s) off the coast of Maine, she encounters not just the legendary photographer she was sent to interview – and who is a woman. She also meets male artists, and as if to drive the point home, there is a child that connects these two characters. Art, biology, and the anxiety of influence appear and reappear in various guises throughout.

That’s what sets this book apart – it’s not the female centered take on noir, it is not the excellent execution of crime genre writing. It is, instead, the fact that somehow, despite actually running on the rails of genre, it appears to be motivated and pushed and formed by art, and by the protagonist’s obsession with it. Cass Neary is a close cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher, an artist brilliant and talented enough to be able to recognize genius and to understand the gulf between her talents and that of the true standout artists of her genre. Cass is obsessed with art, and it is only fitting that the final confrontation is between her and another art obsessive. Everything fits and clicks.

That makes it a bit of a disappointment that her next novel, Available Dark, does not rise to the same heights. We appear to meet another art obsessive, we appear to be drawn into another maze of the arduous space between art and life, as Cass Neary is flown to Helsinki to help assess the value of a set of photographs. Instead, in this book, photography and the art and technique of it is incidental. Available Dark sidles up even closer to noir conventions, with Neary sometimes merely following the winds that blow her across the icy Scandinavian plains of a baroque plot. As the resolution presents itself I was more irritated than anything. A lot of stupid people doing stupid things and killing other people for even more generic, stupid reasons. I know that a lot of crime novels are centered around the stupid things that stupid people do (and the half-clever ways they try to cover it up), but that’s not what I find interesting. There’s a disturbing thing that happens at the end of Generation Loss that I am unwilling to spoil, but it is entirely in line with that book’s general theme, but it expands it, and opens up Cass Neary’s world into another direction – it’s tough to see it fall by the wayside within the first couple of pages of Available Dark, serving merely as motivation for Cass to take that Helsinki job. However, whatever misgivings I may have about Available Dark, they don’t tarnish Generation Loss, which is fantastic. Read it if you like that sort of thing. It’s good.

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Lydia Millet: My Happy Life

Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-6846-7

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.

What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.

I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.

I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.

And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.

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