Friday, December 28, 2018

December Reads Part Three

Crudo by Olivia Laing
Clear by Nicola Barker
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I felt excited for the possibility of Crudo: a slim novel, doing something new and interesting, challenging realism, challenging the form of the novel. Unfortunately, the experience itself is deflating. Of all the "this is the future of the novel" books I've read in the past couple years, this might be the worst, but only in that category. Stacked against other lit-fic, Crudo is just mediocre. A book written in real time which contends with the real time-feel of the 24 hour news cycle? Intriguing. But Laing never does anything particularly novel with this conceit. Rather, she puts the existential horror of reading the news against the narrator's petty bourgeois concerns. The result, for me, was increasing impatience with the narrator's concerns for her things, for her apartment, for her own interests (in the face of nuclear annihilation). If the hammering of the bourgeois concerns is a play towards a kind of Flaubertian satire, then it didn't work for me.

An aside: if the adjectival noun for Flaubert, to denote his style or oeuvre, is indeed "Flaubertian," pronounced "flau-bear-shan," then I believe Gustave himself would at least approve of the euphony of the word. Also, adjectival nouns are some of my favourite things. How did we decide it would be "Mancunian" (that's a demonym, but it's a type of adjectival noun) or "Foucauldian"?

Crudo contains some euphonic and linguistic pleasures... but they're all lifted from Kathy Acker. The cycle went like this: I'd read a clever turn of phrase, a bit of poetry, and check the references at the end of the book, only to discover the phrase was lifted from Acker or someplace else. On and on it went. The cumulative effect was, again, impatience, and a renewed interest in finally reading some Acker, whom I've had on my to-read list for eons. I kept asking myself why I wasn't just bothering with Acker in the first place?

As a finished, published novel, Crudo felt like a batch of notes for a more fully realized project. The quotations, the ideas, the form of it all gave the impression of the journal a writer carries around jotting inside bits and bobs to be shaped and polished for a novel. But, it was only 130 pages, so I don't feel cheated. I also got my copy free from the publisher, so there's that too.

For most of Ironopolis, I could not prevent my brain from comparisons to Moore's Jerusalem. Both are about working class neighbourhoods being crushed under the boot of capitalism in the guise of "progress"; a lamentation for all the culture and history being erased and ignored and lost as the media and academic world find no interest in the lives of the working class; both feature a creature/spirit/something reminiscent of old English folklore, a something in the water which whispers to those who walk on land; a structural oddity; even aesthetically, at the level of the sentence, Brown's prose is the kind of laboured, 10-words-instead-of-2 kind of writing Moore favours. Where Jerusalem was this mammoth project covering the entire history of this town, Ironopolis is content to chronicle 50 years of the town, doing so in the same non-chronological order, asking readers to piece the narrative together and make sense of the twisted threads, the insular world of the working class. I once said, in a English literature seminar, that the British novel can be reduced, almost universally, to anxiety about class; Ironopolis does my theory favours. It's working class through and through, filled with characters struggling to make ends meet, to develop their own culture and history and live their lives without the boot of the upper classes. The poverty is harrowing without ever being poverty-porn, without ever being nakedly manipulative. Dampness, mildew, a chill you can never shake, mould everywhere. Having just enough to pay the bills, just enough to afford one two-week holiday at the coast per year. Scheming. Stealing. Confidence tricks. Ironopolis details this in the loving way Irvine Welsh does with Trainspotting but with the drink instead of skag. I kind of forgot how much I prefer working class fiction to upper crust stuff (not that I dislike fiction about the upper class). Ironopolis isn't perfect, though; like many first novels, it's everything thrown in, including letters, diaries, transcripts, poetry, stream-of-consciousness. Everything. There's something to be said about the maximalist approach, but Brown could have tapped the brakes just slightly. Otherwise, I loved it.

Friday, December 21, 2018


Nicola Barker's caffeinated prose is always the draw, even when she's writing about a subject I find unappealing, which is to say David Blaine. I'm a big fan of close-up magic, and watch lots of YouTube videos and mourn the loss of Ricky Jay, and Blaine's endurance tests, as with Houdini's escape feats, provide me with little to no excitement. I enjoy magic not for the magic but for the amateur's appreciation of skill vastly beyond my own. There are no stakes in illusionist schemes because every part of the game is rigged from the beginning (perhaps this explains my love for extremely competent protagonists such as the Seventh Doctor and Mike Carey's Lucifer, trickster gods who see in four dimensions). As nothing is risked, I feel no frisson when illusionists do dumb things like sit in a box for 44 days. I watch close-up magic for the same reason I watch martial arts movie: a drama played out with almost supernatural skill. Standing on a pole, inert, passive, or sitting and sleeping in a box isn't a trick. It's static and features no drama (such as "will he bring back the card he magically disappeared?"). Luckily, Barker's prose is in of itself a magic trick, something I've mentioned before.

Last night, I was reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, mostly for his indispensable foreword and afterword, which operate as tiny history lessons, elucidating the social, political circumstances by which these theories (near and dear to my heart) were wrought. But in his first chapter, preposterously titled "What is Literature," he gives such a delightful explanation of what some of the Formalists were seeking that I felt it necessary to quote.
The Formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more or less arbitrary assemblage of 'devices', and only later came to see these devices as interrelated elements or 'functions' within a total textual system. 'Devices' included sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques, in fact the whole stock of formal literary elements; and what all of these elements had in common was their 'estranging' or 'defamiliarizing' effect. What was specific to literary language, what distinguished it from other forms of discourse, was that it 'deformed' ordinary language in various ways. Under pressure of literary devices, ordinary language was intensified, condensed, twisted, telescoped, drawn out, turned on its head. It was language 'made strange'; and because of this estrangement, the everyday world was also suddenly made unfamiliar... By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed. (3) (my bolding)
I quote at length here, forgive me, because the Formalists, while operating under some serious methodological and ideological deficiencies (structuralism et al didn't really account for the plurality of languages and cultures and publics), articulated (by way of Eagleton) that which I find so alluring about fiction, specifically prose in fiction. The telescoping (lovely verb choice by Eagleton) of language paradoxically brings vividness and renewal to the everyday language by juxtaposition. My ability to enjoy language is improved when language itself calls attention to itself and in doing so, envelopes all language under its aegis of aestheticization. I appreciate language, I am grateful for language, even the terse bureaucratic office-speak, because I know, without breaking a sweat to find an example, that there is language being "deformed" for my pleasure.

And this, this is why I love Nicola Barker so much. Not in spite of her twitchy, annoying writing but because of it. I shall provide an example. Here, on page 244, cannily and archly sequestered in an aside, in parentheses, comes some of Barker's most poetic writing:
(How I love this damn bridge at night... Although I love it best at dawn; the sky tender and blushing like some uptight, Victorian virgin on the morning of her deflowering, the clouds crazily spiralling, the random puffs of vapour from the city's air conditioning, the tug horns blaring, a thousand lights on the riverside blazing, then gradually growing dimmer and more ineffectual in the shimmering glare of the rising sun) (244)
Barker employs a series of gerunds to bounce the reader along from clause to clause ("deflowering", "spiralling", "blaring") while each clause waxes and wanes according to the rhythm established. Notice how "tug horns blaring" is the shortest of the clauses followed by the longest, a two part finale, a showstopper. I don't particularly love the simile which starts it out, but its grossness is in character for the narrator. This is language which calls attention to itself as an aesthetic object. The description of the bridge itself is inconsequential; the whole thing is shuttered off in a tangent. What this tiny sample of Barker's incendiary flash writing shows is that Barker can write and she wants you to know it. I salute this type of writing. I much prefer ambitious prose to workmanlike scene-setting as if from a screenplay.

