#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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Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes

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

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paulette Jiles: News of the World

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

img_20161213_091117“Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” – If you think this is a great sentence, many of my criticisms of Paulette Jiles’ novel in my review will not apply to you as a reader. You’re bound to maybe like it. News of the World is a widely-praised work of fiction after all, turning up on end-of-the-year lists, shortlisted for the National Book Award and more. The sentence I quoted, stylistically, isn’t atypical of the novel’s style. Certainly, much of the writing in the novel is deliberate, albeit without the care and elegance you’ll find, for example, in Brian Evenson’s most recent book The Warren. Deliberate – in a way that reminds me of the writing in E. Annie Proulx’ novels, of which William T. Vollmann has offered a thorough, accurate and uncharitable assessment this year. It is certainly the kind of writing that lures some reviewers and readers into calling it poetic. It is not, finally, all bad. News of the World is tighter, more well written and sharper than much of the seemingly poetic guff that gets turned out by many of the MFA institutions around the US. There is a sense of Jiles understanding her material, working with cliché and tropes to do something that’s certainly unique enough to deserve recognition. This is not a bad novel, but it is also not a very good one. This is partly due to the material – it is enormously hard to do something interesting with the Western that hasn’t been done before, and been done better. This novel in particular raises themes variously treated by novels like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers, or Lonesome Dove, and by movies like The Searchers. Jiles’ novel is different – that much is true, but it is not necessarily an important or worthwhile difference. In many ways, Jiles, writing in a genre that has been constantly modernized and updated in the past decades, offers a quietly reactionary take on many of the themes of the Western. I find it really hard to come up with reasons why you should pick up this book – unless you want an inoffensive book present. It is indeed largely inoffensive (though reactionary and mildly racist), mostly reasonably written and hits enough of the right emotional beats (think Lifetime movie) to offer a pleasant overall reading experience. If you are looking for a present for a colleague, this is a reasonable option. If you are looking for a book for yourself – don’t bother. I promise you you’ve read much better and there are much better books out there dealing with these same topics.

News of the World is set during Reconstruction and its protagonist, retired Captain Kidd (yes, very humorous) is traveling through Texas, reading the newspaper to audiences for a small fee. He makes a small amount of money but he’s not motivated by money – he likes informing his audience by giving them a good mixture of news from the US (“Texas Readmitted to the US!”) and stranger news from abroad, say England or the Orient, almost fairy-tale like news items. His readings are performances, and he selects and paces his news items accordingly. There is an interesting tradition on the nexus between the Wild West and performance, from the ubiquitous saloons and dancing, to the multilevel meditations on performance and reality of contemporary TV shows like Westworld. I’d also count movies like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, I suppose. One of the connections these texts establish is the one between creating narrative and creating a national narrative, but they always also introduce a moment of unruliness, the carnivalesque, interrogating with one hand the same national narrative that they appear to establish with the other. It’s worth looking at these movies and books in terms of these negotiations and each text resolves these tensions differently. News of the World is a bit of an oddity in this respect – there is performance in the text on so many levels, but the novel is also absolutely unwilling to allow for any kind of shifting knowledge loyalties. Kidd as the curator of news is absolutely sure that what he does is, performance aside, a fair and balanced account of the world outside. The most telling aspect of this is one night when he arrives in a city where two gun-toting hotheads live who are absolutely sure that the newspapers just have to be full of accounts of their heroics. They expect the famous reader of newspapers to include lavish, ideally illustrated, recitations of their (frankly murderous) exploits. Kidd declines and doesn’t read at all. The choice between embellishing his usual readings or to give a straight reading that endangers his life leads him to decline giving a performance altogether. Surely it is no accident that in these times of slanted news and partisan embellishments of facts, Paulette Jiles chose to write a book revolving around a man of impeccable news-related ethics. In some ways, Jiles’ Captain Kidd is the Civil War era equivalent of a curated Facebook news feed. In News of the World, performance doesn’t undercut the serious national narrative – the national narrative and the straight-laced seriousness of truth and history kneecaps the possible literary effects of performativity, contributing to the dutiful dourness pervading the whole novel.

It’s not that the novel is without humor, there’s quite a bit of it, but it is the gentle, chuckling kind, primarily connected to the second protagonist of the novel, the ten year old Johanna Leonberger, a girl abducted by the Native American tribe of the Kiowa and recovered by the US army. Jiles did a bit of research into the matter and apparently, abductees quickly developed a loyalty to their tribe and unlearned the use of English, extending to basic matters of pronounciation. The tribe Jiles picked for Johanna is the Kiowa who are unable to pronounce an . So throughout the novel we see Johanna either elide the consonant or replace it with an . That has some slightly unfortunate consequences for the novel because Jiles insists on rendering all of Johanna’s dialog, even when its protagonists understand it perfectly. Thus, one of the more adorable aspects is Johanna saying “KEP-DUN” when referring to Captain Kidd. The plot of the novel involves Kidd being paid to take Johanna from north Texas all the way to the south to return her to her relatives. On the way, Jiles insists on parading her trek of oddballs past a lineup of Western cliché, including a very drawn out gunfight. There is the sultry widow, the gunslinger and his Native American henchmen, and different well known varieties of Civil War vets. I discussed the Caprtain’s occupation before the plot, because that occupation is the only thing in the novel that does not feel like a mosaic of themes and characters, mildly remixed, but essentially untouched. If you have seen some classic Hollywood Western movies, you have seem multiple versions of these same characters. Jiles does provide some odd quirks, but they are mostly to do with pacing. A suprisingly large portion of the novel is dedicated to one long gunfight while half the journey is summarized in about ten brisk pages. This imbalance is also mirrored in the novel’s descriptions: Jiles provides very long, detailed, almost jarring descriptions of defunct guns; while I suppose it is possible to read these as reflections of the Captain’s limited mind, we know he has other obsessions, and we know he does not provide nearly the same amount of detail on these. In these descriptions, as well as other places, we find the vicissitudes of a historical novel and the research needed for accuracy. Jiles lacks the light touch with reseach that would make for an overall harmonious narrative. I mean, I’m sure it impresses some readers, as so-called historical accuracy often does, but in the text I found it odd – and not in a good way.

searchersposter-billgoldResearch also mars the issue of Native Americans. It is not just Johanna’s unfortunately rendered speech, which bears the marks of decades of racially charged use of language. The contrast of Johanna’s speech with the overall modern and clear speech of people around her is problematic. The whole thing is reinforced by research: Jiles’ conviction that the stories about abductions are right, and her thorough reading of them leads her to focus her novel mostly on non-Natives. Johanna, a girl of German ethnicity who speaks better German than English, is the novel’s representation of Indian-ness, in speech and behavior. She yells out the Kiowa war cry, she has to be physically restrained from scalping an enemy and she’s flabbergasted that she wouldn’t be allowed to bathe in the nude in the middle of a small town. She is curageous because the Kiowa are courageous and so on. The tired character tropes I mentioned previously have here found an ideological equivalent. We have all heard these kinds of stories. As a German, I know some of these stories from white Germans who have never been to the US, most famously Karl May (whose late work was adored by Arno Schmitt), a thief, liar and literary prodigy who wrote fantastical stories about courageous Indians and the white people who encounter them in wonder. Yet while the character archetypes Jiles uses are common throughout the history of the Western genre, Jiles’ attitude towards Natives is not very common among more recent novels. And by recent I mean most significant cultural output since the 1970s. Johanna is the Good Indian, and is contrasted not by one, but by multiple groups of Bad Indians. Dangerous Kiowa, plus the henchmen in the aformentioned firefight who are not just mean and dangerous, but also cowards, running away after hearing Johanna’s intonation of the Kiowa war cry. It is truly the oddest thing. The movie that is the closest comparison, The Searchers, from 1956(!), is a masterpiece with a difficult moral narrative. Its protagonist, played by John Wayne in arguably his best role, is an unabashed racist, someone who thinks miscegenation is evil and Indians having no place in polite white society. The racial politics of the movie undercut this character, and offer various gradations of other characters, including Martin, who is partially Native American and the abducted girl in question. The Searchers is genuinely interested in interrogating the nation-building narratives around race, which, as I said earlier, are so important to some aspects of the genre. And much as Jiles’ newsreader offers a contrast with that aspect, the novel as a whole also rejects the trajectory of the genre. In Jiles’ novel, white people are white people and Native Americans are Indians. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the novel of all colors (including Johanna’s relatives), but that’s never what nationalist narratives rely on. What’s important is the role of the other and as the novel comes to an end, the Other is safely banished, Johanna is married to a farmer and somehow, in their marriage and family, we can see a glowing image of Texas rising off the page.

Paulette Jiles is a Canadian poet, living on a farm in Texas, as far as I can tell and that means very little for the book. Her being a poet is not a boon to the language (unless you adore that first sentence), but then, Dorothea Lasky is a prizewinning poet and Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel prize, so, you know… And as for the Canadianness – somehow, comparing Jiles to some other excellent Canadian novelists who have written about the West, from Ondaatje to Kroetsch, one gets the feeling that living in Texas is more impactful for Jiles’ writing than anything else. There is nothing really redeeming about News of the World, outside of a general pleasantness of writing and tone, and, honestly, how an esteemed publication like LitHub decided to put it on a list of best novels of the year (and was slightly miffed the NYT didn’t do the same) eludes me completely. Maybe it’s me. But it’s not.

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Marjorie Liu et al.: Monstress

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

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

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

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

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

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A temple of the Ancients from “Monstress”

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

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

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full page from “From Under Mountains”

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

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Silent full page vision from “From Under Mountains”

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for

lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-375-70002-6

gangster 1Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.

The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).

Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.

gangster 2“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.

But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.

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Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night

Haruf, Kent (2015), Our Souls at Night, Knopf
ISBN 978-1-101-87589-6

418qIjdmtWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have not read any reviews of Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls At Night but I suspect that whatever books I can pull as reference and context for it might not be appropriate. I do know that the book has drawn quite a bit of praise and that fact alone is a bit puzzling to me. Well. I will accept: it is competently done. The quiet and orderly style has been perfected to the point of it becoming an object in and of itself in the novel. I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into writing, balancing and structuring the novel, but as I read it, I was not able to shake the feeling that what I was seeing was a too-large short story, a book that might, in the hands of Carver, Gallant or Salter turned into a sharp tale of an unusual relationship, of age and love. Too suburban and content for Richard Ford, the material could have suited Cheever’s suburban pen, too. In fact, I spent some time today browsing his collected stories, because something in the back of my head nagged me to do it, but no success. It lacks the pull, the tension between dialogue and description that a well-executed short story can provide, but it doesn’t fill up the additional space well. The style and the repetitive, overindulgent nature of the way the story is told is a bit like one of those apartments that were en vogue in the early 2000s. Big spacious lofts with nothing to fill them. Really, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like Our Souls At Night – a book that is clearly literary, clearly well-written and carefully built. And yet it is very emphatically not a good book. A big structure – not an empty room because the story is genuinely lovely, but a room too big and angular and impersonal for the small burst of life that’s inside. There is really no reason to read or recommend this book. No matter what your preferences are in fiction, or what element of this book could conceivably appeal to you, there are numerous superior options. Anyone attracted by summaries of this book is much better served with short stories by any of the authors I named in this paragraph, as are people looking for a story of aging love. Other writers who cover similar territory in much superior fashion include John Updike, Philip Roth, late-period Grace Paley. It’s really hard not to find a writer of genteel suburbia who hasn’t written a book or story that blows Our Souls At Night out of the water. And it’s the most frustrating thing because Kent Haruf is clearly a good, extremely competent writer with total stylistic control, and his take on loneliness and the darkness of life is often powerful. So let me return to the beginning of this paragraph and add this to my critique: this just may not be for me.

The major draw of the book is not the story, it’s the writing. This may be surprising given that Haruf is a writer known for his “simple” style and not a Hemingwayesque simplicity at that. And yet, this style is quite something. There are no shadings to tone, no ambiguous phrases, vibrating with the unsaid. Everything appears to have been said just as intended. The writing is plain, but not flat. It’s not musical, but it’s also not dull. It’s a deeply functional simplicity that creates a space for the story to unfold. I gather some of Haruf’s other books are novels of space, of Midwestern landscapes and I am mildly curious about the way a writer like this would tackle it, because in Our Souls At Night, we are not offered a fullness of description as far as the environments and backgrounds are concerned. The language is all the space and room we get. There is a scene somewhere in the middle, when a dog is acquired, and a boy is asked to show it around the house. “I’ve never been in the other rooms myself,” the boy says and we might expect some kind of description of the house to happen, but it never comes. It is enough that we know it is a house. The rest is language and in it, much of the prose is dialogue, but it lacks the musicality and sharpness of real dialogue (Gaddis’ JR is my touchstone for creating a book built out of that) or the madness of dialogue in books like Nicola Barker’s underappreciated The Yips. At the same time, it also does not have the weight and accuracy of Beckett or Bernhard. In a way, the dialogue adds a second layer of description, joining the quality of the novel’s style. All of this adds up to an extraordinary stiffness. Scenes don’t move. As in a theatre, it takes the falling curtain of a chapter ending for the action to change place or direction. Some heartbreaking decisions are made, but they are made in between chapters and the chapter following the decision then plays out a scene where we try and come to terms with the situation. The sentences, fittingly, are short and declarative. Only when there is a small amount of movement, when someone enters a scene, or when a scene, rarely, requires a trip somewhere, the syntax unfurls. It’s quite impressive how disciplined Haruf deploys his writing, from the short, declarative base sentence to the longer, moving sentence of action. The book’s predilection for short sentences also has an odd effect on its dialogue. As I said, it’s not a dialogue possessed of a snappy rhythm. In fact, much of it feels like testimony, of one person testifying and the other acting as interlocutor. This effect is strongest in the chapters where the characters discuss their past, but they recur throughout. The result is a strong affirmation of the overall impression of stasis.

The story is the one of a short and unusual relationship between two widowed older citizens, living in a small town. They come together to fight loneliness. It is not about sex, although in later stages, that element enters their relationship. It is about the darkness of night that is so difficult to overcome for one person alone. In fact, in a more stressful period of their relationship, Haruf describes their insistence on the now-established patterns of their nights together like this: “They still held each other in the night when he did come over but it was more out of habit and desolation and anticipated loneliness and disheartenment[.]” Their relationship is an attempt to slowly, sneakily, do something new, something that makes them the talk of the town and something that doesn’t sit well with their adult children. Indeed, the whole writing and structure of the novel resists the mere idea of doing something new. Stasis and continuity is written into the very bones of the book. You can find it in all kinds of details. For example, in the memories. Twice, the man tells the woman a story from his life. First, he tells her of an old affair he had, and then he tells her of his love for poetry. Both times, the woman quietly listens to what he has to say and then suggests that maybe both passions may be ongoing. Not the affair or the writing and reading of poetry, but the love that powered both. “I think you still love her,” she says. Their children, similarly, are ties connecting them to their old past, as they are representative of their past relationships. Small town gossip serves a similar function. Both are known around town, known for their past, known for who they are. Striking up this new rleationship/friendship violates these old ideas and is, thus, shocking, without having to actually provide sensational content. Everything, really, is set up to promote stasis, and the only thing that pushes both of them to try and make it work despite everything is the terror of a night spent awake, alone, with no-one to talk to, no-one to hold, no-one to grab when the nights are rough. Haruf reinforces this contrast, between the stasis and the night as a force that pushes the new, by introducing the woman’s grandson, who, by dint of belonging to her ‘old’ family, first seems to drive the two apart, but it is his literal terror of the night, his night terrors, that send him crying to this unusual couple who, together, find a way to relieve the boy’s nighttime affliction.

Ultimately, the big empty rooms of the story reflect the echoing feelings of loneliness, of emotional need (or neediness). Really, any stylistic aspect of the novel appears to serve a function within the symbolic or emotional structure of the narrative. It is quite the impressive achievement, but a dull sentence is still a dull sentence when it serves to illustrate dullness. There is so much redundancy in the novel which, like a middle aged man, has gotten a bit flabby around the middle. The beginning is sharp and raises all the themes of the novel with precision and urgency. The ending, meanwhile, is much more dense with emotion. The way the book ends is with a few effective and emotionally striking brushstrokes that any reader would recognize from a certain kind of American short story. Even after rereading the book, I still fail to understand why this story had to be of novel-length. Nothing in it justifies its size. And all the dullness of certain parts is only striking because of the amount of time we as readers spend cooped up with that style. If you want a reason to read this book, read it for the devastation of loneliness and the way a deep need for companionship arises from that. There are many fancy ways to phrase love or affection, but what Haruf offers, in way too many (or too few) pages, is the simple, unadorned horror of being alone at night. It hasn’t often been expressed quite so directly, and with so much stylistic craftsmanship leveraged specifically for that effect and that effect only. And yet, maybe it is just this discipline and care in the way the writing works that makes for such a dull read. It’s a sense of functionality, of stylistic practicality. Haruf wrote this book as he was dying, from the precipice of that final night. A last look back at companionship, at the things between people that endure and the pressures we face. At some point, the man in the story says “[s]o life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected, he said.” and it is not a tragic moment. Things we can’t change we accept. The only things weighing us down are guilt, love and loneliness. These three endure.

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Fran Ross: Oreo

Ross, Fran (2015 [1974]), Oreo, New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-2322-5

oreo coverLet me apologize in advance if this review is a bit odd, I have not had sleep in quite a while. On the other hand, this likely leads to a shorter review. That said, I hope I’ll still manage to convey to you that Oreo, Fran Ross’ first and only novel, is an absolute masterpiece. A book that should rank among the classics of 20th century American fiction and it’s regrettable that it does not. Originally published in 1974, it appears to have sunk like a stone in the waters of literary attention. In 2000 it was republished by Northeastern University Press (by the way: the series “Northeastern Library of Black Literature,” published by Northeastern University Press, cannot be praised highly enough for bringing excellent and unusual books back into print that have not fared well upon the sea of canonicity. I want to point particularly to their reprints of George Schuyler’s strange and important oeuvre), and then again in 2015 by New Directions, which is the edition that I finally encountered the book. Oreo is a book that feeds off several traditions, and cannot be easily labeled, which may have contributed to its lack of canonical durability. Written at the height of afrocentric literature (and a contemporary of Alex Haley’s Roots), the book rejects the expectations that come with a first novel by a black author. Her book borrows from a Jewish tradition as well as a black one, and it comments on misogyny as well as racism. It is kin to the behemoths of ludic postmodernism such as John Barth, of mythical modernism such as Joyce and Eliot and it is related to older books about the African American experience as well, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig comes to mind. But more than books preceding Oreo – it’s a newer generation of writers that best shows the power and fascination of Fran Ross’ only book. Black writers like Zadie Smith (Autograph Man) and Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle) (as well as slightly earlier examples like Trey Ellis (Platitudes)) offer us novels about the black experience that break with stereotypes and expectations. If Ross’s novel was published today, it would be seen as primus inter pares, as the first among many equals. Back in 1974, however, the novel’s innovative writing and its rejection of simple identity politics impeded its immediate cultural impact.

oreo renaultThe story of the book is quickly summarized: it is a story that’s both old fashioned family history and quest narrative. Following the myth of Theseus (the reference is made plain both by chapter titles and by the author’s afterword), it offers us Oreo, a girl of mixed heritage: her father, an aspiring actor from a Jewish family, left her mother, Helen, who was a similarly culturally talented woman from a black family. Both Helen as well as Oreo’s father left Oreo, so that the young woman grew up with her black grandmother, Louise, who had never found a dish that she didn’t like. Eventually, Helen informs her daughter, that her father had left her a series of clues that would lead her to discover the secret of her birth. She then embarks on that adventure (which, really, is just a trip to New York), encountering many odd characters. All of this fits, in one way or another, the template from Greek myth, up until the catastrophe, which, at this point, we expect. The early 70s is an interesting time to engage not just greek myths but this one particularly. Fran Ross is not the only writer to tackle the topic. Most well known, at that time, I suppose, is Mary Renault’s two volume take on the Theseus myth, the first of which, The King Must Die, is a steaming, passionate retelling of history. Despite Renault’s stated claim of trying to write a more realistic story, it’s full of magic and odd superstitions, including oracles and witches. The Theseus story and various stories surrounding it, has long been a tale of the advent of a new age, a story of rising masculinity (a crucial part of the story takes place in matriarchal Crete) and a fresh Athenian democracy. Theseus’ is a founding myth and if you want to unsettle expectations regarding narrative and history, it’s a fantastic place to start. A good example of how this era of history/myth is used in literature are André Gide and Christa Wolf. Gide, in the 1946 novel Thésée, emphasizes the masculinity, the epochal power of the story, more than Renault, even. Christa Wolf, writing in 1996, only peripherally touches the story of Theseus. Her focus is Medea (the novel is simply called Medea, published in English by Nan A Talese) and her encounter with Jason (Medea is also part of the Theseus story). Wolf takes on a story with a female villain and reverses it, showing, in her use of sources and narrative, to be a patriarchal treatment of a strong female mythical character. Fran Ross, more than two decades earlier, does something similar, but her literary approach couldn’t be more different.

beatty white boy

An underrated, excellent novel on black male identity in our time.

