Friday, June 2, 2017

May Reads

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones
Necroscope IV: Deadspeak by Brian Lumley
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Autumn by Ali Smith

Even though I own 5 other Jones novels, including her first contact trilogy, I went with her most recent publication, a novella. Tor has been doing great work with these novellas, taking chances on writers who might not have the name recognition of bigger writers. They've also been taking chances on writers normally left out of the major publishing machine, such as Kai Ashante Wilson (so far I've read two spectacular novellas) or Brian Evenson. Jones' Proof of Concept is a fairly rote science fiction narrative which front loads all its exposition in dumps and uses the deaths of secondary or tertiary characters to motivate the protagonist into action. It's the kind of genre fiction devoid of aesthetic or conceptual novelty, coasting on the audience's shared understanding of how these narratives play out. Which isn't to say that the novella is of poor quality; it's certainly readable and goes down smooth. Its ending, done better by Dick (Dickian endings are best done by Dick), left me a smidge irritated as it's all wrapped up so unbearably ambiguously in the way these endings must always be. I keep complaining about this slim book but I didn't dislike it. I supposed I wanted more... not so much plot but more either in aesthetics or invention. Proof of Concept didn't put me off reading her other work, as I've heard Jones throws a lot at the wall to see what sticks in White Queen.

Oh boy, I can't believe I've read four Necroscope novels and there are 15 in this series or somesuch. I plan to leave it at eight, which includes five main series and then a trilogy about the vampire world. This fourth one, which returns to the same pattern as the second, doubles down on everything the novels are bad at: characterization, especially of women, and retcons. The second novel, if we remember, retroactively added another villain into the history of the vampires, necessitating another long sequence of flashback to detail the rise of this antagonist from poor schlub to ultra-powerful, ubermensch supervillain. The third novel, which I did not review, took a left turn and introduced the Vampire world, a parallel universe from which the vampire spores emerge. Dispensing with the spy stuff mostly, though there is still some, the third novel becomes a fantasy epic, with bizarre vampire analogues of dragons and barbarians. It didn't entirely work but at least there was some ambition. This fourth novel dials back the weirdness, much to my disappointment, and retreads the structure of the second novel. There's yet again a hitherto unknown spawn of the first vampire who must be destroyed. There's yet again an artificial obstacle preventing Harry the wunderkind from dispatching this threat with great haste. Throw in some spy nonsense and long flashbacks and you have a repetition of the second novel. What makes this one a little worse than the others is the treatment of women. In previous books, women were simply sexual objects or hags. This isn't changed with Deadspeak. Instead, it's intensified: a woman who has fallen madly in love with Harry turns out to be a spy charged with watching over him, but her love is genuine, you see. The phrasing by which she is described is insufferable: heaving bosom, sheer nighties, dark thatch of pubic hair, an intense love of sex with Harry, etc etc etc. Her death at the climax is of course necessary because she's been infected by the antagonist vampire. In other words, she's used goods and must be destroyed. The whole novel is vibrating with fragile masculinity: much of what transpires can easily be read as the fear of impotence. The main flashback includes a bit where the master vampire stumbles across his son fucking his own mother, which instigates the circumstances by which the master finds himself now. An illustrative example: Harry's inability to communicate with the dead (the obstacle preventing him from vanquishing the villain) causes temporary sexual dysfunction. None of this is subtext, by the way. It's all text. I shouldn't be surprised as Lumley has taken all the psychosexual hang-ups of Lovecraft but has grafted them onto hyper-masculinist genre fare such as spy novels. In other words, he's sort of misunderstood what made the psychosexual horrors of Lovecraft work so well.

Red Shift was a fascinating and difficult read. A friend recommended it, I had forgotten about it, then I read Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie, in which he makes a vigorous recommendation for it. Luckily, the novel is easily acquired, in a nice NYRB edition with a forward from the author himself. Set through three discrete time periods, the novel is composed mostly of dialogue, bouncing, snappy, beautiful dialogue. Rooted firmly in English folklore and myth, Red Shift follows a young romance in the 20th century, a village during the English Civil War, and a group of Saxon soldiers in Roman-occupied Britain. The dialogue of the lattermost corresponds roughly to 60s/70s Vietnam soldier jargon, a purposefully anachronistic choice, but works wonderfully. The middle period, the Civil War, wasn't quite as gripping for me, if only because there wasn't a singular emotional or narrative arc to which I could attach. The most present of the periods was suitably enthralling and bitterly romantic. What unites the three threads are an ancient hill, an ancient axe-head, and the cold uncaring nature of the universe. And themes, of course. The highest compliment I can pay this novel is that once I had completed it, I felt the need and the desire to start it all over again. Despite being only 200 pages and composed mostly of speech, the novel is dense, packed with ideas and moments spread across the vast gulfs of time.

Ali Smith, one of my favourite writers, has finally delivered a mediocre work. Autumn isn't bad or anything. It's readable and clever in the ways Smith can be and sweet and heartbreaking and thoughtful, but it feels lifeless and inert. Advertised as the first post-Brexit novel, Smith inserts the requisite hand-wringing about the plight of immigrants and the frustration with white British folks. Not that I'm opposed to the politics of the novel. I'm sympathetic, of course, but I wish the ideas had been integrated a bit more smoothly. Smith has never been a subtle writer; hers is a magic of pyrotechnics and pronouncements. But Autumn just did not work for me in the way her previous novels did. Of course, even a mediocre Smith novel is better than most, and Autumn is packed with all the painful cleverness one expects. It can be touching in places, thankfully, but never does the novel coalesce into something as good as There But For The or The Accidental. 

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