Monday, December 30, 2019

2019's best reads

A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Night of the Claw by Ramsey Campbell
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Miami Blues by Charles Willeford
The Dollmaker by Nina Allan
The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Faithful Place by Tana French
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

In reverse chronological order, here are the 12 books I couldn't stop thinking about after I had read them. If forced to choose a single title, Asymmetry would have to top the list, if only for how much it wormed into my brain, how tight was its grip on me. I loved all these and a few others, but for whatever (100% arbitrary) reason, I capped my list at a beautiful dozen.

Lessons learned from this year's reading? I remember setting my goal at 90 books and telling myself to read the longer books, the behemoths that I push past in search of shorter, more gratifying reads. This year, I read 8 books over 600 pages. According to Goodreads, I read 34,466 pages across 113 books, making for an average of 305 pages per book, which sounds about right. In 2020, I'd like to continue reading more of the paper leviathans languishing unread on my shelves. I've been staring at Bronte's Villette and other Victorian doorstoppers for years now (including a massive serial novel from the late 19th century that's so thick it's published in two >900 page volumes). Sometimes I begin resenting a novel for eating up so much of my time (eg. The Golden Notebook) and sometimes I enjoyed that distinct pleasure of praising something just because it's long (eg. You Bright and Risen Angels). Speaking of Vollmann, I picked up four of his Seven Dreams novels and his nonfiction work Imperial over the course of the year. All of his books are intimidatingly long (Imperial is 1308 pages and The Dying Grass is 1356 pages!) but I had fun with the one I finished this year. So perhaps I'll set my goal for only 80 books and lean into this trend. Let's make that average page count hit 500 instead of 300!

I also read 63 books by women out of the 113, or 55.75% women authors. This is the first time since 2014 that I was over 50%. In comparison, in 2015, I read only 26% women. Last year was 43% so at least I have improved. There is zero excuse for not reaching gender parity with authors. There are women I follow on Twitter who read only women and they read more than I do, or at least, as much as I do.

I also managed to chip away at the Booker Prize project. I finished the year with 35 books out of 55, or 63%! I read two more women Nobel Prize winners (Svetlana Alexievich and Doris Lessing), meaning I've now read 6 of the 15 women winners of the prize! Almost halfway!

So: resolutions.

In 2020, I'm going to read more books from prize winners that I've enjoyed (such as more Anita Brookner and Penelope Lively). I'm going to finish off some trilogies and series I've started (Robinson's Mars, Barker's The Wounded Kingdom, Herbert's Dune, Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun). I'm going to read more short fiction (I've got two massive William Trevor collections and a best-of by Mavis Gallant that weighs in at 800 pages); I own almost every Alice Munro and Ann Beattie so this blog will see more of them. And of course, I'm going to read more Booker Prize winners and more women Nobel Prize winners.

The usual caveat: who knows where my tastes will take me? I may not know where my tastes will take me, but I do know I'll record fastidiously where I'll go.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

November Reads

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
How late it was, how late by James Kelman
Follies by Ann Beattie
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Childwold by Joyce Carol Oates
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

I didn't like Fever Dream at all. Another novella widely hyped that I felt nothing for. I expected it to be more trippy than it ended up being. I asked a friend at work why he loved it so much and he said it had to do with that anxiety parents feel about children not being close. And in terms of that affect, Schweblin pulls it off well enough. Technically, this novel is admirable. As a reading experience, I found it flat and tedious. Oh well. No big deal.

Took me ages to read Kelman's winner for the Booker Prize. I owned a paperback of it when I was in high school because I assumed it was like Irvine Welsh and in some ways it is, because Kelman famously wrote in Scots dialect. But the story itself is more of a short story ballooned to 400 pages, criminally so, as not much happens and not much means anything here. Kelman's protagonist lies to himself constantly, placates himself with pablum and inspirational phrases. This is like what if one of those Instagram accounts but spoken by a drunken Scotsman?  The blindness he experiences literalizes the blindness he has for his own life, for the Scottish and their social problems. The protagonist falls into a byzantine labyrinth of social welfare programs that feel like when Dirk Diggler needs to get money to buy his demo but he needs the demo to get the money (here). The themes and symbols and whatnot are hammered home pretty quickly and much of the book feels like repetition. I'm disappointed but I still want to read more by Kelman.

