Monday, August 10, 2020

June - July Reads

Behindlings by Nicola Barker
A Start in Life by Anita Brookner
Out of the Woods by Chris Offutt
The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
Taking Sides edited by Cindy Milstein
You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates
Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley
Undue Influence by Anita Brookner
An American Story by Christoper Priest
Serena by Ron Rash
The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith
Country Dark by Chris Offutt
Fay by Larry Brown

Some of these books took me ages to read thanks to stress, depression, and work. I felt like I was reading Behindlings for three months. It's a long book, around 600 pages, but the problem is that it's for sure Barker's worst. Barker purposefully keeps as much as possible obscure so the reader flails about in search of plot, character, backstory. Which would normally be fine but the zaniness of the events described that characterizes her other books is absent. It's just kind of stuff happening and I did not quite understand the whys and the so what. Oh well.

Another book that took me forever was You Must Remember This but this wasn't Oates' fault. No, the novel was fucking great: violent, depressing, bleak, grotesque. It's also really long and doesn't have too much of a plot, while simultaneously a million things happen. I was describing to a work colleague that "it's got everything!": atomic panic, boxing matches, incest, violence, poverty, infidelity, a car chase, mob shenanigans. Reminded quite a bit of Brookner's A Start in Life actually, in that the protagonists of both novels never quite gets her life going thanks to her shitty parents and family.

I spent a week with Fay and my slowness reading this was because I was savouring it. Probably the best non-2020 novel I'm going to read this year. Slow and steady and focused on minute quotidian details but with the skeleton of the usual Southern crime novel. The novel is almost 500 pages long but the plot itself could probably be executed in 200 pages. The pleasure lies in Brown's attention to the smallest details, the beer they drink, the sticky weather, the food they eat, the cigarettes they obsessively smoke. I adored living in the world he built. Can't wait to read more and more Larry Brown.

An American Story was Not Good. I wish Priest had just written a nonfiction book instead of this. Too much of the novel is the narrator explaining 9/11 in exhaustive detail and asking questions the audience doesn't have the knowledge to answer. The narrator's relationship with the various women in his life makes me feel like the women have no life beyond the narrator, which is certainly not the intent (considering the generous backstory given to one woman). I did like the structure of the novel; it's not quite parallel stories (present and past) but back and forth, ever tightening towards the climax of the novel, which is stupendously enervating, by the way. Priest's previous novels have been so slippery, with the nature of reality itself being up for grabs, but here, all the speculative stuff feels like Greg Egan explaining math to me and it has less bearing on the story than I think the novel would like it to have. Priest's narrator dismisses conspiracy theories with disdain, but the novel is just an excuse to wallow in them. There's the veneer of respectability thanks to the publishing house, Priest's reputation, and his very prose, which has a coolness, the semblance of rationality. But none of these can disguise the insistence that 9/11 was a conspiracy on a vast scale. All in all, a disappointing read. A failure as a novel, but an interesting list of 9/11 facts.

Out of the Woods was terrific and had one of the best single lines I've ever: “He understood that the planet was a skin of grass that covered acres of bones."

The rest of the fiction I read were good to great. I didn't love Undue Influence and thought for most of the book that I didn't like it, but then the ending came and I turned around slightly on it. Still not great.

Serena was pretty good. Any novel that opens with a knife fight and a guy holding his slippery intestines is a good novel. I think it was a bit too long but I was surprised by how high the body count was. The eponymous Serena is functionally a serial killer. Much to my amusement.
 
Accidents in the Home was typical fantastic Hadley. Felt more like short stories that had been retrofitted to a novel, but I'm not complaining. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Book review catch-up post

Whew. Time to dust off the old book reviewing part of this blog. I don't think I need to explain why the blog hasn't been updated beyond some Miami Vice posts, but maybe for the sake of posterity I'll clue my future self in. I was laid off from work in late March thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and thanks to a combination of stress and health problems, I found I couldn't get much reading/writing done. I was back at work at the start of May because the bookstore was overwhelmed with online orders. Coming back was nice, even if the government of Canada's emergency benefits were actually a raise(!) compared to my regular wage, but the stress of working again resulted in less reading and definitely zero writing. What a strange time to live through. I mean, that's about all that needs to be said, right? The COVID-19 world will surely be the background of numerous forthcoming novels and short films and romantic comedies; the texture of everyday life will be fictionalized for decades to come and my personal experience wasn't particularly unique enough to spend hours recounting. Despite all these troubles, I did accomplish some reading.

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble
Days of Awe by A. M. Homes
Victory over Japan by Ellen Gilchrist
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley
The Reality Dysfunction: Emergence by Peter F. Hamilton
The Reality Dysfunction: Expansion by Peter F. Hamilton
The Neutronium Alchemist: Consolidation by Peter F. Hamilton
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald
Close Range by Annie Proulx
The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting
Moon Deluxe by Frederick Barthelme
Actress by Anne Enright
Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt
A Nest of Nightmares by Lisa Tuttle
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
New Hope for the Dead by Charles Willeford
Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
Things You Should Know by A. M. Homes
What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Stonefish by Scott R. Jones
The Rise of Life on Earth by Joyce Carol Oates

I read 23 books since March 6, 2020 (when I finished the first volume of Richardson's Pilgrimage). That's one quarter of a book per day, assuming the books are all the same length, which they definitely are not. You can see this is a slowdown from the rate pre-COVID (21 books over 66 days, or 31% of a book per day). Is this a regular rate? Hard to say as the first two months of 2020 were the hardest two months of my entire life. Anyway, this post isn't about the previous calamity but the present calamity, lol.

