Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017's best reads

I managed to read 76 books in 2017, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 6 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 69. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Shark by Will Self
Umbrella by Will Self
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park
Splinter by Adam Roberts
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

I did not hit gender parity this year, I'm afraid. I read 43% women, and 2.66% non-cis folks. As always, it's not challenging for me to read "more women!" as if it's something I'm required to do. Rather, I like reading everything and women have made significant contributions to the types of genre fiction I like reading, such as Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ann Leckie, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Nnedi Okorafor, and others. Unlike film, I never have problems accessing women authors and some of my favourite authors are women. As per usual, I'd like to increase my ratio, and incorporate more non-binary and trans writers into my reading. Luckily, one of my all time fav writers of short stories, Casey Plett, has a novel coming out (she is trans) and I very much look forward to reading it.

Not as many perfect scores as last year. Still, the ones that were amazing reads were life-changing, such as Plath and finally finishing Moby-Dick, which was way easier than I was expecting. In terms of goals I set for myself last year (finish the handful of series I had started in years past), I did end up reading more Wolfe and more Adam Roberts, but I did not read any Paul McAuley or M. John Harrison. I now own full series from McAuley (two series!), Harrison, Paul Park, and a handful of other dudes I haven't begun yet. Another year and I accumulated, by an absurd ratio, more books than I could ever hope to read.

If I had to diagnose some trends with my reading in 2017, I would happily point to my dissatisfaction with traditional modes of realism (not a surprise) and aesthetics. Two of my favourite reads this year were the first two in Will Self's modernist trilogy. Aliya Whiteley, Nina Allan, and Ali Smith were trying new things out and I followed them happily; either they were playing with narrative or playing with aesthetics or both, and I was right there with them. The more difficult or inaccessible, the more I seemed to like it (with the exception of Lisa L. Hannett's Lament for the Afterlife, which I had been hoping was even more difficult).

Something I've been thinking about in terms of goals for 2018, a fool's errand as always, as my years of blogging wishful thinking can attest, is perhaps I need to focus more on quality than quantity. In years past, I've tried reading as much as I can, which meant piling on novellas and pulp novels. There's nothing wrong with pulp or shorter works, but I tend to prioritize these over longer, more difficult works. So perhaps in 2018, I might try tackling longer works without worrying about hitting an arbitrary number of novels. Maybe I only finish 35 novels in 2018? Or even 25? What if I finally finish Infinite Jest or Les Miz or any of the mammoth Victorian novels I have kicking around? What an accomplishment. I have a short list of Big Fat Novels I'd like to read, but I fear posting the list might jinx me.

Friday, December 29, 2017

December Reads Part Two

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Clickers by J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams
The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

If I hadn't read other excellent novels in 2017, Winterglass would have clinched the top spot. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, I read some amazing things and Winterglass has competition for my favourite read of the year. It's stupendous; meticulous and beautiful prose scaffolds this dense and rewarding novella. Sriduangkaew has written some of the finest prose in contemporary SFF, with each sentence being its own reward. Like a bonus, after the wondrous form and aesthetics, the novel is also a complex political tale, one withholding of easy answers. Winterglass is simultaneously in conversation with the long history of Orientalism in SFF and still of its own making. I routinely kick myself for putting off purchasing her first novella, Scale-Bright, when I had the chance; it has since slipped out of print and fetches large prices. Hopefully it's either reprinted or picked up by another publisher.

See What I Have Done felt, at first, a bit of a forgettable experience. I read it quickly and thought it fine enough during the experience. But once I finished it and reflected on the entire experience, I can safely call the novel fantastic. The novel is historical fiction, about notorious axe-murderer Lizzie Borden. Where Schmidt strays from the usual historical fiction expectations is setting the novel in the days immediately after the murders, with brief flashbacks to before. Very little after the trial is depicted with the trial relegated to a couple paragraphs at the beginning of the third act. The unconventional structure of the novel, moving through time and through different focalizing characters, works in the novel's favour—crystallizing the plot around a central idea, that of women and agency... without ever coming across as moralizing. Rather, the novel's coy about its own stance on Lizzie: mentally incapacitated? bored? arrested development? This also works in its favour. A strong novel I worry will be forgotten because it's just so damn readable.

I had to keep reminding myself that Clickers was written in 1996, and thus, predates the rise of the New Weird. the novel feels like a throwback, but we have to remember that in 1996, throwbacks of this ilk weren't the norm like they are now. Clickers was probably novel in 1996, what with its use of Lovecraft and B-movie tropes. It's schlocky fun, eminently forgettable, but fun in the moment. A detail that makes me chuckle: whenever authors try to show off how cool or hip their characters are, a device often deployed by the middle age white guy writer, the character only comes off as being kind of dull or middle of the road in taste. The main character reaches for a CD while he's driving, and instead of leaving it at that, we're told it's an Alice Cooper CD. Which, in 1996, makes him seem a little old fashioned and out of touch. More often than not, these little details of verisimilitude give me the feeling writers have the taste of stereotypical dads.

After very much enjoying The Red Knight, I picked up the second novel in Cameron's "Traitor Son Cycle," called The Fell Sword. I should have expected the novel to open up for more worldbuilding but I guess I underestimated how many more subplots he meant to introduce. This second novel is less a standalone work and more the overture to a massive set of storylines. In the micro, The Fell Sword strains a bit because of the sheer amount of new and old characters. I regret not using a notebook to write down everybody's name because by 200 pages, I had forgotten a bunch of them. At first I chastised myself for my inability to hold it all in my head, and then moved to appreciation for making me work so hard. I suppose one could argue the novel's over-the-top launching of plots is a bug, not a feature, as at a certain point, it becomes untenable for a single novel. Where The Red Knight was pretty focused, The Fell Sword is everywhere. Thankfully, Cameron's plotting within each individual plotlines is superb and—one can step back and see a massive metanarrative being built out of the individual strands. It's the same good vs. evil nonsense that plagues these military fantasies but it's just done with such verve and entertainment that I can't help but be enamored.

So much of paradigmatic fantasy is about the restoration of patriarchal power structures, the fervent desire for order through control, centralized power, and the like. Kings are always crowned at the end, thrones are finally filled by the "correct" ruler, and foreign hordes are repelled to their own lands. Monarchist fantasies are politically queasy to say the least. Many modern day paradigmatic fantasies, especially the grimdark ones, try to diffuse the audience's pro-democracy anxieties about cheering for monarchies with hand-wringing about the "costs" of war etc etc. Many losses are felt—the rightful heir still gets the throne though. The increased focus on "realism" in medieval fantasy, and Cameron presses on this as hard as he possibly can, cloaks the insidious perpetuation of linear, hierarchical power structures. This is especially true of grimdark's obsession with rape. Rape functions as a marker of increased realism ("this is how it was for women back then!") and as a marker of the affected jejune nihilism which beats at the heart of grimdark ("nothing matters so may as well rape and kill everybody we meet").

The Game of Thrones fan wiki has an entire article on rape, "helpfully" delineating the differences between the source material and the television adaptation. Both cultural objects are rife with sexual violence; according to a statistical analysis by a fan of both, there have been 50 rape acts in the TV show, with 29 distinct victims, and 214 rape acts in the books, with 117 distinct victims. The fan's analysis breaks down each individual act, in an exhaustive and truly exhausting list, but their brief synopsis does not detail which rape is more detailed, or more impactful as an act of violence in a narrative. While the show has always been controversial, and the books figuring into the subgenre of "grimdark fantasy" (a more "realistic" and nihilistic version of paradigmatic fantasy in the Tolkien mode), it was Sansa's rape in Season 5 of the show which garnered the most amount of media attention. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have come under fire for both inventing rape scenes (honouring the situation of the narrative, rather than the specific instances in the novels) and including graphic scenes for shock and possibly titillation. The rape of Sansa in season 5 was for many critics and watchers, the final straw. The Mary Sue, a feminist-oriented pop culture site, wrote eloquently of their editorial decision to stop covering the TV show in light of the exploitative and gratuitous Sansa rape sequence. They write:
rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Games of Thrones and its source material fall under "grimdark," under the marketing aegis of fantasy (medieval settings, obsessive concern with monarchies and lineages, etc). In Get Started In: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (here), esteemed critic and author Adam Roberts suggests Grimdark is
standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their back on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was. I put 'really' in inverted commas there, since Grimdark usually has very little to do with actual historical re-imagining and everything to do with a sense that our present world is a cynical, disillusioned ultraviolent place.
In other words, rather than just an aesthetic mode (though it has some shared stylistics, such as contemporary cursing), grimdark is a feeling, or put more concretely, a structure of feeling, from the critic Raymond Williams. He defines a structure of feeling as going beyond strict formal concepts such as a "world view" or an "ideology," though Williams is careful to include those within the definition of the structure. He writes (here):
We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.
Pointing to formal aspects of grimdark's ideology might prove difficult, as writers from varying political backgrounds have tried their hand at the subgenre. Contrary to popular belief, there is little intrinsically conservative about grimdark fantasy, despite its superficial retrograde treatment of gender and race. Instead, as Williams helpfully guides us, the structure of feeling comprises "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable" (my italics). Without the rigid aesthetics of a more corporeal mode of artistic expression, grimdark can be and is conveyed in terms of overall affect, using violence, shock, titillation, gore, and nihilism.