Another collection of stories from Beattie, another assemblage of beautiful moments and heartbreak. With Follies, Beattie struggles against the prison of her own style. One story is a diptych, offering two characters who meet in passing; another story offers a moral. But most of the time, her stories are the same flashes of minimalism, with these poignant bits of despair fleshed out with astute pop culture references. I liked it a lot, of course. The title novella, "Fléchette Follies," features a bizarre CIA agent offering to go find a wayward drug addict son, and it is chock full of little asides and character moments that could have made their own complete short story unto themselves. Every Beattie story is like its own universe, something I can't say about every short story writer.

Black Light was terrific. Nominated for the National Book Award, this collection of stories works as a complete work too. Not that the stories are connected by character or event, but by mood and flavour. The cover copy doesn't do this book any justice. Never is it mentioned anywhere how wonderfully dingy and grimy everything is in this book. There's bugs, dirty couches, trash everywhere, people are constantly sweaty and dirty, booze on every page. Details stand out from beyond the filth though, such as the mother who demands her children pack up their toiletries every morning and every night to keep the bathroom empty, and any stray item found is thrown out mercilessly. A fantastic collection. Can't wait to see what Parsons does next.

Childwold is an early Oates and it's extremely 1970s: stream-of-consciousness, various voices, little to no plot, and focused more on class than anything else. Childwold is the town in which a poor family comes into contact with one of the rich sons of the ruling upperclass, a son in his 40s who obsesses over the 14 year old daughter. The voices are unique, and there's never any problem distinguishing them, but there's a lot of excess, as if Oates had a novella she needed to expand. This means lots of flashbacks and lots of family history, especially from the old patriarch who's going slowly senile. Where the novel succeeds is in its aggressive, unflinching look at rural poverty. Oates never lets you forget how close these people are to starvation or ruin. But like with all Oates books, the real allure is her psychological acuity. Everything is so dense and claustrophobic and tense and sweaty. Simple sequences like shopping for a new coat leave characters' heads swimming, dizziness. Everything is cranked to maximum and I love it.

Trust Exercise is like if somebody read Asymmetry by Halliday and thought, "let's make this worse." The cover copy, as usual, is annoying as hell, signalling that there's a "twist" at some point, and ugh, there sure is. The first part, the best part, even though I didn't like it, was at least a complete and interesting section. Though it opens with two 14 year olds having sex (really professional sex), which is kind of off-putting. And, sure, it's weird that in 1980-whatever, these theatre kids are absolute stars at fucking despite being 14 and 15 and so on, but let's not dwell on this. The eponymous trust exercises are obviously the best and most alluring part of the entire novel: theatre kids are forced to reveal personal information for the sake of strengthening their acting skills. I asked a couple friends who went to theatre school and they said some of this is rooted in reality and just as goofy as I expect it to be. But the novel abandons this at the halfway point, opting for a drastic time jump, setting off my eyeroll quite quickly. It turns out the preceding section was simply a fictional telling written by one of the characters. In this second part, a character on the sidelines in the fictional novel provides commentary on the novel in question and its supposed "reality." Ugh. Sure, I mean, Asymmetry did the same trick but at least had the decency not to affix blaring neon signs indicating so. The third part turns all of this on its head again for an even less necessary narrative. I'm not even sure what level of "reality" this third section is on. It's all quite irritating, especially since the promise of the novel is in its not-often explored territory of acting school. That this book won the National Book Award and Asymmetry didn't is ludicrous, as suspension-of-disbelief-breaking as this very novel. I've heard great things about Choi's other novels, so maybe I'll give them a try.

Next month? A special theme month! Check back to see!