The books I liked the least, but still liked a lot were Victory over Japan and Stonefish. Both of them were just almost shy of good, but had some stumbles. For the Gilchrist, the problem was the doofy final suite of stories and for the Jones, it was the doofy dialogue and the length (too long!). But both had moments of fantastic writing, great ideas, and enough for me to want to read more by both writers.

The ones I loved the most were the Greenwell, the Oates (obviously), the two latter Homes story collections, and Drabble's The Millstone which blew my socks off. Everything else I read was good to great. An extremely solid offering. I mean, the Peter F. Hamilton stuff, the first half of the Night's Dawn Trilogy, is stupendously stupid and I had to take a break or my mind would have shattered irreparably. But it's still entertaining. The most recent Homes story collection, Days of Awe, had some terrific stories but also a couple of duds.

I wish I had the energy to write anything.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Miami Vice S01E04


Title: "The Hit List" or "Calderone's Return Part 1"
Airdate: October 19, 1984
Notable Guest Star: Jim Zubiena, I guess, who was in a few other Michael Mann movies
Notable Song: quite a few options but "In the Night" by Russ Ballard

Only 4 episodes into its run and the show goes back to the well of its original villain. Luckily, Calderone himself is a background figure, with Zubiena's Donald Sutherland-alike hitman taking centre stage as a Michael Myers kind of figure of myth and death. We're told a lot about this hitman and we're also treated to an extremely Michael Mann-style action sequence where the hitman uses a huge fucking shotgun to murder a drug dealer. When confronted with a cop, the hitman uses what is called the Mozambique Drill: two shots to the body, one to the head. The same kind of precision and ruthlessness marks later Mann villains like Tom Cruise in Collateral.

Speaking of Michael Mann theatrics, we have three big songs to choose as "notable" for this episode: the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited" and ZZ Top's "Tush" both play in the nightclub where the Vice squad have set up a sting for who they think is the hitman. "I'm So Excited" plays over this tremendous montage of the lighting rigs in the club, like a glimpse into the inner workings of a factory. It's an extremely atypical sequence of shots, especially of a club, where normally one would select shots of young people dancing. "Tush" plays during the second half, when a fight breaks out, causing chaos for our heroes. I can't really imagine ZZ Top playing in a danceclub, but I guess I can't complain; I wasn't even born when this episode originally aired (though my mom was extremely pregnant with me at the time).

The song I chose as notable was previously unknown to me. Russ Ballard seems to me more famous for writing songs for other folks than for his own hits, but his 1984 solo album gave us two songs for this show—one in this episode and another in the next episode. I joked at the beginning that the show quickly went back to the well but it's the truth. The song "In the Night" plays as Tubbs races across Miami in the dark to save Crockett from the hitman he doesn't know about. Lots of neat shots of the neon lights and blue hues of nighttime Miami as the Bronco zips through the streets to the soundtrack of pounding synthesized drums, but frankly, it's a rehash of the seminal and iconic sequence from "My Brother's Keeper" when Phil Collins plays as Crockett and Tubbs make their way to the climatic showdown. I'm not complaining. I watch this show for this exact reason. It's about style and atmosphere.

And architecture, I suppose. This episode gives us a thrilling look at the Atlantis Building, where the hitman kills the dealer at the beginning of the episode. It's notable for being part of the opening credits to the show but also for its distinctive 5-storey plam court, cut out of the building, which its distinctive red spiral staircase.


As far as I can tell, the building was built in 1982 by the firm Arquitectonica. Before the building was finished, the design won an architectural award, judged partly by Frank Gehry of all people. There's lots of neat pictures of the building at the firm's website (here). Looking at other projects by Arquitectonica on their website, I won't be surprised to see other buildings appear on Miami Vice in future episodes. Although, some of the buildings look like the kind of postmodern architecture that Fredric Jameson so famously hated. I can't find my copy of his book, but Jameson talks about the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as this glass facade and its interior being an entire mini-city, with escalators and elevators taking the place of human motion. This giant glass obelisks and canyon walls let nothing in and nothing out; they're complete ecosystems.

The building was somewhat anomalous for its rectangular shape and thinness. While other buildings in the Miami skyline nowadays are glass phalluses reaching skyward, the Atlantis separated itself from its peers by being only 37 feet wide. Apartments span the length of this, with the side facing the bay being rounded, to allow for living rooms to enjoy a 360 degree view. Interestingly, it's perpendicular to the bay, as opposed to facing it, as most other buildings did and still do.

With its glass face and Bauhaus pop of primary colour, and its featuring in the show, the Atlantis made sense as a location where a drug dealer would enjoy the spoils of his trade. In the opening sequence, the Vice members have him under surveillance, watching him and his girlfriend and his bodyguard as they discuss buying new clothes or buying a new car. Very era specific here. The Atlantis isn't just a location here, but a signifier for wealth and prosperity. It's not a mistake that the building also appears in Brian De Palma's Scarface. The building still exists, by the way. It's condos now and probably more expensive per month than I'd make in a year. But that's yet another reason why I watch this show: the excesses of the 1980s.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Miami Vice S01E03



Title: "Cool Runnin'"
Airdate: October 5, 1984
Notable Guest Star: nobody really famous nowadays
Notable Song: "Jamming" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (or at least a cover band doing it)

"Cool Runnin'" is yet another study of Sonny Crockett, leaving Tubbs to be even less of a supporting cast member than usual. Crockett is provided with two major events for character development: the deaths of fellow cops (who were with him at the academy) and his impending divorce from Caroline Crockett (with whom he has a son). The divorce stuff is kind of interesting, if only because we see a little bit more of Crockett outside of his "by-any-means-necessary cop" type. The deaths of his friends are somewhat gratuitous in terms of motivation, but the show has to keep things dramatic, after all. This isn't realism; this is prime time TV.

