Friday, January 27, 2017

January Reads Part One

Gradisil by Adam Roberts
We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ
Super-Cannes by J. G. Ballard
Lament for the Afterlife by Laura L. Hannett
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park
Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
The Burning by Jane Chambers

I keep coming back to Roberts because, even if I never love reading his books, his prose is wonderful, full of wordplay, beautiful imagery, economical but never terse. Of the four or so novels I've read by him, Gradisil might be the least narratively satisfying or even alluring. The high concept, for which he's often praised, of this novel is a novum in the form of electromagnetic planes which "climb" the invisible branches of Earth's atmosphere, imagined as a Yggdrasil. The plot follows a family through different iterations and generations of revenge. The cleverness of Roberts comes in his exploration of tree metaphors: family trees, space trees, time trees, etc etc etc. Gradisil's plot rarely held my attention and did not propel me, though his prose certainly kept my attention. Likewise, Roberts' keen critical eye elbowed its way to the forefront, with seemingly tossed off asides and tangents which betray the author as one of the finest observers of culture. He mentionsagain, almost as an aside—the dramatics of aerial combat which conclude, as any conflict does, with explosions, substituting for orgasms. What's a terribly clever observation to me is a witticism made for flavour and not much else. Roberts is a writer who makes me despair of ever being a writer, either of fiction or of criticism: he's just far too clever. 

Though the plot wasn't the novel's main attraction, I can't dismiss it wholly: the second section, the longest section, aimed a lazy laser of satire at the law and its labyrinthine complexities, a target I'm predisposed to find worthy of ridicule. Probably the funniest novel I've ever read was William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own, which mired itself in suits, countersuits, torts, briefs, and all other legal escapades. The law and its study attracts me because what else is law but wordplay with stakes? Roberts seems to understand this and spends a great relaxed time mocking the law while still, like all good satire, making an important point: wars are fought in the courtroom, after the fact, not on the ground. It's a particularly postmodern position to take; the war's establishment in courtroom only makes the previous skirmishes "war" by definition by defining it through legalese. 

Gradisil was definitely enjoyable, though my "imposter syndrome" feelings leave me a bit paranoid. Am I just not well-read enough or critically astute enough to pick up on what Roberts is doing? Could I be missing an obvious "clue" or "clues" to unlock his writing? Over at his blog, fellow amateur (in a non-pejorative sense) critic Tomcat writes:
I don’t have the breadth (or depth) of reading in such areas as the history of Science Fiction or Western Philosophy that’s probably required to truly “get” his work. Indeed, I often have to read other people’s reviews in order to appreciate what he’s doing. I do, however, very much love his work for its characterisation, humour, and hell just the sentence-by-sentence writing.
I feel the same, Tomcat. He also mentions he wishes more people would focus on Roberts' skills in prose and characterization. Luckily, the only science fiction/genre criticism venue I respect wrote an unbelievably good bit of work on Roberts. Strange Horizons published Kevin Power's "review" (I use the scare quotes because I think Power's work goes beyond a simple consumer oriented opinion piece into the realm of damn fine criticism) of The Thing Itself (a recent Roberts publication I'm waiting to get to, as it feels like the culmination of everything the author has been working towards). In it, Power starts out by highlighting Roberts' clever, beautiful wordsmithing: 
How good is Adam Roberts? If good writing is in one sense about embodying perceptions—about capturing in careful prose the little inspirations that make up how a writer sees the world—then Adam Roberts is a very good writer indeed. All of the phrases I've quoted here pass what Martin Amis calls "the memorability test"—that is, they stick around in your memory of their own accord.
I wish I had preserved some choice quotes from Gradisil because I'm very convinced the novel contains some of his finest sentences.

We Who Are About To was a frustrating read. Absolutely brilliant in places but absurdly tedious in many other places. One of those "I appreciate what the novel's doing and its place in aesthetic/political/generic history, but oy this is boring" type situations, I'm afraid. Some crackling prose and a very circa-Moorcock and New Wave-style disposition towards the genre welcomed into the experience, but the second half, during which the completely alone protagonist hallucinates, lost me entirely. Russ' project is fascinating (the dissolution of polite society, a violent re-establishment of patriarchy in times of stress) but I just can't with a character starving to death for 70 pages without a single person to interact with. Personal taste and all that.

Ballard, a novelist I've grown to love through sheer perseverance (and careful calibration of what I, as a reader, expect from a novel), might be the 20th century's greatest prognosticator, not in terms of specifics, but in terms of "feeling tones" if I might borrow from Raymond Williams. Super-Cannes, a excoriation of the work/leisure dichotomy, purports to be a thriller, a mystery, but really suggests to the reader how sinister is pleasure. Like his earlier Crash, the aesthetics choices are not mistakes or accidents: Ballard's instrumentalizing of generic signifiers works towards a thesis, as each novel in his oeuvre works towards a grander thesis, a macrocosmic interrogation of how subjects relate to leisure, leisure in the most bourgeois form possible, the novel. Super-Cannes goes down smooth thanks to its structure and pacing and violence, though its careful manipulation of conflict present to the reader a dilemma: do I reject the antagonist's theory that violence and psychopathy is necessary for the continuance of work (rejection in the form of positioning the events in the novel as ethically abhorrent)? or do I recognize that my desire for prurience and titillation in the form of a novel mirrors, in a way, the violent acts spurned on by the villains? Surely not the first to work such territory, but certainly one of the most stylish, Super-Cannes might repel the experienced Ballard reader, as it's not nearly as insidiously clever as, say, Crash, but it's such a great sharp tool in the kit Ballard assembled in his career.