Friday, November 1, 2019

October Reads Part Three

Night of the Claw by Ramsey Campbell
The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Night of the Claw is a straight up horror masterpiece. It's a common tack in reviewing Campbell's fiction to make mention of that Stephen King quote about how reading Campbell is like doing a hit of acid and it's hard to avoid such an observation. Everything is telescoped, distorted, off-kilter. I always feel like characters are lurching, stumbling, their sense of balance affected. Night of the Claw has copious scenes of characters struggling with telescoping reality, their vision tunneled, their palms sweaty, everything on a Dutch tilt. Simple bits like ascending a hill to ascertain if a vision was real or not take up multiple pages of vivid description. In terms of pure aesthetics, this was a joy to read. In terms of its subject, it's a bit of a mixed bag (which sums up my experience with all the Campbell books I've read so far). The novel's MacGuffin, or engine of horror, is a relic from Nigeria, and Campbell manages the tricky act of balancing the colonialist gaze with a more nuanced portrayal of Nigeria. Firstly, that the claw doesn't come from "Africa" is a good sign. Campbell has the protagonist in Nigeria twice, once at the beginning to receive the eponymous claw, and later at the halfway point when he must undergo a journey into darkness, as it were, heading deep into the jungle to face the Leopard Men of Africa, an assassin's guild from the colonial-era. It's hard not to Orientalize Africa as this dangerous, lawless place of darkness when you're writing about a supernatural artefact in the shape of a razor-sharp claw so kudos to Campbell for attempting a more nuanced portrayal of Nigeria in the late 70s-early 80s. He writes about the traffic, about scholars, middle class people; it feels authentic, as if he visited Nigeria himself. But what do I know, I've never left the continent. This is just to say that the novel doesn't feel egregiously or purposefully racist.

Courtois' The Laws of the Skies sounded like my cup of tea: extreme survival horror but starring children, and it started off quite well, with a graphic shocking death within twenty pages. But quickly my patience was exhausted as the novel is cartoonish and goofy in all the wrong ways. Three teachers take an entire kindergarten class camping in the woods (would never happen) and one kid kills a teacher, setting the class in a panic, allowing them to run to their doom in various ways—the funniest being poisoned to death by berries. The problem is the novel's Frenchness; its incessant insistence that this is not pulp but rather serious literature. The French have written terrific pulp! There's nothing to be ashamed about if you're writing pulp! So why is Courtois so afraid of having a laugh? He spends so much time philsophizing, putting words in the children's mouths, words they'd never speak, and the odd direct address to the audience. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. 

Moon Tiger is obviously a re-read and it's as good as I remember it, though not nearly as adventurous as I recall. I had the notion in my head the timeline was a lot more scrambled, but the protagonist's memories unspool quite linearly. Not that this is much of a nitpick; I still adored this novel and I can't think of another Booker winner I rate this highly. 

Kitamura's A Separation was a revelation. One of my favourite books of the year. Reminded me a lot of Levy's Hot Milk, but this was far more controlled, far more modulated, to the point where you can and should begin to question the first person narrator. Her thoughts colour everything and I couldn't help but question if the assumptions and conclusions she would leap to were correct. A stunning work of observation, with beautifully drawn moments of looking. Can't wait to read something new from this writer.

Girl, Woman, Other is the 2019 co-winner of the Booker and I had assumed from its reputation that this would be a slightly difficult book in the way that Milkman is touted to be. But alas, the prose in GWO is fairly rote in execution. The cover copy promises hybridized prose with poetry and sure, there's unconventional paragraph shapes but that's not that uncommon in the Year of Our Lord 2019. The novel is readable, very much so (took me two days to read it) and the characters were very lively, very believable. I couldn't quite shake the feeling that Evaristo was ticking boxes with all her characters. Maybe a sustained portrait of less characters would have been more impactful.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

October Reads Part Two

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Count Zero by William Gibson
The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Speak No Evil is our queer book club pick for this month. I've missed quite a few of the meetings and the books because a) I'm antisocial and b) picky about what I read. I avoid reading anything anybody recommends to me unless the person recommending it is an internet friend who knows my taste. And to hammer home the point, I found Speak No Evil to be fine, not great, not even good, but just fine. An easy way to pass the afternoon. The problem is one of structure. I read in another review that this novel is what's left from a larger project with more voices and more plot, and while I commend Iweala for cutting something down to ~200 pages, I could feel the ghost of this older sibling lurking at the edges of the novel. Speak No Evil follows Niru, an 18 year old athlete, scholar, and well-rounded nice person who suddenly discovers he's gay. Once his strict Nigerian parents find out, he's sent off to the homeland for conversion therapy. Back home, he's presented with temptation. At this point, I looked up from the novel and said to my partner, "hey the story is finally starting" and I was halfway through. Much to my chagrin, this thread is dropped right away, and the novel switches perspective. I groaned aloud at this. I sighed and grimaced as the novel did exactly what you think a didactic novel like this will do. I didn't hate the ending, but ugh, how many more novels of queer suffering do we need? The pivot to painful topicality hurts more than hinders. You wonder what could have been if the novel had had the space to address this because as it is, it feels coarse, almost vulgar in its didacticism. This might have worked a lot better if it had been either much larger (in terms of scale) or even shorter, starting at the halfway point and using quick flashbacks to get across exposition. It's a useful adage to start your story as late as possible.