So now I spent a paragraph vaguely contextualizing the book and another one on its story and connection to myth and I haven’t even mentioned the book’s best quality: its incredibly multifaceted and complex writing. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that Fran Ross’ novel is primarily about language – about the joy of using it, using it to shape stories and silly games. Oreo is a profoundly funny, endlessly quotable book. It contains charts and tables, a large amount of puns, and references that are equal parts clever and silly. Much of it offers us a plea to read the world the way we want to and not the way cultural signposts and expectations want us to read it. The novel comes as close to explaining this point as you can in a novel without becoming just too obnoxious for your own good. It starts with a fictive Wittgenstein quote as an epigraph (“Burp!” is the quote, used because, as the author remarks, “Anything this profound philosopher ever said bears repeating”). There is a list with clues that will lead the protagonist to a secret she is seeking and early on, she decides to read the clues based on her understanding of reality as she engages with it and not the other way around. In other words, contra genre expectations, Oreo, the protagonist of Oreo, does not interpret the note or map and then collect similarities or clues in the real world around her. Instead, she interprets and engages reality and then decided on which clue to connect to it. The linguistic playfulness moves from small observations to linguistic games that pervade the book. Sometimes she plays with the expected gender of words and names, sometimes with the ambiguity of geographical names, sometimes with the tension between story and cultural narratives interwoven with said story. The whole book is also enormously interested in speech and dialect. Early on, we are told that Oreo’s mother Louise speaks in a thick Philadelphia accent, really, so thick and unusual that people generally have trouble understanding her. The author mostly renders it understandable and, early on, even gives us a metafictional aside:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Additionally, there is a completely invented dialect, spoken by Oreo’s little brother, as well as the lilt of various Jewish inflections of American English (without falling into the traps of the goy-authored “jewish novel”, as exposed by Cynthia Ozick’s famous takedown of John Updike’s faux-Jewish Bech: A Book), not to count all the other iterations of nonstandard language. The effect is not only magnetic for the reader, who is immediately drawn into the music and rhythm of the book, it also offers an alternate position between the ribald postmodernism of John Barth, where nonstandard speech is usually on display as odd and humorous, but unconnected to the commitments of the work (such as they are with Barth), and the more straightlaced identiy politics of the afrocentric novel, where nonstandard speech expressed identity and difference. A commitment to a different experience and historiography as we have, so far, seen it in novels. Toni Morrison’s scintillating work is an example of that écriture.

medeaI find it important to stress just how innovative and exciting Fran Ross’s enterprise is in Oreo. In what could be read as a thoughtful encounter with Johan Huizinga’s theory of games an playfulness, Ross is engaged in cultural and political criticism without falling into sincerity and seriousness. She clearly assumes that this topic is best tackled with playful engagement and subversion. Replacements and indirect speech mark much of this book’s language and imagery. In fact, the author foregrounds her method: young Oreo has a teacher of English who is obsessed with etymology and will at times only speak indirectly to his student who keeps hunting for words in dictionaries, but

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.”

A few things come to mind. One that, in keeping with the professor’s method, it’s hard not to see the whole episode as an aside referencing the cultural obsession with “roots” among her fellow black writers (which would, two years later, lead to Haley’s blockbuster success Roots). And two, it offers a template for reading the book as using two levels of language (or multiple levels of anything, really; after all, the Theseus intertext also fits in here). Finally, it stresses the role of the reader in assembling and figuring out all the texts sometimes very disparate elements. In this, there are simililary to the Eliotic “mythical method,” but Ross actively undermines the myth, just as she criticises the present. For a black female novelist, the past, mythical or not, does not offer solace or order. The past is mediated by the same cultural tools of oppression as the present, and Ross resists both. This is a book that declines to be part of any group, no matter how tempting or easy it is to attack oneself to a movement. It’s a novel by a writer with a critical eye that asks its reader to look at words and narratives, to look at them and examine their roots. This exceeds simple swaps, even though Ross replaces the virile Theseus with the female Oreo. The book contains violence, deception, an attempted (though hilariously thwarted) rape, but it coats all of it in extraordinarily humorous language.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

For Huizinga, myth-making is, if I remember correctly, a form of play, and play has the power to change, to move things. In the case of Oreo, the challenge is to question everything. Diderot once wrote that “[i]l existoit un homme naturel: on a introduit au dedans de cet homme un homme artificiel, et il s’est elevé dans la caverge une guerre civile qui dure toute la vie.” In a way, and if we stretch the image a bit, a similar war can be said to take place in mid-20th century postmodernism. There are people who are happy to deal with the artificial human inside, some of them using the “mythical method,” which, according to Eliot, is “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.“ They question authority and narrative, but they don’t have anything to put in its place in terms of commitments. On the other side are those writers, like Morrison, who offer a more earnest version of postmodern critical writing. They replace one historical certainty with another, and frequently succeed at establishing tremendous counternarratives. Oreo (and Oreo) declines both possibilities. It is a playful, funny novel that is at the same time deeply cognizant of narrative and oppression. It’s just that Fran Ross appears to believe that playful interrogation is the best way to deal with it. But as the careers of many writers have shown (say, Delmore Schwartz): resisting the siren call of literary movements by being just o so slightly ahead of your time can lead to a quick exit from the memory of literary history. The aforementioned George Schuyler is another frustrating example of this. Look, look, I don’t know whether I made sense 100%, but if you need a tl,dr, it is this: Oreo is an excellent masterpiece. It should have become a classic and we are all fortunate that New Directions decided to bring it back into wide circulation. Now is the time to make up for earlier neglect. Go forth and read Oreo. It is very good.

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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.)

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan

Russell, Ray (2015 [1962]), The Case Against Satan, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-31727-9

satan 3In a study of French Romantic poetry, John Porter Houston declared in 1969 that “[Baudelaire’s] diabolical Catholicism is […] a mode of sensibility which neither shocks nor has morbid appeal.” It is odd, then, that the same time period saw a big resurgence of fiction and movies on demons and possession, starting with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the move version (1968), and continuing with William Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and its 1973 movie adaptation. Other texts include the 1976 classic The Omen and many more. So what is it that Houston felt was so out of place in Baudelaire’s poetry? The answer has to be that Baudelaire’s sense of evil wasn’t as much religious as it was personal. A sense of guilt, anxiety and fear that made Baudelaire into the “essential modern man,” as Verlaine put it. His demons are far from the ghoulish devil that haunts Blatty’s 12 year old girl. As Edward Kaplan said, the “mal” in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal may not mean “evil” as much as it means afflicted, suffering, fallible and people are not evil but “depraved only in potential and thus responsible for their actions.” In The Case Against Satan, Ray Russell’s 1962 classic novel of demonic possession, we are closer to a Baudelairean sensibility than to the Catholic fetish of all the books and movies that followed in its wake, which were offering demons at best as an allegory for human failures and at worst, as in the work of Catholic conservative Blatty, as an ugly form of literal horror. Ray Russell’s book is, despite having a very weak ending, an exceptional effort, a true masterpiece and the best book I have read this year thus far. There are a couple of weaknesses, as far as some aspects of the writing are concerned, and the final chapter is a full disappointment, but along the way, Russell creates an elegant, smart, ambiguous book about the devil and about the evils that we harbor in ourselves as people and among ourselves as a society.

I admit: when I started coveting the book, I knew nothing about it apart from its title and the beautiful cover design by Penguin Classics. The ghoulish fetish of devils and demons that was launched by Levin and Blatty is one of my favorite genres. A ‘guilty pleasure’ as they say. I was completely surprised by the nuanced and careful book that it turned out to be. This is no fresh or agnostic take on the subject, mind you. The very first sentence, not without some levity and irony, remarks that religion has become “a pious bonbon, so nice, so sweet, so soporific” that it has forgotten about the elements of “dread, blood, awe […] and the element of terror.” There is a fairly serious (and riveting to read) theological argument in the middle of the book (where Baudelaire is invoked), and an almost soppy, mildly dubious final chapter that reduces some of the interesting complexities of the novel in favor of “a pious bonbon” of sorts, which feels more like a cheap narrative solution rather than a statement of faith. Apart from that first sentence, however, the novel isn’t much interested in decrying modern man and his objections to God. Rather, it insists on looking at the spaces where the two intersect, modern man, and the abyss of faith and despair. At its center is not empty demon puppetry, it is the tragedy of a human being and the search for truth. In fact, in many ways, Russell’s sharp way with dialogue and description would not be amiss in a crime novel, nor would you have to change much about the structure. The Case Against Satan does not read like a Catholic novel per se (although I know nothing about the author), merely the novel of a writer not hostile to religion, who uses the traditions, emotions and literary effects that come with this setting. The theological discussion in the middle, centering around the idea of evil and whether one should profess belief in evil as well as good is as much about theology as it is about the faith we have in people around us.

satan 2This is not different from a crime novel: having to gouge whether or not we would believe someone’s account of someone else’s guilt. Can a person really be this depraved or should we think the best of everyone? In the theological discussion, a Bishop lectures a priest on his worldly library, citing Baudelaire’s claim in a prose poem [Le Joueur Généreux] that the devil’s finest trick is to persuade us that he doesn’t exist. What’s interesting about that particular citation is that it turns up here and there in Baudelaire’s prose. As with many other ideas, he kept prodding at them throughout his notes and essays. One instance of it surfacing is in the various notes of Mon cœur mis à nu, some of which attack novelist George Sand for not believing in hell, for offering a “God of the Good People,” a God for those who live well and behave well, where there’s no room for the “triste monde engourdi” of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Now here’s where it gets (more?) interesting: Baudelaire describes Sand as being “possessed,” as having been convinced by the devil to offer this vision of a clean and lovely religion where nothing bad happens as long as you do well and behave well. Yet this is exactly what happens in The Case Against Satan. And the reason for bad thing happening to good people is not Satan’s sulphuric influence, it’s human depravity. In a way, all Satan does, both in Baudelaire as well as in the novel, is hide the truth from people of clear conscience and higher standing. If it doesn’t affect us, we don’t have to think about it that hard. All of this, minus Satan and God, would also have happened in a Gothic crime novel, where it would be the insistence of a conscientious detective to really take a long hard look at the facts and at the people involved that breaks a case wide open. And much as in a Gothic mystery, it’s bigotry, and religious, sexual and traditional expectations that bar clear sight. This makes the book to be not just a sibling to mystery novels, but to classic episcopal texts like André Gide’s dramatic La Symphonie Pastorale, which is also a text about blindness, devotion and power.

This case begins with a young priest, Father Gregory Sargent, who takes over a parish. He is visited by a friend, Bishop Crimmings, just as the troubling and mysterious events break loose. These events all center around Susan Garth, a local teenager, who declines to go to Church, and has mysterious seizures, or rather “fits.” Early on, we are made aware of how this vocabulary and this attitude, these basic explanations, how they tie into a social attitude towards women.

Gregory smiled inwardly. It was such a quaint, old-fashioned word, “fits.” In young women, they were often rooted in sexual hysteria.

But unlike the word “hysteria” may lead you to believe, what follows is not a condemnation of women or sex, but rather a celebration of the “wonderful, wild, untamed force” that is sexuality. In fact, Father Gregory sees this permissive attitude towards sexuality as profoundly Catholic – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the hundreds of accounts of ecstatic faith and visions. Indeed it is Gregory himself who makes that connection in a magazine article that he writes on the topic, which contains the assertion that “[a]t the supreme moment, at the highest peak, sexual artistic and religious ecstasy are surprisingly similar.” Gregory is a “heterodox,” young, troubled priest who has a bit of a problem with alcoholism and free thinking. His faith in God is unshakeable, but it is a faith, like that of George Sand, in “le Dieu des bonnes gens,” as the syphilitic French poet put it. The novel (or Satan) does not end up punishing him for his free thinking or his worldliness and his broad reading. All he does is regain a sense of evil. At no point does the book really go into the pageantry of Catholicism. The style is never ornate, the thoughts and descriptions are never ponderous or solemn. This is maybe the biggest surprise: how frequently crisp and sharp the prose is, despite some trappings of genre writing. Russell is incredibly good at using two lines of dialogue to elevate a situation beyond the necessities of plot. When the teenage girl’s father turns to her in anger and says “Now you listen to the Father here. He’ll tell you I’m right.” Russell has the daughter look the priest in the eyes and ask “Is he right, Father?” This simple turn immediately establishes the character of the girl, and introduces the topic: figuring out who’s right, what happened and who to trust.

satan 1Not on the shortlist of people to trust? Men. Her father beats the girl (“a little slap across the mouth, that’s all”) for infractions, he has the village bigot’s hate for “filth.” his village friend, an anti-Catholic pamphleteer is less interested in the girl’s fate as in his lurid tales of Catholic depravity, where he ties rumors of Catholic pedophilia to medieval torture and the idea of a Black Mass. In fact, this anti-Catholic activist has a surprisingly similar view of Catholicism as The Exorcist’s author Blatty, who is enough of a conservative catholic to have recently petitioned the Pope to force Georgetown University to comply with a set of Catholic rules instated by John Paul II. Ray Russell’s priest and Bishop are not rulebound or insistent on such rules or on a proper catholic appearance. In fact, it is the congregation that raises a bit of a stink in the book when, preoccupied by an exorcism, Father Gregory fails to uphold local customs even for one Sunday. The pressure to conform to rules and regulations is viewed as a burden, unconnected to real faith. In a moment of crisis, overcome by various forces and pressures, Father Gregory breaks down and exclaims “Is it such a sin to have a mind?” And it’s not, the Bishop (and the book) assure him and us. The true darkness in the book is not Satanic, it’s human, and Russell makes excellent use of ambiguities and his sparse but precise descriptions to uphold that ambiguity. While the final chapter is a bit reminiscent of Beyond Belief-style gestures towards the reader, it barely diminishes the skill and achievement of this book. This book is a joy to read and reread, a pleasure far from “guilty.” A tough, smart little book, and a compelling read.

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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.)

David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl

Ebershoff, David (2000), The Danish Girl, Penguin
ISBN 9-780143-108399

danish 1

I didn’t have time to take a picture of my copy but it has the same ugly movie-style cover. :/

Usually, the advantage of a novel dealing with a real life character vis-à-vis a nonfiction work, say a biography or a historical study, is the ability to gain vividness, color, excitement. To get a unique, in-depth take on someone’s psychology or the cultural context. Dealing with facts alone – and the unreliability of sources and witnesses – tends to make nonfiction a bit more spry and their narrative a bit more formulaic, given the reliance on historiographical method. That’s why books like William Vollmann’s exploration of Shostakovich’s life are so powerful, or Pynchon’s masterpiece, the sprawling Mason & Dixon. I cannot, however, imagine any nonfiction treatment of Lili Elbe, the pioneering transsexual figure, and her wife, the painter Gerda Wegener (“Greta” in the novel), be more formulaic and overall dull than David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl, which has recently been turned into a movie. I have never regretted my habit of reading a book before watching a movie based on that book as much as during the time I spent reading this book. I’ll say this: it’s not all bad. Ebershoff is a clever, talented author, and he uses the devices of fiction to interesting effect sometimes. Sometimes, his treatment of Lili’s point of view leads to stunning results, frequently, it does not. Ebershoff’s apparent fascination with the way art intersects with gender presentation is interesting, and his clear decision to forgo garish scenes of confrontation and scandal, which must have happened at various points in the real Lili Elbe’s life, is commendable. His treatment of Lili (both before transition, when she was known as “Einar Wegener”, and after) is tender and careful, which becomes nowhere as clear as in the final scenes of the book where he renders her final moments with delicacy and beauty. Ebershoff departs from the historical facts in many places (and he admits as much in his author’s note), but his main alteration leads to the book’s most emotionally powerful creation: the enduring love not just between Lili and her wife, but also between the larger family of brothers, former lovers and friends. There is a pastel tenderness to the whole book, which is something that is hard to keep up over more than a short story. Regrettably, Ebershoff lacks the tools to imbue this emotional vagueness with a literary precision and a keen sense of history. Too often, the author settles for the easy emotional punchlines, preferring to tell a nice story rather than a good one. Horrible similes and awkward descriptions crowd the book’s syntax, which is repetitive and imprecise to begin with. Although I have yet to see Tobe Hooper’s movie version of the book, it’s easy to see how the material as presented in The Danish Girl would make for a lovely and emotionally engaging movie. The novel’s prose is its biggest weakness and that kind of book tends to do well on the silver screen.

danish-girl-posters-redmayne-vikander-triplet

To be clear, Ebershoff does some very interesting things that wouldn’t be captured by a study of biography. One is his constant insistence on the difficulties of exact representation through art. Both Lili, when she presented as Einar, as well as her wife Greta are painters, although their styles (and their relationship to the outside world) couldn’t be more different. Einar is a painter of “quaint” pictures of a bog somewhere in the Danish province, whereas Greta paints portraits of people who sit for her. The bog is the one in Einar’s home village and he paints it from memory. The memory of his youth as a boy is so strong that the mere thought is enough to paint pictures of it. As Einar transitions to Lili, his memory, and his ability (or wish) to paint the bog fades away, a pretty way of Ebershoff connecting the increasing freedom Lili feels as she unmoors from tradition and expectations. Similarly, Greta’s portraits are also representative of her role in the novel. She is the first to paint good/moving pictures of Lili, and in the novel, for a long time, she is our only outside view of Einar’s transformation. As she loses a sense of who Lili is and her connection to him fades from the book, so do her pictures. Regrettably, as Ebershoff also removes the clarity of her outside view from the last third of the novel, he does not replace it with anything, not even with a clearer voice for Lili. If we look at the novel as a construction of representations and mirrors, this is the gravest instance of the author maybe trapping himself in his own clever construction. The vagueness and hurried nature of the final chapters fits into the construction of the novel, it does not make for good reading, however. Other instances of mirrors and changed representations are the way opera is used, through songs, physical buildings and actresses, as well as the fact that Ebershoff gave Greta a twin brother. Whether or not that twin brother is supported by historical records, in the novel he serves as an example of the insufficiency of doubles. At some point, towards the end of the novel, Greta remarks that she does not recognize herself in her brother, and her brothers physical disabilities correspond to his role in the novel as he becomes the most vocal advocate for dangerous surgical measures. There are other examples involving former lovers, but suffice to say that Ebershoff uses the characters in his drama carefully, as well as the tropes of art and representation. The results of this can be dubious, however.

The_Danish_Girl_novelOne odd result is the way that Ebershoff uses the gaze. Greta, as he writes her, is imbued with a sometimes close to predatory gaze, an adjective I use because in some scenes, her erotically charged gaze appears to frighten or intimidate Lili, especially at the time when she presented exclusively as Einar. As a portrait artist, of course, the novel assigns the gaze as an uncomplicated, successful act, to her, but it does some odd things in order to achieve this. One is the fact that Ebershoff turns Greta from a Danish woman, which she was historically, to an American woman with an outsider’s fascination for Denmark. And not just any American woman: a rich heiress from California. Instead of offering us a psychologically plausible portrait of a Danish artist who falls in love with a wisp of a man who ends up transitioning to a woman, Ebershoff appears to have constructed his Greta from literary readymades. Henry James’ Isabel Archer probably looming largest, Greta, as we meet her in the novel, owes less to the historical character and more to the trope of the wild American woman who goes to Europe and gets into some kind of trouble there. It’s as if all the work and empathy that went into Lili meant that Ebershoff had to cut corners when it came to writing Greta. What’s more, the fact that Greta’s gaze is so strong, and so supported by wealth and social status, is balanced by a lack of confidence when it comes to Lili’s gaze. Not only is she the object of Greta’s sometimes irritatingly sexual regard (irritating because it plays on a long exploitative tradition), but she consistently fails to be able to establish one of her own. Mirrors are difficult, and even a mid-novel expedition to a real peep show ends in disgrace and expulsion. Now, this difference could be used productively, one remembers, for example, Heiner Müller’s remarks on the way the peep show is a trope for the way capitalist society functions. But Ebershoff never really does anything with this. These things happen almost in the background. Ebershoff deals with his material and, really, with his own novel, as if it was a translation of sorts and he was just trying to get the basic beats right. Honestly, that would explain the prose, as well. There is so much potential in the material that Ebershoff’s quick treatment of it is sometimes genuinely upsetting. The book is both bloated and oddly bare bones.

gay berlinIt’s strange, really, how this book feels both very detailed and very broad. There is a lot of detail on Lili’s epiphanies and important moments. They are dealt with well, although, as with every other aspect of the novel, the last chapters offer only an extremely skimmed summary of events. At the same time, as mentioned, Greta is dealt with very broadly, and her many comments and monologues feel bloated because they are never part of a plausible character. Outside of the descriptions of Lili, they are chock full with sentimental bloat. And at the same time, Ebershoff barely grazes the social and political context. We get, in a very rough Foucauldian sketch, a quick recap of the various medical opinions which doctors of the time may have held regarding Lili’s physical and mental health. Yet the period, the late 1920s and 1930s, was very interesting, especially in Western Europe. Robert Beachy has given us a great account of the period in his study Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, an extremely readable and interesting book on the way opinions towards gay and transsexual identities developed in the Weimar years. Beachy’s book itself isn’t as detailed as one could wish, but it’s in pursuit of a thesis and that it does genuinely well. In The Danish Girl, by contrast, we feel no real sense of this kind of historical context. For what I assume are reasons of readability, the book is set, despite its use of accurate dates for its events, in a kind of vague time and place where unique qualities of places or years barely dent the fabric of the story. Clearly, the author’s main interest was in Lili, and the rest of the book was assembled around a series of psychological sketches of Lili, sketches moreover that are not interested in Lili’s agency or free will (she is a helpless toy in the hands of other for most of the novel), but in some interest in transsexualism that’s equal parts prurient and sentimental.

danish girl 3I would be tempted to say that Ebershoff would have been better served had he restricted himself to just that – a series of pared down sketches, highlighting the poignancy of certain situations and emotions – if not for the fact that he does manage to add something to the book which is genuinely interesting and affecting: the marriage of Greta and Lili. Greta, towards the end of the book, as she has lost Einar, and as she is about to lose Lili, describes marriage as “liv[ing] in that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” Deviating from historical record, Ebershoff paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate loyalty. To be clear, in the novel, the heterosexual woman is the one who is loyal, while Einar/Lili is merely helpless and lost, and that is obviously a problem. That said, the love and closeness between the couple was deeply affecting. Through all of Lili’s travails, Greta is the only one who consistently believes her and in her, who helps her, supports her. She is never repulsed or really disturbed. In fact, as the novel’s opening sentence tells us, Lili’s “wife knew first.” She knew her husband well enough to see that something was wrong, and she loved him enough to find out what it is and help him, even though he is never really able to articulate his feelings. In many ways, the book is just as much a paean to the strength and support and trust that a marriage can provide as it is a retelling of Lili Elbe’s life. One wishes Ebershoff had a harsh and talented editor because a sharper, clearer version of this novel could really have been impressive. Instead, we get a warm, sad, sentimental story in pastel that’s both too long and too short. Don’t read this book. Find some good scholarship on Lili Elbe. Read the Beachy book. I’m willing to bet that the success of the movie will lead to at least one big biography that will do the material justice. Apart from the portrait of a marriage, Ebershoff has nothing to add. Limited empathy, limited literary skills do not make up for the cuts in context and urgency. Lili Elbe was a pioneer. Her life and death are significant. She deserves better than this.