"The Traitor Son Cycle" is covered half by the small umbrella (but growing in size) of grimdark and half by regular old medieval fantasy in the Tolkien vein. Much of the two novels is fueled by Lord of the Rings: the invading horde, the mystical MacGuffin, the thrones in disarray, requiring union from the protagonist. But the feeling of grimdark pervades: rape is part of the texture of daily life, violence is hyperbolic, and there are dire consequences in war. There's a sense of futility about the Red Knight's missions; he runs a mercenary company so it doesn't really matter who he's backing as long as they're paying. Cameron has made some strides towards problematizing grimdark's nihilism by including the era's chivalric excesses. But yet, with two books in, the cynicism is pronounced and the ultraviolence quite ultra. The rape occurs in "The Traitor Son Cycle" but often off-screen, as if Cameron just can't quite commit to the true grimdark worldview. The novels feel torn between market trends (grimdark is practically the paradigm now) and Cameron's obvious affection for all facets of medieval society, including chivalry. It's a fascinating project and I'm still on board.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

December Reads Part One

Smiley's People by John le Carré
Shark by Will Self

A project almost a decade in the making, I have finally finished the Karla Trilogy, still in the same old hardcover omnibus I bought all those years ago, though it's yellower and stuck with more cat hairs.

What drew me to le Carré in the first place was the elliptical, opaque style, with baroque, ornate dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot. But what drew me back time and again was not just these surface elements, but the morose end-of-empire malaise that weighs upon the shoulders of every character. George Smiley is such an impeccably drawn central metaphor for the collapse of the Empire: downtrodden, frumpy, weathered, ineffectual, in an old wrinkled overcoat. Smiley's People gives the eponymous character his first major victory in the trilogy, but it's, of course, a Pyrrhic victory, in the way the best spy fiction is. I keep coming back to spy fiction not just for the cleverness of the plotting but what these novels end up saying about the intelligence community; I'm understandably more drawn to those of its ilk which are far more cynical than celebratory, such as Len Deighton and le Carré.

Smiley's People wasn't quite the masterpiece of the two previous Karla novels. Very little can come close to the practical perfection of the first entry, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In terms of its difficulty, this third volume is perhaps the most accessible: the plotting is more linear and the narrator seems more willing to give up the exposition goods, as it were. It's less opaque. Neither the first nor the third come close to the intricacy of The Honourable Schoolboy, which took hundreds of pages before Smiley's plan became clear to the reader (a close comparison could be Robert Towne's screenplay for Mission: Impossible, which withholds motivation from the audience, to great effect). I quite liked Smiley's People even if it doubles down on the kind of soft sexism bubbling throughout le Carré's Smiley novels.

For about half of Shark, I was convinced it was a lesser shadow of its older sibling, Umbrella. I wasn't sold on the threading of the multiple themes Self had set up for himself. Where Umbrella kept reminding the reader, kept finding novel ways of examining his themes, Shark felt a bit directionless, jumping from narrative thread to narrative thread, with little thematic connective tissue. I should have trusted Self because once the final third revved into action (if the word "action" can be called appropriate for a modernist novel about psychological trauma), the larger picture emerges, and I was left a bit stunned by how well Self pulls it all off. I still think I liked Umbrella more, if only because of its stylistic rawness, its novelty—the shock of the new and all that, even though the stream-of-consciousness style is definitely not new. Umbrella surprised me, and I think Self anticipated that the reader would be left a bit underwhelmed if he simply repeated himself; hence the dazzling structure of Shark, which, when I think of it holistically, replicates the circling of water down the drain, or more aptly, the circling of the shark around its prey. The strands of the novel I felt weren't connected enough? Self sews it all up with aplomb. He compares the shark's voracious appetite and inability to stop swimming to the hunger and ache of the drug addict, the self-medicating walking maw, constantly stuffing themselves but never feeling satiated. The teeth, chewing over and over, but never digesting. Self brings up multiple times the scene in which Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider cut open the tiger shark to reveal the fish's stomach contains a license plate (from Louisiana), indicating the characters' inability to pass the trauma they all carry.

The two authors I thought most of during my read of Shark was Alan Moore and Thomas Pynchon. I'm not sure how Self would feel about this comparison. Moore's gargantuan novel Jerusalem (of which I'm more than halfway through) concerns the decay and rot of Northhampton via the force of a psychic wound through time, localized on a garbage processing plant, a metaphor for the rapacious and insatiable jaws of capitalism. Self's thesis, or rather, the novel's thesis, reminded me of Moore's seething anger towards the decline of his hometown by the uncaring grasp for profit. I was also inclined to compare the two thanks to their sheer Englishness: there's a strong strand of English colloquialism and affection for the idiosyncrasies of the English. I read more of Jerusalem after finishing Umbrella and I've been jonesing to take back up again the mammoth novel after completing Shark.

I felt the desire to read Pynchon afterwards, too. The American soldier around which the novel drains (haha), Claude Evenrude, feels like he walked out of Gravity's Rainbow or V. and onto Self's stage without a pause. He has that same rolling speech pattern, that same ironic racism, that same looseness, as if a good shake would bring all his words crashing down. Part of it is that he's a soldier and Gravity's Rainbow was chock full of them, stumbling around, falling into toilets, saying absolutely bananas things. But again, it wasn't just the superficial connections, but something more. Though Self is reaching back to modernism for his style, he is not writing in a vacuum, and has clearly internalized decades of contemporary realism and postmodern literature. It's almost as if he can't not write in that rolling breathless hypnotic way Pynchon does, the way his characters speak in rhythmic song, almost in meter. Self's characters, or rather their consciousnesses make constant references to popular songs, pop hits, famous lines. For every two references I would pick up, another one would slip by me, with only the context telling me the phrase was a reference to something at least.

Shark was a stupendous read. If I wasn't already sold on Self's brand of dazzle and wonder, then this would have pushed me over the edge.

Friday, December 1, 2017

November Reads

The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Red Knight by Miles Cameron
Winter by Ali Smith
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson
The Red Threads of Fortune by J. Y. Yang
Beneath by Kristi DeMeester

I read Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland back in August, in my "Part Two," which I never finished writing (I should do that) and I loved it: a stellar mixture of New Weird and Lovecraft homage and metafiction without being annoying about it. The Red Tree is more of the same, but longer, and more focused. The metafictional elements are woven into the text with skill, always far from the border of annoying self-awareness. While the horror elements of the novel didn't quite work for me as much as I wanted them too, I'm not convinced the novel is as interested in horror as its subject would have the reader believe. By which I mean, the novel feels more motivated by the tragedy and self-destruction of art than it does by eldritch horrors. This worked for me because the characters are really well drawn and the pain of writing is depicted with such a delicate and convincing touch. I loved this book and if it had leaned on the horror just a smidge more I might call it perfect. Not a slight against the novel as it had different ambitions, but more a preference on my part.

With The Red Knight, I try more fantasy fiction. I've been inspired to read a bit more in the genre thanks to playing Skyrim, the Betheseda video game (into which I've sunk countless hours). Cameron's series appealed to me because, and I'll be honest here, the cover design and the design of the physical object itself. My copy has a flapped cover, a deckle edge, a typeface for the title I'm inclined to like, and teeny tiny text set in another typeface I like. I had heard from a work colleague that the medieval warfare and combat were very realistic (the author is an enthusiastic reenactor) and exciting. Plus, the series is only 5 books long, with no individual title being more than 650 pages. I've abandoned Steven Erikson's magisterial Deadhouse Gates because it's just too damn long and too damn distant. I'd like to go back to it, but in the meantime, Cameron's just-finished series beckoned to me. While the cornucopia of medieval minutiae can be a bit wearing, the pacing is terrific, bounding ahead with its polyphonic narratives, but knowing well when to take a breath and demonstrate the humanity of its characters.

Something that sticks in my craw about The Red Knight though is the problem sitting at the heart of Lord of the Rings as well: the white Europeans are united against an impossibly large horde of uncivilized wild creatures. One of these creatures' name ends in "khan" which is obviously a problem. Cameron problematizes the simple dichotomy which is a staple of epic fantasy by having the creatures not be invading hordes but part of the very fabric of nature. In fact, the Wild, as the text dubs them, have been part of the land since before the arrival of man. Humanity has been encroaching on the Wild's borders, which is an interesting and discursively productive flip of the usual script.