I spent months reading The Moons of Jupiter until I decided I wanted to finish it. I do this again and again with short story collections and I really need to stop because I struggle to remember the first few stories. The collection is slightly uneven and I get the sense from reading reviews that Moons is a transitional work for Munro; she wouldn't perfect the time dilation aspect of her stories until the next couple books. But I say slightly uneven because the stories that aren't masterpieces are still heads and shoulders better than most I've read. A theme simmering under the surface of this collection is the volatility of men. Numerous stories feature slightly dopey, well-meaning men who inflict inadvertent hurt on the women characters, either through inattention or general volatility. There's the constant threat of explosion or anger from these men, as if just one thing is going to set them off. Maybe not to the extreme of violence, but to the edge of malice, to lashing out and hurting the ones they love. I don't remember this aspect from other stories. I think I'm going to have a Munro celebration soon and just power through two or three collections in a row (and take scrupulous notes).

An addendum: the cat featured in this review of A Little Life, Grimey, pissed on five of my Alice Munro books. Only one of which was irreplaceable (a weird American trade paperback of Progress of Love) so it wasn't too arduous to find them again. I purchased a bunch of them in hardcover at the charity booksale I mentioned previously, so in a way, this was an upgrade. Especially for Moons; I used to own a really hideous Canadian trade paperback from the late 90s, early 2000s (apparently Canada didn't get good book designers until the 2010s) and I finished reading the collection in a 1992 hardcover reissue.

Grimey, by the way, has been rehomed, because we could not get a handle on his bathroom accidents. I'm heartbroken, but he seems happy in his new home.

Agent Running in the Field is definitely a minor effort but still entertaining. It's not quite the angry-at-Brexit le Carré we were promised though dribbles of his righteous fury leaks out. Cleverly, the author puts most of the anti-Trump, anti-Brexit ranting in the mouth of a dubious character, a sweaty awkward young man who we're meant to be suspicious of right at the outset. This tempers the fury, mutes it almost, especially since the narrator/protagonist refuses have his political feelings nailed down. The novel zips along, paced perfectly so, but ends extremely abruptly. I had hoped for at least a couple pages after the final moment for a smidge of denouement, but I suppose the protagonist's last act in the narrative is a thematic end. I'd probably complain the novel went on too long if le Carré had kept going.

Night Boat to Tangier was my first Kevin Barry, though not my last. Unfortunately, it was quite disappointing. I'd expected a more Beckett-esque experiment in form, especially coming from a winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, and there are shades of Waiting for Godot (I mean, how else can there not be with this premise?) but shorn of its stylistic affectations, Tangier is a conventional contemporary novel with dual timelines and trauma in the past structured as a revelation near the endpoint of the novel. Mark Harris at the New York Times writes of this structure: "Split timelines — the bad past that explains the bad present — are a genre staple, and the emergence of something awful and long-suppressed is such a consistent motif that it has turned many novels into waiting games" (here) and this phenomenon isn't confined to genre; this bifurcated structure is popping up everywhere and it makes for stale reading. A twist shouldn't be a pat hollow 1:1 for trauma, or as Harris puts it, "a tidy little gift bag of answers and rationales right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." Tangier bounces two timelines, the present (a far more engaging narrative) and a past narrative quickly catching up with the present. I'm making a bit too much of the "revelation" but that's just because I was let down by how utterly conventional and prosaic this novel was. Misplaced expectations? Maybe. But I do want to read his earlier stuff.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Neuromancer and Count Zero