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Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto

Chapman, Maile (2010), Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-09042-1

Suvanto1Intentionally or not, several of my recently reviewed books on this blog have had this in common: they were well constructed intellectually and sometimes lacking in narrative or emotional power. Yet in all those cases, there was something that saved these books from being tiresome exercises in postmodern mastery. Not so with Maile Chapman’s debut novel Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, which is a dull, cold example of everything that people dislike about MFA produced literature. And when I say people, I mean me. In some ways, Chapman’s novel is the polar opposite of the other MFA novel that I reviewed negatively on this blog. Instead of fake emotion and ornate sentimentality, Chapman offers us the other extreme, smooth, cool surfaces, an impartial narrator, trained, if I read her acknowledgments correctly, on the Greek chorus (there’s a terrible novel by Blake Butler that has similar aspirations), and a disaffected, alienated set of protagonists who hurtle slowly (yes) towards a dark catastrophe, which, of course, is never really illuminated so as not to lose the oppressive air hanging over the story. This kind of writing is enormously hard to pull off, and only few novelists I have come across have managed to do so successfully. Maile Chapman is not one of them. The book is both dull and too busy, bland and overdetermined. It’s setting is both historical and set in a world seemingly outside of history. The main reference of the book appears to be Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, as well as Euripides play The Bacchae, although the first one is something I infer from the text itself, the latter is explicitly mentioned in paratextual artefacts. The former is a common reference in these kinds of settings, the latter is a bit puzzling, and in connection to the book would require some serious interpretative work, which this book does not deserve in any way. I regret paying money for this book and you shouldn’t invest money or time on a book that writes about illness and disability with the eye of the panoptikum. The plot centers around a sanatorium in Finland, and I am willing to wager that any novel you’ve read set in a sanatorium or Finland blows this disappointing, flat, almost unreadable book out of the water. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a bad book.

Suvanto2Why, you may ask, did I persevere and finish it, if it’s so obviously bad? For one thing, I always finish books, even if it takes a while. The other thing is that the novel is so oddly bad that I kept hoping for later sections of the book to redeem earlier ones. It’s not until the book’s denouement follows the most expected lines possible that I gave up on it. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a novel about women. Women in a Finnish sanatorium somewhere in the mountains to be more precise. The main interest for the narrator and the reader is the wing containing rich women, many of them American. One of the focal characters, and ultimately the tool employed by the author to pull off the reveal/hide trick at the novel’s end, is also American, a nurse that is increasingly overwhelmed by her duties, the Finnish winter and her colleagues as the novel progresses. The book is set in the 1920s, but it stands at an odd angle to history. It’s the 1920s, so any reader will assume a connection to the 1920s novel Magic Mountain that is set in the years before WWI in a sanatorium in the mountains. But Thomas Mann connects his book to the broader flow of history, ending his book with the thunderstrike of the breakout of WWI. Chapman’s book could have been set in a different period or on a different planet or even just an unmarked hospital space. Instead, it’s eerily specific, but doesn’t really use that specificity except for color. And then there’s the book itself, the object ‘book’, I mean. There are gorgeous photographs on the front and the back and on the inside of the cover page, as well. They are not however of the sanatorium described in the book. They are, I think, of the Paimio Sanatorium, built by Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, who, according to Wiki, was driven by “a concern for design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art; whereby he […] would design not just the building, but give special treatments to the interior surfaces and design furniture, lamps, and furnishings and glassware.” That the pictures are of that hospital is probable given that the copyright of the photos is held by the Alvar Aalto Museum, and that Chapman mentions, in her acknowledgments, that she had “extensive tours of Paimio Sanatorium.” If you followed the link above, however, you’ll have discovered that Paimio wasn’t finished until the 1930s (a historically much more interesting time).

Suvanto4So Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is set in a hospital like Paimio Sanatorium, but not in it. So it’s a hospital with a bit of history and reputation, not a brand new place, but we’re supposed to imagine it in the style of a later period? Look, it’s entirely possible that I overlooked something, but details like this are all over the book. Chapman both commits to and sells out on specifics. The book is set in Finland, and the difficulty of learning Finnish, or at least Swedish is foregrounded a few times, and Finnish words crop up all over the novel. Yet the author never makes any real use of the linguistic distance between most of its American protagonists and the Finnish people around them. It could be any language and any region, as far as I can tell. It could be a fantastical science fictional language for all that it makes a difference. It appears that the main reason for all the Finnish in the book is the Fulbright year the author spent in Finland, and the MFA-sanctioned idea that the use of other languages provides an interesting element for the dynamics of a novel. At least we don’t get that other MFA idea of making that ‘other’ language an Asian or African one. A recent, well-crafted, but MFA-bred German novel by Andreas Stichmann, Das Große Leuchten, appears to give in to that specific unpleasant instinct. So this is not politically or culturally dubious as simply baffling. Almost everything in the book, including setting and languages and culture, is used primarily to provide an interesting surface, but as a reader, one tires enormously fast of this. Do something with this, is what one is tempted to yell at the author. Don’t just paint the walls, put something into the rooms. The worst of all the surface games is the book’s use of female physicality and illness. Part of the book’s literary heritage is the Gothic novel. The hospital is large, some goings-on are unexplained and the vastness of the house and its events leads some inhabitants, at a late point in the book, to expect ghosts. But part of the Gothic novel has always, in my opinion, been a confrontation with the Other, and that Other often manifested itself in physical ways. Lust, hate, greed and their impacts on the human body is a constant topic, as is the use of the female body as a malleable object in all of this. There is a whole range of literature on the Gothic as a a genre negitiating masculinity and feminity. Patriarchal violence is common in these texts.

So, theoretically, the fact that Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is centered around various female discourses could be interesting; similarly, the constant presence of the female body here is intriguing. While Gothic novels often contain a veiled hostility towards feminity, engaging discourses of decadence, and various female engineered threats against masulinity. I think Chapman very carefully and intelligently engages these discourses. There is a woman with gonorrhea, a nod to the topic of (sexual) decadence, but in the context of the novel, where it’s mostly stripped of men, it becomes a question of personal injury and shame. Chapman doesn’t shy away from all the levels of female corporeality, although most of the time it’s some variety of able bodied corporeality. Still, within that limit, we get discussions of pregnancy, of bodily fluids, of the changes in women’s bodies as they age. We get frank discussions of the fear of women to be exposed to their husbands, exposed in frint of male doctors or just plain exposed. Compliance, the central issue of the last book I reviewed, is important here as well. Since it’s the 1920s, there’s an even higher premium on compliance, and the final catastrophe breaks out because of bottled up fears and frustration. The book teases its readers with all the possibilities of these constructions. It just adds one after the other and this is the main point that kept me reading – I expected, I waited for the writer to really do something with all this material, to make everything add up to something, to use one of the forms she kept piling up to break out of the traditions. After all, both the Magic Mountain (with its inversion and continuation of the Bildungsroman), as well as the Gothic novel are more or less ideologically clear, they wouldn’t fit this sympathetic use of female bodily functions. And yet. And yet, the final twist, the last part of the book where the plot picks up the pace a bit and all the various threads of the novel are combined into a brutal and mysterious ending – it is exactly what you expect to happen after reading about a third of the book.

Suvanto3This is really the oddest feeling – in a book that appears to be so invested in so many potentially incisive cultural, sexual and political areas, there’s ultimately nothing really at stake. As a reader you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the writer to connect it, to do something. And it never happens. Here is another example: the novel is written by someone who appears to be clearly cognizant of some contemporary theoretical ideas. Much of the book can work as a riff on some ideas in Michel Foucault’s work, especially those where he discusses institutions of exclusion and inclusion, where he writes on hospitals and prisons, for example. At the same time, it shares none of the self critical, politically trenchant insights. In Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, everything is decoration. Well, who knows, that might be part of Alvar Aalto’s design philosophy. What really, ultimately, sinks the book, however, is not the flatness and inconclusive nature of its ruminations. It’s the terribly bland writing that transports all of it. Written in present tense, maybe to mimic the narrative choruses of Greek drama, the style is simple. Clearly aiming for distanced elegance and clarity, the writing is, instead, flat like the drywall behind my desk. A whole bunch of uninspired, declarative sentences without any real sense for rhythm, urgency and compression. This is depressingly common, and all too often, it’s being read as beautiful. What happened to us as readers? Is this a very late impact of Gordon Lish’s inspired work on Carver that has, in lesser hands, turned into trite declarativeness? Why is it always the Hemingways and the Lishes of the world that inspire authors to copy their methods with less inspiration and understanding? Why doesn’t a writer with a baroque style get copied by lesser writers who try to write ornate prose? I suppose this also connects to my misgivings to the MFA style. It’s almost as if it’s a genre now, this kind of writing. Simplicity without condensation is just dull. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is the worst book I have finished this year and the only one I regret reading.

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Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet

Deconnick, Kelly Sue and Valentine de Landron (2015), Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781632-153661

bitch coverI don’t usually review comics after reading only one trade paperback because the first trade tends to be a mere introduction to story and characters, despite generally containing 4-6 issues of the comic. As a side note, there’s, for me, a sense of comics having loosened a bit these past years, with narration much more slowed down. I mean, the whole story of X-Men: Days of Future Past is narrated in two issues. That would have to be at least a miniseries today. That’s just not how it’s done today. And in a way this is true of this first trade of Bitch Planet as well. The plot has barely begun to get off the ground as we leaf through the last pages of the book. But the book itself is so interesting, so unique, that I decided to review it here anyway, in part because I have been slow with reviewing comics these past years and Kelly Sue Deconnick, with the help of various artists, has carved out quite the interesting body of work that now contains an exciting and inspiring Marvel character that she made completely her own, a mystical and engrossing Western, which she financed through kickstarter, as well as various work done on Marvel and Dark Horse characters, work that’s always bright and interesting. I have lost track of some of her Marvel work in the past year or so, as Marvel ditched its new-found order created through the “Marvel Now” slate of books in favor of several events that I find impossible to keep track of. Meanwhile, she keeps writing creator-owned books for Image Comics and the one that’s come out in paperback most recently, Bitch Planet, is quite something. It’s a faux-1970s (60s? 80S?) dystopian comic that imagines an uber-patriarchal future where female criminals are shipped off to a prison planet. But being obese and disobedient is already reason enough to find yourself on a ship out to the “Bitch Planet” and Deconnick does not hold back in describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of this odd dictatorship. The book is clearly and thoroughly didactic, and if that bothers you, don’t read this. Everybody else will find something to enjoy about this book. In a way, Kelly Sue Deconnick has made a career out of working on characters and stories that help to tell stories about female experience. Bitch Planet reads in many ways like a summary of her career so far. Its density shows the importance and interconnection of her themes. Plus, it’s a coiled-up ball of fun.

bitch 2The plot itself is, as I suggested in the first paragraph, a magnificent smorgasbord of 1970s science fiction tropes and topics, from prison planets to mass surveillance, to sport-as-deadly-spectacle, a scenario that has most recently been revived by the spectacularly successful Hunger Games franchise. As a matter of fact, a vast variety of these recent YA franchises that started with badly written books (the nicely done Hunger Games books are an exception to a sometimes confoundingly incompetent rule – Divergent is a particularly disheartening example of this) also lean on these same 70s texts and films. It almost feels as if there’s a checklist. Suzanne Collins’ career is maybe a good example of this shift – her first series of books tell a highly imaginative story of an underground rat kingdom where a boy becomes hero and antihero in an epic (and bloody) fight for subterranean supremacy. It follows traditions in a broader sense. Hunger Games, in contrast, owes a debt to a much more narrow, concentrated tradition, the 70s dystopian fiction/film. But in stark contrast to those forebears, most of these franchises, with, again, Collins’ books being a bit of an exception, eschew politics and complexities of representation, by turning all the earlier text into a mush that is nothing more than an elaborate allegory for teenage angst. In this respect, they follow the tendency of many pop-cultural revivals of texts from the 70s and 80s that used to have a political bent, and are now cleansed of relevancy. One example in the realm of comic books is certainly Green Arrow. Once, when he shared a book with Green Lantern, Green Arrow was aware of racial tensions and social disparities; these days, the new revivals of the Green Lantern books are but a shadow of that earlier writing. In contrast to all of that, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s book connects in more than style with the earlier tradition. Bitch Planet is happily political. In fact, the trade contains a didactic “discussion guide,” aimed at explaining the book’s politics to those not as well versed in recent readings in feminism and intersectionality. As far as I can tell, individual issues also and additionally contained short essays on topics in feminism. If anything, Deconnick has taken the politics of the 70s and dragged them into the present time, heightening and commenting on the issues. The term intersectionality itself has not been coined until the late 1980s and has not gotten traction in popular debates on political theory until this past decade.

bitch 3To be clear, Deconnick and De Landro didn’t create a modern story, inspired by the 1970s. They aimed and succeeded at creating a fantastically entertaining pastiche of 1970s comics, although I suppose it might be more the idea of 1970s comics rather than a specific example of one. The nature of the pastiche becomes clear in more ways than just the gorgeous artwork that smells of nostalgia. When we get dates and periods, the timing appears to be a bit off. When discussion Hall of Fame players of the futuristic sport of the book, we are offered years like 2012 and 2018. Speaking as someone who, for some reason, has a pretty solid grasp on the world’s major sports, I am fairly certain that sport, a more brutal version of American Football, does not exist right now. The year 2012 is, I think, supposed to signal the time estimations common in texts from the 60s and 70s that assumed a much more rapid progress in technology (and a much more rapid dissolution of constitutional democracies). The result of this method is the creation of a critical nostalgia, but not one that’s inherently critical of the texts it references, only of the social and cultural contexts that produced this text. In fact, by lacing the issues with obviously racist and sexist ads, some of which, in a final metatextual twist, reference the book’s characters, the genre itself, the science fictional blaxploitation (if that is a genre) is highlighted as a medium that resists and comments upon a social context. This, in turn (stay with me) makes the text a stand-in for the same non-compliance that is a marker of the women in the book. Indeed, much of this book appears to loop back on itself, and could end up in some kind of vapid postmodern loop, if all of it wasn’t anchored in angry and explicit politics. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s feminism, as rendered in this book (and others) is a brand that’s not all that common today, one that critically comments on the male gaze, and how that gaze comes with expectancies: most importantly, expecting women to comply. Ariel Levy, a few years ago, has written a clear and pretty sharp critique of how that compliance to the patriarchal gaze might look like in Female Chauvinist Pigs, a book I strongly recommend. Non-compliance, the “offense” of women on the “Bitch Planet” is a rallying cry for the book and Deconnick’s work in general.

DSC_1937Her other extraordinary book for Image Comics, the kickstarter-financed Pretty Deadly, also offers a female resistance to a male myth of the frontier and death (compare/contrast Jonathan Hickman’s recent series of books on a a resistant Rider of the Apocalypse, a very openly male figure of Death, and how this impacts Hickman’s discussions of narrative and myth). Superbly illustrated by Emma Rios, this is a book that’s not so much simple commentary on the frontier myth, as an imaginative reworking of those myths. In more direct terms, we find in Bitch Planet also a book that discusses female experience, although I would hope for more examples of that in later issues. Women of all shapes and sizes, of various backgrounds, resistant to men, discarded by men, non-compliant women, we also find them in the book(s) Deconnick is likely most well known for, her run on Captain Marvel that, so far, spans at least four Captain Marvel trades, two Avengers Assemble trades and god knows how many “event” books. She uses these books, apart from handing out action packed stories of superheroics, to discuss questions of personal identity, of alcoholism, of representation. Personally, I would have preferred these books to be less tied into larger Marvel Universe narratives, but these books are an excellent example of the powerful stories you can write despite being locked into a fairly restrictive narrative box, one that was assembled using a majority of Marvel’s current titles. What’s certainly true is that, through all her books, we can see a theme emerging, and the clearest it’s been stated so far is the excellent Bitch Planet. I have no idea where Deconnick’s writing is leading her next, but I do know that I cannot wait to find out. She is one of my favorite active writers in comics, and her influence and impact on a growing community around her is admirable and amazing. Please read her books.

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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.)

Janet Hobhouse: The Furies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andy Weir: The Martian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)

David Duchovny: Holy Cow

Duchovny, David (2015), Holy Cow, Headline
ISBN978-1-4722-2588-7

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

There should be more writers like Vollmann

There should be more writers like Vollmann

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

setz ereader

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

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

holy cow shalom

The book comes with illustrations b< Natalya Balnova

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

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

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

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

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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.)

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

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

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

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

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

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

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John Scalzi: Lock In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Akhil Sharma: Family Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ed McBain – Cop Hater

McBain, Ed (1956, 2003), Cop Hater, Orion
ISBN 978-0752857916

DSC_1300So this is another brief review, like this one – and for similar reasons. There’s really only one reason I read this book in the first place: I was familiar with the author’s name, and when this book turned up on an otherwise mostly literary list of “1000 (or so) books you should read”, I was puzzled and intrigued enough to give this one a spin. Primarily because of its interesting title and the fact that it’s the first of Ed McBain’s series of novels set in a (fictionalized) New York precinct. Let me just get this out of the way: it’s not great. If you are looking for a crime writing gem, using sparse but exquisite language to sculpt an exciting plot, go to the hardboiled classics. Or to this book. Or if you want a less well known one, try Richard Hugo’s only novel. But don’t read Cop Hater. I will say this, without having read his work, I am fairly sure that McBain gets better later in his career (after all, he wrote, among other things, the script for The Birds). Cop Hater is his first attempt at a kind of writing that was fairly new at the time. Do read Cop Hater if you are interested in an example of very early procedural police novel where not one mustachioed detective or elderly lady come up with the murderer after 200 pages of careful rumination (or in the case of Elizabeth George, 500+ pages), but where the detection is the result of a whole precinct’s carefully detailed police work. Throughout the whole book you can see the author grappling with various parts of the concept, putting elements in place, elements that we now know from a plethora of TV series and novels. It also shows some of the less pleasant elements underlying that genre. As a pioneer work, it’s certainly worth your time. It’s not exciting or well written -but it’s interesting.

 

First things first, there will be spoilers. One, because one thing that’s interesting about the book is the title, and it ties directly into the identity of the murderer, and two, because at no point are we really excited to find out who the murderer is. The book acts like that’s the case, but McBain at that point in his career hasn’t really learned how to let clues pile up, build up excitement or anything. His vast and prolific work in other genres has not prepared him for this. And I can’t help but feel as if the author is fully aware of this. Like me, his interest seems mostly to toy with the title and its implications, a case bolstered by the fact that the film poster to the 1958 movie version gives away the ending straight away. When Cop Hater was published in 1956, Ed McBain had already published about 10 novels under various pseudonyms and names. Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, he changed his name in 1952 on an editor’s advice to Evan Hunter. Ed McBain is one of Hunter’s numerous noms de plume (including Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Dean Hudson, Richard Marsten, Ezra Hannon and John Abbott), but clearly by far the most successful one. In the foreword to my edition, McBain explains how eventually, writing his 87th precinct novels took only about a month, but that Cop Hater took much longer, in part because of his research. Limiting his plots to the geographic realities of New York City, he created a fictional New York (Isola) that’s both similar and unlike the real thing. Closer to the actual New York than Gotham, and further from the actual New York than David Simon’s work is from the actual Baltimore. According to the foreword he kept talking to and calling the police to add accuracy to his writing.