Book Twitter was yesterday set ablaze by some doofus' essay arguing against the semicolon. It's a trainwreck of an argument because he isn't arguing against the semicolon, as he pretends, but rather against writing which challenges or provokes. It's a different animal. (Here). He writes: "Nobody likes a show off.... The semicolon is a flashing red light that says, 'Hey, reader, I know things.' And flashy writing isn’t accessible writing." Therein lies the crux of the problem. The demonization of adverbs, multiple clauses, complicated sentences, heterogeneous punctuation and vocabulary is a symptom of what folks have called the "blogification" of writing. Writing has become less about aesthetics and about becoming more efficient at conveying information. Books are read for plot, it seems, and ornate, descriptive, beautiful writing gets in the way of plot. This is a fallacy of epic proportions. Many pulp writers, writers of the most commercial fiction can still arrange a beautiful sentence. People may not appreciate the prose at the conscious level, but most folks, almost all folks, can feel the difference between good writing and serviceable writing in their bones. I'm guessing, based on the bestseller lists of yore and today, most folks prefer writing which doesn't call attention to itself. Just like close-up magic is an art not appreciated as wildly as it could be, ornate show-off writing isn't beloved by many.

But that's okay! We all read for different reasons. I once read purely for plot. I read oodles of time travel narratives just because I love the way these narratives are shaped. Now, I tend to prefer wit and rhythm and rhyme and alliteration and euphony and general musicality. My preference for Barker doesn't make Barker a superior writer to say, Stephen King, who—let's not forget—is beloved around these parts. I'm just yearning for something different and Barker delivers in surplus. 

I'll finish with a very typical exchange from Barker's pen. She loves synonyms, she loves rearranging a sentence, repeating it with a difference. Here, filed down to its more pure, is a classic bit of dialogue. 
'Unceremoniously,' he exclaims. 'It took half a fucking hour. That cow used up the entire Thesaurus for "you're ditched, you insensitive twat".'
'Discarded?' I ask (rapidly catching on).
He nods.
He shrugs.
He merely grimaces.
He scowls.
The scowl deepens.
'Pensioned off..?'
'Enough!' he bellows. (135)
Right, well let's listen to that exhortation.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

December Reads Part Two

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I kind of wish I had read Rosenberg's novel while I was in grad school. It's exactly the kind of novel I would have wanted to write about: biopolitics, surveillance, expressions of the body, the fluidity of gender, the historiographic metafiction. Four years later and I still like books like this, so firmly rooted in academic thought and theory, politically minded and radical in its expressions of commonality and outright Marxism, though I find myself more interested in the aesthetics, the word-by-word moments, which this novel offers in plenty. Perhaps I'm just biased for the florid, euphemistic, highly metaphorical language of the 18th century, with all of its self-important capitalization. Rosenberg does an admirable imitation, though he never claims to authenticity of voice (in fact, the possibility of fabrication and sleight-of-hand are part of the plot, which allows for Rosenberg to have either intentional or unintentional anachronisms). I had a gay old time with Rosenberg's choice collective nouns. He describes a group of orphans as a "scrum of urchins," a group of policemen as a "clutch of centinels," and when a sleeping person lets loose some flatulence, it's described as "a Hoot of fart erupt[ing]" from the quilt. The plot, its nested narrative and complicated footnotes, reminded me, quite forcibly of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, including the climactic execution and subsequent reveal. Both protagonists are named Jack and both are legendary criminals. The key difference is that Rosenberg imagines Jack to be a trans man, a purposeful intervention into the traditional archive. As a radical political project, the novel works quite well, even if it's more often the opposite of "Show, Don't Tell." As a novel, it suffers from a bit too much plot. Especially the end. Still, I quite liked this. Makes me want to read some 18th century fiction, a long century of which I know little (compared to my reading in the Victorian age).

The hype for Sally Rooney is intense enough that I considered avoiding her entirely. The Guardian can't stop themselves from breathlessly profiling her and praising her every chance they get. They're teetering over the precipice of actually dubbing her the greatest novelist of the 21st century. Don't worry; such absurd proclamations are on the way, I'm sure. I read Conversations with Friends in less than 48 hours, surely a sign of a good read, I guess. Whether or not it lives up to the incredible hype is perhaps out of my limited critical range. Certainly, it's an astonishing debut, fully formed, and perfectly pitched. A blurb on the back compares the prose to Bret Easton Ellis and there are some similarities in poetics but not in subject matter. Where Ellis is only concerned with surface, Rooney is intent on exposing the internal for all its hypocrisy and self-delusion. Aesthetically, Rooney pulls off similar tricks, such as the non-paragraph-breaking non sequitur (an unrelated, but piercing sentence meant to elucidate a truth more truthful than what the narrator is narrating). These work of course, as gentle shocks, but where Rooney shines is in her careful, extremely precise modulation of the first person narrator. I haven't read a first person narrative so perfectly pitched since Kazuo Ishiguro (the undisputed master of the first person). Instead of, say, Gene Wolfe's unreliable narrator which adds narrative complexity, Rooney's unreliable narration works thematically. Much of the novel is concerned with the disjunction between Frances' self-loathing, the usual girl-raised-in-late-capitalism self-loathing and her obvious strengths (intelligence, beauty, wit, style). Characters are telling Frances about her but all she can focus on are her ugliness, her weakness, her reliance, her own self-acknowledged fakery. Here is a scene from around the halfway point, when Frances has engaged in her affair with married Nick:
I got into Nick's lap then, so we were facing one another, and he ran his hand over my hair automatically like he thought I was somebody else. He never touched me like that usually. But he was looking at me, so I guess he must have known who I was. (117)
This could either be heartbreaking for Frances' lack of self esteem or it could be read as disingenuous, a ploy to provoke sympathy. Much of Frances' narration walks this extremely careful line. Where she evokes sympathy, in clear and undisputed terms, such as her struggle with endometriosis, she speaks in almost clinical terms about her pain, her desire to simply disappear, either inside the pain or from the world. It's her coldness, her sneering, which she rarely does explicitly, where Rooney's tightrope walking shines wonderfully. She hates herself but so much so she hates outwards as well, putting off her friends. But it's so de rigueur for young women raised under the constraints of late capitalism to constantly hate. It's expected, encouraged, normalized for women to feel themselves, their own bodies to be precarious. Thus it makes sense, novelistically-speaking, for Frances to endure the betrayal of her own body by a condition specific to people with uteruses raised to see their bodies as commodities. Precarity under late capitalism extends even to wombs, the novel subtly implies. Even though the characters in this novel are middle to upper class, the sting of late capitalism, the utter rot and decay of it, extends to all facets, all classes. The decomposition of everyday life is the norm under late capitalism. That Rooney accomplishes all this through precise control of first person narration makes me believe the hype. I can't wait to read what she writes next.

