No One Is Here Except All of Us

no one is hereThis book by Ramona Ausubel opens on a tiny, isolated village in Romania in 1939. The citizens are about to learn of the doom that awaits them, but there are no warning signs:

One Friday evening, the sun hung heavy and waiting to drain, syrupy, into the wheat fields. Men walked home carrying evidence of the day — a scythe, a leather satchel full of needle-nose tools, a roll of receipts, a bag of cabbages, an empty lunch box. At the door, children like me had scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit. “Shabbat shalom,” we children said to our fathers. “Good Sabbath,” the fathers said.

When a mysterious stranger arrives, bearing news of death and destruction coming their way, the town must decide what to do. Flee? Where? Hide? Impossible. The stranger’s advice (along with the 11-year-old narrator’s): start over. The Jews have always been a people of new beginnings: after Eden, after the flood, after Sodom, after Babylon, after the diaspora. Start again. Tomorrow will be the very first day of a new universe in which the people of this town are the only people on earth, new-created. They will accept a small, circumscribed universe, with none of the glory and none of the exotic animals, in return for being kept safe.

There are several false starts. The townspeople have never tried to create a new world before, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. There are joys and misunderstandings and some genuine heartbreak, and of course the old traditions find their way back in, some of the time. But the heart of the effort is in the storytelling: the old stories are all forgotten by necessity, and the new stories can be whatever they desire. We build a temple to the Lord in the barn, for humility. This is a new constellation, for mercy and justice.

Up to this point, I was feeling quite restive and uneasy about this book. I couldn’t settle down to it. It’s prettily written, with a lot of the list-y sort of prose that you can see in the excerpt above, and a kind of lovely dreamy tone to it — very much a storytelling voice. There was enough going on in the village to keep me interested and reading, too. But I really could not get behind a book that was going to give the message that you can shape your reality by the story you tell about it, if that meant you could escape the Holocaust by explaining that you had created your own universe. I mean, the stories we tell are crucial in many ways but they do not actually fend off the Gestapo.

But then, more than halfway through, things change for the village, and for the now-adult narrator, in ways they had feared and anticipated but couldn’t precisely have predicted. Their practice in storytelling, and more vitally in starting over, becomes a shield and a weapon through some of the most terrifying and heartbreaking experiences of their lives: they are allowed to listen to their own stories, and to trust, sacrifice, float, weep, and be exiled accordingly.

I don’t always give contemporary authors very much credit, I admit. But I should have given my friend Laura, who recommended this book to me, all the credit she deserves. This book turned out to be strong, intelligent about engaging its faith and its history, well written, and dead-on about the way we rely on our self-created universe when everything has gone wrong. People sometimes say that a work of art looks at a horror like the Holocaust “unflinchingly.” Well, this book flinches — it weeps — and it should. But it doesn’t distort or deflect. I’m glad I read it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments

Beasts

otherwiseBeasts is the second novel I read this summer in Otherwise, the omnibus collection of John Crowley’s three early works. It pictures our own near-future world, in which resources are scarce and politics have taken a drastic shift. One of these shifts, which gets at not just politics but involves a recent scientific accomplishment: the government has created human-animal hybrids, the most successful of which are lion-human hybrids called leos. Now the powerful Union for Social Engineering (USE) wants to study them, categorize them, eliminate them from the world’s accounting.

The novel draws together three thick, complex threads. First is from the point of view of Loren, who used to rear peregrine hawks before his funding ran out. He is given the education and training of a wild, intelligent young man named Sten and his cousin Mika, in order (he gradually discovers) to fit them for the constellations of government. The second describes Genesis Preserve, a community that has drawn itself apart from the violent world:

Utterly self-contained, it replaced what it used of Earth’s body exactly, borrowing and returning water and food by a nice reckoning. And yet the air was troubled by its mass; stuck up into the sea of air like an immense stirring-rod, it could raise and distort winds wildly. Once a year or so a vast pane of amber-tinted glass, faultily made, was sucked by wind from its place and went sailing out over the Preserve for hundreds of yards before it landed. When that happened, they went out and found it, every splinter, and melted it, and used it again.

