Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Reads Part Two

Lust by Elfriede Jelinek
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis
All Clear by Connie Willis
Passing by Nella Larsen

After cogitating on it for a while, I've come to the conclusion that Jelinek's The Piano Teacher was the best book I read in 2015. I thought it appropriate then to read one of few other novels translated into English. Lust has similar style, similar subject matter, and similar situations as that other novel, but a completely different attitude. Where The Piano Teacher was angry, furious, livid, righteously so, Lust is amused, condescending, smug, and jocular. Jelinek's narrator (who may or may not be Jelinek herself) addresses the reader frequently, but using "you" in the plural sense, as if there are multiple readers. Lust features a similar plot, but brilliantly executed in its simplicity: the bourgeoisie manager of a paper mill treats his wife like he treats employees, ie a resource to be exploited, in this case sexually; his wife puts up with all of this without eroticism in her life until she meets a young man with political aspirations who uses and abuses her.

Again, Jelinek's ire is directed not at individuals but rather at structures of oppression that work concomitantly: Austria's geopolitical position, patriarchy, capitalism, etc. Her characters aren't so much characters but pawns to be crushed under the heel of the power she wishes to reveal (which I spoke of here). Jelinek isn't just haranguing the reader though; her sense of humour is absolutely wicked. As with the previous Jelinek I read, Lust is interminably funny. I kept putting stickies in my paperback so I could read them aloud to my partner, such as when the narrator refers to the wife's breasts as "meatballs."

Lust wasn't quite as good as The Piano Teacher as I suppose I was prepared for it and the shock of the new is always delightful. Rest assured, I plan to continue reading all of Jelinek's stuff.

A thought occurred to me during my read of Lust. Is it possible that Jelinek is the literary Austrian equivalent to a rapper? Most of the prose in Lust and in The Piano Teacher has this hypnotic rhythmic beat, with internal rhymes and clever puns. She finds interesting and counter-intuitive ways of saying simple things and repeats the subject in different phrasings. I'll have to think more on this.

Continuing with my reading of the Harry Potter series, Chamber of Secrets is a quantum leap in terms of plotting. With the first novel, I complained that the characters seem to bounce from incident to incident, with little connective tissue. This second book replicates the structure of the first, including the central mystery and the Gang looking for clues, but this go-around, Rowling has thought to push the pawns across the board with more meaning. For example, an attempt to extract information from Malfoy by impersonating his goons leads the gang to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, where Tom Riddle's diary lays.

The book is much better than the film, I thought, considering Rowling has more time to develop the characters. Her ability to juggle so many characters and still provide them with characterization is astounding. Even Dobby the house elf gets a bit more motivation and interiority than in the film. It helps that I don't have to see any terrible CGI to visualize Dobby.

I thought the climax of Chamber of Secrets was only slightly better than the first book though. It tries far too hard to replicate the same beats, including the character who turns out to be the villain and then laboriously explains everything for Harry. At this point in the series, if a character appears evil, one has a good chance of guessing that the character is actually good. Sirius Black, in the third story, will prove to be the quintessential example of this trope.

One thing Chamber of Secrets does well is introduce further the class dynamics of this world. Instead of the "poor orphan gets riches," the second book deepens the class hierarchies. For example, we're introduced to the wizard bourgeoisie in the form of Gilderoy Lockhart and Longbottom's family. Class and wizarding ability appear to be intricately related. Consider that Filch, the custodian, is a "squib" ie a non-magical person born to a magic family. Whereas Hermione's Muggle parents are both sturdily middle class dentists. It's all very fascinating and I'm pleased that Rowling resists the easy binary of "poor=golden heart, rich=evil" vis-a-vis Weasley versus Malfoy.

All the Birds in the Sky was an advanced reading copy from the publisher (bookstores have their perks) and I'm grateful for that. The novel is an interesting beast, to say the least. I'm not even quite sure if I liked it or not. Certainly I managed to finish it and I enjoyed the finale (an apocalypse similar to the one depicted in Alan Moore's Promethea). However, it's not a great novel, despite the author's prodigious talents and impressive resume. The problem, which I'm not even sure is singular or plural, is difficult to articulate, but I'll try my best (it's unusual that I have such troubling identifying problems).