Monday, December 10, 2018

December Reads Part One

The Fall of Dragons by Miles Cameron
Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Walks with Men by Ann Beattie (read in October but forgot to mark it down)
Salute the Dark by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I'm not sure why I put off reading the second entry in Barker's Wounded Kingdom series. Barker is such a solid storyteller that even when toiling in the fields of homogeneous fantasy tropes (kings, assassins, blood, thrones), he reaps insightful and beautiful fruit. Girton, his complicated protagonist, full of angst, righteous anger at an unfair world, a cruel world, Girton, the honourable, the hyper competent but not too competent assassin, is a wonderful protagonist to hang a trilogy on. The fantasy I've read has not featured much in the way of meaningful or fluid characterization. Most characters react to obstacles, emotionally and in terms of action. Girton, on the other hand, like many human beings, doesn't evolve along a liner path from adolescence to maturity. There are steps forward and steps backward. The dynamic aspect of his characterization makes for a frustrating read if you hang all your sympathy for the novel as a whole onto the shoulders of the characters (we do not behave like that around these parts thank you very much). Girton will no doubt remain one of the most memorable protagonists thanks to this dynamism. As for the plot, it's a rehash of the first book (Girton has a mystery to solve, the identity of a traitor) but the stakes are dramatically increased (his master is waylaid by illness etc). Rehash might be too negative sounding. When the core storytelling is this good, the uniqueness of the plot is an afterthought. I'm friends with Barker on Twitter, but I don't think that's affected my judgement. Barker is really that good.

I've owned a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for eons but never have I got around to it. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir, is our queer bookclub pick for the winter. I never finished the last selection (The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, even though I was liking it) so I felt responsible to read the next one. I don't read a lot of memoirs because I find their form, their structure, to be a little staid, a little boring. I prefer the magic and wonder of a narrative, the tricks it can pull. Why Be Happy does some things differently, such as structuring the linear chronological narrative by themes, but it's still linear. What works for the book as an experience, and what obviously affected Winterson herself to a galactic degree, is the character of her mother, this imposing, larger-than-life, fervently religious manic depressive woman. She commands the stage when she appears, so when she is finally left behind after the second third, the memoir suffers for her. Hand in hand with her mother's presence is of course the Northern England setting. I'm a sucker for Northern England. The poverty, the language, the family dynamics, the insularity and backwards culture while still producing important cultural objects. I was reminded quite a bit of Alan Moore's Jerusalem while reading Why Be Happy; where Moore works his thesis into the cosmology of his myth, Winterson says it outright: the North was and is being eroded by capitalist governments who care more about profit than the people. The policies of the governments treat the working class as a problem instead of as an integral part of the fabric of the country. Winterson provides a short history of Manchester, highlighting the industrialization and the Nori bricks, as both context and metaphor for the ways in which the poor and working class have been disregarded, ignored, dismissed, downtrodden, oppressed by the ruling class. Where Moore imagines a waste incinerator as a wound in the world stretching backwards and forwards in time, depleting the North of England of its humanity, Winterson suggests Thatcher and her ilk are to blame. Neoliberalism and greed hastened the inexorable decay of the Mancunian culture. The uniqueness of Manchester can be summed up by this delightful bit of novelistic detail from Why Be Happy:
The outside loo was shared with two other houses. It was very clean—outside loos were supposed to be very clean— and this one had a picture of the young Queen Elizabeth II in military uniform. Someone had graffitied GOD BLESS HER on the wall.
I laughed very hard at this. Why is there a picture of her in the outside toilet? And if there was to be graffiti, why God Bless Her???? Hahahaha. Unfortunately, the chuckles end after the two thirds mark, when Winterson's mother exits stage right and the spectre of Winterson's birth mother enters stage left. The rest of the memoir tracks the writer's agonizing over her decision to meet the mother who gave her up for adoption. As somebody who is not adopted, but who has an adopted grandparent (my Pappy was born in abject poverty and was lifted from this status by a benevolent doctor and his wife. My family owes their middle class status, in part, to this much feted athlete, war hero, and physician Lorne Cuthbert Montgomery), I struggled a bit with this section. Perhaps because I'm so distant from her plight, I had trouble connecting. I grew impatient. Not only with the tedium of the bureaucracy she faced (no doubt intentional on the part of the memoir) but with Winterson's emotional turmoil. The description, the actual words she used, the sheer quantity of words, failed, I felt, to convey the depth of these emotions. The effect, unfortunately, is opposite to her intentions: in describing her emotions so much, and in such detail, they grew artificial. The overall feeling was not of a great well of feeling but of a show of feeling (like Eddie Redmayne: in his strenuous efforts to act, all that can be seen is his craft and not the soul of the character). Overall, I liked the memoir, but I did not love it, and I could have done almost entirely without the final third.

Salute the Dark is the fourth in Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series and, until I reached the final 50 pages, I thought it was yet another entry in this serialized story. The finale though changes the game, something not unwelcome. Tchaikovsky's plotting is still breakneck in its speed, sometimes moving so fast it feels there's another novel just peeking out from the edges. So much material, a surplus. Much of the issues I've had with this series persist—a lack of proper description, a homogeneity to the characterization, a surfeit of plot—though not to the point of distraction. The rougher edges are smoothed out better than in previous entries. At almost the halfway point (I can't believe I'm four books deep into a 10 book series), I can confidently affirm Tchaikovsky's mastery of just good storytelling. I'm invested in this world, hoping with each entry secrets are revealed, heroes turn out to be traitors, traitors turn out to be heroes, and the world itself deepens. I'm still of the mind that Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is Children in Time, which as time passes increases in esteem for me. 

Walks with Men is a novella by Beattie in her more typically obscure mode. The narrator starts a love affair with an older man, who treats her as a student to be educated in the ways of high culture and fashion and society. Later, the older man simply disappears, leaving the narrator to ponder the effect he had on her. There's not much plot to this, and characters are even more passive than in her usual style. Hence, the absurdly low Goodreads score. I liked it a lot but I wonder how much more glittering and diamond hard it could have been as a short story instead of a novella. Not sure why I didn't review it in October. Or November. But since so much time has passed, I don't remember much in the way of specifics. Still, a great read from a reliably terrific writer.  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Fall of Dragons

Could a reader of mine have predicted I would not only read a fantasy series, but finish it? And praise it? Well, not rapturously, but still praise it? I definitely finished it and read the final volume, all 600 pages of it, in 4 days. Let this review stand for both the individual volume and for the series as a whole.

Gabriel Muriens, the eponymous traitor son, has amassed his allied armies and marches towards the gates, interdimensional doorways to worlds unknown. He faces the Odine, a hivemind of body-possessing tentacles, and Ash, the Dread Wyrm, the fiercest dragon of all history. Will his plans, so carefully composed, come to fruition?

The series has been a sequence of disappointments after the first book, I'm afraid to admit. Though I found the experience of reading the third book the most memorable, volumes two through five are messy, chaotic, undisciplined bursts of high energy plotting. Cameron's plot gets away from him a few times, with too many threads. The first book, The Red Knight, has the luxury of a single setting, a siege plotline, and a manageable cast. The Fell Sword, the second, immediately introduces what feels like a million new characters and greatly expands the map—all necessary for the coming grand scale destruction and war Cameron has in mind. As fast as he introduces characters, all of them frustratingly similar, my investment waned. Every character speaks the same, a mix of arch tone and Brendan-Gleeson-in-Braveheart warmongering. Every character is smug but only Gabriel, the Red Knight, is called out for being smug. It's a sea of homogeneity but, I'll happily admit, most of the characters are charming in spite of their sameness. The lack of investment I had led to disappointment in the finale, as I had hoped the novel would be a bit more bloodthirsty in dispatching its cast than it is. In fact, Gabriel maneuvers his company to the back of the battlefield, sparing them and the audience of any heartbreaking death. The move makes sense in terms of Gabriel's character, but it's a toothless move from a series so gleeful in executing characters in a short sentence. If the lack of bloodshed wasn't irritating enough, the epilogue does its best to give every single character a neat little tidy ending. Everybody is happy! The world is safe! Despite all the incredibly harrowing horrors they've witnessed and participated in! 