This community sees itself as loving the earth, in harmony with it, hurting nothing. But when the crisis comes, their pristine isolation may have served to cut them off from the earth rather than letting them really know it.

The third thread is from the point of view of an indentured servant (essentially a slave, as her contract can be bought and sold) named Caddie, who is given over to serve a leo named Painter. At first, his nature, his goals, his personality (his animality?) are completely hidden from her because they are so other. These are not people in furry suits; Crowley does not sentimentalize or patronize. This is alien; this is animal. But as Caddie spends more time with him, forging her way deeper into the wilderness, she and the reader begin to understand better what Painter’s life and plans are all about.

The work of the novel is to weave these three threads together, warp and weft, man and animal, animal and man. The thrust of the novel — the place Crowley puts all the weight of his astonishing prose and the force of his ideas — is to convey the isness of the animal-human hybrids: the leo, the kingmaker Reynard, the dog Sweets. He writes from their point of view, consciousness and instinct, animality and personality mingled, and he also writes about the deep, intimate, troubling reactions they awake in humans. Meric, one of the men from Genesis Preserve, observes the leos bathing in the river and laughing in the sun:

Meric, estranged on the bank, felt dirty and evanescent, and yet privileged. He had wondered about the girl, how she could choose to be one of them when she so obviously couldn’t be; how she could deny so much of her own nature in order to live as they did. He saw now that she had done no such thing. She had only acceded to their presence, lived as nearly as she could at their direction and convenience, like a dog trying to please a beloved, contrary, wilful, godlike man, because whatever self-denial that took, whatever inconvenience, there was nothing else worth doing. Inconvenience and estrangement from her own kind were nothing compared to the privilege of hearing, of sharing, that laughter as elemental as the blackbird’s song or the taste of flesh.

Usually, when this type of question arises in a science-fiction novel, it is phrased, “What makes us human?” Clones, robots, mutants — who is a person? In this book, it’s aslant. What makes us human, yes. But what makes us animals, and is that equally sacred? What do we have the right to call monstrous? Can someone be a slave to an animal? Is that different from being a slave to a human being, and why? If we use animals as test subjects, can we use an animal-human hybrid, who has awareness and can talk to us and has a family? What if we classify him as having a low IQ and no loyalty to the scientific community who created him? Can we test him, then? What is education and training for, if it unfits us to be free?

Loren teaches Sten and Mika how to think about politics, how to know monster from man, how to identify an assassin, how to tame a hawk, but the cousins are as wild as hawks themselves, judging justice and mercy on their own terms. Sten, in a moment of rebellion against Loren’s teaching, sets the hawk free, knowing that once he has tasted the air, he will never return to a master’s hand. It’s only then that the three threads begin to converge: human politics, Genesis Preserve, the pride. This novel considers who will inherit the earth: the King of Beasts or the lords of creation. It’s a marvel.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Elizabeth and Hazel

David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, revolves around the by-now iconic civil rights photograph of two fifteen-year-old girls:

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This photo, taken by journalist Will Counts, shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who were denied entrance to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Behind her is Hazel Bryan Massery, in a crowd of other Little Rock citizens, shouting racial epithets at Elizabeth. Both those faces became representations of the South at that time: dignified perseverance and sorrow on the part of African-Americans; insane rage and hate on the part of white people.

elizabeth_and_hazelMargolick spends the book exploring what happened after the shutter clicked — after that moment in time became unfrozen. Teresa’s review of this book from 2011 does a wonderful job summing it up: Elizabeth’s experiences at Central High School were profoundly scarring, and led her to a life weighed down by depression, disability, poverty, and fear. Though she eventually found her voice, it took decades for her to begin to use it for her own, or anyone else’s, advocacy.

