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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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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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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