Speaking of careful calibration of novelistic expectations, Paul Park's All Those Vanished Engines will no doubt be the text which best represents, in 2017, my aesthetic and philosophical desires from novels. Three novellas, one alt-history, two pseudo-memoirs (of which one is set in the future) which trouble the waters of what constitutes "fact" and "fiction," "history" and "truth," and "genre," all as semantic categories. To put this in perspective, the first novella, that of the alternative history, is both backwards looking and forwards looking. By which I mean, the protagonist of the novella, in an alternate 1865, writes a novel set in the future, 1965. In this future, a protagonist writes an alternate 1865 with a protagonist who writes a novel set in the future of 1965 (and so on so forth: in which a protagonist writes a novel set in 1865 etc etc). The primary image connecting the two strands is a bracelet, made of two interwoven braids, running over top and under each other. This first novella, both exciting and confusing as the two literary worlds bleed back and forth, teaches the audience how to read the next two novellas, which are far trickier and much more obscurantist. In the middle section, Paul Park the character fabricates an interview with an engineer who help designed a vast engine powered by and producing sound. Simultaneously, Park reminisces about a friend writing a roman-a-clef about Park (and so on and so forth). Park the narrator admits to confabulation, characters made up wholecloth despite the signalling of truth and authenticity in the guise of a memoir. The third novella jumps ahead to a future when Park is an older novelist unable to let go of his passion for his family history. Composed of excerpts from the original documents he finds, the third novella demands much of the audience's memory, as seemingly countless relatives are introduced with their links to others briefly detailed.

I've written much on my growing disinterest in realism (here is a fine summary of my thoughts) and my appreciation of confabulation grows with each novel I read which challenges or at least troubles the stability of realism, or the illusion of stability. Park's novel is the farthest I've gone with metafiction in a long time (with characters even addressing the audience). The major problem with realism is the insistence on realism without any acknowledgement of the artificiality of the genre. Realism is just as fake as speculation. At least with speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, etc, the artifice glimmers, drawing attention to itself. The tricky part of explaining my distaste for realism comes in divesting realism the genre from realism the aesthetic mode. Realism as an aesthetic, which is to say an agreement between text and audience that which is in the realm of possibility can only occur within the text unless otherwise signalled or specified, either through generic signifiers or  isn't a problem (as Park's middle section shows); rather, the genre of realism pretends it's mimesis, the mimicry of reality. The genre purports to represent the world as it is but we know from our good buddy Plato it's not possible to do so. Poetry, Plato argued, will not and can never attain ultimate truth. So why bother pretending?

Carthage was Oates at her most "LIBERAL" and probably a bit more irritating in her open self-aggrandizing moralizing. Yet, the novel remains readable and affecting, functioning more efficiently as a portrait of depression and alienation than as a treatise against disciplinary structures such as prisons and the military. Oates' pseudo-stream of consciousness writing is always readable, almost addictive in some ways, propelling the reader along. Of what I've read, Oates' novels are rarely about "plot" in the way the synopses seem to promise; instead, the pulp fiction headlines disguise a lede of characterization and promised heaps of interiority. I find myself drawn more to Oates' experiments with the Gothic and the unreal than with her interest in the mundane banality of American life (as the previous priggish paragraph can attest) but she is still a fascinating writer, no matter the subject.

The Burning I purchased by sheer luck. I heard of the novel through Will Erickson's Too Much Horror blog and never expected to see it in the wild. However, a trip to a used bookstore in another part of the city (owned by an incredibly irritating woman who insists on chitchatting while people browse) turned up this rare novel. (The above isn't my picture, so excuse the Crichton in the background.) A slim volume, lasting only 160-ish pages, The Burning does much of what I hope to receive from horror. One reason why I try to read fiction by women is that more often than not, men can't seem to fathom the experiences and internal lives of women. Case in point, The Burning is positively aflame with irritation towards nettlesome and oblivious men. The protagonist's husband, a well meaning but ultimately doltish man, vexes his wife with his uselessness: she feeds the children, watches the children, does the cooking, cleans the house etc etc while he bumbles his way through life, failing upwards seemingly, despite being an idiot. The husband isn't a general moron in the sense of being stupid. Instead, he's self-centered and oblivious. A moment which really captures the wife's—and the novel's—exasperation details the husband never being able to find anything, forcing the protagonist to stop whatever she's doing and locate the "missing" item which was obviously exactly where it should have been. The novel puts in so much effort to convey the small ways in which men are just fucking annoying, including their constant prodding, either literal or metaphorical with their members, their narcissism, their disregard for the inner lives of the women in their lives. The plot, a backseat to the novel's thesis on how women are always and have always been violated at the hands of men in the form of social mores and laws, concerns two lesbian ghosts who possess the protagonist and her babysitter to live out the elder women's lives, up to and including their eventual burning at the stake for "witchery" AKA their queerness and purposeful living away from the clutches of men. In other words, what I took to be a simple novel about witches ended up being a righteously blazing excoriation of patriarchy and a sensitive (maybe too idealistic) portrayal of lesbians. 

I struggled with Lament for the Afterlife: some beautiful prose, some stunning worldbuilding, but unfortunately, just not enough of anything I'm interested in to maintain my appetite for her abstract, difficult writing. Perhaps the issue was that I expected something more difficult, based on other reviews. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood. But the novel, though I finished it, slips through my fingers, bores me, numbs me. I was perhaps more fascinated by the concepts than by the execution, which admittedly was skilled, but just wasn't for me. A case of "not my cup of tea" more so than "I thought this was bad."  

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