A final note of frustration before we move onto the positives: my god there are a lot of typos in this professionally published novel. Speech sometimes ends without quotation marks, words are missing from sentences, causing syntax errors, a couple speech tags are attributed to the wrong character. No spelling errors, though, leading me to believe a computerized spellcheck was at least used. The sheer amount of errors leads me to wonder. A company as big as Hachette and they can't get a professional proofreader? Even more bizarre, as I mentioned in my last review for the series, the spelling of "boglin" changes to "bogglin" for volumes four and five! I asked the author on Twitter about it, after verifying I wasn't imagining things (I used Google Books), and Cameron admitted it was his fault! How did his editor not catch this?  Mind boggling, or should I say mind bogling? 

Normally typos don't bother me in novels (and I'll go on to say a bit more about immersion in a few paragraphs). They're almost inevitable when actual typesetting is no longer used. While typesetting wasn't impervious to mistakes, the process was at least another layer of editing. Although, I'm sure a Victorianist would argue a typesetter from an earlier era might be more likely to err as literacy wasn't as prominent. 

Two paragraphs of complaint, but these moans are minor at best. Typos? Lack of three dimensional characters? Not book-breaking. Especially when Cameron is, overall, such a great storyteller. That he can lead a very skeptical reader of fantasy through 5 (long) books about dragons and knights and elves and shit is a testament to his prowess.

Reviewers have praised his commitment to medieval warfare realism, the most minute and detailed descriptions of sword fights and cavalry and armour. There's almost a bit too much of it; sometimes when the Latin (Italian? I'm not sure) terms are flying fast and furious, my eyes glaze over. I get the idea. I don't need a blow-by-blow, but at least it was different than I'm used to. The realism of combat felt fresh, at least compared to the usual action scenes I read in genre fiction, which is often written by dudes raised on action movies. There's this obsession with making prose replicate cinema, when scrupulous accounts of which fist moved where and how each leg twisted are ultimately enervating, an opposite effect to action cinema's usual exuberance. Cameron falls into this trap, but never to the level of tedium, thankfully. His sword fights are often short, a paragraph or two, and he provides them with dramatic enough stakes by including the physical exhaustion inherent to such exertion. The longer a fight goes on, the more desperate things become. 

On the macro scale, Cameron's use of military tactics is realistic enough. Obviously I know little about medieval warfare and all the battle scenes, with their "lines" and "companies" and "reserves" left me a bit baffled. There's the illusion of realism, I suppose, as Cameron could have made all this shit up and I wouldn't be any the wiser. Again, something the reviewers have praised and so, in a way, I must. I bow before the author's superior knowledge and ability to integrate vast amounts of research into his texts. Rarely do I find info-dumps or extravagant displays of knowledge pull me out of the book. Even the idea of immersion fills me with skepticism. I've probably complained, offhand, about info-dumps (probably in a review for a Neal Stephenson book), but I feel I've modulated my opinion enough. "It pulled me out of the book" isn't, in my view, a fait accompli negative. Immersion can be so easily broken, I wonder why we laud it so much in the first place. I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge my kvetching about typos earlier in this piece, so let me be clear: there's a difference between typos (there should be none) and internal reality-piercing efforts by the author. Cameron's research shouldn't be praised ipso facto, but neither should he be judged solely for his ability to integrate "organically" such research into the text. I use scare quotes around the one word to indicate I find combining organic and narrative a specious and scary road to travel. Characters and plot aren't plucked from the story-tree once they've ripened. What or who does it serve to imagine narrative in such a way? 

The overall narrative of the Traitor Son Cycle is typical of the fantasy genre, with its single protagonist who saves the entire universe (possibly even multiverse), who is, of course, a straight white male. Cameron sprinkles strong women into the mix, a laudable effort, and mostly he succeeds in deflating the usual sausage party feel of fantasy fiction. The women he writes are mostly all the same, women version of Brenden Gleeson in Braveheart, but there are moments which glitter among the dull blandness of characterization, such as the saint Amicia, the nun with whom Gabriel shares such intense sexual attraction, though they never consummate the relationship, much to Cameron's credit. She's saintly, but struggles with her physical desires. Like almost everything in this series, it's far more compelling and successful in the first volume, and its force diminishes with each subsequent entry. A Goodreads reviewer made mention their difficulty in discerning Sauce from Sukey and I can't help but agree. Though I know now how the two women end up didn't help me during the middle moments when they're effectively interchangeable.

Luckily, as I mentioned, Cameron's one character, who he uses for everybody, is at least charming. They quip, ie my least favourite thing genre obsesses over, but at least the quips aren't Joss Whedon-style. God I hate hyper-articulate teens in the Whedon mode. I'm a bit older now than when I first saw and adored the Gilmore Girls but their banter now grates on me.

I praised Dave Hutchinson for dropping me without life-preserver in a sea of complexity with his Fractured Europe sequence and I feel for fairness's sake I should extend similar compliments to Cameron. Yes, sometimes his plot threatens to tumble, and yes sometimes he relies too much on characters exclaiming with awe "wow you really planned all this?" but the scale Cameron is working with lends itself to intricacy to the point of confusion. Sometimes not knowing every step of the way is freeing. For many members of Cameron's audience, an awareness of story structure and the fantasy novel is bone-deep. Withholding information, making us work for it, is commendable in of itself. Cameron doesn't always pull it off, but his ambition is praiseworthy. I would much rather obfuscation than hand-holding. 

A true sign of success, even with all my quibbles? I want to reread this. I want to get deep in the second and third book with a better knowledge of who all these damn people are. It's the same desire I have to revisit Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle: now that I know all the cast, I can appreciate more the subtleties and intricacies of the plot. I will, one day, reread this, starting from the beginning. I might skip the fifth novel, which I think is the weakest of the five (a 100 page detour through three different universes and I'm still not sure what it accomplished). Well done, Miles Cameron. I'm not convinced enough to read your historical fiction, but I will give your new fantasy series a try.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

November Reads Part Two

The Fortress at the End of Time by J. M. McDermott
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson

I last read Tade Thompson a year ago, with his novella (here). I didn't love it; I complained it was overly workshopped and much more action movie-y than I preferred. Thompson must have heard my complaints backwards through time because Rosewater, while still very action movie-y, is much more abstruse and interior-focused. Thompson is clearly gifted with concepts; he throws out enough weird shit in this novel for three other novels, and most of these concepts aren't throwaway "cool shit" which plague many other contemporary science fiction novels. Even just the glowing biodome at the literal centre of the city would sustain a whole novel, but Thompson isn't content to let it steal the spotlight. The closest comparison I can make, and I mean this in the most complimentary way, is Alfred Bester. There's just so much wacky shit but Thompson never seems to lose control of it, the way Philip K. Dick sometimes did with similar premises and gonzo stuff. Rosewater even starts like a Dick/Bester novel: the protagonist is a psychic whose job at a bank is to read classic works of literature as static against psychic infiltration from robbers.