 

220px-Cop_Hater_posterGiven McBain/Hunter’s background in speculative fiction, it’s understandable that he tried to overcorrect his fabulist tendencies. The effect on the book is interesting: there is a lot of dialogue and characterizations that appear to be the result of careful (if distorting) observations, but occasionally, McBain throws an infodump at us that is really odd. It’s like watching CSI-type stories learning to walk when McBain has a character offer a disquisition on how lab technicians can figure out a blood type, or how they can figure out from the type of someone’s hair whether they are children, teenagers or adults. There’s even a little table on the latter fact. Problem is: no one in the book asked for these facts. And not only that, but there are characters saying “why are you telling me this, it’s an irrelevant information.” Today’s reader can see the roots of CSI in this scientifically framed and expressed information, but what about McBain’s contemporaries? Given McBain’s meteoric success, it’s hard not to believe that they found it interesting, that it added to the overall vraisemblance of the writing. That’s probably what it was intended to do. The dialogue shows that McBain is aware of the potentially annoying nature of the information, but his goal is to create a believable, real, blood and guts police precinct that people could believe is in a real New York borough. He is, to repeat what I said earlier, not particularly, at this point, interested in building a consistent case with suspects, leads and developments. The murderer in question is caught, but that’s mostly because he more or less presents himself to the lead detective on the case, voluntarily, surprisingly, murder weapon, motivation and a co-conspirator in tow. It had nothing to do with everyone’s initial suspicion, but it’s that suspicion that lends form to the whole book. The closest we get to a lead on the real suspect is the lead detective’s intuition that basically just says (and I paraphrase): “maybe we’re wrong and it’s someone completely different?”

 

The murder(s) in question were two successive murders of police officers, with a third following later. Clearly, the murderer must have been a cop hater. But that doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects. As a detective explains early on: “This whole goddamn city is full of cop haters. You think anybody respects a cop? Symbol of law and order, crap!” This is not an insult, this is a sense of frustration and entitlement, a toxic cocktail that has only recently boiled up again in cases all over the US. And following the detectives through their work, it’s not hard to see why someone might “hate” them. A decade before the Supreme Court decided the “Miranda” case, we find the police in fine form, pressuring, bullying and attacking mostly innocent citizens. They are shown to be at least mildly corrupt, and they are not above wishing death on the press and gang members. And yet the author sides with them, using dismissive irony when discussing press coverage that stresses these very problems. Sure there are cops that go too far, but these, the author assures us, are not well-liked by other cops either, and plus, some goons jumped them so you’ll have to understand their preference for beating up prisoners. If you are at all wondering why the American police has been doing what they’ve been doing, it’s not easy (or pleasant) to imagine the 87th precinct as depicted in Cop Hater and equip them with the freedom to do whatever, and military-grade equipment. It’s interesting that in their search for a cop hater, the police talks to people that have been previously imprisoned or terrorized by the police. The way the system is structured becomes quickly apparent. But Cop Hater goes even beyond an examination of that bias. It also offers us the broader way that the police is integrated into the larger world of restriction and punishment.

 

The most relevant study of what McBain is doing here is probably The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller a study on 19th century detective fiction that is really really good. Most relevant here is Miller’s assertion that “a policing power is inscribed in the ordinary practices and institutions of the world from the start” (talking about Wilkie Collins). While there is a police here, the border between police work and the policing in every day practices is very flimsy. The murder ends up being the brainchild of a woman, who convinced some brute to do her dirty work for her. Now, this woman is odd from the beginning. She is first shown us as a sexpot who does not offer her husband the sex he craves. In fact she teases him and turns him away. Strike One. Then she dresses slightly provocative at a funeral, enough to get a detective to have dirty thoughts. Strike Two. Finally, she transformed an apartment into some feminine nightmare that a manly police officer cannot possibly want to live in. It’s enough to terrify the lead detective on the case. His encounter with the woman ends thusly: “He was beginning to feel a little more comfortable with Alice. Maybe she wasn’t so female, after all.” – But of course she is very female. Strike Three. All these indications are not of course, real indications of crimes being committed, they are simple misogyny in action. However, the book uses the reader’s bigoted disapproval of nonstandard (submissive) female behavior in order to build a case against Alice that runs parallel to the police precinct’s borderline competent work. And when we finally see who did it, the book allows to quietly let these elements fall into place. In fact, Cop Hater even offers us a “good woman” in contrast: a woman who is literally unable to speak, who has no will of her own, who exists to love her boyfriend and be self conscious about her own shortcomings.

 

So, it really is an interesting read but the writing is horrific and all the learning and stumbling upon developing this modern genre can grate on the reader. Plus, the awful misogyny, while throwing a light on the “roman-police” as D.A. Miller termed it, is not necessarily pleasant to read, especially since the author does nothing to undercut it. If you have a historical interest in this, go for it. It’s short and despite the writing does read quickly. Would I read it again if I had the choice? Probably not.

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Katherine Addison: The Goblin Emperor

[given that my computer is still out of order, the other texts from my HD are still on hold. I’ve written small pieces here and there. This is one of them.]

Addison, Katherine (2015), The Goblin Emperor, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-6568-2

goblin 1So when I read books in my non-PhD work, I tend to read them with a goal to maybe review them, and sometimes I just have these palate cleanser books that won’t turn up as a review or in a bibliography; at best they will make an appearance on Twitter. Especially comic books or fantasy novels – I’ve written numerous reviews of both genres and at some point one worries about repeating oneself. I don’t have something interesting to say about every book I read. Sometimes it’s just a shrug and a thumbs up or down. Brian Posehn’s Deadpool run? Very nice. Jan Peter Bremer’s Döblin Preis winning novel? A bit dull. Bryan Frances’s book on relativism? Very nice (but nonfiction that doesn’t fall into either category isn’t reviewed anyway). So when I started to read Katherine Addision’s “debut” novel The Goblin Emperor (I’ll explain the inverted commas in a moment) I didn’t expect it to end up here with its own review. However, as I thumbed through its last pages yesterday, I found myself intrigued enough by the book that I wanted to talk about it. So first things first: The Goblin Emperor is, as far as high fantasy goes, a fairly unique, very interesting book, that upholds many flaws of the genre, but, like The Copper Promise (see my review here), provides a very welcome light addition to fantasy that does not run the grimdark gamut. It’s a bit tedious in stretches but overall it’s a light and very enjoyable read if you like court intrigues in a very lightly steampunk setting. It has some of the nicest and most well rounded characters I’ve encountered in fiction in a while, but it relegates most of its truly intriguing characters and character developments to its fringes, whether that’s spare appearances or mere mentions. Look, if you like court intrigues and high fantasy and don’t need it to be “dark” or “realistic”, go for it. The world building in this book is fantastically accomplished, without the usual crutches. Everything that went into this book feels necessary to the structure and plot and doesn’t just add picturesque details or pretty mountains on one of those notorious epic fantasy maps. Despite the book never really leaving the confines of the capital city, we are made aware of the larger world around it. And the best aspect of the book is the way its narrative is restricted to the point of view of its barely-adult protagonist, it never falls into the trap that so much high fantasy falls into, of endless, helpless ruminations. The narrative is tight and the prose is perfectly adequate for its goals.

Fancy map, terrible book. The not-so-mysterious case of Robert Jordan

Fancy map, terrible book. The not-so-mysterious case of Robert Jordan

In fact, the book is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s anyone’s debut novel. And despite the coy author’s bio inside, Katherine Addison is really Sarah Monette, a more seasoned author, with 6 previous novels to her name, two of them co-authored with genre heavyweight Elizabeth Bear. So The Goblin Emperor doesn’t come from nothing, but that would have been hard to believe anyway, given the extraordinarily controlled style and environment we are offered by this twice-named author. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the “epic fantasy maps” that are so ubiquitous in the genre and which work as crutches for us as readers to not get lost in the multitude of names and places and things. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing and in fact, for many years I (raised as I was on the conscientious cartography of JRR Tolkien and D&D campaigns) thought that the miserable incompetence of Terry Goodkind’s terrible fantasy novels was prefigured in the poor and simple maps of Wizard’s First Rule. Many years of reading fantasy later I find that terrible books can sometimes come with very nice maps. While completely mapless, Addison/Monette’s book does come with a glossary and a brief morphology of names and titles, and while we can do without the maps, it’s hard to do without those things in a book like this. The Goblin Emperor feels like I’m told reading classic Russian novels feels to many readers: we are overwhelmed by an unbelievably large amount of names that all seem somewhat similar. More than once I had to browse earlier chapters to remind myself of who a person was exactly. That’s because, just like Russian novels can be disorienting due to their sheer amount of patronymics, Addison/Monette leaves us right in the thicket of a wealth of honorifics, family names, gender suffixes and much more. There’s no big infodump in the book that tutors the reader – instead, the author serves up a wholly realized world, and just expects us to find our way around all the strange words and names as we tag along with the story. In fact, for all that the world building is meticulous, the lack of maps and the elaborate nature of the names and terminology point to a world building that is based more on philology than topology, a point subtly driven home by the author when, during the course of a formal dinner party, we are allowed to eavesdrop on an actual philological debate between two minor characters. Yet even more than a clever way to deal with world-building, the dearth of explanation that happens in much of this has another effect.

Different beginning, different airship, same steam punk plot device

Different beginning, different airship, same steam punk plot device

The book’s protagonist is the youngest son of the recently deceased Emperor. Addison/Monette borrows from the stock of high fantasy races and has the main race of inhabitants of the capital city be elves. Maia, the protagonist, however, is half elvish and half goblin, being the offspring of the late Emperor’s ill-fated political marriage to a goblin princess. Despite being of doubly royal blood, Maia had been exiled to a faraway province where he lived a tranquil but unhappy life. The sudden death of his father, whose steam powered airship was the target of a political assassination [as an aside: what’s with crashing steam powered airships as a plot starting device?], as well as of everybody else that could have a better claim on the throne than the 18 year old half goblin, forces Maia to return to court where he hasn’t been in ten years and where he has never lived to begin with. As Maia arrives, he is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people and riches around him, not to mention the court intrigue and responsibility. A boy who has lived all his life on what basically amounts to a farm is now thrust into the hot cauldron of a vast empire’s capital city. And yet. we never despair for him, we are not scared or worried. This is because the author has set up her character with just the right amount of knowledge and, more than that, what they call “a good head on his shoulders”. We have all read these books narrated by less than bright characters, as readers most of us remember the anguish that comes with following a narrative of bad choices and impending tragedy or tragedies narrowly averted. Maia, in contrast to these books, has had very solid training and has developed fine instincts for how to relate to people, how to act when under pressure and how to deal with one’s fellow man. He manages to survive the first turbulent days and get himself crowned emperor (no spoiler here, it’s the title of the book). Now, whenever he is explained a fact about court, we are explained the same fact at the same time, so as he grows and learns, we do too. As readers, we cannot, however, duplicate his bewilderment when faced with the plurality of people, objects and the vastness of space that Maia has to traverse, inhabit and command. We are told he is bewildered, but we cannot share that feeling – which is where the author’s insouciant use of names and terms comes in. As a native speaker of the language, these are not things bothering Maia. but for the reader they are a kind of crutch that helps us approximate his confusion.

abdel fattahThis is important because, at least through the first third of the book, I thought that the novel does an extraordinary job of being not a book about elves, goblins and court intrigue, but about foreignness, and isolation in a new culture that is not your own. Being myself “half Goblin” (well, half Russian), I found this part truly well executed. But not in the way adult books about foreignness are usually executed (say, Roth’s Call It Sleep) and more the way kid’s books work (say, Abdel-Fattah’s Does my head look big in this?). In many ways, the book feels as if its audience is young adults, more than with other fantasy novels, even though it is, as far as I can see, not categorized that way by author or publisher. But the kindness of the book, the way it takes its reader hy the hand and helps him understand the protagonist’s state of mind, as mentioned in rhe previous paragraph, it adds up to an impression of the author being as patient and careful with her readers as Maia’s tutors and new friends are with him. There are no pitfalls, as readers of the recently popular [I’m using the word recently as old people like me are wont to do. Not necessarily the dictionary definition] “grimdark” variety of fantasy writing would expect. Characters that seem trustworthy are trustworthy. The characters that seem like they have something bad up their sleeve, are generally bad news. This is not just us seeing the world through the eyes of someone with good instincts – this is a fundamentally balanced world. I mentioned The Copper Promise earlier. In a much different way, both books offer a genuine kind of escapism, a way of reading without your guard up. Everything is as it seems. It doesn’t make Maia’s life easy, and, in fact, the book doesn’t skirt dark moments, including executions and the weight that comes with having power over life and death. But at the same time, parts of this are worrisome. The world of The Copper Promise felt mostly democratic, despite one of its characters being a lord. Its main protagonist is a poor mercenary and her triumphs and losses are those of everyday people. Not so with The Goblin Emperor. Politically, it’s a very odd book. All that balance I mentioned? It’s balanced around a center and that’s Maia, the benevolent king.

inheritanceAll the concessions, all the niceness. all the emotions, they are all granted by this king. Maia is told to pick a wife, and that woman has to agree to marry him. And while he’s very nice and shy about it, it still happens that way and a woman who is clearly reluctant does end up marrying him. Many of the emotional bonds Maia shares are bonds with his servants and some of the emotional high points highlight how gladly and absolutely his close servants serve him. There are mere glimmers of their private lives and of lives in general that are not like Maia’s. One of Maia’s aunts lives with a wife as a Sea Captain somewhere and we know barely more than that, it’s just something that comes up in conversation. There’s also a gay couple at a dance one night, and that’s almost all we learn about that. In fact, while I enjoyed the first third as a very effective disquisition about alienness and migration, the longer I followed Maia’s narrative the more irritating I found the fact that racial difference is encoded in terms of elf and goblin. Political change, it’s implied, can only come from the top rungs of a hierarchy. Indeed, the novel is very careful to include a picture of revolutionaries that makes sure to have us understand that they are ruthless and maybe a bit insane. All of this is much more unpleasant by the overall didactic, balanced tone. I will say that part of my unhappiness with the way politics, race, gender and difference is handled in the second half of the novel is influenced by me having read as excellent a work of fantasy as N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books (review), both of which show the potential of this genre. I will say: this is my main complaint about the The Goblin Emperor (and it’s something many other books in the genre do, as well), which in most other ways, is very accomplished and a truly enjoyable read, if this be your genre.

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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.)

Jason Aaron: Scalped

Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al (2007), Indian Country, Vertigo
ISBN 1-4012-1317-0
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al (2008),Casino Boogie, Vertigo
ISBN 1401216544
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al. (2008), Dead Mothers, Vertigo
ISBN 1401219195
Aaron, Jason; R.M. Guera et al. (2009),The Gravel in Your Gut, Vertigo
ISBN 1401221793

DSC_0089Noir and comics have been a happy marriage for a while now. Some of the best work in contemporary comics has been in the genre of the noir. Ed Brubaker’s collaborations with Sean Philips are among those books, but the gritty turn of comics in the 1980s has introduced a noir tone and atmosphere to many books that wouldn’t otherwise seem fitting. Batman and Daredevil have been titles where noir sensibilities have been exercised frequently, especially in Frank Miller’s runs more than two decades ago, and Brian Azzarello’s and Greg Rucka’s runs in more recent memory. However. as much as I love Brubaker’s work on almost any title he touches, the most gutwrenchingly impressive use of noir tradition in comics that I know recently has been attempted by Jason Aaron in his incredible book Scalped. Scalped, which ran for 60 issues between 2007 and 2012, is set on an Oglala Lakota reservation, a thinly veiled cipher for the Pine Ridge reservation, exploring a world of pain and hurt, of loss and disillusionment, telling a story set in our time but rooted in a history going back centuries.

DSC_0096Scalped is collected in 10 trade paperbacks and I have so far read 4 of them, all of which are excellent. Aaron’s co-creator and main artistic collaborator on these books is Rajko Milošević, whose nom de plume is R.M. Guéra and whose pencils and inks perfectly complement the visceral quality of Aaron’s writing. As is usually the case, guest artists pencil additional issues; while this sometimes detracts from the overall work, the artists chosen for Scalped are perfects fits, especially the Italian artist Davide Furnò, who is chosen to draw some of the most painful and intense story arcs and manages to stick both to the template provided by Guéra and add some essential qualities to it. On a craftsmanship level, Scalped is a full success. Emotional, powerful, and a true collaboration between a writer and his artists. On other levels, it’s also a troubling book, as I will explain later. It’s an intense interrogation of violence and corruption among American Indians, written by an Anglo-Saxon American from Alabama, and illustrated by Serbian, Italian and Spanish artists. Its characters are constructed so close to noxious stereotypes that it creates an undercurrent of difficult politics running through the whole book. At the same time, it feels like Jason Aaron’s writing is poised to profit from that, using the troubling politics of the book’s creation to feed into the noir darkness within its pages. The result is an imperfect, problematic, but deeply compelling work of art.

The_Short_timers_CoverIf you know of Jason Aaron, Scalped might not be the main reason for that. Much like it happened to Jeff Lemire with DC Comics, Aaron has been signed by Marvel and has been producing work on a multitude of titles there, most notably on Ghost Rider and a plethora of X-Men related titles. I can’t keep up with X-Men titles because for some reason Marvel decided to have several different books running in parallel, but if I could, Aaron’s nimble writing would be a good reason to at least keep an eye on those. Aaron does pulp incredibly well, and with a sense of humor and irony that escapes some of his contemporary masters of pulp like Rick Remender.  While with Remender, even in fantastically inventive books like his recent creator owned book with Image, Black Science, one can almost see the self congratulatory masculinity and dour sense of exploitative jokes, Aaron’s books are rooted in a sense of place, a feeling of connection. He uses the literary traditions and markers of pulp, but he is sensitive to personal and social history. A lot of it is white, poor history. Aaron is not just a cousin of Gustav Hasford, the author of The Short-Timers (the less famous literary inspiration for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), but his first major work (and my introduction to Aaron) was a graphic novel about the Vietnam War called The Other Side (2006) It’s clearly a beginner’s work, opting for pathos and sentimentality where it’s not needed, and he’s often bailed out by his artist, the underrated Cameron Stewart, but it’s still an impressive comic, attempting to tell the story of a misguided war by exploring the toll it took on the foot soldiers in it. It’s also a work that attempts to bridge the distance to the culturally and politically defined “other side” by also telling a story from a Vietnamese soldier’s point of view, ultimately killed by Aaron’s blond American protagonist. “Sometimes I dream that I come from a place called Alabama,” he says, only to be dragged back to the brutality and carnage of his everyday life. In the end, Aaron’s protagonist survives, but he carries with him the wounds and the trauma of the murder that he was forced into. This is a recurring theme, coming up as recently as his brand new creator owned series Southern Bastards, a story about a rural Alabama community, whose inhabitants also carry the trauma and memory of wars (the first trade of Southern Bastards has just come out, I recommend it wholeheartedly).

DSC_0092Scalped, then, seems both like a bit of a stretch and something striking close to home for Aaron. In literary terms, it’s connected to classic American noir (down to its protagonist whose first name is Dashiell), to mid-70s Mafia fiction à la Mario Puzo and to comic book tradition, like Frank Miller’s justly revered Daredevil story Born Again, territory that he’s tread many times since. While there’s a sense of Sherwood Anderson to books like Southern Bastards, rural white America only gets a few mentions in Scalped. Instead, his focus is on the plight of “the Rez”, the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, where people live in poverty, unable to resist the pull of crime. And the reservation’s kingpin is Lincoln Red Crow. He introduces himself to us and to the book’s protagonist like this:

“You’re looking at the President of the Oglala tribal council, as well as sheriff of the tribal police force, chairman of the prairie rose planning committee, treasurer of the highway safety program and managing director of this here brand spankin’ new casino.”

He’s judge, jury and executioner on the reservation, both head of its police force and kingpin of the various crimes committed there. He has committed murders and blackmailed people in order to keep his position. But he’s a complicated character. More than once he says of himself that he’s pursuing a vision for his people. That he is aiming for something higher than profit or money.