Notably, the episode features a fantastic exterior establishing shot of the Wyndham Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove. The hotel has this remarkable staircase design with each floor being its own step. Here's a rather gross Google Earth image of the hotel.


The best info I can find of it is that the hotel was demolished in 2012, after being open for only 30 years. It was built in 1982 and was, for a time, a five star hotel (by whatever standard is accepted by the hotel industry). A general decline unfolded as other more luxurious hotels opened in the area and investors/creditors began braying for blood. The hotel was about to enjoy renovations and updating when the 2008 recession hit. A development group bought it for a measly $24 million and are currently building twin residential towers where this hotel once brightened up the bay.


A fascinating and somewhat sad exterior for the show. Watching this show 30 plus years after its airing means we're often looking at the ghosts of the past, either the actors have passed away or the setting itself has mutated, leaving behind its character for a different one. I won't mourn, per se, the death of a hotel owned by millionaires who catered to other millionaires, but I will see the Wyndham as emblematic of the way cities have changed dramatically since 1984. Or perhaps, the insidious inexorable march of gentrification.

The notable supporting character in this episode is a motormouth named Noogie, who was surely devised and cast as an Eddie Murphy-type character. The climactic scene of the episode occurs at Noogie's room at the Clay Hotel. That Noogie, a low level crook who gets by on hustles, lives there implies that the Clay Hotel is somewhat seedy. Gunfights don't happen at the Wyndham, after all. But a cursory check of the internet shows that the Clay Hotel has since been gentrified too!


This is a recent photo; the hotel in "Cool Runnin'" is a bit more brown and dingy. The Clay Hotel does give us another indication of the great diversity of architectural styles in Miami. We see the Spanish villa influence, perhaps an effort to create a sense of hominess for Latinx visitors, but more likely a calculated move to delude white tourists into believing Miami is more exotic than their bland, drab, Midwestern home state.

"Cool Runnin'" also offers the distinct pleasure of crowd shots. By virtue of filming on location and outdoors, the show provides copious glimpses of people long changed or gone, dressed in 80s fashion, going about their normal day until they saw a film crew and Don Johnson and found themselves extras in a scene. The director of this episode, Lee H. Katzin, uses multiple montage sequences of regular Miami people: walking the streets, dancing in "Jamaicatown," shopping in outdoor markets, playing dominoes. It's textural and it's one of my favourite things that film can do. I always think of the opening sequence to Dog Day Afternoon, with its Elton John song and seemingly limitless glimpses of these people and their regular lives. I thought, for a moment, I might start editing together a film essay of the crowds from Miami Vice. That might be neat. I love these montages because they create atmosphere almost immediately and create verisimilitude.

A fine episode, nothing particularly amazing, but as always, I take my pleasures where I can get them.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

March Reads Part One

Backwater by Dorothy Richardson
Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson

“It is jolly to talk about things,” she said, as the blood surged into her face.
He was grave again and did not answer.
“People don’t talk about things nearly enough,” she pursued.

Continuing with my Richardson project here, I'm making better progress than I usually do with similar endeavours (as in, I didn't wait a year or more to return to the task). I had got the sense from reading a couple reviews, either on blogs or on Goodreads, that Pilgrimage gets more abstract as it goes on, increasing its difficulty, I suppose. Thus, I was expecting a slow shift in later books and not immediately in "chapters" two and three.

Backwater picks up with Miriam back in England getting a job as a teacher for a North London private school (forgive me if I've mislabeled what type of school. The English school system is arcane and bewildering to me) where she immediately hates everything and everybody, a common theme so far in this novel sequence. Backwater is less episodic than Pointed Roofs but still not focused the way a "traditional" novel or Bildungsroman would be. Miriam is what one would call a New Woman, a specific term from the Late Victorian era: she resists traditional roles for women, she resists patriarchal rule such as Christianity, she smokes, and most importantly, she wants to choose. She wants choice in her own life. A background theme in Backwater is one of economics. Miriam is happy to be making her own money, even if it's to support her quickly impoverished parents, but the looming government regulation of teacher, including accreditation, means she will either have to submit to training or languish around the poverty line. Coincidentally, this kind of financial precarity mirrors my own situation (Victorian pun unintended): I have training but no one will take me on unless I get more training and I won't make any money until I get this training. However, to receive this training means spending money I don't have and facing some risk. Even with more training, Miriam and I aren't guaranteed jobs; there's a chance we both undergo more schooling and shouldering debt just to be in the same place as we were when we began. The world built by Pilgrimage is slowly modernizing, one of the many reasons why scholars find Late Victorian/Edwardian literature so discursively productive. Many of the structures and systems that seem natural to us have their origins in this period of intense modernization and the literature produced by this era can be illuminating as to how people felt about such leaps. For Miriam, modernization has its pros and cons: the trams, the noise, the increased industrialization of daily life is hard on the soul, but her freedom to move, to take trains by herself, to move around the city is not something she'd trade for anything. We recall that the Late Victorian era gave us the flâneuse (the female form of the flâneur). The flâneuse is the urban spectator (a perfect protagonist for a sequence of novels charting modernization) but also a fantastic symbol of the increased alienation suffered by people under the thumb of capitalism, especially this late-19th Century accelerated capitalism. Miriam's desire for independence is mirrored by her freedom to move, her freedom to choose to escape the doldrums of North London. Yes, she's classist (Backwater refers to the obviously uncool part of London where she works), and fairly mean to these lower classes ladies who run the school. Miriam is not a morally perfect character, and her classism is tempered somewhat by the novel's subtle clues that she is, indeed, a spoiled teenager experiencing angst. We're not to trust what she says as gospel.