All the Birds in the Sky is an attempt to meld pulp conventions such as the magical academy and the wunderkind builds a great work with an overarching romance to tie it all together. The first part focuses on the two protagonists as children, so the scenes of magic have a fable-like quality to the prose. Imagine George Saunders or Neil Gaiman, but with an even more arch tone. Throughout the first section, there's a slickness to the prose, as if it's been carefully sanded down again and again, so that nothing genuine comes through. The two leads are never realistic in the slightest, which is not necessarily a negative. However, there is little else that might support the novel aesthetically. Anders' prose is workmanlike and there's little attempt to fill in the world with either physical details or with anything interesting, really. Still in the first part, there's a lot of whiz-bang "cool" ideas mentioned that are supposed to represent worldbuilding (this is a world in which a two-second time machine is not only possible but quotidian) but they're introduced with all the breathless wonder of an amateur.

The novel sort of picks up in the second part, with the kids now adults and separate, but quickly lost my interest as the prose never gets any better than this slick emptiness. The characters' beliefs and principles seem to change on a dime, which again, would be fine, if the novel wasn't so focused on exploring conflicting belief systems. If the characters' beliefs can change so easily, why then should I be bothered to care about their differences in opinion? And just as quickly as the second part picks up, it immediately grinds to a halt with the two characters circling each other, with no forward momentum.

I complain here, but I still enjoyed the book. It's just... there's something wrong here and I'm not sure if it's the slickness of the prose, the flatness of the characters, the uneven and imperfect mash-up of genres, the overly arch tone that threatens to veer the book into parody, the facile emotions.

What does work is the weirdness of everything. Future tech and magic introduced (later) in the novel have imagination and flair. There's a magic man who can't go outside without all flora getting mad at him so he turns into a walking plant every time he steps outside. There's also some fun science stuff about how anti-grav might possibly work. Also, the final third of the book is just weird for the sake of it, which I liked, such as the scientists coming together to build a giant mech that will destroy everything to save everything.

The novel is too much like a fable for my liking, including the trickster magic that forces a character to sacrifice something important at just the right time. It's also too much of a quest narrative, including having a protagonist mention it. I'm kind of sick of cynical irony in this form, to be honest. It's like having Gaiman and Joss Whedon shoved down my throat.

I read Blackout last year but only got around to finishing Willis's All Clear late this week. I read the entire second half of that 600 page monster in one day, just so I could be finished with it. While, I appreciate the wide canvas that Willis is working with, which allows her to do some clever stuff with the timeline, 1,000 pages for this story is just too fucking much. There's a perfect 600 page novel suffocating underneath all the bloat in this.

The issue is that there is far too much back and forth. I gather that it's thematically apropos as the confusion and chaos of the Blitz is hard to convey without also confusing the audience. However, it's a bit of a chore when the characters are constantly going back and forth in their thoughts and in their physical locations. "Did this happen? Did that happen? Will this happen? Should I do this? Should I do that?" and on and on ad infinitum. It's tedious.

I mentioned when I reviewed Blackout that I was annoyed by how ignorant these time travellers seem to be about time travel. This problem is exacerbated in the second volume. Over and over, what should be painfully fucking obvious to professional time travellers is explained laboriously to each lead by the other protagonists. Even the proposed solution to the reason why they were stranded is confused and ignorant of time travel, it feels. I kept wondering, if these people are so dumb about time travel, why would Oxford send them to dangerous locales? Why wouldn't they be taught basics of non-linear thinking to avoid the major problems they face?

While the above certainly put a sour taste in my mouth, the last 300 pages of the second volume are excellent. Once all the bullshit has been swept away and Willis unleashes with pure forward momentum, the novel is unstoppable. Her clever non-linear plotting quickly comes into focus, revealing masterful command of the twisting and turning of time travel stories. Time travel stories almost always involves reverse Chekhov's guns: something is introduced without making it clear how it fits into the timeline and then fired in the climax, completing a causality loop; in other words, we're introduced to the effect, then given the cause in the endgame. While Willis doesn't reinvent the wheel here (she surely mobilizes the same tricks as every other time travel writer), she does make it enjoyable and clever. The timeline is not so complicated that the layperson couldn't keep track, but it is gnarled enough to be tricky.