Cameron's worldbuilding might be of interest to academic folks if only because at first glance, the world he's created seems enormously unimaginative: Christianity is the main religion, the French are called Galles, the Nordic folk are called Nordikon or something like that, and everything seems so faithfully transposed from medieval England as to be mind-numbing. Yet, there are glimpses past the veil of mediocrity to a fascinating world. The novel ends with the main cast meeting with a psychic avatar of a dragon the size of a castle who gifts them tools they'll no doubt use in the second book. There's a hint, just a hint, that maybe the cosmology of gods in this world is more complicated than the humans believe. Which intrigues me. I look forward to reading the next book.

Ali Smith's Autumn didn't quite do it for me but that hasn't deterred me from continuing with her four seasons project. Winter, of which I received an advance reading copy, was an incredible improvement over the earlier novel. It's more of the same, of course, more of Smith's linguistic pyrotechnics, practically naive political thoughts, and highly amusing episodes of awkward modern interactions (where Autumn had funny stuff about passport photos, Winter has a more heartbreaking but still similar episode in a bank). All of the same Smith tics and tricks are here, but they've been tightened just so, just enough to push this from ok to good, possibly even to great. Her ambitions are far greater with this one, even if her techniques aren't quite as advanced as they need to. Smith is interested in time and how time can function within the novel, but the very form itself resists any tinkering with time while still maintaining a narrative (a sequence of events laid out from one point to another). A narrative's very linearity, whether or not presented linearly, limits the possibility of synchronous voices or counterpoint or any musical/choral technique Smith would like to incorporate. Of course, I would never discourage Smith from her ambitions or experiments—I wish the opposite, in fact: please, Ali Smith, please save the novel from its bourgeois ruins. 

Molly etc is another Tor.com novella. This is a great example of a premise better than the execution could ever be. No matter what Thompson followed through on, it was always going to disappoint from the promise of the central idea. Thompson sort of answers the ontological question at the heart of the novella, but not all of the way, but still too much of an explanation for my tastes. The novella isn't bad, per se, but it's kind of written in the same way a lot of contemporary SFF is: heavily workshopped prose designed to convey the maximum exposition possible, with little attention paid to aesthetics. Likewise, this is a novella operating under the logic of value, the logic laid out by Franzen in his essay "Mr. Difficult": the reader expects entertainment and any waffling from the author, any diversion from the path of the plot, any arty-farty interest in words, well that just distracts from the plot and thus betrays the contract, paid for by the reader. Which is to say that Thompson's novella is streamlined but at the cost of artfulness. Perhaps that's unfair of me, considering the purview of these novellas are to be short and sweet, but other authors under the aegis of the Tor.com imprint have tried aesthetics outside of the usual range, so I don't think I'm asking too much. The type of plot first writing encapsulates the direction genre fiction is going and it's a direction I'm very ambivalent about.

The Red Threads of Fortune by J. Y. Yang was great: a unique fantasy world that's just deep enough to be alluring but not so deep as to be off-putting. Yang's queer protagonist falls in love with a non-binary person, who uses they/them pronouns, which is going to be an automatic boost for me, as it's nice to see non-binary representation in SFF. For once, and this is incredibly rare, I'm reviewing a book that's "in the news" so to speak, or at least making waves right now as we speak. I won't bother people with a long history of SFF's aversion to queer identities outside the safe heteronormative locus of thought (Delany being the apex exception) but I will link my readers to "An Open Letter With Respect to Reviews Published on Rocket Stack Rank" (here) and Rocket Stack Rank's response to the Open Letter (here). The crux of it is that this established apparatus of criticism was docking marks for use of the singular they pronoun, the use of which is a) linguistically established and, more importantly, the everyday texture of people's lives. I won't be mounting a defence of the singular they because who the fuck cares. But I am interested in how Rocket Stack Rank's apology leans less on mea culpa and more on nitpicking the particulars of the accusations. Ultimately, their apology is an attempt at damage control ("look, we're not all transphobes here!") and luckily for me, I had never heard of Rocket Stack Rank before (I'm, admittedly, out of the loop with regards to contemporary SFF). Over at the generally gross File 770, commenter Arifel sums up my thoughts on the subject quite eloquently:
the really fundamental thing to me here is that this isn’t some detached, debatable linguistic issue for a lot of people; it’s their identity. Treating it as the former and then forcing people to defend their existence against the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever other historical authority about grammar you want to cite) is horrible behaviour, and at the very least precludes someone from writing an “objective” review site about SFF in 2017...
(here) This being one of the only times I would ever link to File 770, who have a grudge against the critic Jonathan McCalmont, for whatever reasons.

As for the novella itself, I quite liked it. Epic without being too daunting and intimate enough to maintain emotional stakes. My reading of fantasy has broadened a lot this year and my efforts to read non-paradigmatic examples has been the more rewarding (I've abandoned Tad Williams three times in my life now, most recently last month).

Kristi DeMeester's Beneath tickled my desire for horror and zagged where I expected it to zig. Similarly to Barker's Coldheart Canyon (reviewed here), DeMeester doesn't fuck around with the usual "I don't believe it" until the third act. Rather, in the first third, she puts the pedal to the metal, which is refreshing. An issue this brings up, structurally speaking, is how does one maintain the forward momentum, or the atmosphere. Unfortunately, Beneath does run into this problem. Around the halfway point, the characters are in a holding pattern: the narrative can't kill anybody major (because who would the novel then follow?) and the apocalypse can't come yet (because what else would follow?). It's a structural issue I'm not sure any novelist can truly overcome or at least if they have, I'm unfamiliar with them. The other issue plaguing Beneath is DeMeester's commitment to short sharp chapters. I'm presuming the intended impact is one of suspense, with each chapter ending on a sting, but the effect leaves the novel feeling choppy. No sooner is one scene set than we shift to another. Despite my qualms and quibbles, I did like the novel; it especially reminded me of T. E. D. Klein's short story from Dark Gods called "Children of the Kingdom" (reviewed here), and I mean that as a very strong compliment. DeMeester also reminded me a bit of the aforementioned Clive Barker, especially in her depicted intersection of sex and horror; characters often feel the heat of arousal during moments of fear; and one of the major subplots of the novel tries to delicately handle pedophilia, without ever feeling salacious or "Movie of the Week" in its earnestness. I've read some DeMeester short stories before and I plan to read more of her stuff.

All in all, a very good month, even if I felt a bit meh on a couple aspects of the texts I read.

Friday, November 10, 2017

August Reads Part Two

It by Stephen King
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Last month, I ranked It as the number five best novel written by Stephen King. After finishing it, for what I believe to only be the second time (I originally only made it to the halfway point when I was a young'un), I don't think I would shift its place. With such a long and dense novel such as this, it can be difficult to maintain precision with critique. Like the sprawling plotlines themselves, I worry my words of praise and damnation could unspool themselves to epic length.

Let us begin, then, with the positive attributes of this mammoth tome. King's powers, many that they are, include a control of suspense practically unmatched—surely placing him among such masters of the form as Dickens and Collins. Each session I had with It had me running through a hundred pages or more without noticing the steady tick of time. I'd glance up from the paperback and be almost late for work. The absorption is practically total. The success of this can be attributed to the casual ease of his prose (King demands little of the reader's expertise with vocabulary or syntax) and to use of repetition. A hallmark of King's prose is the recitation of almost talismanic phrases, either irrupting from the subconscious (marked, typographically, with a paragraph break, in italics, often contained within parentheses) or repeated by the narrator. These phrases function like musical motifs, grounding the reader's attention in the whole work, like signposts marking progress, warning against straying from the path. In It, the talismanic phrases are not simply aesthetic or poetical devices but rather narratively motivated: the phrases repeated by the protagonists as defense against the psychic intrusion of the antagonist; the phrases used as weapons against the protagonists, to shake their confidence and increase their fear. In a novel of average length, the repetition might not wear so much on the reader, but after 1,100 pages, I began to tire of reading the same gaggle of words in italics.

When I first read this and the second time, I remember thinking the Derry Interludes were dull and unnecessary filler, but this time around, I thought higher of these sequences. King's project isn't simply to illustrate the trauma of childhood carried into adulthood, but the intergenerational trauma carried from one era to the next, personified, literalized, as ritualistic eruptions of violence. The Derry Interludes, narrated by historian/librarian Mike Hanlon, offer glimpses into the past of the long shadow Pennywise casts over Derry. One of the most successful effects in the novel is the insidious way Pennywise is woven into the fabric of the town itself, to the point where their definitions blur into each other. Can one have Pennywise without the town and vice versa, a question wisely posed by the novel through the Derry Interludes. One of my favourite scenes in the novel and the miniseries, which looks to be adapted differently in the forthcoming film version, is the haunted photographs of Derry's past.