Where Rosewater loses me in in the very in vogue structure of intercutting the main timeline with flashbacks. I'm struggling to remember where I read it, but I read a review recently (here) which took issue with how flashbacks have been structured in recent novels. Flashbacks in today's market work toward a reveal, a specific piece of trauma which sheds light on the current timeline's plot and the protagonist's present psychological status. The present timeline alludes to past trauma; the flashbacks build towards the unveiling of that trauma. It's very in vogue right now. Mark Harris writes:
But today, trauma as a universal motivator has worked its way so deeply into the architecture of many novels that it threatens to become mundane. No matter how many skeletons are unearthed, if the sole purpose of revealing them is to vanquish the darkness with explanatory lucidity, the result is distinctly unthrilling.
He's right. And Rosewater has this problem. The flashbacks aren't entirely motivated by this grim relentless plod towards revelation—they provide some much needed texture to protagonist Kaaro's unsavory background as thief and womanizer—but they consistently derail the forward momentum of the present timeline's plot. Every chapter alternates with the past, sometimes with a third set of flashbacks dubbed "Interlude" as if the flashbacks themselves aren't interludes at all. Rosewater wonderfully represents the apex of the fashionable split timeline: the flashbacks aren't considered interludes but a secondary, still as important, plot. 

Thompson is a great idea person and he's crafted (and I use that verb purposefully) a successful thriller which will be a sales juggernaut, if there is any justice in the world. The more books Thompson writes, hopefully he abandons the structures made strict by the pressures of the market. 

As an aside, a certain character in the novel is introduced near the end. I don't want to give too much away, but his physical description made me think it was a sly nod to Samuel R. Delany:
A man stands about a yard away, hands by his sides, a benign look on his face. He is black, but the shade of his skin seems artificial, like a person who has been bleaching his skin with low-quality products. His skin is light brown, but it seems painted on. He wears dungarees, and they appear to be cast-off because they are too large. They are baggy on him, and the long trouser legs are rolled up. He wears no shirt, shoes, or other clothing or jewellery of any kind. His nails are bitten to the quick. (322)
This sounded, to me, like many of Delany's protagonists, especially the nails and the shirtlessness. I asked Tade on Twitter (full disclosure: we follow each other) and he was good enough to reply that no, it was not a reference to Delany (here). 

 A final aside, probably of more interest to myself than of any real readers I have. I first bought Rosewater in trade paperback form from Apex Publications, who originally owned the rights. Later, they were sold to Orbit (purveyor of much fine and not-so-fine science fiction & fantasy). I picked up the advanced reading copy of Rosewater and that's how I read it. Quite a backwards progression. Turns out the Apex edition goes for a decent amount on the secondary market. Not that I would sell my copy. I'm too much a hoarder for that. 

Because I'm a fickle reader, with a short attention span for series, I have a bad habit of not finishing completed series. I read the first two books, often with a long gap of time in between installments, and then never do I get around to completing the cycle. Not always though. In this case, I completed the Fractured Europe sequence, as it's known, with Europe at Dawn. Unquestionably this is one of the finest SF series of the 21st century. I cannot overstate how good these books are, how completely engrossing and captivating, how masterfully the intricacies of plot are woven. Each of these books, but especially this finale, have such a wonderful strain of humanity. Often the narrative will introduce a minor, never-to-be-seen-again person to provide the POV for the scene, and no matter how minor the character Hutchinson gives them as much of an internal world as he can, sketching them with a deftness which puts so many other authors to shame. I could have happily enjoy a new book in this series every year for the rest of my life, but Hutchinson knows to keep the audience wanting. The stakes for the fourth novel are pitched more at the emotional wavelength than the vagaries of plot and so, a fifth or continuous novel featuring Rudi isn't necessary. I want more, but I don't need more. I look forward to rereading these so I can understand more. Even when it's explained explicitly, I found myself lost, and I always mean that as a compliment! 

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Fortress at the End of Time

McDermott's novels were recommended to me by writer and friend Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the basis that they were beautifully written and nothing happens, two of my favourite things. The older I get, the more I'm pushed onwards by aesthetics rather than the strict pull of narrative which spurned me on before. Not that narrative is bad, per se, but the less plot I get, the better, it seems to me. Perhaps my subjective rejection of over-plotting is in reaction to mainstream cinema's obsession with plot above all else; these films operate under the assumption that if there isn't copious, overflowing amounts of plot, audiences will feel cheated. I gather this comes after the extreme success of Nolan's The Dark Knight (which, despite my grumbling and my paeans, I still kind of like). Hence, detractors of Mad Max: Fury Road pointed to its simple plot as a negative; they complained "they drive from one point to another and then back! That's it! Nothing happens!" as if a super-abundance of plot makes a movie.

The Fortress at the End of Time does not have a super-abundance of plot, thankfully. The stakes are extremely low: this is a character study of a clone living in a decaying, rotting watch station at the far edge of the known universe where the military stands ready, ostensibly, for the return of a mysterious enemy (who will no doubt never return). The decomposition of the actual space station is mirrored in the deterioration of the military's standards. The narrator has his ideals and tries to stand firm against this rot, but he is arrogant, naive, almost simpleminded in the execution of his duties. He's moralizing, fervent in his beliefs of military conduct. All of it works against him. The entire novel depicts the frustrating tension between what this character wants and everybody else's wants. Often, when giving narrative advice, writers suggest the plot should derive from the disjunction between the cast's desires; the desires are at odds and thus there is conflict. Most narratives can be boiled down to this: a superhero desires saving the city while a supervillain desires to destroy it. However, most audiences would find these narratives boring if there aren't complicating factors, such as the complexity or uniqueness of the plans used by the characters to thwart each other. The Fortress at the End of Time isn't bereft of these complicating factors; it's just that they are pared down to the roughest of surfaces.

On Goodreads (oh boy, here he goes again about Goodreads), most popular review for this novel reads simply: "What if a guy went to a remote space station on the outskirts of the galaxy and nothing happened?" (here). It's one of the few reviews I've clicked "like" on. Other reviews, more negative reviews, suggest readers were expecting something completely different. No review says this better (or more explicitly) than the poor soul would thought this would be like Scalzi's Old Man's War (ie the Platonic ideal of inoffensive, forgettable military science fiction with an incommensurately rapturous reputation). Other negative reviews make mention of the lack of plot ("nothing happens!") or they persevere on the dialogue, which is somewhat stilted, purposefully so. Not all dialogue needs to be realistic! Just as not all characterization needs to be realistic! Break the chains of realism holding back narrative! Release your desperate grip on the life-preserver of realism! Or whatever metaphor you'd like me to use. However, some of the reviews seem to get it... in fact one says it almost perfectly: "I'm calling this military SF because I suspect it's truer to a lot of people's military experience (being bored a lot in far away places) than zap-pow laser marines fighting alien hordes" (here).

This character study gives enough room for a mild but effective denunciation of how labour without aim, with alienation, can be dehumanizing and soul-destroying. I don't think it's an accident how religious this society is, without all the succor religion can actually provide. The monastery in this novel is as corrupt and conniving as their ostensible allies, the military. Religion, in this tiny place, is as soul-crushing and withering as labour because it is greedy and myopic. We should not take this as the novel's disdain for religion in general—this book is far too clever to be straightforward. We should not generalize from the minimal data (this space station, this monastery) that religion in the entire universe is as predatory. The Fortress holds its cards close to its chest, an ambition we should applaud.

I'm definitely going to read more of McDermott's works now. I'm suitably impressed.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

November Reads Part One

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Exhalation and other Stories by Ted Chiang

The pleasure of reading these Fractured Europe novels is in becoming hopelessly lost, both geographically (the point) and narratively (the fun!). For much of this third of four volumes, I was wonderfully confused, adrift among seemingly unrelated plot points and characters hitherto never seen. The finale does do a bit of explaining, thankfully, but I spent much of my time with the final 40 or so pages shaking my head and smirking, impressed with Hutchinson's masterful mashup of Len Deighton and parallel world narratives. We've spoken before on Twitter, sharing our mutual admiration for Deighton's early stuff, and though Le Carre gets the explicit name drop in Europe in Winter, it's to Deighton the novel gives its heart and soul. Though I haven't finished the series, I can confidently state the Fractured Europe sequence might be one of the all-time great SFF series of the 2010s... maybe even of the 21st century. I can't think of any other series of speculative fiction which is as insightful, sharp, clever, and politically necessary. There are bigger thematic goals for the series than a unique or fresh take on the parallel universe narrative, an ambition to be applauded. I find it frustrating Hutchinson hasn't received any major award attention for these novels. It's wholly deserving.

