Friday, May 1, 2015

April Reads

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard
Expiration Date by Tim Powers
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Notes specific to Missoula
I'm uncomfortable with the mansplaining aspect of this book. Inevitably, I'm uncomfortable that it took a man to publish a major work of journalism about rape through by a major publisher. Especially since Joanna Bourke's history of rape is much better, more academic, more rigorous, and has better prose. If Krakauer is going to mansplain rape, at least he could mobilize some better prose.

In terms of journalism, Krakauer's bias is a flag waving proud. He paints such ruthlessly unflattering portraits of those he considers to be the villains that it strains credibility. Even though I'm intrinsically in agreement with Krakauer's thesis (that institutions share the majority of blame for rape culture), I was taken aback by the ad hominems, the shady character assassination, and careful descriptions -- all of which, he contends, the villains do to provide them their villainous status. Simply reporting the facts might have worked better, to paraphrase one of the members of the jury who criticizes the "theatrics" of the defense attorneys.

I was quite pleased by Krakauer's insistence on tricking his readers into agreeing with fundamental feminist principles by explaining the concepts without using the contentious verbiage of "privilege" or "rape culture" or anything else. For those that read feminist theory, none of the contents of this book are surprising in any way. However, for Krakauer's dudebro fanbase, presumably these concepts are brand new and revelatory.

I predict that constructive and productive criticism (in the cultural studies sense of the word of criticism) will be rare and discourse will be limited when speaking of this book. The subject matter is far too important. Any nuance in regards to the book will be met with swift critique as discourse in the age of the Internet is either preposterously positive or overwhelming and existentially negative. Critics of this book, even if they agree with the central thesis, will encounter resistance because to critique an aspect of the book will be confused with critiquing the thesis. Which is another way to say that the deficiencies of this book will be propagated and replicated in subsequent texts, such as the histrionics of Krakauer's narrator and the childlike wonder that jeez, rape does happen on a huge scale.

I must resist reading negative reviews of the book.

Sports fans continue to be the worst fucking people on the planet, apparently.

This was the second time I tried reading Revelation Space and I'm pleased to report that I had a much better time with Reynolds. I'm not sure what the problem was before. Revelation Space though is not perfect -- far from it: the book suffers from first-novel-itis in that it's a bit too long and overstuffed, and not quite focused enough to hold it all together. The characters are more flat than sheets of paper, which does make for some trying moments when Reynolds tries to deploy pathos -- obviously unsuccessfully. This wasn't enough to stop me from reading the book. I was concerned that, at the level of plot, he wouldn't be able to tie it all together, but in the last 30 pages, or maybe even the last 15, he pulls it off. I was quite impressed -- enough to finish it and look forward to the next instalment.

Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher might be my favourite novel of 2015 (though it was published in the 80s). It was just so angry and in a good way. To sum up why I liked this novel so much, let me paraphrase Wikipedia's section on Jelinek's themes: she writes about two things: how patriarchy oppresses women and how capitalism oppresses everybody. That's like catnip for me.

Jelinek's novel is just this angry screed about how women are utterly controlled, repressed, and abused by a social system oriented towards men. There's this phenomenal scene in which the main character reminisces about her youth, when a strapping young Aryan god would entertain his circle of friends by forcing women to their knees in front of him. This is of course completely creepy and a symptom of rape culture. It's also terrifying in the sense that this type of behaviour remains common; perhaps it doesn't manifest in the exact same way, but the spirit of the act persists.

The Piano Teacher is also hilarious. Her descriptions of sex acts remains some of the funniest bits on sex I've ever read. Instead of the kind of self-deprecating while simultaneously boasting tone that many American narcissists use (Updike, Roth, Mailer, Franzen, etc), Jelinek satirizes even the sex act, demonstrating that when such an extreme power differential exists, it's degrading for all parties. The very first major sex scene between the two main characters occurs in a dirty bathroom stall, to provide an idea of the tone Jelinek is going for.

The Price of Salt was pulpy, but way better than her Ripley novels which I forced myself through out of a sense of cultural duty. The novel was the April selection for our Queer Bookclub. I seemed to be the only person who liked it, though.

The Crystal World was early Ballard, and I quite liked it. I didn't love it, but I find the more I read Ballard, the more I get the appeal. He's just unlike any other author. In my previous reviews of Ballard novels, I lamented the lack of characterization, but I was missing the point. I lamented the plot, but I was missing the point. Ballard is writer of ideas and defamiliarization, not of tidy stories and relatable characters.

Expiration Date was my second Tim Powers, and I think I was unduly harsh on my first reading of him. I'm thinking of writing an essay on non-Tolkien fantasy, so I'll hold off from saying much more than I liked Expiration Date. It wasn't as bananas as I had been hoping for, but it was still better fantasy than most schlock I've contemplated reading (*cough* GRRM *cough*)

Thoughts on Neal Stephenson's new novel Seveneves which I abandoned around page 300 (and thus haven't included in the list of read books):

I knew I was going to hate this novel around page 270 when Mr Stephenson, technocrat extraordinaire, decided to spend a page complaining about modern gender theory and "academic leftists" who were wasting time and energy. I had already been put off by the jingoistic libertarian nonsense promulgated through a lot of science fiction and given centre stage in this novel, but this anti-humanities screed was the last straw. It's not just that it's intellectually lazy (it is, though, full of strawmen) or that it's politically objectionable (Stephenson has his heart in the right place). The problem is that it's a propos of nothing. The questionable section is added not as characterization but as polemic. Life is too short for lazy strawmen in fiction.

If you thought the gun-fetish heavy Reamde was Stephenson's worst, don't bother reading this. This novel is even more execrable and contains none of the wit or charm of earlier Stephenson. His prose flops around -- short, declarative sentences that even children could read. There is none of Stephenson's artfulness, none of his ability to defamiliarize the recognizable into beautiful metaphors and similes (such as when he describes, in Quicksilver, I believe, the stream of urine as the arc of a comet). As a fan of Stephenson, I'm wholly disappointed to have trudged through this dreck, hoping for some sort of revelation that this book was worth it. Alas, there is none.

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is a poor man's Kim Stanley Robinson. You'd be better served to read Red Mars; at least the politics are more complex and nuanced than "government is BAD, you guys!"

I keep thinking I'll return to Seveneves but I just can't muster the enthusiasm. I remember quite liking Reamde but fuck there's no accounting for taste, is there? 

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