Hazel, on the other hand, began to think about the consequences of her actions almost immediately. In the light of the 1960s and 1970s, she rethought racial and gender privilege and was eager to take responsibility for her own actions. She even called Elizabeth in 1963 to apologize for her share in what happened at Central High, long before the ambient temperature of the South had cooled down for race relations. Later still, the two women became friends — what a moment of hope for Little Rock, especially during the Clinton years! — and then, more quietly, the friendship fell apart again in a haze of wariness and misunderstandings. What does this say about race in America?

It’s interesting, of course, to find out what happened to the subjects of an iconic moment. We know what happened to all the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, for instance, while we don’t know what happened to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” Margolick takes the significance of this particular photograph and, in my opinion, pushes it pretty hard. The history of the Little Rock Nine and their treatment at Central High is fascinating and important, and I also think it’s vital to know that it was not an inspiring and uplifting experience for all civil rights pioneers. Could most children have gone through constant harassment and isolation and violence, even for a year, without succumbing to it? I know that I couldn’t, and that’s with all my privilege and support network. I’d have liked to see Margolick expand his thoughts about the power structures at play: it wasn’t just Elizabeth’s depression that made her leave Knox College, for instance, but the fact that she was almost the only African-American student there. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s depression that caused her son’s “suicide by cop,” but a whole delicate interplay of poverty, welfare, mental health, gun control, and other matters that frequently pivot on race.

Later, though, when Margolick begins to analyze the friendship between the two women, the gears slip a bit. I understand why there was pressure for these two to meet and be friends. But what did they really have in common? Not upbringing, history, religion, education, or a circle of friends. If the only thing, culturally or in my background, that I had in common with another woman was a love of flowers, I doubt we would ever be close. Margolick puts the weight of the entire racial tension of the United States on the state of friendship of two women who were caught in the same photo at the same time. It’s far too much. They’ve gone from one iconic photo to another, and neither treats them as individuals.

I agree with some of Margolick’s conclusions about race in America. I think that sometimes, some white people have gotten bored with the push for equal rights, and would like to see some gratitude for all the hard work and good faith they’ve put in, not realizing how very far that attitude has to go to attain any version of equality. It’s the same with this book. As important as the topic is, if we believe both Elizabeth and Hazel are unique human beings, equal to each other and to all of the rest of us, how can we expect their friendship to mean anything more than our own friendships, which come and go, like our lives and our love?

Posted in Biography, History, Nonfiction | 12 Comments

Bad Feminist

Bad FeministIn the essay, “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” Roxane Gay writes

I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.

She then goes on to catalog some of her areas of wrongdoing: despite having a good job, she wants to be taken care of; she listens to “thuggish rap” with misogynistic lyrics, she loves pink, she shaves her legs, she knows nothing about cars, she loves the excess of weddings—and so on.

Is there a feminist in the world who could not generate such a list of ways we’re supposedly doing it wrong? I doubt it. The image some have of feminism is indeed limiting, which is perhaps why so many women still feel a need to say, “I’m not feminist, but” before making some feminist statement. Gay is not shunning the label of feminist in this collection. Not at all. What she is doing is acknowledging that she is an individual woman with her own opinions and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. That, all on its own, makes her a good feminist. Even if she sometimes wants to sing along to “Blurred Lines.”

I’d read several of Gay’s essays online before getting the e-galley of this collection. In fact, this collection includes two of her essays that I’d found particularly memorable—“The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” (about trigger warnings) and “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help.” Gay’s essays frequently explore some aspect of contemporary culture through a black, feminist lens. In a direct and thoughtful voice, she considers such subjects as sexual violence, racial profiling, and gay rights. Her topics come from the day’s headlines, best-seller lists, and TV ratings charts—whatever is a subject of conversation.

One of the things I like about Gay’s writing is that she’s able to be both passionate and measured. It’s a difficult thing to do—and both aspects of her voice are equally important. She’s often angry about subjects to which the only proper response is anger. How else should we react when women are treated as objects to be groped without any consideration of consent? In “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” an essay about misogyny in popular music, Gay writes, “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.” But Gay reserves that level of fury for the most deserving targets. This collection is not all indignation all the time. When she writes about how Orange Is the New Black falls short in its depiction of black woman, her tone is one of disappointment and frustration that the bar is so low.