Something I had never considered in my previous readings of the novel was how King uses the discourse of children's adventures stories to scaffold his novel. In some ways, It is about the reckoning of the past and trauma through the detritus of popular culture (an example: for Richie, the terror manifests as a teenage werewolf, complete with classic 1950s varsity jacket, distorted from the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf). King's fiction has often been postmodern:
the past is no longer something to orient ourselves with in the present but rather a vast collection of images from which to draw on repeatedly, like frantic waves of seemingly novel commodities which "randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles" (Jameson 19) (quoting myself from here)
While his cannibalizing is often overt and on-the-surface, in It, he draws upon the long history of children's adventure stories without signposting them so obviously. While the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are explicitly referenced in a scene or two, King doesn't signal his mobilization of the structure. This effect is similar to that in The Little Friend by Donna Tartt: both are self-conscious imitations of a pulp style, but through a postmodern lens. And I don't mean postmodern as explicitly self-referential or aesthetically avant-garde. Rather, I use postmodern in the Jamesonian sense, the cultural logic of late capitalism. I should even be careful to attribute this use of children's adventure stories to King himself but instead to the text, because I can't with any specificity point to King's intentions.

Now, onto the not-so-great stuff. Here, I shall quote myself, where I defended charges of sexism against the novel. It seems, in reaction to feminist readings of King's fiction and re-readings of the novel, the climactic sex scene is being re-examined. I maintain the scene is gross and sexist. I wrote this in another spot:
It’s not so much that Beverly is *defined* by her gender or her sexuality. That much we can all agree on and it’s a credit to King’s skill at characterization that she is more than the constant references to her “budding” breasts the narrator can’t seem to forget. No, rather, and here I shall mobilize that “lazy trend” of feminist critique, it’s not the individual character, but as Mike points out, the gender imbalance. It’s also not simply Beverly herself as a character but Beverly as she exists in the *discourse* of children’s adventure stories, a rich and complicated history King is drawing upon (hence the setting of the 1950s, the end of the era’s golden age). Other than Nancy Drew (to which King explicitly draws a comparison, specifically highlighting Nancy’s father’s intervention), girls in adventure stories often did not have starring roles or if they did, their agency was subordinate to that of the boys’. King’s attempt at rectifying this, by making it her idea to have a tween gangbang, is a classic example of “good intentions” (as with lots of King’s politics, they’re marred by his reductive sense of good intentions… cf. the Magical Black Person). We must widen our lens and look at Beverly in *context* of the discourse in which she has been placed. Again, we have yet another girl whose agency is expressed through her sexual viability, her currency as sexual creature. I hesitate to use “sexual object” because as you note, the objectification her body (which is pronounced throughout the novel, either in the 50s or the 80s) is at least thematically motivated. Bev’s character, while rich in some ways (most importantly, her steady hand and steady eye with the slingshot), is still another girl characterized by her body. In “Woman on the Market,” Luce Irigaray writes that “wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men” (172). The only way she can think to bring them together is to open herself to them and allow them to essentially take a piece of her (virginity). The scene is icky not just because of the ages of the characters but because none of the boys offer up their butthole to accomplish the same end. Her value, when it comes down to it, is how she can be used, exhausted as a commodity to artificially create a bond.

But what's the point of rehashing the same argument about the gangbang? Most people dislike it and it's been wisely excised from both adaptations. What matters is how this use of Bev is dismissed as just simply gross and not indicative of the ways in which women are objectified and commodified by heteropatriarchy. Enough of this.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy was okay. I did like how when the protagonist meets the anarchist hottie, he asks for her pronouns. I did not care for the peppy quippy narrator voice which irritated and did not do enough to get across the horror of this summoned demon.

Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland was incredible. It's a classic Lovecraft homage with some hardboiled shit tossed in but what elevates it from ordinary is the aesthetic push. The narrative cuts between stories and rarely provides much in the way of exposition. Similarly, the novella deploys a fun bit of false document, with a very real-sounding lost film. I loved this. These Tor.com novellas have been mostly good. I'm going to keep with them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October Reads

Umbrella by Will Self
Age of Assassins by RJ Barker
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I Will Not Serve by Evelyn Mahyère


Let's start with the not-so good: The Grip of It should have been great. A literary haunted house novel is a premise right up my alley. The major issue, without a doubt, is how over-written it is. The stink of writer workshop wafts up from every sentence: the affected terseness of the male narrator and the pretentious lengthy verbosity of the female narrator both feel so calculated and workshopped as to be evacuated of any of the immediacy or possibility afforded by the genre. One aspect to horror's success is the potentiality: anything could happen. But the prose in The Grip of It holds everything back, asking the reader to focus more on the poesy than the slow creeping dread of the premise. Like Atwood's science fiction novels, this book feels like it was written by somebody who has never read any other horror. I get that sense from the archaic premise (haunted house? in this economy? who can afford a house, haunted or otherwise?) and from the antiquated unfolding of the plot (childhood trauma, town secrets, etc). Throwback novels aren't the problem, but if you're going to do Shirley Jackson, you better bring something other than tired aesthetics.

I haven't felt much like writing recently, but I'll say that Umbrella and The Bell Jar were incredible and will easily crack my top ten best of the year.

Monday, September 25, 2017

mother!


CN: violence against women, misogyny

Allegory sucks. Or rather, the way most writers use allegory sucks. Most writers suck—their technique is sloppy or poor or missing entirely and since allegory takes a delicate and careful hand, which most writers lack entirely, writers suck at allegory. Case in point, Darren Aronofsky's irritatingly titled mother! with its lower case m and it's perky exclamation point. 

mother! has two major problems going for it: the allegory isn't subtle in the slightest; the allegory is open ended enough to bear the weight of practically any interpretation. This is not a paradoxical claim. Aronofsky's story, that of a cruel creator subordinating a feminine figure to the point of abuse, is a mash up of multiple well known stories from the Bible. The film is even divvied up into two major sequences: the arrival of annoying houseguests in the first part, then the escalation of an absurd amount of houseguests in the second part—mirroring the two testaments of the Bible, of course. Jennifer Lawrence's titular mother figure represents, all at once, Eve, Lilith, Mother Nature, Mary, and a host of other maternal archetypes while Javier Bardem's poet can be considered the Abrahamic God or any creator who gives himself up at the expense of his loved ones. None of this is astute or perceptive analysis of the allegory because the allegory doesn't need any investigation. It announces itself loudly, almost to the point where one expects Darren himself, clad in his trademark scarf and pervert mustache, to face the camera and explain "THIS IS ALLEGORY." But when the allegory gapes open so wide as to allow anything and everything, the technique loses any forcefulness.

What is Aronofsky trying to say other than that he's trying to say something?

Which is a shame as the first half is an exquisite endurance of tension and anxiety. Lawrence is plagued by a well meaning but clueless husband and a gathering of intrusive and nosy houseguests who overstay their welcome within minutes. Later, during an extended gathering, Lawrence is forced into the role of hectoring harpy, padding barefoot around the partygoers, admonishing them for disobeying what little rules she has set out for her home. People continue to seat themselves on a non-load-bearing sink, much to her mounting exasperation. The level of inconvenience and intolerable behaviour from these guests reaches a level of hilarity verging on absurdity. I was encouraged when other audience members seeing the film with me laughed at the same bits, though I'm skeptical Aronofsky meant for his allegorical houseguests to elicit such a reaction. He probably meant for them to be frustrating and menacing in a vague way, but really, most of the first half climaxes into the tonal landscape of a sitcom. I couldn't help but laugh.

Unfortunately, mother! doesn't maintain the dark humour. Instead, the last third of the film is an extended tableau symbolizing Homo homini lupus: violence, destruction, rape all depicted in short sequences with the camera tucked in close to Lawrence's face as she bears witness to all the awful things human beings do to each other. At first, these vignettes are gripping and startling but the film can't sustain this—eventually these bursts of violence become numbing and altogether ineffective. 

It ends, now infamously, with Bardem offering the unruly mob his only son, and in a moment of hollow horror, the kind of flinching from the real stuff of horror, the film shows the mob munching on the already killed and divvied up baby. It's a moment of filmic cowardice, the kind evinced so perfectly by Eli Roth's weak and frightened film The Green Inferno. Like a posturing pubescent, these films pretend to be powerful and scary but can't commit themselves to true terror, the true existential dread which characterizes the best horror films.

After this moment of allegorical cannibalism, the mob turns on Lawrence, beating her and ripping at her clothes. This is probably the hardest moment for any audience member, including myself. Even remembering this moment is making me anxious. Throughout the film, there has been a quiet threat of sexual violence against Lawrence, culminating in a quasi-violent act of lovemaking which produces their only child. In one particular scene, Lawrence is asked by an anonymous party guest to go "for a walk." She refuses and when rebuffed, the man turns nasty. Just as with this man, the mob turns on Lawrence. The violence is subtly flavoured with her sexualization and it's godawful. 

I can't compute why male filmmakers are so quick to depict the beating of women under the guise of feminism. It's abhorrent. I'm sick to death of watching women get beat to shit by men just for "entertainment" or—even worse—meaning, no matter how illusory or shallow the depth.