I read Ted Chiang's first collection of stories before this blog, when I was in university the first time, and I found it a mind-blowing experience: poignant, intriguing, beautiful, delicate, thoughtful. My memory must have gilded the rough edges, because how else to explain how disappointing I found Chiang's second collection? The most cutting edge SF concepts are still present, but I don't remember the older stories being so clumsy with the execution of said concepts, or even worse, the stentorious "philosophizing" around them. Imagine, if you can, a first year philosophy seminar, run by a teacher's assistant and attended entirely by 18 year olds. That's the kind of earnest, wide-eyed navel-gazing you can expect from the stories and their rooting around in the dirt for some nugget of wisdom at the level of "having a child changes your perception."

Hold up. I sound much grumpier about these stories than I actually am. I found the exposition clumsy, the characterization clumsy, the reaches toward poignancy clumsy, but clumsy isn't necessarily a failure. That Chiang doesn't have the grace or lightness of touch other (moralizing) science fiction writers have doesn't mean these stories aren't worth your time. There are positive aspects. Firstly, they're all immediately readable. I ploughed through all nine stories in two days, never once finding myself impatient or restless. Even the less plot-focused of stories, such as the title story, about a mechanical man performing brain surgery on himself to discover the secrets of the universe, were alluring and compelling. Chiang is probably the most readable of the "hard" science fiction writers (Greg Egan I've found completely unreadable) thanks to his general storytelling skills. He spins a good yarn, overall. It's just the smaller things pricked at me, a frustration built of a thousand tiny cuts. Clumsy, as I've repeated, is the most appropriate descriptor.

The final story is about prisms which allow communication between parallel universes, and in true Heisenberg principle fashion, the act of communication itself causes the divergence. This is perhaps the best story in the entire collection, or maybe second best to the multiple award-winning "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." Both feature Chiang at his emotional best, using the science fictional concept for emotional truth instead of whiz bang theatrics. The final story, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," is anchored by an emotionally complex focal character, and by grounded ethical stakes. Take away all the science fictional aspects and the story still functions as a narrative: the lead character must face her own past ethical choices and forge ahead to make new choices, in an effort to be a better person. The integration of the fantastical isn't quite as smooth as in the aforementioned "Merchant" story (presented à la Arabian Nights-style nested stories), but it's emotional genuine, which makes it all the better for it. 

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" might be the worst story in this collection and I'm truly baffled it won so much praise and so many awards. It's a completely inert, cold, lifeless tale of raising AI as if children. It's classic hard science fiction: emotionless, suffused with technical writing, and human characters functioning only as mouthpieces for oration. Only a parent, smug with the delusion that parenthood is the only meaningful pursuit in life, could come up with something so teeth-rottingly sweet and pablum-like. I find reading about the quiet nobility of child-rearing especially difficult in the years after reading James' What Maisie Knew (here), a face-melting excoriation of the selfishness of parents. 

The collection, Exhalation, comes out in May 2019, and I'm grateful to the publisher for an advanced reading copy (especially so far in advance of publication!!)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

October Reads Part Two

Perfect Recall by Ann Beattie
Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus
The Snow by Adam Roberts 

Dancing After Hours is as close to perfect as short story collections go. From "All the Time in the World," about a young woman yearning for a connection beyond the physical:
The other men she loved talked about marriage as a young and untried soldier might talk of war: sometimes they believed they could do it, and survive as well; sometimes they were afraid they could not; but it remained an abstraction that would only become concrete with the call to arms, the sound of drums and horns and marching feet. She knew with each man that the drumroll of pregnancy would terrify him; that even the gentlestthe vegetarian math teacher who would not kill the mice that shared his apartmentwould gratefully drive her to an abortion clinic and tenderly hold her hand while she opened her legs. (89)
This quote, excavated from a longer paragraph gives examples of what makes Dubus' stories and prose work so well. His sentences are long (this isn't even close to the longest sentence in this collection) but never lose focus or clarity; his use of the polysyndeton ("and" instead of commas) generating a beautiful rhythm; the sensitivity and honesty; the love he has for these characters even when they frustrate. Most of the stories in this collection are harrowing little pieces of drama, the kind of short stories which use random catastrophes and tragedies to probe about how people will react, how they'll cope, how they live. Which is to say, my favourite type of short story. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Perfect Recall is more of the same from Beattie, but with a bit more stylistic and formal experimentation than in previous collections, I've gathered. The first story even features a rare appearance (in a Beattie story) of a Joycean epiphany! Some of these were ok and some contained the brilliance which keeps me coming back for more. "See the Pyramids," about two models and their flaky boyfriends, tickled me, as did "In Irons." Two of the best stories featured men taking care of other men, either as a job or as friends. "The Big-Breasted Pilgrim" (not a great title) follows a chef's personal assistant and the surrounding friends and lovers as he attempts to organize a private dinner for the then-President Bill Clinton. This is mirrored quite in a lovely way with the final story, "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea" in which two personal assistants to two famous artists have been disabled and are hiring their replacements. In each case, the characters are confronted with the assumption of gay romance, but all of them resist this easy speculation; instead, the relationships are complicated in different ways, not cluttered by eroticism, but cluttered by professional responsibilities and idiosyncrasies. All in all, not the most even collection—I can now understand why people claim her star dimmed in the late 1990s—but still a terrific read. 

Reading a high concept work of science fiction from Adam Roberts is often deflating. He zigs where other authors might zag, leaving readers potentially disappointed that the narrative didn't do what was promised on the tin, as it were. The Snow suggests an end of the world cozy catastrophe (yes, the Aldiss refrain about Wyndham) but instead, like Splinter and Gradisil, opts for emotional exploration using the structure of a speculative fiction novel. The snow does indeed fall, though this takes up only about 40 pages of a 300 page novel. The rest is an emotional journey, following the narrator (through a series of false documents) as she reacts, mostly passively, to the insanity of a government forming itself from the ruins of society. I suspect that, like many of his other novels, The Snow is self-consciously inspired by Wyndham's 1950s cozy catastrophes. The society Roberts imagines to form feels conservative and bourgeois, in a decidedly pointed way. It's no accident that the narrator is a woman of colour; this allows Roberts to bounce her off of Wyndham's small-minded science fiction. But like I say, it can be a bit deflating. There's a long section from another narrator which details his drug abuse problem as a Hollywood TV writer, and while it's funny and well-written, I can't help but wonder why Roberts loves his digressions so. Especially since the crucial piece of information in this section is purposefully and explicitly omitted, only to be revealed much later. He does love his puzzles that Adam. Still, as always, a pleasure to read.

Monday, October 15, 2018

September Reads Part Two, October Reads Part One

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
The Castle of the Otter by Gene Wolfe
On Blue's Waters by Gene Wolfe
Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories by Ann Beattie
Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I took a small vacation in the first week of October and I used that time to watch two entire seasons of The Good Place and catch up on some reading. September was fairly light for me; I spent most of the month working my way through Peter Straub's The Throat, which I set aside as I was losing interest, through no fault of Straub (who writes beautifully as always in this conclusion to the trilogy). I needed a break. I hope to return to The Throat before I forget all the details and characters but I won't chastise myself for abandoning it.