Part of me thinks I read Neuromancer in high school. I certainly owned a bunch of his paperbacks, but I don't think I finished the debut novel. I know I sold them all, because they all had uniformly hideous covers. I don't think there has been a modern cover design for Gibson that hasn't made me retch. But as I slipped through Neuromancer, I grew steadily sure I had never read a single word of this beyond the famous opening line. Most of the concepts introduced therein were already familiar to me, and how could they not, thanks to my steady diet of science fiction over the decades. What struck me with Neuromancer, beyond its surprisingly staid quest narrative, is Gibson's confident mature style. Obviously a careful writer, Gibson's sentences are glittering, shiny gems. I loved the experience of reading this, sentence by sentence, even when the plot was a bit meh. AIs and orbital palaces for the uber-rich? Not as radical as I expected from this.

Count Zero, though, was an improvement for me, as least in terms of plotting. The three threads of the narrative, which obviously converge in the finale, were each more alluring than Case and Molly's bouncing around from incident to incident. Each plot movement in Count Zero felt logical, a case of "and therefore" instead of "and then." The writing is as sleek and shiny as any chrome Gibson describes, but perhaps more forgiving, with more helpful exposition.

However, I read a negative review of Count Zero, which is not a minority opinion (it appears to be rated much lower than its older sibling), and I've been haunted by it ever since. The user named nostalgebraist (a clever nod to Iain M. Banks?) gave a measly single star to Count Zero. He concludes his review: "One star is too harsh a rating for a competent if totally unremarkable genre story, but Gibson pretends to do so much more, and that's frustrating" (here). The reviewer's main problem, the one that I said is haunting me, is that Gibson's vision of the future is as superficially constructed as any fantasy worldbuilding. He writes:
Overall there is a complete sense that Gibson's choices of scenery have no consequences whatsoever. It makes no difference whether something is a "god" or an "AI," whether a character is "jacking into the matrix" as opposed to "casting a spell to enter the dreamtime." It makes no difference that Gibson has chosen a futuristic "look" for his noir story, because in the end it's just a noir story.
In other words, the aesthetic chosen for the story are as arbitrary as the technology Gibson is intent on writing about. A damning indictment if true. Science fiction, some have argued, should set itself apart from realism (as fictionally constructed as any other genre) by its use of the novum, the central metaphor, usually technology. The core idea should say something about the present day material conditions under which the writer is working, what elements of society or humanity they hope to critique to observe, using that very metaphor as the crux. Obviously this isn't an inviolable maxim; science fiction using the future as its background isn't a crime against the genre. The problem is that these metaphors, such as "spaceship" or "cyberspace" are no longer metaphors but tropes. They've lost their sharpness through repetition and endless waves of production (in the form of shitty commercial fiction like the works of James S. A. Corey). Does Gibson's fiction fall under that category?

I don't have a definite answer to this. It's an ambiguous situation. On one hand, we have nostalgebraist's perceptive observation that "[c]omputer hacking is described so impressionistically that it bears no connection to real-world computing," the opposite problem plaguing post-cyberpunk such as Melissa Scott's Trouble and her Friends (here), which features long slogs of "endless paragraphs with details of hackers typing, plugging and unplugging cords, carrying around equipment, and countless mentions of seemingly 'technical' words such as 'routines, 'programs,' and other cool new terms" (from my own review). Gibson isn't interested in that at all. The decks the hackers use are rarely described other than to give the impression there's a keyboard involved. I'm unsure of the physical dimensions of the decks; they could be the size of an 80s Casio electronic piano for all the help Gibson provides. As for the hacking itself, Gibson gives us beautiful descriptions of "cowboys," as he calls them, literally flying through cyberspace, looking at beautiful neon patterns. It's definitely not grounded in reality. It could be anything.