Perhaps this is the year we, collectively, have had enough of Film Culture's toxic relationship with women. With Devin Faraci, Harry Knowles, and the other headscratchingly obtuse things the Alamo Drafthouse has done in the past year, maybe we're all at a point of frustration heated enough for change to happen. Because nonsense like mother! doesn't happen in a vacuum. The same well-meaning but ultimately dangerous attitude which brought us this garbage movie is the same entitlement plaguing the film industry and all its satellite discourses such as criticism. Nice Guys like Bardem who ooze sexual danger and this film which smuggle a desire to beat women via "deep" allegory feed into the toxicity of the critics who feel they can get away with threatening women with sexual violence or turning violent when rebuffed. For years, for decades, powerful men in powerful positions use their power to cover the asses of their friends, at the expense of women in the industry. mother! might gesture towards this but the execution is so flawed as to backfire horribly, violently, hyperbolically. 

None of the positives of the film (its stellar sound design, its mounting claustrophobia and anxiety) can outweigh the damage the film has done and, more importantly, represents as the worst kind of Mediocre White Man movie. 

Fuck this movie.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

September Reads

Provenance by Ann Leckie
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
Shadows Linger by Glen Cook
Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

I didn't like Provenance and that's a great disappointment to me, considering how much I adore her first novel. I'm not sure what went wrong here: Leckie's increasing interest in social etiquette; the lack of central forward momentum; the myopic interest in the upper class and the plot hinging on replicating their power and status—all of these things could have been the problem or worked together to form a gate barring me from enjoying the novel. At around the halfway point, I was already fed up with the fumblings by the characters for more status, more power. While in books 2 and 3 of her Ancillary trilogy, the interest in social niceties was part of the overall texture and not the prime focus, in Provenance, it feels I'm reading a cultural anthropology textbook of a future. Which might be a delicious meal for some, but it never nourished me. 

The two Hutchinson novels were stupendous. He has risen from being an author I'm interested in to an author I will follow very closely. 

While I liked the first Black Company book, nothing prepared me for how much a forward leap in quality the second book was. Shadows Linger was as close to a masterpiece of fantasy fiction as I've ever read, not just in the worldbuilding and general narrative, but in the execution of all the technical stuff, such as the dual plotlines, the meting out of exposition, the careful accumulation of plot tangles for the series, the Weird aspects (a castle made of bodies, growing with each body added to the stack, etc). It's all fantastic. 

All in all a good month. I also started a couple things, abandoned two things, and have yet to post my August Reads Part Two. When I get the energy to write again, I'll post it.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Film Diary

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Dir. Sergio Leone. 1966.
Silkwood. Dir. Mike Nichols. 1983.
The Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. 1984.
Frankenhooker. Dir. Frank Henenlotter. 1990.
Don't Look Now. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. 1973.
Walkabout. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. 1971.
Dead Ringers. Dir. David Cronenberg. 1988.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was a rewatch, this time on Kino Lorber's so-called 4K restoration. Apparently, the MGM Blu-ray is far too yellow in tint and looks awful. Kino Lorber's release was meant to remedy this problem, and it does, but in doing so, introduces new problems. First, indoor scenes have a teal tint, as if digitally colour corrected like a Michael Bay film. The uniforms worn by both armies in the film aren't as crisply grey or blue as they were in real life. This might work in the film's favour, as the blurring of the uniforms is thematically motivated, but aesthetically, it's a bit of a chore. On the other hand, any scene outdoors is beautiful: the sky is an alluring, almost aseptic blue, while the desert and other ecological zones burn with a yellow or orange. The film itself still holds up for me. It might be a bit too long, but it's never boring. Each scene is its own mini-drama, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's not my favourite of the so-called Dollars Trilogy. That honour is claimed by the darkhorse of the three, For a Few Dollars More.

I found Silkwood a bit of a disappointment. Like many biopics, the film struggles with its own intentions. Is the film meant to be a portrait of a person or a depiction of what that person did? The question is not merely philosophical as any answer will change the film substantially. If this film is indeed about Karen Silkwood the person, then I didn't get quite enough of a sense of who she was. The film doesn't invest in Cher and Kurt Russell's characters enough so Karen feels unmoored from the people she ostensibly considers family. Likewise, if the film is a chronicle of her labour activism, then the film fails even more. Erin Brockovich has the luxury of forming its drama around a court case, an intrinsically dramatic proceeding which lends itself to cinema, but Silkwood doesn't have this structure. Instead, the film focuses on Karen's amassing of evidence for the union's position in negotiations. These negotiations, barely depicted onscreen, aren't nearly as cinematic as a trial. And since the film is a biopic of an individual, the film ends with her death which isn't really the end of the story. Silkwood leaves the audience with onscreen text remarking the death was considered a single vehicle accident and that the corporation closed the factory. Perhaps wanting to avoid being the target of litigation, the filmmakers opted for safety instead of righteous ire and indignation. I did enjoy the performances, especially Cher's effortless one, but otherwise, this was a bit of a disappointment.


I think I've only seen the original Terminator twice before. I saw it long after I'd seen the second one. I was inspired to rewatch this after seeing a tweet (of course, I can't find it now) praising the look of the film. I picked up the remastered Blu-ray of it and I was blown away by how pretty the film is. Almost every frame could be printed out and framed. Always ahead of the curve, visually speaking, Cameron and his cinematographer Adam Greenberg soak the film in fuzzy lights, reflective surfaces, incandescent blues, and the odd piercing red. The movie still rocks, of course, being a lean and ruthless machinery of efficient storytelling. Truly one of the finest action films of the century.


With Frankenhooker, I come closer to having seen all of Henenlotter's major works. The film is a blast (pun intended). Beautifully absurd and joyful, the film reminds viewers of a time when horror and exploitation were part of the margins of filmmaking and there's a solid exuberance to everything, even if the film coyly mourns the Times Square and 42nd Street of the past, lost forever to gentrification. It's absurd and entertaining, though certainly not sensitive to the lives of sex workers (who remain the butt of the jokes, no matter how the screenplay tries to care for them).


After rewatching The Limey a week ago, in anticipation for Soderbergh's return to multiplexes with Logan Lucky, I thought I'd give Roeg a try, an obvious inspiration for Soderbergh. Both Walkabout and Don't Look Now were tremendous works, the kind of movie I could see firing up budding filmmakers, showing young cinephiles the limits of what cinema can do. I liked Walkabout a bit more than I did the latter, thanks to the former's gorgeous cinematography, careful building of theme and characterization. Walkabout says some fairly routine things (the problems of communication) but in deeply resonant ways. I still liked Don't Look Now a lot, but it just didn't command my attention in the same way. Part of the problem is what Pauline Kael dubbed the film's "clamminess." Since reading Kael's review, I can't shake the word she uses. Like other master prose stylists, Kael had an ability to select only the most apt word possible, making it almost impossible to think of the object of the comparison in any other terms. The clamminess doesn't just refer to the literal atmosphere, of Venice during the off-season, but to the emotional distance. Affect isn't so removed as to be clinical, like a Kubrick, nor is it so pronounced as to be uncomfortably moist and close (like Spielberg). Critics have praised the film for its emotional maturity in its depiction of a couple dealing with grief, but I never got that sense. The relationship between the two isn't quite as defined as I think the film would like it to be. Add to this the very Italian ending, which I didn't care for at all, and you have a film I like, but I don't love.


Dead Ringers was a rewatch, the first time in probably 12 or so years. I remember the film being a lot more sinister and malevolent than it actually is. I'm struck by the oft-stated critique that Cronenberg is cold or clinical when my favourite movie of his, and possibly one of my top five favourite films of all time, The Fly, is a heartbreaking tragedy which made me cry the first few times I saw it. Dead Ringers isn't quite the operatic tragedy The Fly is, but it's not nearly as exploitative of the twins as I remembered it being, or as the reputation would have one believe. Rather, it's quite sensitive to the inherent character flaws of the two, sensitive to their inevitable self-destruction. I like the film a lot, but it's in dire need of a trim; the movie goes on a bit too long.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August Reads Part One

Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

First, let us start by disclosing that I am not, in fact, a child between the ages of 10 and 14, no matter how much my (imaginary) detractors might paint me. I am not, therefore, the target audience for L'Engle's well-regarded and prize-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. Still, with the upcoming film adaptation (let it never be said I am not a bandwaggoner), and my diving in the Catholic waters of Gene Wolfe, I thought this a good time as any to finally read it. Boy, was I disappointed. I was worried the overt Christian proselytizing would put me off, but this aspect wasn't that which stuck in my craw the most. Rather, L'Engle's flat plotting and tedious need to withhold from the audience got my goat. Any narrative which relies on the protagonist being told "this will all be explained later" or "now's not the time for questions" is a narrative I'm inclined to dislike. The same issue marring the entirety of Harry Potter taints every interaction in A Wrinkle in Time. Meg, the somewhat intriguing protagonist, is whisked on a quest for her father across time and space by three women who may or not be witches or angels or even stars (as in the gaseous source of heat and light for our planet), but any time Meg risks asking a question for clarity's sake, her efforts are rebuffed in clumsiest of manners. Never does anybody answer a direct question. It's infuriating. And obviously this is personal taste, as this narrative strategy is a well-used one for young adult fiction, meant to mirror the frustration of the young when they're told "you'll understand when you're older." Though it might be purposeful and effective for the younger reader, I found it beyond annoying. I could have managed through my irritation had the narrative had been otherwise compelling, but alas, the entire novel feels haphazard, bolted together from seemingly discrete episodes. The second half of A Wrinkle in Time changes settings to a planet controlled by what we're supposed to take to be Satan, I suppose. This totemic baddie manifests its evilness with—because it's the 1960s—communism. Yes, the great threat the protagonists must thwart (it's never clear why these particular kids and not any of the other billion people on the planet) is the specter of communism. *groan*. What kind of novel waits until the second half to introduce the primary conflict and setting? How much more shaggy and slapdash can this novel get? Alas, I will never find out as I jumped ship with 75 pages to go. I scanned the Wikipedia article for the remaining bits of "plot" as they are, and no, I can guarantee myself that I am missing nothing of import. An astonishingly boring novel, so boring I couldn't even finish 250 pages of it.

And thus, I finished the middle third of Wolfe's Solar Cycle. Nine books down, three to go. If I were to rank these four, I say: 2>4>1>3. The second one was terrific: paced as all hell, tightly controlled, and careful in its meting out of details. The third, with its long sections in the tunnels (oh god, the tunnels), could have used a trim. The fourth tamps down the insurrection plotline and the tunnels a bit (but there are still many scenes in the tunnels; oh god) for more existential dramas and some political intrigue. The fourth ups the metafictional quotient and obfuscates all that the reader has read before, in both compelling and annoying ways. A major reveal is so shrouded in Wolfe's style that it was entirely lost on me until I read the Dramatis Personae where it was revealed with little fanfare.

As for project as a whole? I loved it. Gene Wolfe is my quintessential "problematic fav." His treatment of women improves slightly with The Book of the Long Sun but he still finds time to denigrate sex work and have a woman completely naked for 200 pages. Breasts are always commented on, but only with the verb "heave" and Caldé Silk's love interest is the definition of beautiful vacuity. There's barely any reason for her and Silk to love one another but love one another they do, in the most simpering ways possible. I can recognize these flaws, both pervasive and structural, but I can't seem to give up on him. His "medieval fantasy world with traces of high technology" arrests me every time. I can't wait for my omnibus of The Book of the Short Sun to arrive so I can keep going.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July Reads

What Maisie Knew by Henry James
The Black Company by Glen Cook
A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
The Butt by Will Self
The Rift by Nina Allan
Caldé of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

My god. I read The Portrait of a Lady back in my first run of university. At least I think I did. I remember much of it. And I remember not working as hard at it as I did with this slim novella. Only 266 in my Penguin edition and it took me a week. I'm still not sure if I've even read this damn thing. I had forgotten how labyrinthine his sentences are, how many clauses and adverbs and subjects he piles on and on, as if each sentence is a game of knots to see who can tie the most complicated one. Luckily, James isn't over-complicating the plot, such as it is: Maisie is shuttled from one "parent" to another, with each adult projecting their desires onto Maisie. James even spells it out for the reader, in a lovely turn of phrase:
What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.
One of James' more lucid sentences, I'm afraid. Though, when it suits him, he does provide a beautiful sentence or simile:
Their intensified clutch of the future throbbed like a clock ticking seconds; but this was a timepiece that inevitably, as well, at the best, rang occasionally a portentous hour. [my italics]
I provide the whole sentence here to show how James takes his simile and goes further with it. He doesn't simply dump it onto the page for the aesthetic delight, but also to make use of it. When James writes clearly, with purpose, like this, I was enamoured of my time with the Master. It was all those other times, when the paragraph went on for a page or two, when I lost track of the subject, that I found James to be insufferable. Certainly, he has a exquisitely sharp pen. If, as Kafka opined, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," then James' books are the surgical scalpels. I would love to read The Ambassadors (I purchased a Penguin copy years ago) but I'm reliably informed the novel is one of his three final masterpieces, the three most difficult works in his oeuvre.

I keep trying at fantasy and beyond Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock, I've found little to excite me. Paradigmatic high fantasy, such as Tolkien, or Anne McCaffrey, bore me to tears and of course, excite my suspicions about their politics more so than in science fiction (a tropical forest of hot takes about power and wish fulfillment, to be fair). Cook's The Black Company is the first in a long running series about a mercenary military company embroiled in wars, but always from the soldiers' point of view. At the time, the mid-80s, this was radical and almost revolutionary. 30 years after its publication, I'm sure the subject novelty has become old hat (I believe much of Grimdark fantasy, such as Joe Abercrombie, follows soldiers instead of Great Men). Since I don't read much fantasy, Cook's innovations are still fresh for me. Though what drove me through the novel wasn't so much the content but the aesthetics. Interestingly enough, Cook's terse, almost hardboiled style, provided a shot of verisimilitude, a dash of realism in a genre usually opposed to realism. The cast of characters speak in soldierly jargon, in colloquial English, use American swears such as "sumbitch," and generally avoid any of the pomp of Tolkienesque twee English ("verily, milord" etc etc etc). The narration, in first person from the company's physician, follows a similar pattern: unadorned, shorn of complex clauses. I should be careful not to ascribe too much "innovation" to Cook as he's working in the same mode of James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead): the daily life of the soldier as they are swept from one skirmish to another, with little explanation from command. What makes Cook so interesting is the installing of this aesthetic into medieval fantasy and still providing the same modulation of tone when discussing magic. Cook doesn't spend too much time on magic in these books—his is a world of military tactics—but he still presents the supernatural as being an element of the fabric of daily life for the soldiers. I'd be curious to see what Todorov makes of Cook's aesthetic progress in the field of fantasy fiction. As for the novel, I had an okay time with it. Similarly to Steven Erikson (apparently Erikson adores Cook and it's hard not to see the influence), Cook prefers letting the reader figure out backstory and exposition; sometimes, though, this leads to scenes of pure confusion as characters obfuscate to the point of pure opacity. Though just as often, Cook's stratagem reveals a confidence in the reader's ability, which is always welcome. I'll continue and finish the initial trilogy, collected in one volume.

I read a Guardian article about the books that helped writers come out (here) and a frequent mention from various authors was Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, a novel I've been meaning to read for ages. While perhaps not quite as earth-shattering to me as to others, the novel is painfully exquisite mostly. Narrated by a nameless protagonist, A Boy's Own Story captures episodes in his early life. Most focus on his sexuality, his desires, his sexual encounters, and his self-loathing. The book is set in the 1950s, when homosexuality was very much a social taboo. I suppose my... ambivalence is too strong a word (oddly enough), but perhaps my lack of adoration for the novel comes from the lack of engagement with the self-loathing. Don't get me wrong—in my youth, I was just as self-loathing with regards to my queerness as this protagonist, but as an adult who has read a decent amount of queer literature, I think I've "done my time" with tragedy pornography and excessive self-loathing. Like a bunch of authors, I should have read White when I was 15 or 16. In my adulthood, I'm just more drawn to different affective experiences. Though, White's novel is an aesthetic pleasure, full of stunning moments of beauty. I found the opening section, with its wonderfully erotic prose and ennui to be the most pleasurable section of the book. I didn't care at all for the final section, when the protagonist seduces and betrays a teacher at his school. It felt lurid and pulpy, tones the novel had previously avoided, creating whiplash for the reader in the final stretch.

I read a Will Self short story years ago and fell in love with his prose, but I never got around to reading any of his novels. Partly because the premises of the novels didn't interest me much. I picked The Butt as my first go because it seemed to have the most alluring concept of all: a man absentmindedly flicks a cigarette butt while on vacation and when it injures a native of the country, the man is thrust into a Kafka-esque labyrinth of arcane and bizarre law, culminating in a Heart of Darkness style journey into the country to make reparations. While the plot, not surprisingly, didn't really excite me too much (it's all a of-the-moment commentary on Bush's invasion of Iraq, a so specific satirical target that the joke was lost on me), the prose never failed to astonish me. It seems Self's reputation is built on his quick wit and adoration of the thesaurus, but none of his hyperbolic turns of phrase struck me as loquacious or irritating. In fact, Self's command of words impressed me in the same as Gene Wolfe's skill. Each sentence feels like a self-contained melody, always hitting resolution, much to my shivers. I wish I had taken some quotes, but alas, I was just mesmerized his sentences. I'll continue reading more Self books, without a doubt, even the ones with concepts not terribly invigorating, but he doesn't write for people to relate, which is always a plus in my books. He says he writes to "astonish people" and he does so through linguistic pyrotechnics, a goal other authors should be striving for.