Although I liked the collection overall, not all the essays are hits. I think Gay is at her best when she chooses just one or two targets to focus on. Essays like “Not Here to Make Friends” and “How We All Lose” that tried to tackle multiple works on a similar theme ended up seeming overly long and rambling. In both cases, her excellent main points got lost in lots of plot summary.

I should also note that some may find it better to read the essays one or two at a time, rather than all at once, as I ended up doing. After reading Kim’s review, I decided to slow my reading pace down because the first chunk of essays that I read were leaving me exhausted. But as I read on, the essays got shorter (or seemed shorter because they were more focused), and I was able to pick up my pace without finding the reading tedious. In fact, I ended up having trouble putting it down. (Interestingly, Kim seemed to like the earlier essays better than the later ones, but she attributes that to reading them all at once.) As someone who’s admired Gay’s writing for years, I was glad to get a chance to read more.

E-galley received for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 20 Comments

Mr. Mercedes

mr mercedesIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that Teresa and I are not just Stephen King fans, we’re mild-to-moderate King evangelists. He’s a genuinely good writer, and he writes a variety of things that aren’t horror at all, so we generally feel we can lure you in, even if you’re not interested in reading about Gruesome Killings From Beyond. (Though if you are, I can make recommendations there, too.)

I was very pleased to see that King was coming out with a new novel this summer, Mr. Mercedes. His last couple of books, Doctor Sleep and 11/22/63, were absolutely firing on all cylinders, top-of-his-game King — the first in particular about struggling with addiction, a worthy successor to The Shining, and the other about the consequences, dilemmas, urgencies and poignancies of time travel. With King on this kind of a roll, I was really looking forward to the new one.

Mr. Mercedes, as it turns out, is a solid thriller with nothing supernatural about it. As the book opens, someone runs a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair to open. All that solid German engineering does its work, and the attack kills eight people and injures dozens more. The killer escapes, leaving not a trace of DNA behind, and the main police officer on the case, Bill Hodges, retires with his medals before they have a single break in the case.

It turns out, though, that the killer is planning something far bigger and far worse. He reaches out to Hodges through the internet, unable to avoid drawing attention to himself and his perfect crime, and there ensues a suspenseful race: will Hodges (and a highly-unlikely assortment of helpers) get the killer before he carries out his plan?

I’d place this novel in the middle of the pack for King. We’re not talking about the quality of his more recent books; this is no Doctor Sleep and it’s certainly no The Shining. (But, thank goodness, it’s also no Christine.) It’s so radically unlikely that Hodges would not have handed over this case to current police and police resources, I kept tripping over it in my mind. King gave a lame reason for it, but he just never made it plausible for me. I was also a bit suspicious about the killer’s initial letter to Hodges. He was highly intelligent, and the reason for the letter seemed unlike his usual M.O., so it felt a bit like a McGuffin. There’s also some pretty weak characterization for all but the two main antagonists, Hodges and the killer (the killer is especially great.) Since characterization and dialogue are normally King’s strengths, I was disappointed.

On the other hand, the plot points are great. Hodges’ police work is realistic and interesting, and the corresponding work of the killer is fascinating and scary. Each little escalation on both sides is grip-the-book-harder suspenseful, if not always what you might consider prudent. If I couldn’t get behind most of the characters, I could definitely get behind two of them, and the way the hunt for the killer progressed. The final scenes of confrontation are worth staying up late to finish, but they also have a touch of satire about them that is pure King.