On the whole, I'm glad I read this. I'm certainly going to read more of her stuff. With a long break before I start, though.

Ecology of Fear was something I started last year and finished this week as well. I picked it up based on the premise that Davis would examine cultural objects and their lurid fascination with the destruction of Los Angeles. However, Davis's scope is much wider than that. Like the good Marxist historian that he is, he considers the matrix of economic factors that have, indeed, increased the rate of natural disasters in the state of California.

The first half of his book looks at various types of natural disasters and how the state has reacted or not reacted. For example, his strongest argument comes during his chapter on wildfires. The biosphere of California means that wildfires are not only plentiful but necessary for the survival of the ecosystem. Fires allow for a "cleansing" of the putrefying, dead, rotting biological material, permitting and stimulating new growth. However, as rich white people move further and further away from the urban centrality, their manicured and artificially produced lawns threaten to undermine the careful balance of nature. Davis truly makes his argument inescapable in its conclusion when he demonstrates that these rich white people by dint of their social status and inextricable position in politics force the state to provide welfare and relief when natural wildfires destroy their homes. In other words, Davis observes that the state subsidizes the construction of rich mansions in Malibu etc while simultaneously ignoring the plight of poor Latino/black/white populations in urban locales also affected by fire.

This is a microcosm of his entire book, really. Davis rails against the technologies of power that maintain the status quo while also railing against the psychology that allows for this to happen. He cites countless historical documents and contemporary sources to demonstrate that fear-mongering and sleight-of-hand tricks are powerful tools deployed by the rich to perpetuate their economic and social position.

Where the book actually stumbles is what I had hoped it was about. Davis believes he has consumed every single cultural object that has destroyed California and he summarizes, with a snarky and jaunty tone, the more memorable or out-there examples. He makes a series of conclusions that are self-evident based on the material, such as apocalypse stories are often rooted in white fears of other races. None of this is particularly new or shocking, really and I wished Davis had used a bit more analysis and less "would you look at these rubes?" tone. Perhaps a co-writer with an academic background in literature could have helped strengthen his analysis.

However, it picks up again in the third and final section. Here, Davis uses urban studies methodology and looks at more human-focused problems (than killer bees). For example, he writes of the disciplinary technologies that disproportionately penalize people of colour simply for existing. There exists "gun-free zones" which have stricter penalties for possession of firearms than in non-"gun-free zones" but these zones are placed within typically poor Latino/black areas of the city.

I loved Ecology of Fear as it attacked an important topic I'm already interested from an angle that I have little background in. I will definitely seek out his other books on Los Angeles.

Passing was something I recommended to my partner for their literature class on giving voice to the previously voiceless. I own a Penguin of this, but had never read it, despite its alluring brevity and subject matter. I think it took me an hour, but it was a completely pleasant and entertaining hour. Larsen's novel isn't simply interested in the ideologies of passing (as a white person) but also in the complex optics that result from the behaviour.

The strongest thematic meat of the novel comes from the woman who passes acknowledging that because of this decision, she paradoxically has less freedom than a black person out as black. While Irene, the protagonist, the black woman who does not pass purposefully (save for convenience's sake, such as going to a restaurant) has doors closed to her because of her skin, she is never in danger of being found out or exposed. Clare, the black woman that is passing, breaks off from her history, isolating herself among white people, some of whom are virulently racist (her husband's pet name for her is "Nig" because she "tans" easily).

The tying off of history is beautifully symbolized when Irene drops a teacup. This is a great example of a symbol doing great labour without calling attention to itself as a metaphor. She drops a teacup, shattering it, and she remarks that it's from before the Civil War, a relic that she had been wondering how to get rid of without fuss. The teacup symbolizes Irene's family's link to racist structures, a link that should be severed. Whereas Clare cuts off her history to her own people, her own community, just for the idle pleasures of bourgeois existence. 

While the thematics are wonderfully deep, the prose is also quite beautiful. Larsen's position within the Harlem Renaissance probably meant she spent a lot of time with some of the premier poets and novelists of the era, taking her already considerable talents and pushing them to greatness. Passing was a definite treat and I'll definitely read more of her work.


A summation of the month, then: 10 books read, only three of them straight white dudes. Only two authors of colour. So far, quite excellent reads, only a couple that were only ok or worse.

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