I loved The Race (here) by Nina Allan and thus I was very excited to her followup The Rift. From what I know about Goodreads, this is a novel I think most users of the site would hate: opaque, abstruse, ambiguous to a high degree. There's a mystery at the heart of this novel, but Allan isn't interested in solving it for the reader. Nor do I think is the mystery one capable of being solved based on the "clues" offered by the novel. Rather, like her previous novel, The Race, this new novel wants to push what "science fiction" even means. "What does truth even mean?" is a question superbly suited to the novel as a medium, as even Cervantes and Sterne understood that back when the novel was novel. Allan, while perhaps not as adeptly as in The Race, suggests the malleability of truth and the infinite possibilities afforded by the genre of science fiction. My favourite genre, despite being chock-full of pure garbage, is still the best genre for asking the vital questions: what is truth and what does it mean to be human? While I don't think Allan is as successful here as she was in The Race, The Rift is still a fantastic addition to the canon of British science fiction.

I continue my trek through Wolfe's Solar Cycle with Caldé of the Long Sun (I read the first half here, coincidentally the same month I read Allan's aforementioned novel). The third of the second quartet—and eighth overall I've read in the cycle—didn't inspirit me as much as the second (Lake of the Long Sun), which was thrilling. Much has been mentioned, at least on Goodreads, of Wolfe's tendency to skip the "good stuff" (ie. battles, action, exposition). Instead, Wolfe focuses on minutiae of characterization, of daily life, of rituals and litanies (the omnibus of the first half is titled Litany of the Long Sun). In practice, Wolfe will elide or skim important moments of plot, using one or two sentences to describe in obfuscatory terms what is impossibly significant; then, using copious amounts of dialogue after the fact to explain what has occurred. Some readers might find this frustrating, but this does not frustrate me in the slightest. Novels, by dint of the medium, aren't well suited to dynamic visual action. Novels are the realm of the psychological and of speech (and even then, the stage is best at dialogue). Much of Caldé of the Long Sun is explained after the fact, with Patera Silk, the protagonist, apprehending the complexity of situation through dialogue and wonderfully astute deductive logic. Many of the characters in Wolfe's novels deploy higher-than-normal levels of logic, deducing things perhaps obvious to other readers but not to me. I always feel a bit humbled reading Wolfe as characters arrive at conclusions in a clean and hasty manner, leaving me gawping, sweating to keep up. Caldé of the Long Sun is more politically-oriented than the two previous novels, as Wolfe brings the civil situation to a boil. Silk is named Caldé, a civil leader, and he unintentionally heads an insurrection against the city Council. In the previous novel, we learned there are human beings in cryogenic sleep inside the Whorl, the generation starship and events intimated the gods the cast worshiped were AI ghosts of long-dead humans. Most of that fun stuff is left behind in this third volume, but not entirely, as the identities of the Council members are in question. The Book of the Long Sun is much more allegorical than its older siblings, it seems. Silk is the Moses figure, trying to guide his misguided people out from under the gaze of false gods. I'm beginning to suspect the god named The Outsider, the one whose telepathic catalyzed Silk's epiphany and the motion of the plot, is the Catholic God, perhaps not so vulgarly obvious, but the one true God. While the plot of this quartet is easier to follow, I sometimes yearn for the purposefully abstruse Book of the New Sun. I have one more book in this quartet, and then it's on to the final trilogy. Frankly, I'm very surprised at myself for sticking with a series this long. Normally I read one or two and abandon the project as I'm a fickle reader, but Wolfe has kept me going.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

the novels and collections of Stephen King ranked

Simply for shits and giggles, I thought I'd rank every single novel and collection I've read by Stephen King

novels:

30. Rage
29. Road Work
28. Firestarter
27. Cujo
26. Dreamcatcher
25. The Dark Half
24. The Talisman
23. The Tommyknockers
22. Song of Susannah
21. Desperation
20. Under the Dome
19. The Dark Tower
18. Insomnia
17. The Wolves of the Calla
16. The Wastelands
15. The Stand
14. Needful Things
13. Lisey's Story
12. Carrie
11. The Dead Zone
10. Duma Key
9. The Green Mile
8. The Drawing of the Three
7. The Gunslinger
6. Bag of Bones
5. It
4. The Long Walk
3. The Shining
2. Pet Sematary 
1. 'Salem's Lot

collections:

7. Hearts in Atlantis
6. Four Past Midnight
5. Everything's Eventual
4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes
3. Different Seasons
2. Skeleton Crew
1. Night Shift

If I were to rank everything altogether, Night Shift would reign supreme.

I'm less interested in historical revisionism, such as claiming King was always shit or his novels aren't any good or what have you. I firmly believe the top 6 novels I've ranked there to be masterpieces of horror fiction. While I'm less interested in revisiting any of these, I would consider re-reading Night Shift, if only because I'm sure it's better than I remember. I also recognize the contrarianism of putting Bachman's The Long Walk so high up the list, but the visceral thrills to be had there are masterful.

Friday, July 7, 2017

June Reads Part Four

The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst
The Weird of the White Wolf by Michael Moorcock

Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is one of the most important books of my life. So much so, I'm nervous about revisiting it and nervous about reading his earlier novels. What if they're of such an inferior quality as to retroactively lower his masterpiece in my esteem? I chose The Folding Star for our Queer Bookclub—I always choose novels, despite the protestations from my cohort—as this was an early Hollinghurst with which I wasn't familiar at all. The story of a tutor's infatuation with a student, this novel features much of the same hallmarks as his Booker Prize-winning classic: aesthete protagonist, sensitive, bitchy, educated and loquacious, learns more about himself and art through gay sex and interactions with the queer demimonde the novel depicts. Where The Line of Beauty was explicitly interested in dimensions of class, The Folding Star appears to be more intrigued by the dynamics of power. The main character and his student engage in a complicated seduction, though they each project their fantasies onto the other. In fact, much of this novel can be said to be about projecting, filling the other with desire as to overtake the subject completely. While a bit dense and bit long, The Folding Star is stupendously beautiful, achingly poignant, full of Hollinghurst's surgically precise language, exacting, demanding, but rewarding. Numerous times, I was close to tears just from the appreciation of his skill, his expert crafting of sentences, so beautiful as to be painful. While I didn't love this as much as The Line of Beauty, the novel rattled me—in the best way. A strong contender for best of the year.

I continue the saga of Elric with Moorcock's The Weird of the White Wolf , the third in the series, though I'm sure the chronology of publication and in-story timeline are exceedingly complicated. Like many genre "novels" of the 60s and 70s, this The Weird of the White Wolf is a "fix-up," a few short stories hitherto published separately edited to link together. Just as the previous one was a conglomeration of short stories, so to this third volume, and the seams definitely show; two of the sections have the same structure: a mysterious and sexy woman introduces a quest to depressed Elric, they depart for whatever it is they seek, some cruel twist of fate robs Elric of his prize, landing him in the same depressed circumstances as before. How much of the repetition can be ascribed to Moorcock and how much to the quest narrative is a murky proposition. It's an essential part of Elric's characterization to snatch things from his grasp just as soon as he achieves a goal. Moorcock's universe is almost nihilistic without stumbling into the Grimdark territory marring vast swathes of today's fantasy fiction. His imagining of the world is one of oppressive darkness but instead of political nihilism ("if everything is terrible and nothing ever works, why bother trying to improve society?"). The universe of Moorcock is one of philosophical nihilism, a distinct difference ("nothing has meaning and nothing has value"). Elric's quest for meaning is repeatedly thwarted; in the middle story of this book, Elric is tasked with searching for an ancient tome rumoured to answer great questions about gods and the universe's creation. He hopes to understand whether or not his existence is accidental. If purposeful, if he was created, then he knows meaning structures the universe. If a creation by chance, then he can find solace in knowing no order governs his universe. Unfortunately, or perhaps even fortunately depending on how you view it, the book crumbles the dust the moment he touches it, robbing Elric of his ability to satiate his thirst for meaning. He returns back to his previous circumstances, alone, depressed, morose, and still seeking some meaning. That he never finds any, or that whenever Moorcock reveals a power behind the curtain, he reveals yet another puppet's strings, speaks to the Elric saga's radical inversion of heroic tropes. Where previous heroes found their meaning through questing, such as Frodo's quest with the ring, Elric's quests never lead him anywhere but to destruction and despair. Anomie is the great spice of Moorcock's signature character. Each installment of this series makes me appreciate Moorcock's writing and command even more. Even though Elric is an altogether depressing creature, I'm utterly fascinated by how Moorcock teases him, prodding him along.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