DSC_0100And indeed, while people cheat him and play their own games on the reservation, seemingly a death sentence in other mafia-style environments, he lets them do what they want, knowing that they have families that need to be fed. This tension between being a cold murderer and crime boss on the one hand, and a tribe head very conscious of the plight of his people is the main intrigue in the book that goes beyond individual fights and small affairs. Aaron uses flashbacks a lot structuring whole arcs around remembered events. Many of those memories tell us the story of young Lincoln Red Crow, a young American Indian firebrand, fighting for the rights of his people in the 1970s and after. Many of the people involved in current events in the book are shown to have been connected to young Red Crow, including Dashiell Bad Horse, the book’s protagonist, whose mother Gina had also been an activist in the 1970s. It’s not just memories catching up with Red Crow, it’s also some of the crimes he may or may not have committed in his activist past that come to the fore as the FBI opens and pursues an investigation into the murder of two FBI agents in the 1970s.

Headshot of Leonard Peltier in 1972. Image from FBI Poster.

Headshot of Leonard Peltier in 1972. Image from FBI Poster.

Unspoken and unmentioned, but always looming in the reader’s mind, is the 1973 Wounded Knee incident, when hundreds of Oglala Lakota occupied the historically significant town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This led to an armed confrontation with no real resolution. Pain and violence followed in the many years after the incident, with a corrupt Indian administration possibly murdering up to 60 of its critics. The Wounded Knee incident brought the terrible situation of Native Americans to national attention. Remember when Marlon Brando declined to accept his Academy award in person, sending Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead? That was sort of in response to the incident, which brought the maltreatment of American Indians by the American government newly into focus, as were many other public appeals and actions by activists all around the nation. Meanwhile, the corrupt head of the reservation, whose actions had resulted in the rebellion by the Oglala activists was left in place, and continued about his business. I think we are supposed to read Lincoln Red Crow from within this context. An activist who encounters a hopeless situation, trying to better the social situation of his people, and finds that fighting corruption with corruption is the only path forward. As we first encounter him, he appears to be close to success. With financing from a Hmong gang, he opens a new casino, poised to make his tribe rich.

DSC_0107It’s at this point that things, rotten and precarious for years, start disintegrating. The FBI has infiltrated his tribe, and as the book opens, they are sending another agent to try and get close to him. That agent is the book’s protagonist Dashiell, who is a dark complicated character, but for personal reasons, not for political reasons like Red Crow. This setup is reminiscent of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian activist who was arrested for allegedly murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation shorty after the Wounded Knee incident. In interviews, Aaaron has acknowledged that the Peltier case is one of the inspirations for Lincoln Red Crow (the book even has a direct stand-in for Peltier in the jailed character Lawrence Belcourt), which reinforces the tension in the book. It makes it abundantly clear that we can’t and are not supposed to read Red Crow as a pure antagonist, as a villain, a drug kingpin. Peltier is one of the heroes and touchstone of many civil rights activists, and by referring to him and events at the Pine Ridge Reservation, Aaron lets us understand that this is a morally murky situation. At the same time, viscerally, he uses the broad and dark brush of the tradition he employs. Murder is murder and it’s shown in brutal detail. Suffering and the desperation of those who are not part of Red Crow’s success are highlighted and stressed.

DSC_0227As you can tell, I find Red Crow’s vision and past to be the driving force of the books. The protagonist is a player in a larger game whose parameters have been established through Red Crow’s actions. Dashiell Bad Horse is much more of a conventional noir character. Haunted by his own past, falling in and out of drugs, and soon, haunted by the death of his mother and friends, he pushes on in the darkness of “the Rez”. As the books progress, the story gets more convoluted and characterizations improve and deepen. The moral complexities of the book are met by similarly complex art and writing. One would be tempted to call this book a success if not for a vague feeling of unease.

DSC_0094That unease comes from the fact that the author of this book is a white rural boy from Alabama. He is not just telling a story that contains American Indians, he is telling an American Indian story, and while his politcal intentions are sound and smart, as a reader, I remember the protagonist from Sherman Alexie’s searing Indian Killer who is constantly alienated by the benevolent preaching of his non-native friends. American Indian voices are not so loud that a white author’s voice would just be part of a larger chorus. Instead, the American West is largely explored by white writers with many American Indian voices drowned in the process. An example in the crime writing genre is Todd Downing, a writer of the Choktaw Nation, who, in the early 20th century, wrote a couple of mystery novels set in the American southwest, mostly in Mexico. He also taught Choktaw language and culture and wrote books on the struggles and conflicts in the borderlands that prefigure Cormac McCarthy’s work. Downing is very careful in how he frames indigenous experience. He shows us how the violent stereotype of the American Indian and the Mexican both are flawed and how they contribute to unequal treatment by the police force. Yet his voice almost vanished completely. His study of indigenous Mexican culture The Mexican Earth wasn’t published until after his death and his novels fell out of print for decades until a small press decided to reprint them in 2010. The “inconvenient Indian”, to borrow a phrase from a book by Thomas King (who is half Cherokee) is not well represented in literature where the audience tends to prefer tales of the American West or southwest written by white authors. There is a stereotype trap as to what stories are told about American Indians and what stories are not. Thomas King’s short story collection A Short History of Indians in Canada is among the best attempts at pointing out those problems. And having Jason Aaron jump right in and offer a portrayal of what is basically the Pine Ridge reservation, with all the historical injustice perpetrated against its inhabitants, it doesn’t sit right with me. Especially since the book is so one-dimensionally dark or gritty. It is complex, yes, but within this dark framework. If you add in the more complex depictions of white rural poverty in books like Southern Bastards, what the reader is left with is a kind of irritation.

DSC_0098This irritation that the book offered to me is augmented by some other questionable depictions. The most egregious one is the character of “Mr. Brass”, a Hmong enforcer who came to get the Rez and the Casino back on track. In the process he doesn’t just turn out to be a killer. He’s a sadistic murderer who sodomizes and tortures his victims before killing them. As a character, he is not far from a James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era. This fits the overall use of pulpy ideas, but given Aaron’s other choices with respect to whiteness and color, this is not helpful. None of this irritation, incidentally, takes away from the skill involved in creating this book. It’s smart, powerful and emotionally challenging, with some storylines that can hold up to some of the best work created in comics. It’s just not perfect, especially in the cultural politics of the book itself.

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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.)

Joanna Rakoff: My Salinger Year

Rakoff, Joanna (2014), My Salinger Year, Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 1 4088 5550 8.

DSC_0109Many of my reviews are positive, sometimes ecstatically so. That’s not just because I have such a sunny temperament. Much of it is due to me having not a lot of time to read non-PhD-related books and so I tend to screen my books well and read books I suspect to be very good. However, sometimes, when a book had received enough attention or acclaim, or (I have to admit) when it happens to be unreasonably cheap, I pick up books I am less sure about. This is how I came to read Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year. I had not heard of Rakoff before, at least not as a writer. According to the flap, Rakoff has published a novel and several journalistic pieces but after reading this book, I’m not entirely likely to seek out more of her work. It’s not bad, per se, and since Christmas season is upon us, I have to admit that it would make the loveliest present for that friend in your life who used to read a lot but doesn’t really any more now. Because, really nostalgia for reading is what Rakoff trades in. My Salinger Year is a nice book, a quick read, a book about a young girl’s experiences at a venerable literary agency in New York. The whole is a condensed Bildungsroman, containing personal growth and education on many levels, personal and professional, but it doesn’t read condensed. In fact, while I might complain about her writing in one of the following paragraphs, there’s an undeniable skill in writing a book that reads so easily, but which contains so much. Rakoff is clearly cognizant of literary traditions, and with My Salinger Year we are offered a very specific kind of text, executed with skill and a clear sense of priorities. Disappointingly, writing interesting prose is not one of them. But Rakoff’s book is so overdetermined and constructed that I could never shake the impression that the writing maybe was supposed to seem trite, that this was part of the overall idea. Of course, intentionally bad writing is still bad writing. Intent, to borrow a phrase from a different discussion, isn’t magic.

DSC_0236The main appeal for me with the book is its structure. My Salinger Year begins with our heroine trying to make her way in New York. It’s her first day at an old literary agency, which, while she never names it (she prefers the expression “the agency”), is Harold Ober Associates. She is dressed in a conservative outfit that would not have been out of place on a secretary in the 1960s. She is performing a role, her “role being the Bright Young Assistant. The Girl Friday” – and at the same time, the book itself is similarly performing a role. Laura Miller has already unpacked the various literary sources for the story of the young girl coming to the big city. Miller points out how Rakoff constructs scenes in a way that mimicks literary precedent, and the book as a whole is cleverly constructed to appeal both to a sense of verisimilitude and to a literary sensibility. It’s no accident that the well worn phrase “[t]he Girl Friday” also doubles as the title of a screwball comedy that Stanley Cavell read as belonging to the so-called comedy of remarriages. In the world of the book, we will also find that Rakoff breaks up with a man who she ends up getting back together with. In a way, these early pages tell us, to quote Cavell on movies, how to look at them and how to think about them. The dense referential nature of the first couple of pages eventually lets up, leading into a more emotionally charged part of the narrative, but Rakoff has taught us early on how her book works, and at least for me, it became difficult reading the book’s characters, at least the ones not connected to the agency, as something other than ciphers. That might be one of the reasons for their lack of depth and interest. Only within the hallowed walls of the agency does Rakoff deliver characters to us that are believable, characters that can stand on their own without the artifice of sociocultural allusion. This is what she cares about: the world of books and writers.

DSC01203Look, maybe it’s just me, but halfway through My Salinger Year, as much of the artifice slowly falls away or is de-emphasized, Rakoff starts discussing tangible aspects of book culture with what feels like accurate veneration. Books as objects start turning up. She sees them on shelves, she discusses spines, print, we are offered discussions and descriptions of different editions, unread books as well as tattered, yellowing, well-loved books. I love books, the tangible reality of them, and their reality is what keeps shining through the otherwise threadbare realities of My Salinger Year. Fittingly, the agency Rakoff interns at is so old-fashioned, they don’t even own a computer even though it’s 1995 already. All correspondence, all contracts, everything has to be typed up on a typewriter, and the only way to really contact the Agency is via letter or phone. The year Rakoff joins the Agency, it’s already a dinosaur, hopelessly behind the times and Rakoff’s arrival and influence leads to changes, including -hold on to your hats- the acquisition of a computer that’s even connected to the Internet. This makes the central conceit of the book (central at least according to the blurb on the back) much more interesting: Rakoff’s Agency is the one representing J.D. Salinger and while letters sent to Salinger via his literary agent did not reach him, they were also not unceremoniously thrown out. Instead, a person was paid to read them and reply using a form letter (which had to be retyped for every reply). During Rakoff’s ‘Salinger Year’ she was the one assigned this job. And that’s such an interesting idea. The materiality of writing that’s created by an environment where everything is typed, every letter, no matter how formulaic is inherently original, could have been very interesting, especially since Rakoff decided to answer some letters with more than the meagre handful of words she was supposed to use. However, while the letters keep coming up and the process of reading and pondering the letters is sometimes described in excruciating, redundant detail, Salinger’s letters are never really foregrounded. They are one element among many showing us the growth of young Ms. Rakoff. Dispensing wisdom to young fans becomes her main opportunity to shine a light on herself in a year where everything appears to conspire to make her feel bad about herself.

DSC_0246 (1)Her boyfriend is a self centered macho writer who cares more about his unreadable and unpublishable book than he does about Rakoff, her (Polish) landlady expects her to freeze in the winter and wash dishes in the bathtub in the summer (and almost kills her with some sort of dubious Polish heater, because the book absolutely needed a picaresque, ridiculous foreigner), and the publishing world in general appears to be too sophisticated and complicated for the young woman. It’s an obvious Bildungsroman set-up and so nobody is surprised (or will be spoilered) when she powers through the difficulties and comes out a changed person, with a new lease on life and a different professional determination. While a 6,000 word piece on answering Salinger’s fan-mail might have been the start of this book, it’s not the actual focus. It’s Rakoff’s coming to terms with being a woman in the 1990s, a female writer. Of all the books mentioned by Laura Miller in her review of the book (see link above), the most fitting comparison to me- seemed to be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both show us a woman alone in New York, not part of a crowd, not part of a movement, just two young women, pursuing an internship and coming to terms with the world around them. Late in Rakoff’s book, she discusses the fact that women have limited choices, that they need to pick one path only.

Publishing, books, life, I thought as I walked, through the cool air, up to the L at Third Avenue. It seemed possible to get one right. But not all three.

This resonates with the famous fig tree metaphor in Plath’s novel à clef. Plath’s protagonist has a vision of her life branching out like a fig tree, and she sees all the many choices and options she has. However,

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Rakoff’s memoir is the bright eyed glowing opposite to this. For her nothing wrinkles, nothing goes black. In a way she has written the most classic of Bildungsroman stories, which tend to have men at their center. Like Wilhelm Meister she is inducted into the brotherhood (sisterhood?) of literary people after a year of obstacles small and large.

DSC_0235That’s really an interesting aspect of the book. Despite its breezy shallowness and the flat prose, Rakoff pulls off something fascinating: she tells a story the way we expect men to tell them. She plops her character in the middle of a social context and doesn’t care about any of the connections. Near the end of the book, we are told about a weekend where she reads all of Salinger’s work and forgets about her boyfriend, and really about everything else. Reading this book is all that counts. The caricature of her Polish landlady is never really reflected on because why care? In the first half of the book, where the author drops names, quotes and comparisons to authors, books and movies in an almost stakkato like rhythm, the writer I was most reminded of was Bret Easton Ellis. In books like American Psycho, Ellis perfected a prose that is simply woven, but uses the names and places of American culture as rhythmic emphases, as a kind of modern choir to follow his characters around, pounding on the drum of proper names and shared knowledge. It’s been pointed out a few times how Ellis’ technique corresponds to Saul Kripke’s theory of naming, how it relies on especially the cluster theory of names. The vacuousness at the heart of many of his characters is buffeted and replaced by the proper names of the world around them. The world’s signifiers revolve around Ellis self absorbed protagonists, and while these assumptions tend to work in favor of male characters in literature, Rakoff has employed this exact same technique, but without Ellis’ ear for rhythm. Yet doing all of this for a female character has extra resonance. This book would be much easier to dismiss had it been written by a man. The prose (A lot of dialog has the form of “…I said, nodding. …he said, sighing.” Or “‘Wow,’ I said. Hugh laughed. ‘I know, wow.'” Or this happens: “‘Come in,’ he said and I did.” – there’s a lot of short sentences and cutesie observations (when Rakoff first hears the title of Salinger’s last published story “Hapworth”, she makes the following remark: “‘What’s ‘Hapworth’?’ It sounded mysterious. Like a secret agent’s code name.”) and the self satisfied wisdom alone are enough to stop me.

DSC_0108But it’s not that easy. The Bildungsroman and the Ellis discussion are significant. One of the reasons why Plath’s figs shrivel and blacken on the tree is the pressure on women to conform. Plath’s character turns to thoughts of self harm to relieve the pressure. Rakoff, a comfortably middle aged woman, wrote this book with the gift of hindsight, pointing out the different situation her 23 year old self was in compared to the canon of young women coming to the big city. Mary McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and many others had peculiar troubles. Rakoff’s decision to place her memoir so explicitly both right in the middle of and between broad strands of tradition highlights everything that changed – and the things that have not changed. Two male authors in the book use their fiction to (imaginatively) violate women who wronged them, and Rakoff shows us how this impacts the discursive atmosphere. All of this is interesting and the book is an engaging read and I wish those things had come up in an overall better book. There is nothing at stake, there is no abyss, no real trouble drawing us in. I already mentioned the prose, which, unbelievably, was written by a poet (click here or here for some of Rakoff’s poems). Yes, it’s interesting that Rakoff copies and differently applies masculine self absorption, but that doesn’t make that insouciance a better read. In the end, I have to come back to what I said in the beginning. If books are something that’s important and vital to you now, if writing and thinking excites you still, skip the book. But you might know people whose passion for books never went away, instead it hardened and you can still see it in them, like Han Solo in his carbonite imprisonment. This book is perfect for those friends. It trades in nostalgia, it’s genuinely besotted with books, and it rewards knowledge of literary tradition.

One of my favorite poems about New York is this one.

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John Irving: In One Person

Irving, John (2012), In One Person, Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781451664126

IMG_20141001_012503So in my recent run of reviews I reviewed and discussed some writers I enjoy greatly. Among them perennial favorites. I however like to think that I am good at being reasonably, well, reasonable and reasoned about these matters. With a handful of writers, I just completely lose that ability. One of those writers is John Irving. I cannot, with any degree of certainty, tell you whether he’s a genuinely good writer. I know I love his work. I am excited for his books to come out, I enjoy his writing and characters and plots greatly, I’m just fundamentally a fan of his work. When I mentioned, in my review of Lawrence Norfolk’s last novel, that it was like comfort food when it came out after such a long period of silence, well, that’s how Irving’s work is for me all of the time. That is not to say that I don’t see faults in his work. It’s just that they don’t necessarily influence what I think of the books. A Son of the Circus, a highly problematic book, is also one of my favorites. I make exceptions for exactly 3 of his novels. I think his first two novels are markedly subpar, apprentice efforts, but many writers have those. And then there’s The Fourth Hand (2001), which I read the minute it came out and which turned out to be a sloppy, rushed self-caricature of a novel that I always somehow blamed on his preoccupation with what he called his “movie business”. Irving has since nicely recovered from it, publishing good to very good novels. His most recent one, In One Person may just be his best novel in many years, one of his very best efforts. As far as I can tell. A writer whose work I am so personally influenced by and indebted to is hard to recommend to others, but I can say this much: if you have read any other Irving book and enjoyed it, you will like this one, as well. In many ways it serves as a summary of a long and great career, touching on issues, tropes and ideas prevalent in many of his best books. That said, there’s a second group of readers to whom I can issue a definite recommendation: if you read any Irving and fundamentally disliked it, this is also not for you. It is not a book that will win over critics of his work. For everyone else, I recommend reading the rest of my review, maybe. In my opinion, In One Person, an interrogation of how the life that we led outlasts us, is a fantastic book, maybe even great.

DSC_0262The main problem with saying Irving is a great writer or calling any of his books great is how workmanlike he is as an artist. His prose is always well crafted, but designed to mainly stay out of the way of his characters and plot. It doesn’t make you stumble, nor does it invite you to stop and admire individual lines or paragraphs. In many ways he follows and echoes American literary traditions, but all the major writers of that tradition had a style that was important and remarkable. Irving’s stylistic unremarkableness is not something we associate with great writers. And yet, a page of mature Irving is instantly recognizable. This is not a case of a writer like Paul Auster who would be better off writing screenplays instead of novels. Irving’s unremarkableness is not an inept blandness, or the merely serviceable writing that you’ll find in a lot of genre literature. Irving intentionally strikes a tone that has just the right wavelength to support and cushion his characters. He’s well aware of where his style could go. I was introduced to James Salter’s writing through remarks in Irving’s books, and he championed Salter and other stylistically acute writers consistently. Irving just chooses, I think, to craft his style differently. This explanation of mine, however, is not only tainted by the fact that I am a fan of his work, it also doesn’t change anything about the literary surface of his work. It doesn’t make his novels more directly capital-l Literary. The signifiers that we take to show us literary excellence are sidestepped by Irving. It’s not just the prose. It’s also his plots and characters. Irving is very self-consciously literary, and includes metafictional artifacts in his work, playing with the ideas of authorial identity and authority, offering us postmodern epistemologies and games. In many respects, however, these seem extraneous to the emotional core of his novels, which is the interior landscape of his characters. Irving can marshal music, myth and miracles in order to show us the alienated heart of a teenager in the New Hampshire province, but we are never deluded as to where his focus is: it’s always personal and emotional. That kind of writing shares a lot with partisan political essays: they tend to primarily appeal to those already converted. If you fail to be empathetic to the emotional narrative Irving has to tell, you are bound to enjoy the book you’re reading much less. That is not how we conventionally frame Literature, which we frame as having an appeal even when its content is objectionable.

DSC_0260What’s remarkable is how little all of this seems to bother Irving. There is no attempt in his work to be more “respectable”, although the madhouse that is A Son of the Circus is not something that he tried his hand on again. Irving is one of the rare writers who know what he can do well and what he wants to do. He’s written some short stories, but his style and method are a much better fit for long-form books, and so his stories are restricted to a faily slim volume called Trying to Save Peggy Sneed (1996) which, while not bad, is clearly not where his strength lies. Irving describes himself as an obsessive writer who lives for his craft and puts in 12 hour days at the computer when he is drafting. His method, as he outlines it in his Paris Review interview, is one where he accumulates a lot of material, writing faster than he can read, just revel in telling a story, including digressions. It is only afterwards that he goes about revising and sculpting the novel. But however he cuts and forms the text, the core of it, the obsessibe torrent of story, that part always remains. Irving does not betray his characters, he works them out through stories and events. They are not intended to stand in for anything else, they are part of a storytelling process and are treated kindly, if sharply, by Irving’s pen. And that has a lot of downside to it. Because Irving has so little interest in the intellectual construction of his novels, some of the associations and references can be a bit difficult, because of course his characters do signify beyond their paltry selves. Of course they do, and not just within the symbolic order of the individual book, but also within broader social or cultural contexts. But these signifying acts are often a bit displaced and muddy, because they are not consistently worked out. That said, this doesn’t happen all that much, because, despite his protest (“I’m not an analyst and I’m not an intellectual.”), he does ground many of his books politically and intellectually. From his contribution to the debate on abortion and female choice (The Cider House Rules) to his examination of the American state of mind during the Vietnam war (A Prayer for Owen Meany) and now gay and bisexual rights with the new book, there is not a lot of room for political ambiguity, however his plots and characters shake out.