Middle-of-the-pack King is still worth reading, in my view, and I enjoyed the book, which I ripped through in about a day and a half. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, but do go in expecting to have fun.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 13 Comments

Ounce Dice Trice

ounce dice triceI don’t normally review the children’s books I read (of which, since I have children, there is a bounteous plenty), but sometimes I come across one that is such a delight, I feel the need to share it with as many people as possible. This summer, we were given Alastair Reid’s book Ounce Dice Trice, with illustrations by Ben Shahn. It’s a book about words — well, not really even about words, the way The Phantom Tollbooth is about words, but a book of words, just rolling around in them and making yourself dizzy with the way they sound and what they mean. Old words, obsolete words, beautiful words, odd words, funny words, words that read the same backward and forward — they all make their way in here, and as I read the book aloud, I laughed out of sheer pleasure.

The book starts by arranging words into lists (DROWS, for instance, read the wrong way round: MULP, ANANAB, ROTSAC, OOBAGUB, OTAMOT, REZAGRATS, NOSAM, GUBDEB, WOLLEY.) Then comes a section on names, which I believe is my favorite section of the book:

It is most important to be a good namer, since it falls to all of us at some time or other to name anything from a canary to a castle, and since names generally have to last a long time. Here are some possible names for possible things, to give you some ideas.

He gives names for elephants (Wilbur, Ormond, Bendigo, Bruce, McGraw, Robertson, Wendell Tubb, Duff, and Deuteronomy, and if I ever need to name an elephant you had better believe it will be Wendell Tubb.) Names for whales (Hugh, Blodge, Barnaby, Hamish, Chumley, Murdo, Cham, Okum, Sump.) Names for houses and places (Hugg House, Broadmeadows, Windygates, Hopeshaws, Smidgin’s Nob, Long Stilt Lane, The Bobbins, Deersden, Smithereens, Old Hullabaloo, Drumjargon, The Shivers.) Names for cats, insects, nitwits, the fingers, twins (including twin kittens, squirrels, elephants, peculiar twins, and fat twins.)

He gives new ways to count to ten (ounce, dice, trice, of course, but also instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.) There’s a whole section on mad-sounding words that I thought he’d invented but discovered he hadn’t, that lead carefully one to another and back in a circle to the first. And there are a few extra pages on curiosities, like firkydoodle and mumbudget and King’s X.

This is a book drunk on the English language (so much so that I am seldom perfectly sober…) and children, at least my children, love it as much as I did. I have in general had very very good luck with the New York Review Children’s Collection (see my review of Wolf Story, which we’re currently rereading to great effect.) Ounce Dice Trice is another huge hit, and I know all you book lovers, lovers of language, dizzied with words, would find it wonderful too.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Nonfiction | 11 Comments

The Deep

TheDeepI’ve now read almost all of John Crowley’s novels, all but Four Freedoms, as well as his collection of short fiction, Novelties and Souvenirs. I think he’s a truly great writer. He is purely original — none of his books like another, or like anything else I’ve read, even those in the Aegypt tetralogy, which are obviously linked. His prose is astonishingly beautiful, soft and rich, a woven tapestry of smoke and heather and gold and water rather than a sharp, cutting crystal. I’ve never read one of his novels I didn’t think stood head and shoulders above its kind, and sometimes they have been so meaningful to me that they were difficult to blog about. If I had just a modicum less decorum, I’d probably follow him around the country in one o’ they Ford vans.

This summer, I read Otherwise, which is a collection of Crowley’s first three novels, written in the 1970s. The first one in the collection is The Deep, which is quite a short novel at 166 pages long, though it is so packed with ideas, images, philosophy, and action that I didn’t notice its length until just now. It describes a sort of late-medieval world — kings and queens who have been locked in war for generations, horses, artisans, priestly orders, Endwives who care for the wounded and dead after battles — that rests on a flat disc, supported by a pillar that goes down into the Deep. The sun and moon and stars orbit the disc, and there are murmurs of Leviathan, who may swim below.