The other discursively productive thread in Backwater is Miriam's reading as hobby. I was reading a bit about the rise of the middlebrow in The History of British Women's Writing 1920-1945 (here) which argues part of the genre's genesis comes from reading as an avenue for social mobility:
eager to promote a culture of book-buying in a section of the population who had not previously been able to afford it, the book clubs sought to transform ephemeral best- sellers into ‘modern classics’, decking them out in ‘dignified’ uniform bindings and employing in their advertising copy language carefully designed to evoke a life of cultured and leisured gentility. ("The Feminine Middlebrow Novel" by Nicola Humble. pp 100)
Again, we see a genre developing thanks to both aesthetic concerns and market forces. Hence, why we cannot pretend genres such as "realism" are stable structures built entirely of aesthetics. The combination of commerce and audience helped created a genre with its own tropes, interests, aims, and, of course, ideology. Humble's article tracks the developing genre through depictions of women reading in literature. She writes:
Repeatedly within its pages we find discussions of book collections and favourite books, of lending libraries and bookshops, of old favourites and new best-sellers, of the differences in practices, status, and incomes between male and female writers, of reading for pleasure and reading for instruction... (101)
Richardson's Miriam is no different. In Backwater, she visits a local library, a bookshop, reads seemingly countless novels, and, keeping with the artistic aims of the entire cycle, describes lavishly the physical objects of the books themselves, in other words, indulges in commodity fetishism (something I'm also incredibly guilty of). Around the halfway point, Miriam has discovered the pleasure of reading Ouida, a then-famous, but controversial writer. Richardson writes:
From that moment the red-bound volumes became the centre of her life. She read “Moths” and “In Maremma” slowly word by word, with an increasing steadiness and certainty. The mere sitting with the text held before her eyes gave her the feeling of being strongly confronted. The strange currents which came whenever she was alone and at ease flowing to the tips of her fingers, seemed to flow into the book as she held it and to be met and satisfied. As soon as the door was shut and the gas alight, she would take the precious, solid trusty volume from her drawer and fling it on her bed, to have it under her eyes while she undressed. She ceased to read her Bible and to pray.
Note the focus on the physical act of reading and even acts around reading. Richardson barely describes the contents of the books, presuming the reader, a middlebrow reader such as Miriam herself, would be already familiar with the novels themselves. Miriam goes through phases; she obsesses over Rosa Nouchette Carey and then Mrs. Hungerford, both of whom were new names to me. Part of the appeal of this Late Victorian-Edwardian literature is, as I say, the encroaching modernity (and modernism) but also a glimpse into the interests and social practices of people long dead. There are countless Victorian bestsellers and blockbuster hits that I've just never heard of. If they're not available from Penguin or Oxford or Dover, they're almost inaccessible to a layperson. None of Ouida's oeuvre are in print save the very famous The Two Flags from Valancourt (it's too expensive for me to take a chance on). There are print-on-demand schemes, but they're often simply printed scans of library books, warts and all. These are also expensive (which is odd considering their public domain status) and are bound terribly. 21st Century society doesn't have the same reverence for books as Miriam's era. We still love books but we're not a reading society anymore. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it simply is a thing. So novels like Backwater help us understand these reading publics and how they've developed and changed.

Honeycomb was a better read, aesthetically, but a lesser read in terms of themes and plotting. Miriam has quit her teaching position for a pseudo-governess position in a rich household in the suburbs, where there's actual nature and actual people. She barely teaches the precocious children; her job is mostly to keep them entertained, something she isn't great at, but tries. Most of the "action" as it were comprises episodes of her within this upper class household, attending the small week-end parties (hyphen used purposefully) and going shopping with the Missus of the house. Reading this 100 years on, I found it difficult not to read it as a satire about the rich, how awful they are, how useless they are. I also struggled to discern whether or not that's intentional. Miriam seems ambivalent about it. Some people she finds fascinating while others make her soul cry out. She describes Mr. Corrie, the pater, in withering terms, but also admires him in some ways. She seeks out his opinion but admits he knows nothing about anything, especially Miriam herself. He mispronounces the name of a French town and she corrects him, inwardly rolling her eyes. But she yearns for the Corries. Or is it that she yearns for their money?

