Wyl Menmuir: The Many

Menmuir, Wyl (2016), The Many, Salt
ISBN 978-1-784630485

So, to get things out of the way, this is a novel about grief, some of it quite affecting. Short books about grief are not uncommon. Max Porter’s debut novel(la) Grief is the Things with Feathers is an example of a well-executed book about grief and loss, as is Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel or Joan Didion’s memoir. The worst book I’ve read on the subject in past years was John W. Evans’s plodding and whiny Young Widower. Grief, whether autobiographical or not, is a powerful emotion for writers to mine, and I think it shows overwriting and overdetermination like few other genres. The stark simple fact of death and loss is so severe that it asks of the writer to be particularly mindful of the words and forms they are using, in contrast to writing about other strong emotions like love and desire, which can take a bit of overwriting, and in fact are sometimes enhanced by it. Max Porter’s examination of grief worked so well because he created a metaphor that carried much of the load for him; additionally, he used a language that was spare but not bland, with a fine sense of where to slip in and out of the events. Max Porter’s success was particularly interesting as he was one of the first of the recent wave of people from the “book industry” (Porter is a Granta Books editor) to come out with a fiction debut. Another one was literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel Did you ever have a family was longlisted for the 2015 Booker.

Editor and consultant Wyl Menmuir added his name to that list with his own Booker-longlisted debut The Many. It is a solid book, written by a man with solid literary taste, a clever imagination and solid literary skills. Like Max Porter, Menmuir opted to write about grief, and like Porter, he uses an allegory to carry the reader through the story. But Menmuir is what I like to call a meddler – he writes the allegory in a way that requires him to “reveal” the mechanism behind it at the end, and he keeps dropping hints, in a prose that’s sometimes simple, and sometimes egregiously overwritten. Curiously, his set-up didn’t need him to use some of the tools of (magical) realism, and yet, in the first 3/4ths of the book, that’s what he does over and over – and these are not his strengths. In German, we say of mixed affairs like this that they are weder Fisch noch Fleisch, neither fish nor meat. And that’s what you get here – a good idea, a powerful emotion, and a writer who kept meddling in his own book, adding stuff here and there, resulting in a book that feels mostly like a missed opportunity. The idea could have made for a much stronger book, a truly affecting, moving, maybe even terrifying little novel. Instead we get a book that’s in between genres, in between styles, in between registers. If this book didn’t have the Booker sticker on the cover I wouldn’t have read it – to be honest, I might not have finished it. It’s a solid book, and quite short, so…maybe read it?

I’m not giving away the novel’s resolution here, and won’t describe how the allegory connects. But for 2/3rds of the book, it’s not really material how the allegory works – it’s true, you can go back and some curious passages work differently after you have more details on the allegory, than they did when you read them for the first time. At the same time, you’re always sort of aware that this is an allegorical set up, with various elements too staged, too portentous to work as realism, even magical realism. This makes the novel sometimes difficult to assess – a first reading is, after all, the most immediate, most important reading of the book. The book that came to mind as a comparison immediately was Graham Swift’s masterful novel Waterland. Now, Swift’s novel is so good that it is practically sui generis; I’ve not read another novel even by Swift that can compare with it. That said, it’s hard not to feel Menmuir draw from the same well in his set-up. The setting of The Many is a small fishing village dealing with a recent death. A young man named Perran has died. There is a general sense of gloom, and much of it feels immediately isolated and allegorical, but at the same time, Menmuir sets up a sense of place that could well be a real fishing village. He draws on the same sense of interconnection of history and nature that drives much of Waterland. We have a real sense of how this fishing village economy works, including an ominous representative of EU fisheries regulations. Into this village comes a man who is himself burdened with a recent loss. This man, Timothy, takes up residence in the house that was until recently occupied by Perran and is still full of his things. Again, we get a real sense of how objects interconnect with the life and history of the village and the many superstitions, habits and rules that are part of that life.