The Girl Next Door has a devilish reputation and almost lives up to it, I'm equally delighted and unnerved to report. After having a crisis of opinion regarding Open Season (which I now regard as good verging on great), Ketchum's most famous novel beckoned to me. It was also cheap on Amazon and in print. I read it in a matter of hours, not solely because of the prose's simplicity but also due to its propulsion. Ketchum certainly knows how to pace a story. What fascinated me the entire time was the subtlety of the horror. I had expected wall-to-wall torture, both physical and sexual, but instead, Ketchum wrote a careful dual, interlocking portrait of the ease of evil, the banality as its known, and the ease of complicity. The master stroke of The Girl Next Door is the use of the first person. The audience is drawn into the nightmare of torture at the same time as the narrator without ever the audience forgetting the narrator's participation, silence, tacit approval. No matter the amount of crocodile tears, the narrator is still party to this. The novel can be read at the surface as a tale of everyday American horror but the text is fecund enough to support a reading of fascism's allure. One would be hard pressed to avoid comparing the torture to the Holocaust. I'm not sure if I liked this more or less than Open Season—enjoyment is a tough word to apply to either of these novels—but I do want to keep reading more Ketchum. He's much wilier than his reputation as "extreme horror" would have you believe. 

Twice a year, in my city, there's a massive charity booksale which overtakes much of a large mall. I look at these biannual sales as Christmas. I try to go on the first day and scope out the horror, science fiction, and fantasy tables. The books the sale accumulates comes from donations and private collections donated after death (I'm guessing). This can be the only explanation for the wild and esoteric books I tend to find. Usually, every sale, I stumble across an almost priceless gem (priceless to me, of course). This year, I found two hardcover omnibuses of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (which I also own in individual paperbacks) and The Book of the Short Sun (a volume I had previously purchased online, but this particular copy is in better shape). Also, I found a hardcover edition of The Urth of the New Sun in terrific shape. A strange find, the one I was most impressed by, was a slim hardcover called The Castle of the Otter. Without examining it, I added it to my cart. After the dust settled, and I was home with my purchases, I saw the little book is a collection of essays about The Book of the New Sun. I devoured it in an entire sitting, I'm pleased to say. I skipped a chunk of the lexicon in the middle, which reads as a dictionary, but the rest was pleasant and insightful. Not so much into the meanings and symbols of the tetralogy but into Wolfe's own process. His main income source for much of his career was editing a technical journal relating to engineering and this engineering angle informs much of his writing and thinking. One entire essay is devoted to an extended rationale for the "destriers," a warhorse. He approaches his imagined future as a logic problem: if x was absent, how would people accomplish y? This shouldn't be a surprise to readers of The Book of the New Sun and its sequels, as narrators often pose problems in the form of Catechisms or logic problems to solve. I derived much of the pleasure reading this from the section in which Wolfe obfuscates and dissembles even about the very work he's meant to elucidate. He's a trickster and a fine one at that.

Reading The Castle of the Otter inspired me to dive into The Book of the Long Sun, the final three books of The Solar Cycle. On Blue's Waters returns the metanarrative to the first person narration, away from the third person of the middle tetralogy. Which provides Wolfe the opportunity to play his usual games. The key mysteries afoot here are the identity of the narrator (is it Silk or is it Horn?) and the provenance of the "inhumu," a vampire-like race (or species) that may or not be alien to humanity and/or indigenous to Green, the jungle planet in twin orbit with Blue. Where The Book of the Short Sun was an almost political text, occupied with matters of rule and governance, On Blue's Waters is more of an Odyssey homage; Horn sails across the oceans of Blue in search of a spaceship to take him back to the Whorl, the generationship from whence they came. The tone is more melancholic, as if the characters know they're near the end of the road. Most of Wolfe's usual tricks are present, such as the classic obfuscation, the withholding of vital information, the after-the-fact exposition of important moments. Equally present are Wolfe's usual faults: his complete inability to write women, the homogeneity of voices, his conservative, almost reactionary politics. Even in a new society, Wolfe imagines the populace grasping desperately for the single ruler, the king, the God. A cooperative? Imaginatively impossible for Wolfe.

Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories, from 1986, is Beattie's fourth collection of short stories. I had hitherto pledged not to purchase any of her books as they were all available from the various libraries to which I have access, but the allure of collecting won out. Now I have almost her entire bibliography on order or on the way. However, I feel no regrets, especially after this collection. There are a couple stories which shook me. When reaching the end of these stories, I closed the book and closed my eyes, to internalize, to breathe, to savour. Beattie's skill, as I've demonstrated in my review for Chilly Scenes of Winter (here), is her accumulation of observances, of the objects and emotions which comprise everyday life. Her style, imitated to exhaustion in the 80s and 90s, is one of meticulous observation and gentle minimalism. The everyday fabric does much of the heavy lifting as she's often adverse to plot or the classic Joycean epiphany. Her stories often end without signalling any end. They could almost end mid-sentence with the same effect (if ending something mid-sentence didn't have a different connotative meaning). I didn't take notes, I'm afraid, so I can't even specify which of the stories throbbed through my consciousness. With the next collection, I'll be more fastidious.

Perhaps an odd complaint, but maybe this will make sense in context of my reading practices: I wish Judith Hearne had less plot. The first half of Brian Moore's most famous novel worked wonders; its sensitive observations and characterization are sublimely juxtaposed with Moore's cynicism about the Church. I won't claim the novel lost me in the second half—it never came close to that point—but the descent into pure plot disappointed me. When the novel is carefully examining Judith and the characters around her, I was entranced. Moore's ability to make drama out of characters having breakfast impressed me. When Judith's alcoholism and subsequent fall take over, I was reminded, unfavourably, of how much better Richard Yates did this. Perhaps Yates has ruined me for prose depictions of alcoholism because I can't imagine anybody writing it better (even Zola's L'Assommoir fails to live up to Yates' mastery). I'm not sure if I need to read another novel by Moore. I liked Judith Hearne a lot, but I wasn't blown away the way I have been by other authors. 

In other news, I have been reading short stories by William Trevor (from the omnibus Selected Stories, which, contrary to the title, aren't selected), Deborah Eisenberg (from her recently released collection Your Duck is My Duck), Munro's Moons of Jupiter, and Kelly Link's Get In Trouble. Trevor's stories are immaculate, precise sparkling gems of exquisite beauty. The hype is real. Kelly Link was recently award a MacArthur "genius" Grant, thus prompting me to give her stories a try. I should have known from the blurb by Gaiman that Link wouldn't be exactly for me. She's got a great eye for detail and sentences, but I feel a bit cold with these urban fantasy stories unless they veer hard into the Weird or into horror. Link is writing extremely well... but in a register which doesn't vibe with me.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Miami Vice S01E02

Title: "Heart of Darkness"
Airdate: September 28, 1984
Notable Guest Star: Ed O'Neill
Notable Song: "Going Under" by Devo

Thus begins my series of reviews, either small or large, of every episode of Miami Vice, which I bought on Blu-ray this week. I hope to maintain the format (the four items below the title screenshot) but I won't hold myself to a timetable for reviews nor a predetermined (and arbitrary) length for each review. Some might only be a paragraph (many will); others could take the form of an essay. I'm skipping the pilot episode because a) I've seen it a bunch of times before and I don't want to revisit it at the moment and b) surely there's been enough writing on it that I feel no need to contribute to the corpus on "Brother's Keeper." For this first review, I might talk about the meaning of Miami Vice to me.