DSC_0261In fact, despite Irving’s own protests and many critical readings, his books are more delicate and analytical than they are given credit for. The most recent one, In One Person, is a perfect example of this. One could look at it as an involving and evolving story of a young queer man’s discovery of sexuality and maturity, and it certainly works well from this angle. Irving’s protagonist William/Billy Abbott has a clear and sympathetic voice. We are told his story from his point of view, moving back and forth with the vagaries of a 70 year old man’s memories. The joys, tragedies and revelations of Billy’s life are basically offered to us without buffering or caution. If his readers are willing to follow, Billy will lead them through a story that contains numerous affairs, changes, death and a magnificent amount of small set pieces that Irving has spent a lifetime of honing his skills at. There are intrigues, betrayals and a multitude of secrets. Bigotry attacks the good people in Irving’s book, and they strength and honesty often wins out. It’s a cauldron of stories, all of them centered around Billy Abbott and his librarian friend, Miss Frost. This description seems a bit broad because I don’t want to spoil many of the book’s lovely surprises and turns. Not because there is some dramatic tension that will be punctured, some criminal whose identity will be revealed too early. No, it’s precisely because In One Person is more than just one excitable wave of story. It’s a very delicate artifact that uses its revelations and explanations as means to draw you in, to make you an active, complicit collaborator in its theater of identity. Because that’s really what it is, an almost 500 page long disquisition on identity. It uses actual theatrical performances as a way to both develop the topic intellectually, as well as quite practically involve the book’s characters in staged performances that mirror personal instances of performativity. There are men living as women, taking up a theme that goes all the way back in Irving’s work to Roberta Muldoon, the former football player. who famously said in The World According to Garp, “All men are liars“ and who, as Irving hastened to add “knew this was true because she had once been a man.” There are men living as men but performing women onstage. There are gay men perfoming heterosexuality, and there are bisexual people who perform all kinds of things. People burst into rooms to find perfomances, staged and unstaged.

DSC_0241And yet none of this reads as stiff as I make it sound, because below it all is the story of Billy, whose sexual awakening is told in perfect pitch, this itself being a literary performance. Because to all the above to this is the layer of the book itself, handing us a character that is biographically similar to its author, and who, as a novelist, narrates the book. This raises the question of the book itself as performance, which is one layer among many. This Chinese box of tales of identity that ultimately engulfs the whole of the book itself is not, however, some idle game. We have to give up things for choosing our own performance. Some have to give up a public life, like Miss Frost, some have to live liminal lives that only fully flower onstage and some die. Death is what we start off with, and the specter of AIDS. Billy was born 15 years after Merrill, but his view of the great scourge of the gay community in the 1980s ressemble’s Merrill’s. In elegy after beautiful elegy, Merrill struggled with being the one who was alive while so many of his friends died. In “Tony: Ending the Life”, Merrill writes

Mirrors are graves, as all can see:
Knew this emerging mask would outlast me,
Just as the life outlasts us, that we led?

Mirrors are transient images, but the “emerging mask” is also a kind of performance. Merrill’s work is full of roles performed, and of people about to enter stages. AIDS threatened the freedom of choice in this, the ability to free yourself from the bigotry of decades past that was ongoing at the time. It’s important to read In One Person from this angle to see what’s at stake in all the minor squabbles. Overall, the novel is a long coming of age book for a 70 year old bisexual author, who lost friends and acquaintances to time and this terrible disease. The book being his own performance, he examines what will outlast him, and what has outlasted those in his life that already passed on.

DSC_0265On top of all that, the book itself, beyond its status as a partially auto/biographical performance, sometimes feels like a sampler of many elements of Irving’s work. There may be no bears, but as mentioned above, a Roberta-like character is moved from minor character to heroine, the whole book is set in a smart New Hampshire town, more precisely, in a New England boarding school. Billy visits Vienna and he becomes, briefly, a wrestler. Sports itself is treated as another performance that allows participants to actively engage in roles and rituals. This interaction with Irving’s whole oeuvre points to the centrality of art. Art doesn’t magically make everything better, but I suspect Irving would agree with the spirit of Merrill’s assertion in “Farewell Performance”, another elegy dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS. Merrill starts his poem saying “Art. It cures affliction.“ – in a poem about someone who died, who we cannot save by writing a poem however exquisite. But in examining braveness and honesty we can stand up to “pity and terror”, as Merrill framed it. Some might criticize Irving’s novel for taking on such a socially important topic in such an Irvingian and quaint environment, but they would fail to understand how important art is to this book. Or to its author. This is what he also implies when he says, in the aforementioned Paris Review interview: “I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex“ – it is also a moral stance. In case it’s not become clear, I consider John Irving an important writer, wherever he may be in discussions of canon. And In One Person is an important book.

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Jen Williams: The Copper Promise

Williams, Jen (2014), The Copper Promise, Headline
ISBN 978-1-4722-1112-5

Wiebe, Kurts J.; Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781607-069454

DSC_0171So through the years I have reviewed quite a few fantasy novels on this blog, but I am still looking for recommendations, and trying to understand contexts and history of the genre. As far as I can tell, the big caesura in the genre was JRR Tolkien’s entry on the stage of epic fantasy. A lot of what followed copied the structure of Tolkien’s books pretty closely, with some changes here and there. The most recent style of fantasy is “gritty” fantasy, which is now pretty much the predominant genre. Gritty means a certain amount of soi-disant “realism”, which mostly means more sex, way more violence and intential cruelty. Some writers have done interesting things with this, and people like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham and the mercurial talent N.K. Jemisin have taken the genre in new directions, mostly by offering a more sophisticated understanding of social issues. Jen Williams, a debut novelist, opts for a slightly different path in The Copper Promise and that is best summarized by the word “fun”. She is not interested in grit, not in realism, not in carefully constructed portrayals of nations and cultures. Honestly, the main instinct for me as a reviewer here is to squeal about the fun I had reading this book and how much fun I suspect the author had writing it. The other book I want to mention here is Rat Queens, written by Kurtis Wiebe with artwork by Roc Upchurch (pencils, ink and covers). The first trade, “Sass and Sorcery” has been out for a few months and it’s an equally joyful celebration of fantasy, yet also cognizant of gender issues and narrative holdovers from tradition.

DSC_0194Another distinction I should have made in my first paragraph is the one between epic fantasy and the sword and sorcery line of fantasy, which mainly inspired Jen Williams. More accurately, she appears to have been inspired by Fritz Leiber’s legendary novels featuring his heroes Fafhrd (not a typo) and the Gray Mouser, called the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers” by Raymond Feist. Epic fantasy tells us stories of nations and cultures. It usually contains stories of adventurers embedded within, but the stakes are a bit higher, and these books tend to offer elaborate maps in the back. In George R.R. Martin’s increasingly lackluster work we even find whole lists of ‘houses’ and their living and deceased members. None of this for Williams. The world is small enough to traverse with a dragon in a short amount of time, it contains roughly four recognizable areas or nations and the narrative tends to just “switch” areas to tell different stories in different places. Her tradition is that of Leiber (and Burroughs), of intrepid adventurers in a world full of wicked people and magic and strangeness. At the same time, she takes that tradition and spins it cleverly. But it’s not an intellectual exercise. This book is a big steaming cup of fun. If you like fantasy, but are bored by the epic fantasy line of writing and/or the ‘gritty’ type of fantasy, read this. In fact, if you like fantasy, read this. And if you like both fantasy and comic books, I implore you, read Rat Queens.

DSC01517The main characters in The Copper Promise are a pair of mercenaries, Wydrin, a female slender thief and Sebastian, a disgraced former soldier, a burly but conscientious man. The story uses Wydrin as a focal point although it is a third person narrative. As the book progresses, a wizard of sorts joins the two, as they endeavor to stop a gigantic dragon/god and her army from burning the whole world. The narrative moves us briskly along, and while we are never really surprised by the events, we are also never bored. The basic structure of the story is old fashioned in the best sense, a novel thoroughly happy with storytelling in the pulpy sense of the word. At the same time, the writing is always solid. Humorous, light and precise, a perfect storyteller’s tool. No fake archaisms, no purple descriptions of emotional agony or orientalist interiors. And this is not gritty. There’s none of the cheap glee many contemporary fantasy writers have in killing off or torturing ‘good’ characters. The story is paramount, not the self-regard of the writer. Have you seen Martin on a talk show, laughing his odd laugh when people ask him about all the characters he has killed off so far? He enjoys being that person. And increasingly, that shows in his work. Fritz Leiber’s tradition is different, a tradition of having fun telling a tale.

DSC_0172The basic setup of The Copper Promise already suggests similarities to Leiber’s work, but the connection goes further. On a superficial level, Jen Williams’ thief is nicknamed Copper Cat and puts stock in naming her knives, and not only is that also Mouser’s habit, but additionally, one of Mouser’s knives is called “Cat’s Claw” (and Mouser himself is “on the cat’s path”), as we learn in “Ill met in Lankhmar”, an early novella/story. There’s more, however. Fritz Leiber’s main audience were adolescent boys, and so there are women as decoration and the occasional odd sexually charged story. Moreover, Leiber’s stories, as far as I have read them, have a recurring interest in fatherhood, or more broadly, in the lasting ties created through sex, whether that would be offspring or families or tribes. A lot of his well known stories prominently feature these elements, from “The Snow Women” to “Lords of Quarmall”. In contrast to Leiber, Jen Williams’ audience are not adolescent boys, or not just, and her novel uproots many of the assumptions behind the use of those elements while keeping the elements themselves. She changes Leiber’s virile barbarian into a religious, conscientious soldier who gets the boot from his order due to his sexuality when his love for men is discovered. She gives the role of the irreverent thief with a big appetite for money, food and men to a female character. And while I can’t give details on this short of spoiling a major plot point, she offers a particularly inventive spin on the idea of masculinity and procreation. In fact, I enjoyed that part of The Copper Promise so much that I felt it got a bit short shrift. That’s the only real mark against the book: as you’d expect of a debut novel, it’s not extremely well balanced. Some parts are much longer than they’d need be and some interesting developments are handled in only a handful of pages.

DSC_0174Another aspect of the book is its love of telling stories. It’s not openly metafictional, like Rothfuss’ book with its framework is, but it offers an impassioned plea for the magic of words, and its more than just having magicians in the book, and magic words and scrolls etc. No, she offers us a take of personal awakening, a set of characters and their journey to discovering their identity, all of which happens through the act of reading words, discovering language as a thing in the world. Language, ordinary language seems so new, so magical to these characters that they start using it in lieu of names, picking new names out of the dictionary. This fascination with words and storytelling does not seem to me to be accidental. Indeed, Leiber is such an interesting choice for a young writer to pick up these days and signals an interest in the art of telling a plainly fun story. Interesting not because he is so unknown – in fact, there seems to be a kind of Sword and Sorcery renaissance in recent years, from movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars books to new Conan comics (with art by the fantastic Becky Cloonan, so you might want to have a look at those, too). No, interesting because the question of the value of “pure” storytelling is part of a public debate that featured most prominently one of America’s leading ‘serious’ novelists, Michael Chabon. In between his major novels, Chabon has consistently been publishing smaller texts, some of them nonfiction, some explorations of genre. One of them is Gentlemen of the Road, a historical novel set roughly in 950 AD in the Khazar empire. As Chabon explains in an afterword, he went off “on a little adventure” in it. He also explains the joy and importance of storytelling, of going beyond the confines of what he calls “late-century naturalism”. I feel a lot of fantasy in the “gritty” school of writing tries to defend itself by injecting that naturalism back into a genre literally meant to be fantastic. Chabon’s book is not a fantasy, and his stakes are much higher. His is a novel clearly written after the Shoah, offering a debate on Jewish identity that he would continue in what I think is his best novel so far, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But the discussion about “adventure fiction” and the appeal inherent in the form, it also applies to The Copper Promise, which stakes out a place for itself as fantasy adventure fiction, both smart and joyful.

Drakensang

Screenshot is not actually of one of the games I mention, but it’s a CRPG and it’s me playing a female protagonist, so there.

Another tradition that I found applicable, but that might not be intentional at all, is a much more recent one. Video games. More precisely computer role playing games, CRPGs, in short. Don’t look at me like that. I have played a few of them without being what they call ‘a gamer’- I don’t own a console and my laptop is rather old, that imposes inherent limits. But the new tradition of CRPGs gave role changes and especially stories involving women more of a push. Despite all the misogyny that is so rampant in today’s ‘gamer’ scene, the fact that these stories are more interactive, written by multiple authors and have to appeal more directly to an audience interacting with the game opened a large array of possibilities. In the arguably best CRPG ever published, Baldur’s Gate II, you play with a group of people, a group that you can staff with a large amount of female characters. Other, more recent games like Mass Effect, a CRPG in a science fiction setting, or Dragon Age, in the usual fantasy/middle ages setting, even allow you to pick a female protagonist or have a same-sex romance. All this is to say that I think video games, as much as they have supported and developed a new strain of misogyny among young men (recent events have been especially appalling), also have opened up vistas of action and thinking about things differently. The tradition Williams holds on to may be the Leiber kind of writing and I may be a horrible philistine here, but as I read the first 100 pages, my brain kept seeing the events in action, I kept translating them in my head into the familiar images of computer role playing games. And that’s not a bad thing. If you have ever played a classic CRPG, like the aforementioned BGII or Planescape Torment, what you come away with is a world alive with stories, and with humor and sadness and all the ingredients for a fun story. A lot of gritty fantasy has lost that by focusing on ‘serious’ stories, and I am not criticizing that. All I’m saying is that some writers, like early Robin Hobb on the epic fantasy side, and Jen Williams on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy, have a place in all of this too.

DSC_0170As do the Rat Queens. Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch collaborate on a story that is about mercenaries killing trolls, having sex with Orcs and generally getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The fights are frequently pretty bloody and the jokes can be a bit bawdy. What makes the story special, apart from the general excellence of the art and the clarity and humor of the writing, is that Wiebe and Upchurch took a story that generally uses women as decorations and moves them into the foreground. The four main protagonists are women, although not all of them are human. We are offered hints of complicated backgrounds and intrigues, although the first trade does not go beyond hints. First trades are, after all, rarely more than exposition. But there’s enough for us to become invested in the inner lives of these female mercenaries. A group of vividly drawn and varied female characters as the main focus of a comic book is not a frequent sight. What’s more, Rat Queens is much more clearly indebted to and comments on the video game genre. The story is placed before a background of routine “raids” of troll caves and other cliché targets, mimicking the ubiquitous “tasks” in role playing games. The first half of the book’s arc plays fast and loose with its references and the various traditions it finds itself in. It’s an exuberant kind of book and that has an effect on its readers. It’s been a while since I had quite this much sheer fun reading a comic book. Comics, as well as fantasy novels, have become “gritty”, telling their stories in literal and figurative darker colors. Frequently, haunted male protagonists have to deal with a violent and brutal world. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that kind of writing, but it’s such a relief when we find books like Rat Queens (or Kieron Gillen’s short lived arc on Young Avengers) that are much more invested in telling a colorful story. It’s a good time for fantasy and comics and both Rat Queens as well as The Copper Promise are excellent examples of that. And while Wiebe is already an established writer, there’s no telling where Jen Williams could go with her next books.

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Ned Vizzini: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Vizzini, Ned (2006), It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Hyperion/Miramax
ISBN 978-0-7868-5196-6

DSC_0247So as a matter of fact I tend to read quite a few novels written in the genre commonly referred to as “Young Adult” (YA), but I don’t think I’ve reviewed one yet (unless we count The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, cf. my review). There’s been quite a wave of those in recent years, with some of those novels clogging up the bestseller lists, including, very prominently, John Green’s sentimental exercises in mediocrity. With a few exceptions, the non-science fictional YA books tend to be a bit underwhelming. I am a fan of children’s fiction, but YA often replaces the linguistic openness and epistemological wonder of children’s fiction with a dour and moralistic realism. Writers like Green are better creators of plot than they are writers of prose. It’s mainly the age of his protagonists and the audience of his books that distinguishes Green from novelists serving the adult audience like Nicholas Sparks or David Nicholls. Part of the reason for this are the simple, sentimental plots. It takes the talent of writers like Rainbow Rowell to imbue these simple plots with some resonance, both linguistically as well as in the way these writers locate urgency and impetus in their books. Rowell’s breakthrough effort Eleanor & Park engages questions of body image and poverty, without having to mine them for sobs. A surprising (or not) amount of non-science-fictional YA novels go for the emotional jugular by presenting us with the Big Topics. Green tackled topics like cancer and suicide, other popular options include abuse, bullying or the Shoah. It’s a cheap and easy shorthand that manages to both lock into the angst of the target audience, as well as present a topic that is already moving as it is. In this context, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which looks at suicide, depression and high school pressure, could be seen as one of many more or less uniform books using suicide as a hook for its prospective teenage readers (click here for a goodreads list of recent/popular books dealing with the topic). However, it’s much better than that, I think. There is no doubt that it’s flawed, and that it could have used a very stern editor, as it sprawls over 400 pages, mainly because this writer apparently has difficulties saying no to himself. But the core of it is extremely well realized, and Vizzini manages to give us a story about depression and hope that has room to breathe, that does not hit us in the face with the sad plot and that has room for digressions. He has interesting ideas that go beyond the cold/cheap utilitarian logic of the common YA book. Even the undisciplined length and structure has a charm. Plus, suicide is always a hoot.

DSC_0245It’s Kind of a Funny Story was Ned Vizzini’s third book and second overall novel, and he retained the teenager focus of his earlier work, even though the book’s setting was inspired (according to the afterword) by events in Vizzini’s own life a mere two years prior. It’s hard to comment on the book’s structure because there isn’t a lot, apart from the chronological movement of the plot. But there are three distinct phases of the book, all three easily distinguishable. Vizzini’s character, 15 year old Craig Gilner, is a gifted child (the single most overused YA trope) who lives with his mother. They barely make ends meet and so his acceptance to the Brooklyn Executive Pre-Professional High School, a kind of elite high pressure high school, is a blessing and a curse. It is a drain on his family’s resources, but it also allows him the potential of ‘going places’. As is the case in many poor families, the talented offspring often carries the hope of the less fortunate older generations, and not always willingly. The first part of the book shows us his life with his mother and the way his life changes just by having the possibility of going to that school in it. He has to learn hard for the entrance exams, and feels constantly intimidated by friends who also apply and who – to him- seem so much smarter. Eventually, he ends up doing really well on his exams, entering the high school only to feel crushed by the pressures there. The double pressure of being a teenage boy, with crushes and insecurities and the obscure land of sex and booze just out of reach, combines with the new pressures of being in a high stakes, high expectation environment now. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student who, to top it all off, is also successful with girls. As he is starting to struggle with school work, he starts breaking down, a process that eventually results in suicidal ideation and a call to the suicide hotline and finally, a trip to the mental health ward of a nearby hospital. This is the third and final section of the novel and the one that readers and reviewers tend to focus on most, for obvious reasons. Vizzini, in a move that is either clever or tedious (I can’t decide), clearly constructs Craig’s experience in the hospital as an odd, and much less pressure filled, mirror image of Craig’s elite high school life. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say that things happen, insights are gained, cookie characters met and resolutions arrived at.

first page

First page

I know I am not making the book sound terrifically appealing right now, but hear me out. Because Vizzini has written a novel clearly reliant on and cognizant of a wide array of literary traditions, first of all. One of these is the phenomenon of the precocious child who has to cope with school pressure. I skimmed some reviews of the novel before sitting down to write this and there’s an awful lot that discuss how Vizzini looks at a modern phenomenon here. That, however, is clearly not the case, unless we have a very wide definition of modern. Two of the best (maybe the single best, actually) treatments of this topic are early 20th century texts, Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterful story “The Gym Class” (1899-1902) and Hermann Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel (1906). Rilke’s story is part of a whole wave of fascinating prose about Prussian military academies, much of it no longer in print, regretfully, and it features a boy who, during a gym class, pressured to perform, suddenly overextends himself so much that he collapses and dies. Rilke, who’s mostly known as a poet, was actually a fantastic prose writer, and this story, in the space of only a few pages, manages to offer up an atmosphere dense with pressure, with the need to conform, and, paradoxically, pushes a boy to perform better than his classmates. Since standing out by failing is not an option, he strives, in one tense moment, to stand out by being better. He rises above his fellow students, figuratively and literally (the exercise is rope climbing). Conversely, Hans, the protagonist of Hesse’s novel, goes down the other route – he fails, and this, in turn, breaks him. If Rilke’s story parallels Vizzini’s novel in spirit, Hesse’s book has more similarities. Hans is a gifted student from a poor background, who studies hard for an exam that would allow him to enter a prestigious school. The pressure on him is enormous. Like Vizzini’s protagonist, he suspends his entire life to study for the exam, and everything depends on him making it. Once he’s in, however, he starts caving to the increased pressure, both from the overwhelming expectations at school, as well as from his adolescent life. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student. Eventually, after some incidents, Hans has a breakdown, falls into persistent depression and commits suicide. Even though I believe that both texts are translated into English, and despite the similarities, it’s hard to say that this is consciously part of Vizzini’s tradition, but it does help in debunking the claims of a modern malaise being at the heart of the book.