None of this is necessary for the allegory, mind you. If you step away from the text, you can see the allegorical bones of it, with the house, some of its furniture, the village and its inhabitants and a forbidding line of container ships that forms a taboo barrier for the fishermen. All the magical realism, all the Graham- Swiftness of the text is additional, it’s not needed by the text – you could argue that the damp atmosphere of the novel is important, but even it can do without most of these touches. What’s worst is that in order to make the book work despite all the additional weight, Menmuir pushes in a ton of flashbacks that keep us on our toes and sometimes focus us back on the overall structure. They are inserted awkwardly sometimes, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Menmuir can’t leave a good thing alone. There’s the woman, maybe from the EU, who pays the fishermen for their catch of diseased dogfish. She stands on the docks, silent, with a grey coat. There’s a lot of weight in these descriptions, and a lot of power in the set-up, but Menmuir, in what feels like anxiety, keeps piling on, with sentences like “Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it.” I’m not even here to judge the quality of that sentence as a piece of prose, but it makes very clear the author’s anxiety to really nail down all the meaning and foreboding he wants to nail down. Or, earlier: “He realizes then he is not fishing but hunting, and he watches for Timothy the way a hunter waits for a stalked deer.” The hunting metaphor is almost immediately discarded, and doesn’t add much to the text that the reader wouldn’t have seen themselves.

This overdetermination is a pity. I cannot say whether the novel, executed with a more focused sense of form, and with sentences that are sharper and clearer and more consistent, would indeed have been better. Looking at the simpler sentences, it’s not clear that this is a strength for Menmuir either, but anything would have been better than this hodgepodge. And there’s so many good ideas in here. There’s an early indication of an interesting comment on masculinity and communion, on intellectual work, on the meaning of family and communion, and some of the many, many dreams that swamp the book are very well done. But the most interesting part is the connection the author establishes between private and public grief. If Max Porter’s book is indebted to Ted Hughes, then Manmuir’s book surely owes a debt to Eliot. The village is indeed an “unreal city” and the title of the novel reminds us of that Dante line that Eliot incorporated into The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” There is an overwhelming urge in the book, particularly towards the end, to connect the private catastrophe with a broader public narrative. It is such an enormous sentiment, that it deserved a somewhat better novel built around it. An example of an excellent novel built around a coastal village, dealing with death and loss is A.L. Kennedy’s extraordinary story of young adulthood, aging and suicide, Everything You Need. I mean, as a reader, when I closed The Many, I almost felt a sense of loss myself: the loss of the good or even great book that this could have been. In my head I heard the lines from Donald Hall’s poem “Without” from the collection with the same name, mourning his late wife Jane Kenyon: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean”

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Man Booker, man.

so this is what we got this year. as if to remind me to stop caring about awards, this year’s Booker has arrived with a list that starts with Paul Auster’s colossal turd. I know, I know, it’s the alphabet. This year, as most years since the ill advised inclusion of US literature in the Booker roster, the mixture is the usual. Commonwealth super heavyweights (the Smiths), Commonwealth solid lit (Barry, Roy, Shamsie), Commonwealth mediocrity (McGregor, Hamid, and if I may add: the constant praise for Hamid is a mystery to me), and Commonwealth writers I don’t know. PLUS super famous and brilliant American writers. Yes, this is not Saunders’s best work, but Saunders is one of the world’s best short story writers. This is not Whitehead’s best novel, but I consider Whitehead a complete genius. this seems a bit unfair for the Commonwealth part of the list. Ah yeah. And then there’s Paul fucking Auster.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Autumn by Ali Smith
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

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

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

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

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

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

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

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

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

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John Scalzi: Lock In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ed O’Loughlin: Not Untrue And Not Unkind