The other series of episodes is Miriam being courted. There's Bob, who condescendingly refers to her as "my dear girl" and another dude named Mr. Grove. She feels the anxiety of marriage as two of her three sisters are engaged (and marry in a dual ceremony at the end of the book). Again, and again, Miriam is ambivalent. For every moment she feels a thrill at this companionship she resists the men and their clumsy advances. It's subtle but it feels like Miriam thinks these men are courting her because they should and since they expect marriage will happen, they put no effort into the actual courting. Mr. Grove is especially heinous and he seems to think being mysterious and self-deprecating is the way to interest Miriam. She's attracted to his religiosity but repelled by how sniveling he is.
Adam had not faced the devil. He was stupid first, and afterwards a coward and a cad ... “the divine curiosity of Eve....” Some person had said that.... Perhaps men would turn round one day and see, what they were like. Eve had not been unkind to the devil; only Adam and God. All the men in the world, and their God, ought to apologise to women....
This sort of sums up Miriam's proto-feminism: she sees the need for men, but she's offended and put upon by those men. They have ruled for far too long without facing reality (ie the devil).

Speaking of religiosity, both "chapters" 2 and 3 pick up on the thread seeded by Miriam's agnosticism from Pointed Roofs. In Backwater, Miriam confesses to one of the ladies who owns the school that she doesn't believe but she feels adrift nonetheless. The school mistress, Miss Haddie, gives her a Bible which Miriam reads faithfully and derives some comfort from its poetry and words of wisdom. But Miss Haddie's piousness and her spinster status co-mingle in Miriam's eyes. She feels she has to escape the "emotional tyranny" of North London, the claustrophobia of the school and the Church:
‘I was right—I was right,’ Miriam gasped to herself as the light flowed in. ‘I’m escaping—just in time.... Emotional tyranny.... What a good expression ... that’s the secret of Miss Haddie. It was awful. She’s lost me. I’m free. Emotional tyranny.’ ...
In Honeycomb, her ambivalent feelings towards Mr. Grove are stirred by his fervour. He wishes to join a brotherhood but the expectations of family and society are forcing him into the study of Law. Miriam feels incredibly conflicted about this. On one hand, she wants him to follow his dreams (“You have a dearest wish; that is a good deal”) but on the other hand, the cloister is too confined, too strict for Miriam ("[Miriam sees] the figure at her side shrouded in a habit, wrapped in tranquillity, pacing along a cloister, lost to her"). She can't decide if his faith or his self-pity repels her but she also can't decide if his convictions and morals attract her or not:
She did not really want to help him. She wanted to attract his attention to her. She had done it and he did not know it. Horrible. They were both caught in something. She had wanted to be caught, together with this agonising priestliness. But it was a trick. Perhaps they hated each other now.
“It is jolly to talk about things,” she said, as the blood surged into her face. 
There are no easy answers in either Backwater or Honeycomb and for that, I can't wait to read more. 

Friday, February 28, 2020

February Reads Part Two

In Green's Jungles by Gene Wolfe
Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell

After finishing the Solar Cycle this month, I immediately purchased the two reference guides compiled by Michael Andre-Driussi because I was energized by my Return to the Wolfe (excuse the pun). The second guide, covering the final two thirds of the Cycle, includes a timeline which was particularly helpful because The Book of the Short Sun was far trickier in terms of its syuzhet than previous Books. Which isn't to say the fabula isn't as tricky if not trickier! Don't mistake me here, The Book of the Short Sun is far more complicated and abstruse than anything in the original quartet or the follow-up. I won't write out a long synopsis here as I think the ones written on Wikipedia and in Goodreads reviews will suffice.

In retrospect, On Blue's Waters was disappointing to me in the same way Shadow of the Torturer was: I didn't see the bigger picture and therefore thought the initial sally was weak. I still think OBW is a bit of a slog (all that long stuff with Seawrack or the days Horn spends in the hole! oy!) but it's all necessary setup for the second and third parts, which I liked much more, enough that I read them back-to-back.

In Green's Jungles upends a lot of the things I assumed about the world (whorl) Wolfe has invented. With The Book of the New Sun, part of the pleasure is the warmth of recognition: understanding that something fantastical is actually long gone technology. I even wrote about my sincere enjoyment of realizing the Moon was terraformed at some point in the future hence its description as "green Lune" in the original quartet. The pleasure is predicated on my familiarity with science fictional tropes. Without them, the metatextual vector goes nowhere. You'd just be reading about weird dudes who lie to everybody they meet all the time. With The Book of the Short Sun, elements of fantasy are introduced that have seemingly no corresponding science fictional trope. For example, the Narrator (not naming him is necessary) finds he can astroproject (not the books' term for it) himself and his companions (those in close proximity) to other planets, including the distant Urth, where the Narrator gets to meet a young torturer's apprentice. I can't for the life of me come up with a rational explanation for this, especially since this warping (as Andre-Driussi calls it) requires the inclusion of what the text calls an inhumu, the vampire species living on Blue and Green that, again, have no corresponding scientific explanation. The existence of aliens in the Solar Cycle is nothing new: they're introduced at the end of The Book of the New Sun and feature prominently in Urth of the New Sun, the epilogue. Although I should caution myself here. The aliens (Hierodules) in the fifth book have the power to transport an entire star without (it appears) any negative effects on the galaxy (I'm no physicist but it feels like moving something that massive that fast would upset something gravitationally-speaking). This power threatens suspension of disbelief in the rationality of this universe.