Last page

Last page

Additionally, these texts only cover the first two sections of It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. The second half, set in the psychiatric hospital, probably feeds off the much more American tradition of psychiatric hospital books, from Ken Kesey’s classic to Susanna Kaysen’s memoirs, with books like The Bell Jar as links between one and the other. But Vizzini doesn’t care much for the difficulties of social pressures on less than privileged groups. Sylvia Plath’s subtly voiced distress of having to field the pressure of trying to be a high achiever and of being a woman in a society that increasingly treats women in contradictory and complicated pressuring ways, of having several goals some of whom contradict each other, none of this turns up in Vizzini’s book, which is very much a book about white male adolescent angst. Then again, it’s not as simple as that. Among the many things Vizzini throws at his readers in his rambling, associative narrative, is the fact that Craig Gilner is an artist and has one particular artistic obsession. It’s so central that it made it onto the book cover: he loves drawing maps. Not maps of real places as much as imaginary maps, of personalized cityscapes. He makes this intricate and inscrutable kind of art for people, creating portraits of them in the hard, straight and angular lines of maps. More than just an oblique reference to Korzybski’s dictum, the project thus is a kind of inverted psychogeography if that makes sense. The multifaceted theories of psychogeography grapple with the fact of architecture, with the way it suggests meaning and structure, and offeres ways of drifting, of playfully destabilizing that structure and meaning. In a way, Vizzini’s character re-imposes structure. He creates meaning through maps, using a visual language that we all identify with order and clarity. This is clearly part of the emotional core of the book. At the end of his 5 day stay in the hospital, Craig is happy. In just 5 days he gained a lot of insight into his life and the novel ends with a paragraph of affirmation. Craig, thanks to a benevolent mental health institution (contra Kesey and Kaysen), finds a new path, evading the fate of Hesse’s protagonist or Plath’s. Fittingly, the book’s language is calm and simple. It eschews dramatic or cheap shots, but it’s also a bit dull. It’s a lot like listening to an actual teenage boy prodigy tell a story for 400 pages. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes less so. And it’s very frequently funny, which makes the ending absolutely the one you’d expect. The ending ties up the whole story in one neat bow. There are no inconsistencies, no breaks. And then life intervened.

DSC_0246Look, I’m probably going to veer a bit off course here, so I apologize in advance. You can stop reading now, you know what I think of the book. And here’s another caveat: I know there’s always a danger of reading books autobiographically, and God knows I have a bunch of angry footnotes on that topic in my Bishop chapter. Scores of excellent scholars have pointed out, for example, that The Bell Jar should be read as fiction and not as veiled autobiography, but here’s the thing. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story itself makes the connection to Vizzini’s own life by pointing out that the story was inspired by a brief stay of Vizzini’s in a hospital in his early 20s. It’s hard, then, to disconnect the loud wishful thinking at the end of the book from Vizzini’s attitude towards his own mental well being. Vizzini killed himself in 2013 by jumping off the roof of his parents’ home. Last year, after Vizzini died, I reread the last paragraph of the novel (I added it as a picture above) and it sounds much more desperate, much more like a sad, fervent hope rather than a projection of personal happiness. Between Vizzini’s own stay at the hospital and his final suicide attempt were 9 years. Getting released from a hospital after a mental health breakdown is not like getting released after breaking a foot. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s mother, when Esther returns early from the hospital rather than having an extended stay, says “I knew you’d decide to be all right again”, misunderstanding the depth of her daughter’s condition, and indeed what follows soon after in the novel is one of the most harrowing and accurate descriptions of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide I have ever read (and I’ve read a few). As many writers, among them Jean Améry, have pointed out, there is no illness like depression for bringing out the unaffected but well meaning talking heads, especially when it comes to suicide. One of the worst things I have heard people say is “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” – I’m not sure 9 years qualifies as all that “temporary”. Similarly, when Ned Vizzini’s death was publicized, and again, when Robin Williams was found hanging from his belt a few weeks ago, Brad Listi’s literary podcast Other People aired an interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht, pop philosopher and poet, whose book Stay reminds me of nothing so much as the books on dealing with cancer that Barbara Ehrenreich skewered in Bright Sided. During the interview, both interviewer and guest were quick to point out that they never even came close to considering suicide. I’m not sure a person who is neither a trained professional nor someone who knows what they are talking about from personal experience should run their mouths about it. But that’s just my two cents.

DSC_0228Meanwhile, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is absolutely worth reading. You have to give it room, it lacks the tautness and discipline we tend to get from the YA genre, but it’s absolutely a worthy entry to a genre that now has a long and sad tradition. Vizzini captures the voice of his protagonist perfectly and the rambling narrative is part and parcel of that. And you know what, despite my leery comments on the hope at the end of the book and my grumbling about feel-good commentary, Vizzini himself, as far as I know, recommended what I call the charlatans of hope to his readers and fans, and while they clearly did not help him long term, 9 years are nothing to sneeze at and he helped many of his fans with similar struggles.

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China Miéville: Dial H

Miéville, China; Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli et al. (2013), Dial H: Into You, DC Comics
ISBN 9-781401-237752

Wood, Dave; Jim Mooney et al. (2010), Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2648-0

Pfeifer, Will; Kano et al. (2003), H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities, DC Comics
ISBN 1-4012-0168-7

DSC_0613   So, while I am a fan of comic books and do read quite a few of them, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the incredible amount of characters and complicated back stories. DC Comics is especially infamous for not just having complicated stories, but even multiple realities and universes, which they then attempted to collapse in amazingly readable and fun but convoluted “events”. Then, suddenly, DC decided to do away with all the accrued history and complications by relaunching all of its titles in 2011, calling the new set of books “the new 52”. This reset the stories on all their major titles, giving them new origin stories, and new slants. It also turned the DC universe somewhat more male, due to the fact that female creators were vastly underrepresented among the slate of amazing writers and artists, and also due to the fact that a lot of female characters either completely vanished, like fan favorite Stephanie Brown, or were declared dead, like Renée Montoya. Other female characters were revived as weaker or “sexier” versions of their old selves. And it’s not just female characters. The first waves of comics to come out seemed to have a decidedly conservative slant in how they were positioned vis-a-vis recent character history. One example is Judd Winnick’s Catwoman run, as compared to the more recent history of the character in the hands of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and others. However, DC also did something very interesting: they decided to use the bright lights of public attention in the wake of the relaunch in order to relaunch a bunch of much less well known characters, some of whom were pulled from DC’s more alternative imprints Vertigo and Wildstorm.

DSC_0628Frankenstein, for example, last seen in Grant Morrison’s book Seven Soldiers of Victory, was given his own title (written by the great, great Jeff Lemire), as were Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of whom had iconic runs with Vertigo. The characters thus revived are not all equally well known. While Swamp Thing is probably one of the best known ‘alternative’ properties of DC, they also offered much less well known characters and titles a spot in the limelight. One of these characters/properties is Dial H for Hero, a decidedly odd kind of title, with a very inconsistent publishing history. His revival could have gone either way. DC, however, asked China Miéville to write this title, and the result is incredibly good. I have been reading quite a few comic books during the past year, and some extremely good ones among them (I’ll probably review some of them in the near future), but Miéville’s Dial H is easily one of the best, if not the best among this crop of really excellent comics that have been coming out. If you have been following Miéville’s career (as I have), this will likely not have come as a surprise to you. Miéville has established himself as one of the leading contemporary writers of science fiction, and probably one of the better novelists in the UK regardless of genre. Even considering the regrettable duds like Kraken, his bibliography is full of inventive, smart, extraordinarily well written novels. The news that he would be turning his attention to comic books in order to write a title of his own had me giddy and excited for a year. I spent part of that year reading up on the history of the character or characters that would be featured in Miéville’s book. And as I found out, that is a peculiar history.

DSC_0606(1)Limited as I am to trade publications, I will focus on only two books centered on the “Dial H”-property. There were small instances of the title resurfacing in between, they were not, however, collected as trades. The first time comic book readers came upon the Dial H for Hero stories was in 1965, in the pages of “House of Mystery #165”. The stories featured a boy called Robby Reed who finds a strange apparatus that “looks like a dial…made of a peculiar alloy….with a strange inscription on it”. The “young genius” decipers the inscription running along the side of the apparatus and finds that it asks its user to “dial the letters h-e-r-o”. Intrepid young Robby Reed does just that and, lo and behold, he turns into a superhero. His whole physical appearance is transformed: he has become a giant, complete with a superhero uniform (that even has letters on the front) and somehow he knows that the hero he transformed into is called “Giantboy”. Using the powers of the character, he thwarts some evil villains, and returning home, dials o-r-e-h in order to transform back into his bespectacled mild mannered self. The boy turning into an adult superhero is highly reminiscent of DC’s Captain Marvel, which is a boy called Billy Bateson who turns into the superhero Captain Marvel by saying “Shazam!”. However, as far as I know, Captain Marvel (sometimes also just named “Shazam”) is always more or less the same guy. Robby Reed’s dial, however, turns him into a different superhero every time he gives his dial a spin. There is so much that is bad about this title, from the casual racism (at one point he turns into “an Indian super-hero – Chief Mighty Arrow” and is even issued a companion, “a winged injun pony”. When he is upset, he shouts “Holy Massacre” and wishes he could “scalp” a monster) to sexism (Robby’s love interest find the dial, dials “h-e-r-o-i-n-e” and turns into “Gem Girl” despite Robby’s warnings that the dial is not a toy, and he ends up forcing her to dial herself back into a girl “before she gets any more ideas”), and overall ridiculous writing. However, it’s some of the most incredibly inventive work I have ever seen.

DSC_0607Robby transforms into heroes that make sense, like Giantboy or The Human Bullet etc., but in one issue he transforms into geometric shapes with arms and legs, for example. Coming up with new heroes (although you can dial up old ones too, it’s basically a randomized selection out of a finite, but large pool) forced the writer of the books, Dave Wood, to dig deep. And Jim Mooney’s art perfectly realizes Wood’s wacky vision. It’s just so much ridiculous fun, and the Showcase volume is well worth your while. If you want an idea of the silly fun on offer, click here to see a selection of covers. After a while the Dial H for Hero stories petered out. There were various small scale revivals, including one in the 1980s by the great Marv Wolfman, also called Dial H for Hero, but since none of them have been published as trades, I can’t really comment on them. They introduced more characters spinning the dial and further enlarged the pool of super-heroes. I’ve had a look at the Wiki summary of Wolfman’s run and it seems delightfully insane, and it seems to have more of a coherent plot than the Wood/Mooney version, which is basically a gonzo one-off kind of thing in each issue.

DSC_0611Even more coherent (and initially at least considerably more down to earth) is the 2003 incarnation called H-E-R-O, written by Will Pfeifer and beautifully illustrated by Kano. That run went on for 22 issues, but for some reason, only issues 1-6 have been collected as a trade (called H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities). Pfeifer’s run features different people finding the dial and examines what happens to their lives when you add the opportunity to transform into a superhero. There is a young adult mired in a mediocre life, “making sundaes at minimum wage”. In order to impress a girl, and more generally as an attempt to “be someone”, he uses the Dial to unimpressive and even disastrous effect. A business man finding the dial becomes obsessed with it. A girl uses it to become popular at her new school, etc. The book was a bit of a letdown, even though the writing and art was just so much better than the Wood/Mooney version. But Pfeifer got rid of the ridiculous fun and inventiveness and infused the whole book with a dour morality, mostly lectures about being content with who you are and knowing your limits and being nice and industrious within those limits. Much more than the original book, the dialing device becomes a metaphor for situations that we all face in our lives etc. etc. I’m boring myself just describing it. For all the good writing and wonderful art that went into this book, it’s hard to recommend, because Pfeifer so consistently underwhelms. The idea of the dial is one of the most liberating literary devices I have ever seen, and to see it used in this pedestrian, moral, middle-class way was disheartening. If that was the direction that the Dial H for Hero story was going, I was worried about Miéville’s run presenting more of the same. Silly me. China Miéville blows Pfeifer’s run clean out of the water.

DSC_0626Miéville renames the series Dial H, and provides a spin on it that is equal parts original and respectful to the Silver Age original. The protagonist of the first trade is called Nelson Jent, and he’s an obese unemployed middle aged man, who, one night, is almost beat up by a group of lowlifes and, attempting to call the police from a phone booth, transforms into Boy Chimney. From that moment the reader knows that this is something else than the other titles in the Dial H for Hero series. And it starts with small details: Mieville, like many writers, offers us the thoughts of the characters that he focuses on. And as Jent transforms into Boy Chimney, his thoughts seem to transform, as well. Strange fragments enter them, and as Boy Chimney proceeds to beat up that gang, he appears to have a dialog with the consciousness of Nelson Jent. Additionally, Boy Chimney is very clearly not a super hero, as all the previous titles imagined them. He is a strange creature that has uncommon strength and unusual powers and abilities, among them the ability to use and command smoke. But it’s only Jent’s consciousness that keeps Boy Chimney from outright killing the brutal assailants in the alley. It feels less like Jent is genuinely transforming into a super hero, and more like a kind of symbiosis. And there is another basic difference: Jent doesn’t have to transform back by dialing the letters in reverse. He automatically returns to his normal self, “into the worst identity of all”, after a certain, variable amount of time has passed. Apart from this, the book’s early parts seem to be fairly straightforward. There’s a villain with a secret plan and he and Jent’s super heroes keep meeting and fighting. And then, the book quickly goes off the rails into the most incredible insanity. The villain, it turns out, is a “nullomancer”, a kind of wizard of nothingness, able to conjure and control nothingness, and her plan involves channeling an ancient beast called the Abyss, a strange thing composed of nothingness, but at the same time, containing universes.

DSC_0625(1)If this sounds absurd, I can assure you that Miéville makes it work on the page, and in his origin story, which closes out the trade, he offers a brilliant explanation for what the dial basically does. It’s hard to give you more details without spoiling the book, so I won’t, but the upshot of it all is that Miéville managed to tell a story that makes use of the incredible artistic liberties that the material has to offer, and yet it’s a book very determined to make sense, in multiple ways. What’s more, the art is not a let down. Would it have been a better book with JH Williams III at the helm? Possibly. But Mateus Santolouco, of whom I have never heard, does an excellent job. I was especially impressed by his work on the super-hero identities invoked by the dial. They are the most crucial visual element of the book, as they have to appear both plausible and iconical – and absurdly odd at the same time. As Boy Chimney leaps from the phone booth he is instantly alive on the page, as a scary, off the wall character. Almost as important are the colors, and Tanya and Richard Horie have done a simply magnificent job throughout the book. In my review of Brian Wood’s DMZ I have lamented the fact that the art seemed but a servant to Wood’s writing in the book, making for a less than great reading experience. That is not the case with Dial H. Even though Miéville is a famous award winning novelist, Santolouco brings a very distinct artistic vision to bear. The sketches in the back show how he worked on and tweaked the look of various superhero identities. Santolouco’s achievement is thrown into even starker relief by issue #0, which presents a kind of origin story, and is included at the back of the trade. Riccardo Burchielli valiantly tries to do justice to Miéville’s amazing script, but it’s an overall disappointing effort, compared to Santolouco’s work that came before.

DSC_0631The book has so many ideas, and one of them is an obsession with identity. With superheroes, we talk a lot about identities, secret and public ones, but that is usually a naming issue: what name do I use? What mask do I wear. Alternative takes on superhero narratives (cf. Millar’s Kick-Ass) suggest that wearing masks is liberating, but they don’t really discuss or problematize the core issue of identity. Miéville, as all his work so far has also shown, is very aware of how identity is tied up in physical forms and in cultural and social ties. The characters that Jent turns into appear to have their own memories, and while it turns out to be an issue more of colonialism and appropriation than of sociology and psychology, Miéville opens wide the doors for these discussions. In doing so, I think, he goes beyond even writers like Morrison, as he uses the iconicity and language of big publisher super-hero comics and examines it carefully. This is not another one of those books critical of ‘superhero myths’, and it doesn’t offer a grimy reality based taken on super heroes. There are enough of those around. No, Miéville embraces a lot of the central qualities of the genre and uses its language in order to interrogate it and tell an absorbing story at the same time. The best news? There is much more to come. For all the density of this book, it merely collects the first issues in an ongoing run. The next trade is due in January 2014. You should be reading this book.

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Jeff Smith: RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light

Smith, Jeff (2011). Rasl: Romance at the Speed of Light. Cartoon Books.
ISBN 978-1-888963-33-5

This is going to be a short review, because it’s a review of the third volume of a series that you shouldn’t start in the middle. You should start at the beginning. If you click here you can find my review of the first volume, as well as general comments on Jeff Smith’s remarkable work, and if you click here, you can find a review of the second volume. If you need a summary of all my reviews, here it is: RASL is one of the best creator-owned comics we currently have, and if you haven’t yet, you should start reading it as soon as possible. Jeff Smith is one of the best graphic novelists of our time. Read him now. The whole RASL project has been, from the start, a fascinating undertaking. In its mixture of myth and science fiction, it resembled Terry Moore’s extraordinary (recently finished) Echo (see here my review of the first Echo trade), but with a much darker and twisted core. Readers coming to find a second Bone will be disappointed. This is no warm, full, engaging fantastical tale. The richness of Bone’s woods, mountains and ravines is in stark contrast with the desolate stretches of desert we’re offered in the RASL books. It’s really hard to believe that the same writer who gave us the gorgeously detailed rat monsters and fantasy foliage in Bone is the same that creates vast expanses of white emptiness in RASL. While I’m obviously commenting on a work in progress, it seems clear that there is less consolation in Smith’s most recent work than in his most famous books. The warm heart of Bone was palpable in its protagonists, the cartoonish Bones, and the lovably odd villagers. Even the monsters threatening to destroy the idyllic life are drawn with a playful love for furs and twinkles and the humorous moments of epic adventuring. True, there was much drama as the story of Bone unfolded, and a serious tragedy at the center of it, but it was all part of a much brighter, more colorful whole. RASL, on the other hand, starts off on a bleak note in volume one and maintains that mood throughout the second and this one, the third volume. Even the glimpses of love and sexual relations are shrouded in the anticipation and memory of loss and impending doom. By the third volume, sex is presented less like a loving act, and more like a desperate way to be less broken, less alone, less adrift in a multitude of worlds.

RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light is the best installment so far, as expected. It is the first time the plot and its characters really come together. I admired the way Smith took his time with the plot, without offering his readers easy satisfaction. The first volume, RASL: The Drift, is full of mysteries, full of beginnings and ideas, and it’s not an easy book to figure out. There was never any doubt that the end result would be magnificent, but the exact direction was unclear, as we readers were left impatient asking for more. And just as the first volume was full of beginnings, so the second volume, RASL: The Fire of St. George, was clearly transitory. Instead of whispered hints and intriguing settings, we were offered more muscular developments and a great deal of information was injected into the book. It seemed as if Smith tried to make up for the vagueness of the first by being extremely specific in the second volume. As a read it was much different, but every bit as brilliant. In it, Smith treats us to the (by now well known) story of Nicola Tesla and fleshes out most of the principal characters and their relationships with one another. Additionally, we are offered more background on the protagonist, and how he came to be this disturbed traveler between worlds, haunted by guilt, and driven by something dark lodged deep inside. Finally, we are introduced to the book’s MacGuffin, Tesla’s journals, which contain some powerful, brilliant secret that Rasl, as the books’ protagonist is called, endeavors to hide from his friends and the government. Tesla’s brilliant ideas have often served as pivotal elements in science fiction or steam punk culture. One of the most recent examples is Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige, where Tesla’s near-magical science provides the mechanics of one magician’s attempt to reproduce another magician’s magic trick (which, as it turns out, was achieved in a much more profane and simple (though not easy) way).

Indeed, The Prestige is a fitting reference because of how the RASL books are perched at the divide between magic and science. In fact, we might be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, stating that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In Smith’s work, magic is replaced by religion and myth, but the basic question remains: if something extraordinary happens, is it a scientific success or a miracle in a religious sense? The third volume puts considerable emphasis on this part of the book. As our memories of Tesla’s historical experiments slowly recede, we fall back into the protagonist’s attempts to fully make sense of what’s happening in his rapidly expanding world. Government agents are added, and questions of self and reality are invoked again, but most importantly. Smith evaded providing a faux-scientific explanation for the dimension-jumping. Instead, he confronts his readers with the bleakness of a man lost between multiple copies of the woman he loves and the multiple worlds that woman lives on. Rasl has no great plans: when he jumped into another dimension, he did so impulsively, and ever since, his actions have been less driven by careful deliberation than by impulsive acts. The first of the (so far) three books gave off a strong noir vibe, which is more expounded upon in this volume that affords more space to Smith’s protagonist. Like a character straight from Hammett’s pages, Rasl drinks in order to deal with the labyrinthine world around him (although in Smith’s work, the effect the world has on Rasl is a palpable, violent one as dimension-hopping exerts a heavy price on the person doing the hopping), he is quick to threaten and execute violence on other men, and his sexuality doesn’t lead to happiness or peace, au contraire, it’s as desperate and violent as everything else in his new life.