O’Loughlin, Ed (2009), Not Untrue And Not Unkind, Penguin
ISBN 978-1-844-88185-7

I used to look forward to the announcement of the Booker long- and shortlist and the eventual winner. Many books and writers I hold dear I pilfered off those lists, but in recent years I’ve found the Booker judges’ decisions and choices frequently bewildering. Now, I’m well aware that people tend to complain about prizes a lot, claiming objective stances for their own peculiar tastes. So, I’m well aware that it’s my literary taste-buds that led me to disliking Hensher’s last novel and loving Rushdie’s most recent. So what I said is not a general complaint about the deterioration of culture or literary prizes, it’s a personal complaint, a dissatisfaction with the reliability of literary authorities. It’s laziness, basically. Thus, it won’t do to start with winners or short-listed writers; as I commenced to do last year, I’ll start reading books at random off of the longlist, hopefully turning up a gem or two. This here, Ed O’Loughlin’s debut novel Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the first of those reads and most certainly not a gem. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the worst book on this year’s longlist. It’s just a thoroughly bad novel, a disappointment on almost every level, although there is much that is, potentially, interesting about this book’s enterprise, starting with the structure, which appears, at first, to be intriguing.

Not Untrue And Not Unkind contains two narratives, basically, both relayed to us through a first person narrator named Owen, who’s a journalist and reporter. One, we could call it the frame narrative, although that would not be quite true, is set in Dublin, the other is set in various countries in Africa. The Dublin narrative tells us about the inside workings of a newspaper and it is roughly divided into past and present. The past part is about Owen’s faltering career in the newsroom, doing odd jobs, hoping for a promotion, before deciding to try his hand at freelance reporting in Africa. But, as in the Africa section, the contexts and environments are kind of blended into the background while Owen is busy drawing a portrait of the people in these environments (without making any insightful connections between one and the other, really). The character he’s centrally occupied with in these parts, is Cartwright, a mean editor, who keeps tabs on ‘his’ journalists, compiling, as it turns out, extensive reports on each. He enjoys confronting and humiliating them over their mistakes and errors, to which end he invites them out for a coffee where he takes his time to slowly erode and dismember their self-esteem. It is after such a humiliation (although not necessarily because of it) that Owen decides to go to Africa. The present part sets in after Cartwright vanishes and Owen goes through his desk (and, later, his apartment), remembering his past life as a journalist and reporter.

Cartwright is a catalyst of sorts and in one of the final chapters you can clearly see how O’Loughlin means to use this narrative to close the meandering Africa story but the book rather hobbles to a close, adding chapters upon chapters that make the obvious just more obvious; to be honest, I felt manhandled by the author during the closing pages, due to the relief of finishing the book, however, I wasn’t overly bothered by it. But the fact remains that the author doesn’t appear to have confidence in his own creations. The poet James Merrill once, famously, said, roughly, that whenever he stalled in writing a poem, he focused on the objects in the poem, the furniture and things like that. Not Untrue And Not Unkind is not that kind of novel. The environment just consists of props for O’Loughlin’s characters and they themselves are but hastily constructed scaffolds for his plot and other ideas. This is something to regret when encountering characters such as Cartwright, where we can almost smell the wasted potential. Like the close of the book, wasted potential is marked by the reader’s disappointment at the end of the book. Throughout the book I kept thinking there was more good stuff in the back, more good stuff to come, that all this was just preparatory, that it was a lead-in for something that would make reading all the toss worth it, until the great catastrophe near the end disabused me of such a notion. Cartwright’s character is unrealized but then he doesn’t play such a major role in the book.

A much larger role is played by Owen’s fellow journalists in the sections of the book that deal with Africa, and the flaws of O’Loughlin’s characterizations are more of a problem there, as is his disregard for contexts and environments. Superficially, these sections are quite interesting. We, who usually only consume the end product of journalistic work, get to see the photographers and writers at work, but actually, we hear little about that aspect of their lives. When we do, it can be arresting, and O’Loughlin is clearly capable of constructing compelling images, such as a correspondent who is confined to a small room where he talks to TV stations around the world and there, in his chair, in front of the camera he spends his life waiting for the next call, slowly going mad. Images like this are very few and far between. Most of the time, we hear the journalists bicker, drink, fall in and out of love with one another. The group of journalists isn’t a constant entity, people drift in and out again, the only constant is Owen. The literary reference that came to mind when I read the book was Ernest Hemingway’s masterful The Sun Also Rises, which is, I think, one of the best short books of its time, or of its century. One of my favorite novels, in any case.