But, we can't dismiss Gibson's contribution to the corpus of science fiction. He popularized our very conceptualization of cyberspace and coined the term itself. He might not have predicted every single aspect of the future, but his concepts are the very fabric of futurity. nostalgebraist is being disingenuous when arguing there is little difference between a "god" and an "AI" in Count Zero because it's of the utmost phenomenological importance to the plot. The AIs of this world have subtly rearranged the political conditions and have explicitly changed how humans interact with the shared delusion of cyberspace. The corporations of this future fight among themselves for dominance while Howard Hughes-like hoarders of wealth look to even exploit the AIs for immortality. One should not divorce the novum of Count Zero from the political of its own plot. More so here than in Neuromancer does politics affect the aesthetics which in turn affect the novum and so on in a cycle of science fiction writing. Perhaps gods do interfere in the economies of fantasy worlds, but to commune with them, warriors and knights and barbarians don't physically connect with machines. It's the root of Scott Bukatman's terminal identity theory: “an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen” (Terminal Identity 9). The magic rituals and conversations with gods in fantasy fiction aren't usually conducted with a machine that literally constructs new selves. Perhaps they are and I just haven't read it yet. I'm merely trying to suggest dismissing Count Zero's futurity as simple "computer-themed wallpaper" as nostalgebraist isn't productive. While the reviewer makes some incredibly helpful observations such as the resistors braided into hair, his overall point misses the mark.

I really should have done my PhD on cyberpunk. It's the genre that ignites my imagination and sparks some of my better writing.

Monday, October 7, 2019

October Reads Part One

The London Train by Tessa Hadley
The Cipher by Kathe Koja
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

In On Writing, Stephen King advises would-be writers to eschew adverbs: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." His school of craft has a long lineage through the pulps, with Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard and James M. Cain being big proponents of this style. Tessa Hadley, on the other hand, probably hasn't read a single word of Thompson or Leonard and might have only read King for the novelty. No, hers is a world of Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, a world of prose sensitive to the shimmering possibilities of the almighty adverb. Or least, it hopes to be. Hadley loves adverbs. Uses them frequently, no pun intended. Sometimes though, these adverbs call negative attention to themselves; instead of adding unique flavour to the sentence, it blares and befouls the air. A prime example in The London Train comes at page 141 when a child watching her sibling is described as "womanfully scoop[ing] up the babies to safety." I'm not opposed to neologisms in fiction but I would protest constructions as tone deaf as "womanfully" which does not roll off the tongue. Sagely, maturely, sensibly might have done the trick. Admittedly, the adverb is quite specific and does convey unique meaning, but its sound can't be described as pleasing. Earlier in the novel, at page 46, Hadley offers up a block of council flats, described as "bleakly unlovely" which seems such a rejection of any advice regarding adverbs, to the point where I'm impressed.

Like Late in the Day, Hadley's talents are in the acute observational insights. She mines her characters for all that they can give up. There's a tendency, like with Rachel Cusk, for too much interiority, too much of characters having incredible insight into their own psychology, but I might be quibbling for the sake of quibbling. Another good Hadley novel!

My god. Here it is, in my hand, purchased for only a dollar! Kathe Koja's novel The Cipher, the novel collectors are all trying to get their hands on. I found it at the local charity booksale, a semiannual cornucopia of treasures. This year, I completed my collection of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, specifically the single volume editions with his own paintings for the covers; I found the hardcover omnibus of Ellroy's Lloyd Hopkins novels (which I had come close to pulling the trigger for online); the hardcover edition of the Dune Encyclopedia (I'm going to resell it—I can make a 300% profit on it); and some other gems. Nothing quite as breathtaking as the Koja. When I saw it, I almost started hyperventilating from the excitement.

The novel itself? There's just no way it could live up to the hype and to my expectations built in my mind over the decade I've been hunting for it. Which isn't to say I didn't like; I loved it! But it's certainly a product of its time. This might be the most Gen X novel I've ever read, maybe more so than Douglas Coupland's Generation X (which, by the way, is almost 30 years old, if that makes you feel ancient). The characters are all artists, or poets, work dead-end minimum wage jobs (video store clerk!!), and wear all black leather clothes. Reminded me a lot of Poppy Z Brite (here). And it's not just the aesthetics that call to mind Gen X, but the nihilism, the hopelessness, the emptiness of modern living. The plot of The Cipher has a would-be poet finding a black hole in the storage closet to his slum apartment building. The hole has bizarre properties including the manipulation of physical objects. Unable to stop himself, the protagonist sticks his hand into the hole and brings out a weeping wound on his own hand, seeping not blood but a clear viscous material like tears (or cum). The cipher of the title refers to, among other things, the protagonist himself, how he is empty and other project onto him what they want.