The politics of the world are (intentionally, I think) confusing. One side is Red and the other is Black, like a card game, though there are also hints of chess, which equally has kings and queens and knights. The names alone make it difficult to keep track of what’s happening: the list of principal characters for the Reds reads,

Red Senlin

Red Senlin’s Son (later King)

Sennred, Red Senlin’s younger son

Redhand

Old Redhand, his father

Younger Redhand, his brother

Caredd, his wife

Mother Caredd

Fauconred

and there’s also a Learned Redhand, but he’s part of the Grays, who are a sort of priestly society which dispenses justice and wisdom to the warring factions. The Blacks are named similarly. (And guess how many of these characters are alive at the end of the novel.)

There’s a description, early on, of Gray scholars doing some sort of archaeological work, using delicate brushes to uncover a painted picture on the floor of their cloister.

Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.

And of course this is the truth: this world has a war to establish a king and then another war to prove legitimacy of the king, who dies in war, so another war must follow.

Into this terrible circle dance comes a Visitor, who is not of this disc world. There’s been an accident to the ship he arrived in, so he doesn’t know who he is or what the purpose of his visit may be, and while he waits to heal and discover the truth about himself, he observes the world around him. He’s a watcher, a recorder, a secretary — but by asking leaders to explain their motivations and actions, he makes them thoughtful and uneasy. He himself grows to understand and even love the people he knows, and when he leaves them to find the end of the world and ask Leviathan what he was made for, he changes the pattern of the dance.

I finished this novel profoundly confused. I hadn’t had an easy time keeping track of the characters, and the fusion of the medieval world and the futuristic Visitor (and the particular vision of God offered by Leviathan, all in one conversation at the end) seemed odd and lumpy to me. As usual, the prose is stunning, and the book is the only thing like it I’ve ever read or heard of. But I didn’t feel satisfied.

Then, as I was looking for reviews that might enlighten me, I found something online that said that Crowley had been inspired by the Wars of the Roses. All of a sudden, everything lit up in my mind. This book, of course, is not some sort of allegory of that terrible war of politics and battle and assassination, where you can make a one-to-one match of all of the characters. But the Red and the Black translate to the Red and the White roses of York and Lancaster. The names are all Henry, Richard, Edward/Edmund, and Margaret (unless you are Perkin Warbeck, Lambert Simnel, or John of Gaunt, but let’s not go there), difficult to keep track of. Strong kings, queens, knights, pretenders, locked in war for generations. And then the dance changes, and suddenly we’re in the house of Tudor, not Plantagenet.

With a new way to think about it, and something to compare it to, The Deep shifted in my mind from an odd, confusing piece to something far more weirdly realistic. Cut the Wars of the Roses out of time and place, put it on a disc, and how would it appear? What if we had asked some great entity to allow us to go back to a simpler time? Would we simply repeat our errors, not realizing that “simple” and “human nature” don’t go together? Once again, I found myself full of admiration for Crowley’s work, even so early in his career.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

The Gone-Away World

gone away worldI’m in a dilemma, and I blame Jeanne, the non-necromancer, almost entirely. My problem is this: Jeanne read Nick Harkaway’s stunningly great book The Gone-Away World years ago, and has been steadily plugging along at convincing the rest of us to read it ever since. I finally thought, Oh well, why not — not actually believing it would be that great, to be honest — and was made, within a couple of chapters, into a complete convert. This book went all in to be funny and skewed and angry and surprising and weird and suspenseful and interesting about human relationships, and I got caught in the slipstream and didn’t want to surface until I’d finished it (and it’s something of a door-stopper, too, at nearly 600 pages.)

My dilemma is that I can’t seem to describe it in a way that makes other people want to read it. It’s so purely enjoyable that I can’t be as analytical as I’d like, and then I sound all gushy, but it’s a strange enough scenario (and a loose enough plot) that I can’t seem to describe it appealingly for people who don’t usually read this sort of thing. Let me try, though: I’ve put it off long enough, and honestly I’m dying for more people to read this novel.