There is much that connects these two books, but O’Loughlin falls short in almost every respect. Now, it’s no big flaw to fall short of as well made a novel as The Sun Also Rises but it is if the results are as singularly uninteresting as they are in this case. It’s a big risk to assume the stance, to use the tools that Hemingway uses. He himself, in some late novels, showed how easily this kind of writing turns into dullness, into unconvincing posture. What aggravates the problem in Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the fact that everything else that Owen talks about becomes unconvincing as well, and this is a problem with a book that tackles as fickle a subject as African politics and their reflection in the Western media. For a novel of places, a novel that is concerned with all kinds of places in Africa (it does mark places in Africa as places, in contrast to Dublin, which is basically the unmarked backdrop to the whole thing), it is remarkably weak on that count as well. All the African countries are treated as one big ‘African’ country, except for the few passages that contain explicit references to persons and events. This approach completely wipes out any possibility to understand something or to have any kind of insight into any of these events. All we have is a group of vaguely neurotic journalists who travel through Africa, taking notes and pictures. It’s not actually bad, just uninteresting. Disappointing. It’s not moving nor intellectually challenging in any way. It’s just there.

Even the huge amount of violence in the book doesn’t change that. Although, again, O’Loughlin is capable of producing affecting images, as he demonstrates in the story of a man mistakenly left for dead, he makes little enough use of this capability. Mostly, we are confronted with images that are calculated to shock but fail to achieve that goal. There is a weird kind of economy behind this writing, as if the author drew up a table, assigning moments of shock to a portion of the book and moments of emotional distress to others and so forth. They are not genuinely shocking, they are there as objects, the intent to shock in plain sight, which thwarts any opportunity to actually shock or move somebody. However, I may have come to this opinion due to the fact that I was reading a literary novel. Had I encountered the same in a newspaper, in a magazine or something similar, I may not have judged it so harshly; because this, really, is another point of reference for the Africa sections. It all reads rather like routine journalism, spruced up to fit a novel. This explains why it’s so disappointing yet at the same time rather decently written, decently structured, and so on.

The sprucing up also explains why so many ideas appear to be pasted onto the book. One of those ideas is a rather ineptly done metafictional element, with one of the characters writing a thinly disguised memoir with the title “Not Untrue and Not Unkind”, a book that Owen has less than kind words to say about. The infrequent essayistic remarks feel similarly out of place. One of the most memorable one of them is about the changes in journalistic practice which, Owen tells us, is more and more about rewriting, regurgitating the same babble over and over and not going into the field anymore. But, the reader may ask, if these morons in the field, dense as a log of wood, if we source our news from their reports, how is that better? It’s certainly not going to help with insights. Yet, at the same time, this exact question might be one of Not Untrue And Not Unkind‘s points. It is undeniable that there is one, only one, well-drawn character, and that’s Owen himself. His observations, his thoughts, his perceptions, they paint a vivid picture of a deeply unsympathetic person, one who is in a position to help shape public opinion on important issues but who appears to not be qualified to do this in a helpful and satisfying manner. If it was his intention to show this, he succeeded admirably.

It does not, however, make reading the book more of an enjoyable experience. It’s a point well made but the dullness of the whole book can be exhausting, as is the ham-handed way that Owen has with Africa, writing and other issues. At least it’s a light enough read. Maybe it’s a better book than I make it out to be, maybe I’m being misled by my disappointment. But really, even if all this sounds harsh, I’ve been holding back. Some of its portrayal of Africa is highly problematic and having Owen as a lens doesn’t protect the book at all times. If you trust me, don’t read it. It’s not worth your time or your money. Let’s hope it doesn’t get shortlisted.