There's a subplot about personality cults, with people glomming onto him because of his affinity for the hole, though he's barely conscious when the magic shows happen with the hole. These folks fill his emptiness with their own desires and beliefs while his on-again-off-again girlfriend accumulates her own groupies. Again, very Gen X, in the distrust of authority figures and movements. Believing in anything is uncool, the Gen X stereotype goes. 

Koja's prose in The Cipher has that bebop bouncy style of horror/genre from that era, with lots of ironic signposting and cultural references. Imagine Tarantino's dialogue but without any of the racial epithets and you have an idea of her style. I enjoyed this a lot, even if the last 70 pages were a bit of a repetitive slog. 

Another great find from the charity booksale was three quarters of Ellroy's LA Quartet, which I've read back in high school. I found a mass market of The Black Dahlia and the Mysterious Press trade paperback from the 90s. Also found mass market paperbacks of The Big Nowhere and White Jazz, both in near mint condition. I already own a hardcover of LA Confidential (a first edition, but nowhere near the first printing). I haven't read any Ellroy since starting this blog (though I did try to read Blood's a Rover when it was first released) and going back to the first in the quartet seemed a great place to revisit the Demon Dog of American literature.

The Black Dahlia is as good as I remember it, if maybe a little bit better. So many scenes have been burned into my memory from the first read, such as the protagonist waking up in the back of a cop car overhearing a conversation that inadvertently provides a clue, though this isn't obvious to the reader. I also remember the double solution, the narrative presenting an answer to the mystery only to overturn it 30 pages later with a shocking twist. I had a hazy memory of who the culprit was, but this didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel in any way. If anything, I think I may have appreciated this even more as a wiser (hopefully) more well-read audience member. 

Ellroy's command of pacing is masterful here. If you've only read White Jazz, The Cold Six Thousand or any of his new stuff, you're familiar with his extremely staccato newspaper mode. But he didn't start out like that. In fact, this book is positively verbose compared to his later stuff, though just as full of slang and cop jargon. Like Cormac McCarthy, Ellroy understands the rhythm and length of sentences can impact the pace of the scene. Near the beginning of The Black Dahlia, sentences are longer, with more clauses, and more description. As the protagonist gets more and more compromised, or closer to discovering something, sentences are short, sharp, paragraphs aren't as long. While this might seem an obvious aspect of style, it bears pointing out that sometimes this effect is invisible because the reader is so absorbed by the plot. The form complements the subject. 

I loved this. I toyed with the idea of immediately picking up The Big Nowhere, which I remember being even more insidiously convoluted than its older sibling, but I don't want to burn out on Ellroy's machismo. His characters are all racist sexist pieces of shit and the only politics Ellroy seems to believe in is the individual's right to enact vengeance. Which means it's a bit of a bummer to swallow without a sneer. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Green Mars

Green Mars won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1994, up against big names like William Gibson, Greg Bear, and David Brin. I haven't read any of the novels nominated that year, but I can't imagine they'd be better than this. I liked Red Mars a lot when I read it back in January (here) but I wasn't prepared for how much better this sequel was going to be.

It's about one hundred years later and the First Hundred, now down to about 40, are in their hundreds and are underground, driven there by the giant corporations fighting for control of Mars as an economic asset. The genetically engineered brood of Hiroko, a prophet and quasi-cult leader, have come of age and they are ready to take back Mars. With the atmosphere warming and the flora growing, the planet is on its way towards habitable, but who will own it and what will they do with it?

Where Red Mars had terraforming on the top of its mind and politics in second place, Green Mars inverts this hierarchy (pun intended) making the realities of revolution its absolute most immediate interest. Like many good leftists, Robinson considers the messy practicalities of revolution, how to best accomplish it, and what amount of bloodshed is acceptable or necessary. Robinson never flinches away from chronicling the ins and outs of revolution.

The endless meetings and arguments and chastising and exhortations inherent to political revolution can feel a bit draining for the reader, but it's just as draining for the characters, something Robinson is at pains to emphasize. Characterization is greatly improved with this second entry, and not entirely because the hard work has already been accomplished in the first book. There is a tremendous amount of new characters introduced, the second and third generations now adult, and a few of them are as textured and nuanced as with the First Hundred carried over from Red Mars. Nirgal and Jackie, two third generation Martians feature prominently, with the entire first section devoted to Nirgal's introduction to the world outside his childhood home and all the alienation and introspection associated with it. Nirgal's initiation into adulthood functions as a mirror for the reader's growing awareness; there is a new status quo for the reader to learn. Not a novel technique, but executed quite well, thanks to the mood and atmosphere on Mars as one of melancholy and regret, a theme simmering throughout the entire novel. The First Hundred must reckon with their failed revolution from the first novel and the planet they've left for the next generations to work upon.