June Reads Part Three

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I thought Binti was really good, but not great, so it was a surprise for me to find the second book in this trilogy (the third comes out in January of next year!) was better in almost all aspects. Okorafor has jettisoned much of the violence and spectacle of the previous volume for an increased focus on the protagonist's emotional state: her experience with PTSD and her increased feelings of alienation when returning home. Everything I said in the previous review holds true, if not more true: Okorafor's novella is an excellent examination of what it means to be the Other through a science fictional lens. I don't entirely love the series so far—there's such a major focus on the Bildungsroman element over the aforementioned PTSD aspect—but I'm suitably impressed. As with many bits of Adam Roberts' work, I can't quite shake his essay on YA and the Neo-Victorian (here). In an long and wide-ranging post (he touches on Moorcock, Lewis, Tolkien, The Hunger Games, and countless other texts), Roberts tries to grapple with YA's fascination with Victorianism and fantasy. His argument is wonderfully summed in the elegant final paragraph:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it.
Likewise, Binti and its sequel (and probably its third entry) grapple with the classic tropes of coming-of-age using as its distant backdrop the "public school" like Harry Potter and countless other YA books. The titular Binti spends her first adventure on the way to the school while the second novel has her leaving the school. Her literal and figurative journey to the school changes her identity through what is essentially magic (tentacle aliens reshape her DNA). Again, it's not mimesis as Roberts points out which is the driving force for the poetics of her growing emotional maturity—it's magic handwaved as science. While Roberts' argument doesn't fully apply to Binti, as Okorafor's novella is not rooted in Jameson's diagnosis of postmodernism as the "replacement of history as lived experience with history as a pastiche of empty visual styles." Instead, Binti mobilizes Afrofuturism (the aesthetic movement) in its depiction of Binti's development and her grappling with the spectre of the past. Binti's family, mathematically and practically inclined, disapprove of her escape to the stars. A recurring theme in the second novella is the exhaustion of Binti's possibilities for marriage; her trip to space, her flight from her people marks her as unfit for wedlock. Likewise, she comes face-to-face with a doubled Othering: her abandonment of traditional ways and her reshaped DNA code her as Other even to her own people, while simultaneously, Othered by non-Himba people for being black. Binti: Home brings all this to force along with the standard second-entry-in-a-trilogy revelation that "everything you know is wrong" via a secret history with which Binti was hitherto unaware. Where Okorafor takes the novel can't be too much of a surprise; Binti: Home ends on a cliffhanger: the strained peace between humanity and the Meduse collapses in violence, leading Binti to charge into danger, on a quest to unite people, an extension of her internal quest for "atonement" (at-one-ment), to reconcile the Othered parts of her identity, to coalesce into who she really is, while donning the mantle of humanity's saviour.

All the above makes it sound as if I was uninterested or apathetic about Okorafor's project and Binti's journey. While I confess Bildungsromans don't really tickle my fancy, I still adored this second entry, more than the first, and hope the third also jettisons the classic excess of violence which mark conclusions.

An aside about trilogies: probably my favourite moment in any third entry in trilogies occurs in Return of the Jedi, which so wisely anchors its climax on two emotional arcs (Vader's and Luke's). After departing Dagobah, Luke surrenders to Imperial forces and enjoys a moment of quiet with Lord Vader. There's no need for violence or even confrontation. Their mutual respect is palpable and speaks to the emotional maturity of the sequence: Lucas and his crew trusts the audience gets both characters know the conflict is now spiritual, not physical. Other than the Tatooine sequence at the beginning, this is the only bit in Return of the Jedi I find interesting and of course, it's the least violent or showy of any.

Maurice Broaddus and Tor.com offer us Buffalo Soldier, a steampunk adventure heavily influenced by Jamaica and their culture of storytelling. Like Kai Ashante Wilson's two novellas, this is a fantasy speckled with an awareness of code-switching and the utter specificity of the black experience. I'm very skeptical of steampunk, going so far as to dub it politically dangerous, but it feels like Broaddus has anticipated my reservations. Instead of the bland, implied celebration of Empire that usually characterizes the genre, Buffalo Soldier is explicit in its condemnations of imperialism. Its plot concerns rival nation-states in a fractured North America vying for political power. They seek this power through the manipulation of a clone, a resurrected Messiah with murkily-defined powers. The plot follows a mercenary with the young, naive clone under his wing as they escape the various competing powers. In terms of execution, the novel forgettable. Its details slip my memory immediately. But what sticks is Broaddus' interest in storytelling as oral history. The short novella finds time, three times, to arrest the forward momentum completely and have a character tell a story. The Jamaican protagonist tells one, an Indigenous character tells one, and a Southern Belle archetype antagonist tells a final story. They're more interesting than the plot of the novel and Broaddus executes these digressions with precision. Less attractive is the finale, a chaotic mess of noise and violence, which did nothing for me.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu was recommended to me by Aaron Bady, a Twitter acquaintance, and an expert (would he agree with such a compliment?) in African literature. He, in facts, introduces the novel in this edition. Touted to be the Great Ugandan Novel, Makumbi's text is fascinating and compelling. Starting with the historical figure of Kintu (pronounced "chin-tu"), the novel tracks the curse which befalls him and his many descendants in 21st century Uganda. Each section works as a standalone short story, detailing the fate suffered by the particular protagonist, but each section lacking an ending, leading to the climactic and final section, a huge family reunion and attempt at lifting the curse. Makumbi wrote the novel in English, but avoids translating any word in common usage not in English. Most words can be figured out through contextual clues, but sometimes, I just didn't know what they were talking about and that's okay. Kintu is, like Okorafor's Lagoon, not made for the Western gaze. Where the great Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart for Western audiences, a movement against colonization by using the tools of the colonists (read: the English language), Makumbi writes in English for her audience. Thus, the novel is multi-lingual and doesn't laboriously explain the history of Uganda. Readers are expected to be already familiar with Idi Amin, history, colonialism, and geography among other subjects, and of course, they would be: citizens of Uganda (I hesitate to say "Ugandans" as "Uganda" is an arbitrary border drawn by colonizers and not even the proper pronunciation of the word describing the ethnic group Bagandans) these citizens lived through this and wouldn't need the refresher. This made moments in the novel a smidge difficult for me, as I'm not terribly familiar with the specifics of Ugandan history.

Regardless of my own awareness of history, Kintu remains entertaining and productive throughout. One of the things I liked most about Okorafor's Lagoon and Adichie's Americanah, a major novel of Nigeria, was the reminder "Africa" isn't this monolith of poverty and AIDS and the rural. Instead, like any country, Nigeria is complicated, a tapestry of rural and urban spaces, of poverty and affluence, of criminality and bourgeoisie. Like Lagos, Uganda's Kampala (the setting for a good chunk of Kintu) is complex, a place of contradictions and synchronicities, a space for hustles and for families, for crime, poverty, AIDS, sex, affluence, love, etc etc etc. While Kampala doesn't figure into the novel as a character in the same way Lagos does in Lagoon, a portrait is quickly erected of a city wrestling with the legacy of colonialism while forging on its own.

Most affecting in Kintu was the widowed father, suspicious his wife died of AIDS he gave her, and utterly terrified of finding out if his only son has the virus as well. From interviews, Makumbi has stated her novel is "masculinist":
focusing on the fragile edifice of paternity, she emphasizes the toll that patriarchy takes on the people who happen to be men. For that same reason, it’s also one of the most feminist books one is likely to read.
(here). Paternity and patriarchy looms menacingly over Kintu. The father who suspects he has AIDS probably got from his unprotected sex with women from when he was a DJ. It is patriarchy which exhorts men to "sow their seeds," and it is patriarchy which demands men erect an impenetrable shell of strength around themselves. The father can't bear to learn whether or not he or his son have AIDS because he can't bear to lose anything more. The guilt eats at him, both the guilt of probably infecting his wife and thus killing her and the guilt of not knowing. His is a Schrödinger's Virus; he won't know until he looks but for the time being, he acts as if he doesn't and does have it. This man's whole section is harrowing, not just for the cruel reality of living in a world of AIDS, but for the ways in which patriarchy supports and even encourages his behaviour. At the funeral, men gather around the widowed husband, assuaging his guilt by offering milquetoast observations that all people must die, it's just a matter of time. They tell him what's done is done, and any further introspection or reflection on his behaviour isn't warranted. A chilling scene for the ways in which patriarchy extols the virtues of men forgiving men for their masculinist crimes.

I didn't love the final section, the reunion in which the curse is confronted. The section tried to juggle too many balls, leading to some confusion about who is where etc, and I wasn't terribly convinced by some of the happy endings afforded to the cast. Yet, the exorcism/exhumation sequence was utterly gripping. Like a lot of first novels, Makumbi tries to do everything and not all of it works, but I'm completely in thrall to her writerly powers; I eagerly await her next novel:
But when I asked her why she didn’t call it “feminist,” she laughed, and explained that I would have to wait and read what she was writing next. When I had, she said, I wouldn’t have to ask; that would be feminist.
(here again)