Imagine a world in which we had invented a weapon that didn’t kill our enemies, exactly — it simply made them go away, erasing chunks of reality by stripping matter and energy of its organizing principle, information. Great idea, right? (I’m shaking my head vigorously. No. Not a great idea.) The book opens in a near-future post-apocalyptic scenario in which the Go-Away War has created monsters: matter and energy seek whatever information they can find to re-organize, and terrible, painful, sometimes murderous mutations result. The narrator and his friends, including the charismatic Gonzo Lubitch, have been  given the task of fixing the Jorgmund Pipe, which sprays a chemical onto the Gone Away areas, protecting the “real” world from the mutants.

But there’s more to the Pipe, and to the Jorgmund company, and to the Go Away War, and to the narrator and his friends, than it may seem. Once the world is established, Harkaway takes us back in time: the boys’ lifelong friendship, their time at university, their military service, marriage, the war, and more. (More, you ought to know, includes kung fu masters, ninjas, arson, mimes, spies, killer bees, love affairs, and pirates, and I’m not exaggerating and I’m probably forgetting something and it mostly all makes sense. The digressions are at least half the pleasure in this book.)

There’s more to this book than the almost incredible pile of plot of it, too. The Gone-Away World is fiercely angry about corporations and committee decisions about human life: the more you’re invested in them, it says, the less you are an individual, and the less you care about anything but the company’s interests. This book urges you, as a reader, to take up anything — any interest at all, from kung fu to killer bees — that makes you a better individual and better able to make your own moral decisions under unbearable pressure. It’s about honor, and sacrifice, and longing, but it’s also about grifting an impossibly expensive suit so you can fit in at a high-level corporate meeting with your… um… suit-fu.

Harkway’s prose is a total delight. I would never have believed that I could read a 600-page post-apocalyptic anti-war anti-corporation novel about university and mutants and the reality of human interaction and love, infused with a kung fu/ mime/ pirate sensibility, and feel as if some combination of Vonnegut and P.G. Wodehouse had written it. It was funny as hell, and also poignant, and able to see things in a fresh way, and I just don’t ask for much more.

This book surprised me. The plot surprised me: there’s a moment when there’s a Big Reveal and I hadn’t seen it coming even a tiny bit, and I just had to sit and laugh and cry a little and go “Wow,” and that’s rare. And the glorious prose surprised me, and I was surprised how often I laughed. I wanted to recommend it to everyone, but I can’t seem to pique anyone’s interest. Read it. READ IT. You won’t be sorry — it’s so interesting — and you might be as glad as I was; it’ll certainly make my top 5 of the year. So — actually — am I blaming Jeanne, or thanking her? Thanking her, I think. Thank you, Jeanne.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 24 Comments

Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea LightAlthough marketed as a novel, Edwidge Danticat’s newest book reads more like a collection of linked stories. Each of the stories could stand almost entirely on its own, but together, the stories are more powerful than they would be apart.

The opening story tells of a 7-year-old girl named Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin whose mother died when she was born and whose father is now trying to send her to a new home with the wealthy cloth vendor, Madame Gaëlle. But Claire disappears before the move can be finalized, and the book turns to other characters in the seaside town of Ville Rose in Haiti. Everyone in the town seems to know everyone else, and the local radio station, with its gossipy talk shows, shapes much of town life.

In each chapter, we get to know a different character and often come to see with fresh eyes situations previously depicted. The stories are not presented in chronological order, so the book jumps around in time. Often, events depicted in a later chapter transform the reader’s understanding of an earlier one. In that respect, the stories depend on each other for their power. Together, they also allow readers to see many different ways of coping with death and loss. There’s no single Haitian way. These characters are individual, and so are there stories.

Still, although I can see how the combination of perspectives makes each story more powerful, I found myself unable to engage with the book as a whole. It is, I’m sorry to say, one of those dreaded “meh” reads. There was nothing I could put my finger on as a problem, but I couldn’t bring myself to care a great deal about these people. I think the non-chronological order, together with the fragmented nature of the narrative, kept me from feeling immersed in the town’s overall story. I couldn’t keep enough of these people in my mind or watch their development over time. The story felt disjointed, even if the book is thematically coherent with its emphasis on death and loss.