Still, In Green's Jungles, with its astroprojection, astral items, vampires and ancient aliens, feels more detached from the relatively grounded world of Urth. The themes Wolfe introduces are similarly more abstract. Gone is the conniving but ultimately good Severian, replaced with the Narrator who suffers a crisis of identity and a crisis of purpose. He is good... perhaps even Good with a capital G and the problems he faces are far more complicated than those Severian deals with. The world of Blue is corrupt and without the force of religion, even the false religion of the Whorl (the name for the generation ship from whence all these colonist came), humanity has devolved into warring polities and cities. The Narrator, in his journey(s), helps bring order and Goodness to these towns, sometimes at great personal cost. Things feel more allegorical here but also more focused than the original quartet's one damn thing after another. Using the structure of a trilogy to complicate the timeline is an especially genius idea as knowing the events at the beginning of the story/fabula would greatly alter one's perception of the events in the middle and end. Something happens to the Narrator at the near-beginning of the journey, something that essentially sparks the resulting syuzhet. This reminds me of the timeline twisting in Kill Bill Vol 1: it makes the most sense, narratively speaking, for Beatrix to visit the villains in the order she does so that the film builds to a crescendo.

Return to the Whorl revisits and refines some of the themes in the second volume: war is dehumanizing but necessary sometimes, revolution is often required, and identity is extremely slippery. It's a quicker read, I think, than the other two, because the two timelines look to converge, letting some explanations bubble to the surface (such as the confusion about who the narrator is) while others are left opaque, to be puzzled out by readers. I thought I wouldn't love this whole trilogy as much as the other two, but I do... just for different reasons. Where The Book of the Long Sun reads like a necessary political document and The Book of the New Sun feels like a love letter to science fiction, The Book of the Short Sun is an exploration of loss, identity, and fate. Deeply in love with this series!

Elizabeth Taylor's Wreath of Roses was good, I guess. This is my second or third Taylor and I'm just not seeing what everybody else is seeing here. The prose is beautiful, the character well drawn, but I can get this from countless other writers. I couldn't quite manage to line up all the happenings in this plot with themes or ideas I thought the novel was trying to express. I loved a lot of the observations and the sense of place and time, but maybe the scaffolding of the structure is just too subtle for me? Perhaps.

As others have expressed on Goodreads, I too wonder how I will review/track Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage. Individual chapters? One volume at a time? The entire thing in one go? Even though I'm reading this in the Virago 4-volume edition, I've selected the Broadview edition of the first novel for at least the first review.

It's astonishing to read this in 2020, 105 years after its publication. The content feels over a hundred years old but the style...? It feels completely fresh, as if published today or at least in the last 20 years. The fluid oscillation from third person subjective to free indirect speech is carried off with such skill and flair, as if "stream of consciousness" had already existed for eons. In one slim "chapter" (her preferred term for the individually published novels), Richardson mastered a technique still used to this day.

I've tried reading this before and slid off it, the cast being too large, the plot being non-existent, but this time, I devoured it in a couple days. I realized the intricacies of the cast aren't of primary importance; that the plot is merely an excuse for the exploration of thoughts and feelings and impressions and opinions and fears and doubts and desires. This is a novel of expression, both external—all of Miriam's painterly observations of colour, shape, scent, texture—and internal. Not much happens here, plot-wise: she heads off to a German private school where she's tasked with reading English to the German students (young ladies of middle class backgrounds who need to be "educated" to be considered marriageable material); she encounters domestic and quotidian moments of life such as having her hair washed, going for a picnic, encountering gossipy cliques, receiving blouses from home that are outmoded and gauche. It's all very ordinary, but there's necessity and poetry in the ordinary. I was reminded a lot of Alcott's Little Women and Céline Sciamma's recent film Portrait of a Lady on Fire: depicting that which is not generally depicted is in of itself a radical act. While the latter is more dramatic and modern (abortion! lesbian desire! a miniature social revolution!), Little Women and Pointed Roofs do much of the same ideological work in portraying a world of the feminine previously (still?) considered unworthy of artistic depiction. In other words, the banality is the point.

Can't wait to continue with this.

I read a short introduction to medieval monasteries for a project I'm contemplating. I won't say much about it yet.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

February Reads Part One

A Sick Gray Laugh by Nicole Cushing
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg
The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble
Real Life by Brandon Taylor

That's six in a row that I very much liked—loved. The best of the bunch was easily Real Life, which was, aesthetically, the novel I desperately needed. Coming out this week from Riverhead Books, it somewhat challenges the "type" of novel associated with Riverhead. Instead of being "poetic" in the way a lot of Riverhead novels are, Taylor's debut is resolutely realist and minimalist in scope, but maximalist in observational power. The whole novel takes place over a weekend and scenes have the length and intensity of a stage play, with some scenes stretching out over 50 pages. Wallace, the protagonist, is a gay black man studying biochemistry in a lab populated mostly by well-meaning but narcissistic white people. Like Taylor himself, Wallace struggles with his career choice, his specific desires, and his tumultuous past. Scenes unfold with vivid clarity and almost sensual attention to physical details. No gesture, no touch is unimportant in Taylor's world. Every caress and graze are as essential to character as their backstory. There's a bravery in Taylor's novel: where some authors might relinquish scenes after a tense moment, this one goes full bore into the aftermath. The novel suggests quite explicitly that to live in the world with people is to submit yourself to their cruelties, whether intentional or not, and in turn, spread cruelty outwards from yourself. Each scene is a diorama of this idea in action—that even well meaning white folks will allow racism and homophobia because it's easier to forgive (white people) afterwards than interrupt in the moment. But this cruelty extends to even love; Wallace enters a complicated sexual relationship with an ostensibly straight man named Miller, a fellow scientist. There is no pursuer and pursued in this relationship but two confused men lashing out at each other while paradoxically seeking comfort in each other; though Taylor would object to my use of the adverb "paradoxically" as the novel suggests there can be no love without cruelty. Instead of bullshit prose gussied up as "poetry" by eliminating "like" and/or "as" from similes (a modern trend I despise), Taylor's prose is polished and careful and methodical. There are beautiful turns of phrase but nothing so flashy as to detract from the essential drama of the scene. This would work beautifully as a film—save for the elimination of introspection and interiority—thanks to Taylor's lavish "stage directions." I was saying to a friend just the other day that sometimes cultural objects that are too perfect, too smooth are less fascinating than objects which frustrate or stymie. The characters in Real Life have jagged edges; they're frustrating and annoying and they make bone headed decisions in the heat of the moment. Wallace doesn't know what he wants and he says the wrong things and he can't get along with people and everybody rubs up against everybody else and it's a mess. It's a wonderful example of realism. This will probably be my favourite novel of the year.