Like this opening section, the rest of Green Mars appears to be the artful solution to an engineering problem. To generalize, the greatest compliment I can pay to this novel is that I could always see the ropes and pulleys and stagehands making the on-stage magic work, and those mechanisms were flawless. Each problem of how to depict something or convey information is handled as cleanly as possible, much to my satisfaction.

The whole novel is one huge engineering problem: how to use the form of the novel, finite, composed of discrete but sequential dramatic scenes, to describe the long, painstakingly slow process of terraforming? Novels and incremental processes happening at the microcosmic level do not generally go together. As well, terraforming happens over centuries, or at least, the plausible kind Robinson wants to depict, and keeping the cast the same over these centuries represents its own subcategory of problem. His solution to this is quite simple: the "gerontological treatment," a DNA-fixing medical procedure giving the characters extended life. That solves that problem. Robinson could have opted for a James Mitchener/Edward Rutherfurd approach, following a family over its generations, but how then to have the cast face their failure at revolution?

Robinson's gerontological treatment doesn't solve the macro problem of form, of course. Terraforming, at least in this series, is slow and small, and novels are big and brash with drama and prose. Robinson must decide from a technical point of view how much detail to include of the actual scientific process itself—and here's the tricky partin the same timeframe as the arcs of his characters. A sentence or two, a paragraph or two could cover hundreds of years of the terraforming description but that will elide the small incremental changes in the characters. He wants to keep both timeframes as even as possible. 

Thus, each scene is its own little engineering problem: how to both advance the characters and the planet's change at the same time? The answer seems to frustrate many readers, going by the Goodreads reviews. It's another simple solution: Robinson opts for travelogues. Scenes of character drama are played out with the landscape as its background. Characters travels for days, weeks to look at some aspect of the planet, and in doing so, this allows Robinson the space to describe the incremental changes taking place upon the biosphere and upon the characters. 

The most representative example is that of Sax Russell's section in the middle of the book. Sax was the lead scientist behind the terraforming effort at beginning of the trilogy. It's his "cocktail" of chemicals being released into the world to thicken the composition of the atmosphere. Now, after the failed revolution, he has undergone cosmetic surgery to hide in plain sight, and begins work for one of the many corporations working on terrforming. He's tasked with, brilliantly on Robinson's part, engineering robust flora to withstand the Martian atmosphere and to propagate and build up the biosphere. It is, after all, lichen, grass, and moss that's going to be the next step in the terraforming process. So Sax works on the plant life and takes multiple long trips out into the world to observe the slow colonization of ground by flora. Each trip shows him, and us, the changes wrought upon the world. Meanwhile, his trips also provide a window into the growing restlessness of the populace, how the revolutionary zeal is once again taking hold of the natives. He must reconcile his desire for pure science with the human cost of politics. It's a wonderful performance by Robinson. 

Each new section, following one character, expands upon the world, introducing more and more characters and concepts, until the endgame, when revolution is inevitable and the planet is irrevocably changed. Just as in Red Mars, Green Mars ends with a Biblical flood, but this time the atmosphere is warmer, and not everything instantly freezes. This flood is synced with a global catastrophe on Earth, where the Antarctic ice shelf disassembles, causing a worldwide rise in water of at least six meters! Now Terra is devastated, the Red Planet is in disarray, and the corporations are fighting among themselves. The new status quo does not necessarily repeat the failure of revolution from Red Mars, but neither is it a huge success. Rather, it's a prime set up for the precise refinement and establishment of a new political and ecological reality in Blue Mars

My appreciation for this novel is prismatic: as a leftist, I can't help but admire Robinson's commitment to staging yet another revolution; as a critic (I suppose), I find myself in love with how elegant is the juggling of formal and thematic elements. He really pulls it off here. He really does. Can't wait to read the final volume, after a break of course.