I have read short story collections that I admire quite a lot, so the problem is not that these are stories where I wanted a novel. I think, for me, the issue may be that the book is neither a novel nor a short story collection, and therefore I couldn’t work out how to approach what I was reading. I like Danticat’s writing very much, but I’d be much quicker to recommend her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, over this one.

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The Passion of New Eve

Passion of New EveEvelyn is an Englishman in a violent, rat-infested New York, a city nothing like his dreams:

The first thing I saw when I came out of the Air Terminal was, in a shop window, an obese plaster gnome squatly perched on a plaster toadstool as it gnawed a giant plaster pie. Welcome to the country where Mouth is King, the land of comestibles! The next thing I saw were rats, black as buboes, gnawing at a heap of garbage. And the third thing was a black man running down the middle of the road as fast as he could go, screaming and clutching his throat; an unstoppable cravat, red in colour and sticky, mortal, flowed out from beneath his fingers. A burst of gunfire; he falls on his face. The rats abandon their feast and scamper towards him, screaming.

Instead of the glamorous film star of his dreams, Tristesse de St. Ange, Evelyn finds a woman who draws him to her room. There this succubus, Leilah, takes the punishment Evelyn believes she deserves, the victimization she was born for. Their brief relationship, with its ongoing exchanges of power (or so Evelyn says) ends with pain and blood and a baleful triumph as Evelyn takes off for a drive across the country.

That drive takes Evelyn to an underground desert land called Beulah, where a woman who has made herself a goddess called Mother decides to make Evelyn the bearer of her new world. Redubbed Eve, our protagonist must consider a fate previously unimaginable.

To say this novel by Angela Carter is strange is putting it mildly. Eve’s odyssey through her new identity and the new version of America keeps readers in a state of unease throughout. I’m struggling to even know how to describe the central character, sometimes Evelyn and sometimes Eve, sometimes he and sometimes she, both and neither. At first, Evelyn doesn’t know how to explain his (her?) identity either:

I would say that, at this time, I was literally in two minds; my transformation was both perfect and imperfect. All of New Eve’s experience came through two channels of sensation, her own fleshly ones and his mental ones.

What happens to Eve is different from merely making a man feel a woman’s experiences. Eve still has Evelyn’s mind. Yet living in his new Eve’s body causes changes in that mind.

Although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in just such imitations.

To what extent do our performances of gender constitute passing? The pressure to conform to gender norms is strong, so strong that many will conform despite their inclination. I’m sure there are some fascinating trans readings of this book, but this sense of passing resonates from a cis perspective as well, inasmuch as we might conform to social expectations of our gender even when we don’t feel naturally inclined to. Gender, in this book, seems to be very much about our relationship to others—but the book is unclear about the extent to which this is so. Calling a person a man doesn’t make that person a man, but can making a person act like a man make that person a man? I don’t think Carter answers any of these questions definitively, but she seems to allow for some degree of fluidity in gender. I like that she doesn’t nail her view down. Given that the book was written in 1977, the discussion doesn’t feel altogether dated as awareness of trans people is growing. The book seems like it can shift with the times as understandings change.

The gender issues the book raises are what makes the book work for me, but the depiction of a dystopian America at war is less successful. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what Carter was doing here. As Eve takes her odyssey around the western U.S., she has experiences that feel like they’re supposed to mean something, but they don’t go anywhere. It’s just one set of oddball images after another. A revolving house, a band of young soldiers headed to California, and old woman on a beach. Her descriptions are potent, but I’m not sure what the potion is supposed to do. The last few chapters of the book were occupied with these images, plus a much too on-the-nose bit of birth imagery, and the good stuff was left behind.

Yet even in those muddy final pages, I found myself thinking of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” a poem (one of my all-time favorites) in which “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold.” Evelyn becomes Eve—the categories many consider basic seem to be slipping—and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” As Eve rises out of the desert, is there a “rough beast” that “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

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