A Sick Gray Laugh was tremendous, unlike anything I've read in a long while. According to the acknowledgements, Cushing was greatly influenced by European writers like Witold Gombrowicz and Thomas Bernhard and their novels structured not like novels but like screeds or jeremiads. I haven't read much postwar European fiction, to be honest, and it's a glaring blindspot. Apparently, I'm missing out on novels that explore the possibilities of the form. A Sick Gray Laugh has an unusual premise to go along with its unusual form: Noelle Cashman is an award winning novelist who has been fighting her own mental illnesses all her life. She's recently started a new medication that's helped with her neuroses and psychoses, but now she's seeing the world as it actually is: drenched in a miasma of Grayness, a near-total fog that drains the world of its literal colour and figurative colour. She memorably describes this Grayness as a thick clotting snot stuck to everything. The Grayness allows for regular folks to go along willingly with anything (such as voting against their best interests) and eliminates any heretical or confrontational thought. Cashman begins the book as a work of history, investigating the origin of the Grayness and the history of its epicenter, in a neighbouring town, which includes multiple utopian cults and strange things. The novel asks some serious questions about utopia and whether efforts to ameliorate the world could ever work when folks are more than happy with the shitty status quo. It also interrogates authorship and the project of interpretation via author biography. Cushing's narrator, Cashman explicitly challenges the reader to divest themselves from reading Cashman as Cushing, despite the identical nature of both people. A Sick Gray Laugh is characterized, or marketed I should say, as horror, and it's definitely not the kind of marketable horror that Nick Cutter and Joe Hill traffic in. Instead, this is ontological horror: what is the origin of our own sick lives and can we assign blame to an outside force or is it our own apathy that imprisons us? I loved this, not just for its intellectual fun, but for its sick sense of humour and playfulness. I wish more novels were this daring.

Speaking of horror, Enriquez's Things We Lost in the Fire was great, too. A collection of short stories set in Argentina, past and present, with all the gothic and gory horrors you can imagine. One story involves a guy contemplating killing his own baby because it's annoying him too much. Another story has the ghosts of a SWAT team scaring the crap out of two girls (on the cusp of pubescence of course). The language is plain and pulpy, evocative without drawing too much attention, and the horror is top rate. This is what I wanted Samanta Schweblin's novel to be. It's a shame I don't know much about Argentina, because I can only imagine the political history looms large over the horrors herein. Hope we get more of her work translated.

I read Dept. of Speculation in two sittings: both while I waited for my dad as he managed the long lines and drudgery of informing the government of a death in the family. Offill's dark portrait of a marriage and motherhood resonated perhaps a bit more than if I hadn't just lost my own mother and had to watch my father navigate the gnarled paths of bureaucracy. I thought it was very funny and perceptive, astute in its observations on the casual ways partners hurt each other. I eagerly await reading her third novel, Weather.

I can't remember how I heard of Laura van den Berg's novel The Third Hotel other than I guess seeing the cover in the bookstore and online. I'm glad I read it, even if with some time, I'll probably forget about the experience. It's a perfectly fine novel that's just good enough to be readable but not great enough to be memorable, I'm sad to report. Its premise reminded me a bit of Katie Kitamura's A Separation, which you might remember me adoring. In The Third Hotel, a bereaved wife goes to the film festival in Havana her husband was to attend, and there in the busy streets among the throngs of people, she catches a glimpse of her supposed-to-be dead husband walking around. The Third Hotel moves like a ghost story but is more like a typical American in a foreign place kind of novel where things are Weird and Different, which the novel even comments on(!).  There's quite a bit about horror as the protagonist's husband was an academic specializing in scary movies and not all of it meshes entirely with the rest of the book. But van den Berg's sense of place and atmosphere and weirdness is on point, so she gets by thanks to that. I'd be interested in seeing what her next project is.