Like all extraordinary works of science fiction, Jeff Smith’s RASL books use the freedom afforded by the added and changed vocabulary in order to tell a story about the world that discusses issues on the fringe of knowable and expressible facts. Tesla’s scientific work proves to be a red herring, as it is his journals, which contain a secret discovery that makes sense of the scientific and metaphysical puzzles of the books, journals which are treated just like sacred texts. In Smith’s art, we are also presented with technically advanced objects that look like mythical or ritual artifacts. With every new issue, Smith continues to put the screws on what we feel can be easily said. He works within the languages of masculinity and violence, but at his hands, they blossom into possibility. Jeff Smith is a very good writer who, so far, had written two vastly different masterpieces, Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil. RASL, still a work in progress, is ready to join their ranks. When it’s finished it might well be his finest achievement yet.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

William Attaway: Blood on the Forge

Attaway, William. Blood on the Forge, NYRB
ISBN 9781590171349

Blood on the Forge, originally published in 1941, is an interesting read. Its author, African-American novelist William Attaway, is perhaps best know today as co-writer of Harry Belafonte’s “Bananaboat Song“. His only two novels have deeply sunk into the obscure chasm of American literary history, much less successful than those by contemporaries like African-American novelist Richard Wright. Lucky for us, Blood on the Forge was rescued from oblivion by the invaluable NYRB Classics imprint. It’s not a perfect book by any means: for a short novel, it has quite a few dull stretches, and oftentimes, its author seems more interested in the story he’s telling and its political and historical contexts than in the telling itself, which is never a good sign. Despite all this, it’s a novel well worth reading, because Attaway crams it full of ideas and tangents and fragments. As a novel, there is a lot wrong with it, but as an overall reading experience, it’s a trip worth taking. When it was published, Attaway was all of 30 years old, and upon finishing it, his desire to create long-form prose narrative seems to have been finished with it. The rest of his career was spent by writing song-books, songs, and screenplays. Blood on the Forge, like Wright’s and fellow realist novelist Upton Sinclair’s work, is very much of its time, and aesthetically it’s hit-and-miss, but the fact is, it’s a damn remarkable book to end one’s career on, and fittingly, it contains enough details, energy and conviction for several more novels. I’ve never read a novel quite like it, and it feels more knotty and interesting than many more highly praised and well known novels of its era, which is enough reason to recommend it. Read it, dammit, and maybe NYRB can be persuaded to publish Attaway’s debut novel, as well.

Meanwhile, this is how Blood on the Forge begins: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar. You have to be native to the red clay hills of Kentucky to understand that.” We as readers are plunged straight in the middle of a heartbreaking tale of poverty and hunger. A family of African-American farm-workers, consisting of three brothers (called Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown), their mother, and Hattie, a strong and opinionated woman married to the oldest brother, is struck by tragedy as the mother dies while plowing the fields. In a fit of rage, Big Mat kills the mule pulling that plow. Now, however, the family, poor to begin with, finds itself completely unable to pay its debts, let alone pay for food or seeds or a new mule. As the desperate foursome attempts to somehow salvage the situation, events spiral out of control and the three brothers end up having to flee their home. It’s quite remarkable how well and densely woven this initial situation is. The novel never really looks back on “the red clay hills of Kentucky”, telling a story of steel mills in the North, but like so much of Attaway’s book, the setting and scene are incredibly rich with meaning, resonance and context. As Big Mat kills a white overseer in a fit of rage, we might forget what century we’re in. It’s like a tale straight from the late Middle Ages, where a peasant fights back against his lord and ends up having to flee the place he’s from. The contrast to the industrialized setting of the bulk of the novel is striking. The steel mill tell us: this is modernity, greasy, violent, dirty modernity, but the three brothers come from a world closer to the Middle Ages in social structure and outlook than to the 20th century.

This is significant, because the period the book is set in is a very specific historical period, the so-called Great Migration (1910-1930), and there are multiple stories of the Great Migration, two of the most well known (apart from Blood on the Forge) being Black Boy, Richard Wright’s absolutely extraordinary autobiography (originally published in 1945), and Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove’s Pulitzer-winning 1986 collection of poems about her grandparents who came to the North during that same period (a book that seems to be inspired in part by Attaway’s novel, by the way, Thomas and Melody sharing significant similarities). Attaway’s medieval brutality and feudal structure isn’t found in either of these books, and it seems to make a very specific and pertinent point about the society that Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown escaped from by making us aware how many degrees of civilized development co-existed within the same country in the 20th century. The man Big Mat killed might as well have been their liege lord for all the difference it would have made in this tale. But there is even more to this short early section of the book. We are, within the first three pages, made aware of the horrific misogyny of that society. It’s not just the fact that women, throughout the book, seem one-dimensional vessels to be used by the men, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also the absurd hatefulness with which all the book’s men seem to treat all the book’s women. As Hattie makes a cogent point, albeit in simple language: “We jes niggers, makin’ the white man crop for him. Leave him makin’ his own crop, then we don’t end up owin’ him money every season”, the novel imparts on us Melody’s perception of the situation, describing it this way: “Hattie kept at Big Mat, driving him crazy with her talk, blaming him for everything.”

This ‘hysterical screaming woman’ stereotype is used fairly often in Blood on the Forge and one would be tempted to see this as reflective of the author’s or at least the novel’s bigoted attitude towards women. It’s the densely packed beginning of the novel, however, that tells us this is not the case. Very clearly, the author shares Hattie’s disdain for wanting to obey the basic social and economic structures in place. Hattie, like other women later in the book, is a sensible character in an impossible situation. It’s interesting that Attaway seems highly aware of the fact that African-American women are oppressed in at least two different ways, both as African Americans and as women. The novel, largely channeled through Melody’s perception as it is, repeatedly offers us male misreadings of situations. As the novel hurtles towards its end, it’s the ravaged and desperate female characters that stood out most for me, although eventually, all women tend to fall by the wayside in this tale of three brothers. Their masculinity is not an asset, although at times it may seem like it. The novel contrasts Hattie’s sensible observation with this grandiose assertion of Big Mat, who (having murdered a man, and hopelessly in debt and with no way to pay for food) is in the process of convincing himself that leaving Kentucky is a good idea:

Ain’t nothing make me leave the land, if it good land. The hills bigger’n any white man, I reckon. Take more ‘n jest trouble to run me off the hills. I been in trouble. I been born in trouble. Shareworked these hills from the bad land clean to the mines at Madison. Now the land done got tired. (…) The land has jest give up and I guess it’s good for things to come out like this. Now us got to give up too.

Compared to Hattie, Big Mat is a silly sentimental fool who arrives at the correct conclusion by way of a strange and archaic process of reasoning. This, too, will be repeated in the rest of the book in various guises. There is no sympathy with Big Mat, whose obsessive but dispassionate relationship to a prostitute later in the novel is described like this:

Big Mat had slapped her around. He had made love to her tired body. It had not responded to either. He had gone to work twice and come home twice. Everything remained the same.

You can spent ages unpacking just this beginning of the novel, which isn’t more than a prelude, and introduction to the characters before putting them on a train north. At the same time, Attaway states most of the book’s concerns in an incredibly precise and concise although not always aesthetically pleasing way.

The rest of the novel develops and examines concerns that are already embedded in the early sections. The three brothers move north, and find work in a steel mill. Various disasters happen to them, and not all of the three will make it out of the ensuing tumults and turmoils. Big Mat meets and falls for the aforementioned prostitute. He is accepted by the Irish workers because of his strength (to quote one of his co-workers “He’s got some Irish in him somewhere […]. Lots of Black fellas have got Irish guts.”), but accidents, fights, depression and their fellow men wear all three brothers down in a book that always feels oppressive and dark. You’re not surprised by any bad turns because you sort of expected them to come. All this is not as simple as it sounds. The whole novel is as densely packed as the beginning and offers a multitude of ideas to work with. These things alone make it a novel worth reading. But there’s more.

It’s a novel about the Great Migration that turns into a book about industrialized oppression and the evils of exploitative capitalism; true, novels by more famous writers on the same subject, like Upton Sinclair’s 1906 masterpiece The Jungle are still in print, and are reprinted in multiple classic editions. But Blood on the Forge offers a vital antidote to the racism prevalent in many of these books. Sinclair and many of his contemporaries depict strikebreakers in labor conflicts as being black, which wouldn’t be so bad, if strikebreakers were not usually described as a villainous mass of people. In The Jungle, Sinclair speaks of “a throng of stupid black Negroes”, and feels obliged to offer this assessment of this group of people he just demonized in a few brushstrokes:

The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free,–free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.

William Attaway’s novel offers us the other side of the story. When he has someone tell us early on: “[People] always hate new niggers round here [because] the company bring them in when there strike talk. Keep the old men in line.”, it is an obvious reference to the long history of radical American prose with black strikebreakers playing the role of henchmen to the company bosses. This is remarkable in and of itself, but what’s more striking (no pun intended) is the fact that he doesn’t sacrifice a more general awareness in the process, which elevates his novel beyond those of writers with less generous empathies and more narrow awarenesses. And there’s so much more. I haven’t even touched on the two other brothers and their (significant) roles in the book, including most prominently, Melody’s music and Chinatown’s limitations, I haven’t begun to touch on the nature/culture rift discussed by the novel. You could write books and books about this novel. And this is its biggest weakness. With all the stories and ideas, there’s not much room for the slow business of literary perspicacity. But the riches the book offers more than make up for any of its shortcomings. Read this book.

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Hunter S. Thompson: Hell’s Angels

Thompson, Hunter S. (2009), Hell’s Angels, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-04187-2

Hell’s Angels, originally published in 1966, holds up remarkably well these days. It’s a wonderfully readable piece of journalism, exhibiting a singular literary voice finding its bearings and its author, Hunter S. Thompson, stands today as one of the most astonishing American literary figures of this past century. His vast work is yet to be collected and properly editorially assessed, but at least it’s out there, in many great editions, and almost annually something new is added. The most recent publication was a selection of his interviews, published as Ancient Gonzo Wisdom (highly recommended), and in 2012 the third and last volume of his letters, which has been delayed for a few years now, will hopefully be published. His work is political, it is both loud and tender, the work of a sensitive literary talent driven to the brink by a disintegrating country and the oppressive forces of the ‘silent majority’. Within less than ten years after seriously taking up journalism Thompson exploded onto the literary scene and evolved more and more into the brash, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting madman known the world over. Thompson traveled through his own and other countries, trying to assess the madness, the violence and hate that seemed to crop up everywhere; as a reaction to that he developed his signature style, ‘Gonzo Journalism’, or, as he called it “Total Subjectivity, as opposed to the bogus demand of Objectivity”. He is often carelessly lumped in with Mailer, Wolfe and Talese and the rest of the reactionary ‘New Journalism’ pack, when, in fact, his brand of genius is completely, unmistakably different. Thompson belongs to distinct literary tradition that includes writers like those of 19th century German romanticism. He does it, however, with an added strong dose of resentment and, well, loathing. Additionally, Thompson was, at least for a sizable portion of his literary career, an incredibly sharp and sober observer of the world around him, and a valuable commentator on culture and politics.

His best books are probably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In these two books he honed both his observations and his mastery of language and registers to a fine point. These are extraordinary achievements, among the finest achievements in journalistic writing in the 20th century, written with urgency, clarity and fantastic stylistic instincts. However, Thompson’s madcap persona with all its idiosyncrasies (immortalized as Uncle Duke by Garry Trudeau), the drugs, girls, and the later pressure of having to be the oddball, drinking whiskey, shooting his dozens of guns and making mad statements, all this fell back on his work and harmed its precision and even the urgent tone of much of it. The rest of his work, although it contains standout masterpieces like The Curse of Lono (1983) and Kingdom of Fear (2003), is less consistent, less overall fantastic. It really is those ten years between 1965 and 1975 that Thompson was at the top of his game, producing work that has entered the American literary canon long since. Hell’s Angels, his first book in that decade, is clearly the work of a writer still learning to use his voice, but it’s still a hell of a read, worth reading and rereading, worth thinking about and discussing. There’s a reason why this book keeps being reprinted in dozens of editions, and it’s not (or not only) its sensationalist subject matter. The book finds Thompson mingling with the infamous motorcycle gang, accompanying them on runs, following them to one of Ken Kesey’s legendary parties, hanging with them at bars. The central epiphanies, the turning points of the book are all buttressed or informed or even prompted by events witnessed by Thompson, although he has not participated in most described events in a book that is as more a history of the Hell’s Angels as it is a first hand account of their dealings. That said, Thompson’s use of his own experience is strategically placed to provide a sound, personal foundation to a slightly meandering narrative.

Hell’s Angels consists of four chapters and a postscript. The first chapter and the postscript are introductions and conclusions to the story of Thompson’s encounter with the gang. Technically speaking, the first chapter in particular is wonderfully done, conveying at once a general impression of the men on their bikes, their particular impression on Thompson and in his life, and a sense of cultural context. This first, short chapter, titled “Roll em, boys” contains in nuce much of the structural complexities and themes of the book to come; it feels like a finished, painstakingly crafted text. This, incidentally, is true for the entire book. It wasn’t until around 1972 that Thompson abandoned his careful drafting. This book is amazingly well wrought, merging disparate elements like newspaper articles, experiences and historical excurses into a rollicking, coherent narrative. If you come to this book looking for the slightly mad Thompson of his later work, you’re not going to find him here. The author of this work is a thoughtful, ambitious and thoroughly talented young man walking a thin line between outrageous experiences and sober research. There is no element here that feels accidental, nothing out of place; every description and every phrase is purposeful and effective. There is something excessive about Thompson’s post-1972 work, which is part of an attempt to provide a non-reductive view of the world, a reporting that contains all the chaos within the limits of an essay or a whole book. That is not yet the case in this book. The author of Hell’s Angels clearly worked from the assumption that you can impose a frame and a narrative on something like “[t]he Menace, […], like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus”. The language is impassioned, literary and sober, depending on the section or chapter. Except for the postscript, every chapter is a mixture of lived events and cultural and historical criticism. The two-page postscript describes the event that put an end to Thompson’s close association with the gang (this is expounded upon in this unforgettable TV interview). The longest of the chapters in between first chapter and postscript, “The Hoodlum Circus and The Statutory Rape of Bass Lake” is the most impressive and has remained the most controversial section of the whole book.

It’s the most impressive because, 100 pages into the book, this is the first extended description of Thompson’s year with the biker gang. At its center is the annual 4th of July run, a “run” being a mass outing of one or more motorcycle gang on a particular weekend of boozing, playing and fighting. The impression of a horde of bearded, black-clad motorcycle enthusiasts descending on some small Midwest town is fearsome, and in 1964, when the 4th of July run takes place that Thompson took part in, the locals in Bass Lake, where that year’s destination was, are forewarned, and were armed to the teeth. The run allows Thompson to explain the group mechanisms active in the Hell’s Angels and also to show how at that time regular people, cops and the gang members interacted. As everywhere else in the book, this chapter is only roughly linear, jumping to different events that happened before and after the run, explaining cultural backgrounds and specific prejudice. One of those explanations, and probably the most extensive one, as well as the one that made the book controversial, is centered on the topic of sex and rape. The Hell’s Angels are portrayed as insatiable purveyors of sex in various forms. They are casually sexual in contact with one another, but what’s an issue is that they regularly gang rape women. It is uncomfortable to read through a long, repeated account of abuse directed at women, and to have to listen to the Angels’ ridiculous self-important defensive explanations. What’s worse is that in many cases, Thompson appears to be standing close by, his tape recorder turned on, his journalist’s ears twitching, doing nothing. The book itself also contains no condemnation of this sexual practice. All this is difficult to read, but it is, critics often assure us, somewhat cushioned by the general air of disapproval that swathes the whole book. Thompson makes it clear that he does not agree with the vaguely right wing, misogynist, violent attitude that defines much of what the Hell’s Angels stand for. But he doesn’t condemn them except in some strategic instances, because they are not the (only) enemy in his sights. This trade-off of ‘real’ enemies vs. actually observed victims is itself violently misogynist in structure and makes this book, like many other instances in Thompson’s work, deeply disturbing to the reader.

Unlike a lot of his later work, and despite the impression that the past two paragraphs might have conveyed, the participation of the author in the events described in the book is actually much less central. At its heart, Hell’s Angels is arguably less about the havoc wrought by the bearded, carelessly violent gang members, than it is about the narrative, the evolving legend of the Hell’s Angels, engineered by lazy and bigoted journalists and lazy and bigoted local politicians. This is not to say that Thompson approves of the methods of the gang he observes. He does not. But the intellectual focus of the book is still on the distortion created by the national and local press, and the effect this has on local communities and the Hell’s Angels themselves. At one point, late in the book, he writes

I was not surprised that the eight articles gave eight different viewpoints on the riot, because no reporter can be on every scene and they get their information from different people. But it would have been reassuring to find a majority agreement on something as basic as the number of arrests; it would have made the rest of the information easier to live with.

This passage, and others like it, displays a disappointment with his colleagues that provided fertile grounds for the journalistic cynicism that completely pervades his book about the 1972 presidential campaign, wherein he gleefully recounts facts and rumors he made up and spread through the newsroom. By contrast, Hell’s Angels is conscientious in its use of facts and numbers, and frequently compares public and journalistic rhetoric with the facts on file, a concern that was front and center in his work as early as 1965, when he published a newspaper article in The Nation (read part of it here) about the gang and their alleged exploits. In his book, Thompson quotes Kierkegaard, who said that “[t]he daily press is the evil principle of the modern world“, and yet the book itself is a masterpiece of journalism; this is not a contradiction. The attack on the ‘daily press’ is of course not an attack on all journalistic endeavors, but an attack on the outrage machinery that is fueled by politicians and journalists alike, a machine that enforces a strict (and sometimes irrational) moral code on everyone by steering public opinion in the right direction. Thompson shows how politicians and journalists support each other in building a narrative that has surprisingly little connection to the world of facts and figures. This is impressive, and always well done. But he doesn’t stop there.

It’s the peculiar nature of the Hell’s Angels that allows him to show how these narratives then influence the world outside, not just by turning the population against the invading motorcyclists. They also affect the Hell’s Angels themselves. In an early chapter, Thompson points out to what extent the Hell’s Angels were a product both of scaremongering journalism and of popular culture. Apart from the influence that films like Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels had, a veteran gang member is quoted as saying “We were all Marlon Brando”, describing the effect of the 1953 film The Wild One on early 1950s motorcycle groups. That film itself is based on the so-called Hollister riots, a 1947 motorcycle rally that got out of control. The Hollister riots were greatly exaggerated by the press, in particular Life magazine, and were thus turned into material befitting a sensationalist movie. But here is where Thompson’s definition of his own work and of journalism enters the picture. Journalists like the ones working for Life, who pretend to present a sober account of the facts, can and should be held up to these standards. After all, there’s a whole poetics of journalism writing based around the use of tenses and phrases that create just that impression of objectivity. Thompson’s take on this has two aspects. On the one hand he points out how so much of mainstream journalism supports political narratives, pursuing a narrow agenda, instead of being ‘objective’. On the other hand, he rejects the basic idea of journalistic objectivity e vestigio and instead pursues a very subjective kind of journalism, one that is open and honest about the place of the writer within his narrative and the wider framework of truth and objectivity. Something that he would manage more seamlessly in his later work is still a very obvious affair in this book: he takes pains showing us not just where he was in events he describes. He also turns the use of sources into a narrative, discussing his tapes, his research and talks with outlaws. There is no information in this book that isn’t accounted for and completely tied to its author. There is no pretense of an objectivity beyond what limits the author has.

And yet, this is no weakness. The example of The Wild One is instrumental here. In the same section that I just mentioned, he closes by saying that the movie,

despite an admittedly fictional treatment, was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge (…), it told a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film.

In all of Thompson’s written output, there is really no better summary of his poetics than this. It well describes what he was to focus on from then on: telling a story that is bigger than the event actually described, a story that tells a larger truth, and a story that does not just repeat the same old mendacious narratives. The exaggeration that he often uses is not a deviation from truth, but it serves to put what’s really true into sharp focus, which probably reminds most of us of Adorno’s claims in his classic “Kulturindustrie” essay. Within the searing pages of Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson isn’t yet the genius writer that he would turn into a few years later, but he’s damn close. The book is a fantastic read of course, written and constructed by one of the biggest and smartest literary talents of his time. But it also shows the direction that his and others’ work would be taking soon. It contains the beginning of an age in its beautiful and clear pages. There are so many reasons to read this book. Pick one. Read it.

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