Ah, Margaret Drabble. I read this almost entirely out of spite. Thanks to Tessa Hadley, I'd learn of the pejorative "Hampstead novel" and Drabble was the biggest target for that arrow. The Hampstead Novel is a derogatory term for realist novels set in definitely middle class neighbourhoods in the UK and concern themselves with their petty bourgeois problems such as adultery, child-rearing, careers, and the like. The Needle's Eye is one of Drabble's best reviewed novels (JCO in the New York Times Book Review gave it a rave review here) and is about a lawyer bitter with his wife getting involved (not romantically but personally) in the legal affairs of a woman going through a child custody case. Stylistically, the closest comparison I can make is to Henry James, but obviously they're of different magnitudes of order. Drabble's sentences are long and labyrinthine with clauses and asides and she's less attentive to scenes of person-to-person drama and more fascinated by long sections of introspection, similar to The Master in execution. Obviously, Drabble's sentences are far easier to parse than James (who gets a name drop in The Needle's Eye, but not a single reference to What Maisie Knew) but they're still a bit trickier than her contemporaries (her sister, A. S. Byatt, no stranger to this blog, wrote cleaner but simpler sentences). I found the novel enjoyable to read and its reputation as either a useless bourgeois masturbation fest or "an experience as moving as any we call 'real,' 'beautiful,' 'transforming.'" (Oates). It's a fine novel about people in love and out of love and some of the tricks Drabble uses are a bit cheap (the protagonist's wife is such a stereotypical shrew and the other woman is a bit too saintly) but the quality of craftsmanship is high enough. Unfortunately, this puts me in the unenviable position of defending Drabble against Iain Banks and China Mieville, who I think have mischaracterized Drabble's work to the point of strawman.

Banks famously dismissed the Hampstead novel as sending the message that this genre wasn't a genre, but real life, and possibly the opposite of genre. Mieville refers to the Hampstead novel as being "about a middle class world where the people are hermetically sealed from the rest of the world" (here). The crux of the complaint is a bit of genre snobbishness, I think, and this might have more to do with the literary world from the Thatcher era than with the novels themselves. That realist authors like Drabble would present their fictions as being real and thus more valuable than genre, in that genre is "escapist" and realism is not, must stick in the craw of socialist/Leftist writers like Banks and Mieville. The latter argues that "[j]ust because those books pretend to be about 'the real world' doesn't mean they reverberate in it with more integrity" than non-realist books (his italics) (here). This takes us to Mieville's next stage in his argument: if the Hampstead novel presents itself as non-escapist, mirroring the real world, than it's mirroring a world "hermetically sealed" from social and political concerns in favour of minor bourgeois problems. The hope of this genre, if one could assign agency to such a thing, is to perpetuate the idea that those social issues Mieville is referring to aren't worth paying attention to. Though Mieville doesn't explicitly gesture towards it, this calls to mind Adorno's formulation of the culture industry. The standardized production of superficially dissimilar but ultimately identical cultural objects engenders a passivity in the audience, allowing for the normalization of the economic status quo as established and perpetuated by those producing the cultural objects. Because of the culture industry's appeal to the widest possible audience, the objects produced under this logic must satisfy the intellectual rigours of high art and the more visceral emotional release of low art. In that middle lies mediocrity and the continued obedience of the masses to those with capital. Mieville chooses fantasy and other ghettoized genres not for escapism but as thinly coded calls to action. He argues that his so-called "escapist" fantasy is more materialist and less escapist than the fantasies of these bourgeois writers who have the privilege to happily ignore the ways capitalism has marginalized other people. In other words, the Hampstead novels are dangerously escapist.

However, and I'm not the first to suggest this, but it's no coincidence that the writers of these Hampstead novels were mostly women. Drabble, Margaret Forster, Anita Brookner, and other venerable writers doing quietly feminist work have been tarred with this brush of bourgeois fantasist. There's a vague stench of sexism around these accusations, as if the smaller domestic problems of women in middle class situations aren't as "literary" or as relevant as, say, science fiction about vast AIs engaged in projects of utopia. There are two major publishers in the UK, Virago and Persephone, who have worked tirelessly to scoop women writers on the subject of domesticity off the forgotten shelves of  history. We know and generally agree that the Canon of English literature, or even Canons, tend to overlook women writers, especially writers of domestic fiction. There's obviously a hunger for these novels about the concerns of women or else Virago and Persephone wouldn't be in business after all these decades. Mieville makes a strong point that realism as a genre is just as escapist as fantasy, that reactionary politics appears in all genres, especially in cultural objects produced under the logic of late capitalism. But Banks and Mieville don't throw out the entirety of science fiction and fantasy just because Tolkien and Heinlein wrote fantasies of Empire and marginalization so why do they dismiss the Hampstead novel wholecloth? Because, and here I tread clumsily and loudly for the rhetorical effect, the Hampstead novel is about women and women's issues aren't the meat and potatoes of revolutionary politics. In other words, women's concerns aren't nearly as important their manly concerns, to which I retort, come on, man.

Like I say, I'm in the unenviable position of defending Drabble from Mieville and Banks, two of my favourite writers and wonderfully consistent political thinkers. I don't necessarily disagree with their diagnosis of the bourgeois fantasies of the Hampstead novel, and in fact, if The Needle's Eye was written by a man, I might have agreed almost entirely. But I can't help but notice how forceful these critiques are of women and rarely is the same energy expended towards men. Women often undergo far more intense scrutiny in the public eye/literary field just because they're women. Just like how cultural objects meant to be enjoyed by teen girls are the ones most quickly dismissed or mocked, domestic fiction is sometimes unfairly maligned. Obviously, this is not an inviolable rule; after all, Alice Munro is one of the most feted writers of all time and she myopically focuses on the lives of the bourgeoisie.

Honestly, I could have written another 1,000 words on the specifics of The Needle's Eye's interrogations of the dyads "femininity and sacrifice" and "masculinity and duty" but I think I've made enough of a case to trouble to the waters of Mieville and Banks' complete dismissal. I'm not saying they're wrong; I'm saying things aren't as simple as that. Look forward to more Drabble reviews because I was impressed enough to continue.