When I was a small child, about 4 or 5, my parents were invited to a wedding; they purchased an off-the-rack suit for a child in light grey and pastel pink suit. I don't remember this at all, but I have seen the picture of me, standing next to a beautiful bouquet, and it has struck me, again and again, the fashion. I've also been, as far back as I can recall, a fan of Michael Mann and his singular aesthetic. I remember seeing Collateral in the theatre and being blown away. Collateral, along with 3 other cultural objects, make up my (hopefully not hypothetical) book on my obsession with California. Mann's depiction of Miami in the TV show isn't quite as impactful for me as his efforts to capture California. Yet, the same 80s sheen shines on this show as it does other cultural objects of the 80s that I find so fascinating such as To Live and Die in LA (the link goes to a piece on Letterboxd which functions as an almost manifesto for my book on California). For those that live in California, my dreamy-eyed adoration of a state I've only visited once might make sense, for isn't California the land of dreams? Others might find my starry eyes silly or childish. The situation isn't helped by my inability to articulate exactly what it is about the state which possesses me so totally. Miami Vice, created by Anthony Yerkovich (a fact often forgotten during Mann's ascent to auteur-god), is obviously not set in California, but shares some of the hallmarks of the 80s sheen which speaks of Cali so strongly. Where California famously has Googie architecture and design, Miami is well known for its pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings and Broadway typeface (famously used in the show's logo). I recently purchased an architecture book called Miami Beach Deco by Steven Brooke (here) which looks at the venerable pastel colourswhich, fun fact, weren't the original colours: Leonard Horowitz, in the 1970s, painted many of the famous Art Deco buildings in an effort to preserve them for their historical significance (source). In fact, the palette his devised directly informed the TV show's palette (most notably, Mann banned the stars from earth-tone colours).

The architecture featured in Miami Vice is backdrop and I hesitate to characterize Miami as a "character" in the way some people refer to London in Dickens or LA in Mann's Heat ("it's like the city is a character itself"). Miami Vice loves its setting, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't feel essential. (There are positive side-effects to the setting, however, such as Miami's inherently diversity. The show leans into this realism with more Latinx actors than most contemporaneous shows.)

Case in point, "Heart of Darkness," the second aired episode, which takes the title from Conrad, and its interest in being subsumed by darkness, but doesn't take a literal journey to depict this. Crockett and Tubbs are undercover as New Jersey porn distributors looking to expand in Florida. They're moving their way up the illegal porn trade's ladder, trying to maneuver a meeting with one of the top tier criminals (the higher the guy, the bigger the bust). They're stalled out with Jimmy, a mid-level dealer, who keeps promising meetings with Artie, even though Sam Kovics is the boss and ostensibly the target of this operation. Eventually, after being "arrested," the detectives prove their bonafides and meet with Artie, played by Ed O'Neill (the notable guest star). The end of second act twist is that Artie is himself undercover for the FBI. The Bureau (significantly dressed in more 70s-style cop outfits, something the camera doesn't forget to linger on, as to demonstrate visually the difference between older cop shows (dated, ill-fitting, uncool) and our protagonists (cool)) reveals they worry Artie has gone through to the other side. Crockett can understand this dilemma; he's been there, and he knows. Tubbs, trying to argue with Crockett, remarks (quite famously) that there's undercover and not knowing which way is up (a line revised and refined for the sublime film version). After a tense meeting with Artie, the detectives go for a final meet with Sam Kovics, but their cover is blown thanks to faulty equipment. Artie, faced with the challenge of executing the protagonists, instead shoots his boss and murders Kovics (hiding in a limo) in cold blood. The denouement reveals Artie hanged himself.

Miami Vice is known for its nihilism, the relentless rat race that is police work: criminals are freed on bail just as soon as they're arrested. The cycle continues. "Heart of Darkness" boldly states its claim, not only with Artie's rather unhinged execution of Kovics with a submachine gun, but with his suicide as well. Sometimes going too deep means you can never get out, just as Conrad's Heart of Darkness suggests. The abyss stares back.

The main issue with this particular episode (other than its flimsy B-plot: amusing, but flimsy) is withholding Artie until the middle of the hour. The writers are faced with a tough choice, of course: the show is about Crockett and Tubbs and we see almost everything from their perspective (such as in classic whodunit fashion). The show can't follow Artie so we can't observe his descent. But the emotional impact of his heart of darkness is blunted by the scenes leading up to his reveal. We're taken aback that he is FBI, but we never get the sense that he's gone deep. A tough choice, as I say. The twist pops, shocking the audience, but it comes at a cost. Since this reveal comes at the halfway point, Crockett's sympathy with Artie feels a bit rushed. Yes, we know Crockett has some trauma related to his undercover work, and this episode begins the hinting towards this, but his rather hyperbolic reaction doesn't have the groundwork established to sell this to the audience.

While my partner and I were watching this (their first time ever seeing the show), I admitted I watch Miami Vice more for the style than the writing, which is typical cop show writing. Yes, its grittiness and realism contributed to the significant boom in 90s cop shows (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street) but the show hasn't quite shaken the cop shows of the 70s (even some of the blocking, lighting, and framing in this episode feel very Rockford Files to me). I know the writing improves in some ways and worsens in other ways as the show continues, the danger of any American TV show produced by assembly line and produced in copious quantities (surely Miami Vice didn't need 24 episodes a year).

Which isn't to say I found the writing dismal. Rather, I just had to remind myself to see the blueprints concealed beneath the style for that which comes in the future. The writing is good for what it is.

Significantly, the episode rises above its contemporary cop show peers thanks to the MTV-inspired editing, specifically during a quite beautiful montage before the third act. Set to Devo's "Going Under" (the notable song I mention, though there are other good songs in the episode), the montage cuts between the detectives getting dressed, in dark rooms, with bold lighting, and shots of Crockett's car driving through the glowing streets of nighttime Miami (fun fact: this sequence liberally borrows shots of the car from the famous "In the Air Tonight" montage in the pilot). The staccato synthesized drums and the stark lighting have the feel of a music video, the intended effect, I'm sure. I wouldn't go so far as to call it abstract or avant garde, but the likes hadn't been seen on primetime television (and really aren't seen anymore aside from the superlatively good editing on Sharp Objects). The music video effects provides a sense of urgency (faster cross-cutting, more suspense), steering away from the traditionally languid editing of dialogue scenes. The fact that a TV show could and did shut up for 4 minutes for a music video is novel in of itself and I applaud it. I admit it's a retread of the pilot's famous scene, but boy it still pops.

There's also more alligator hijinks in the episode, which don't really work for me, especially since these scenes really give Tubbs nothing to do other than smile warmly at his partner's idiosyncrasy. As much as I love animal shenanigans, Elvis the alligator tests my patience.

I don't want to say too much more about the show as a whole for fear of repeating myself inevitably, so I will leave it here. I also won't be grading the episodes, just as I do with books, but I can say I enjoyed this episode quite a bit and my nostalgia for Miami Vice has been rejuvenated.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

September Reads Part One

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Separation by Christopher Priest
Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I read Sharp Objects in preparation for watching the tv show, and I'm glad I did, because there's a couple things the book does better than the show (not a lot, but a couple). My interest in the show was piqued by friends on Twitter claiming it was less of a mystery and more of a Gothic-style exploration of trauma and memory. The book is that, of course, but less so. The mystery and the noir style is first and foremost, but when Sharp Objects becomes focused on the unique suffering of women, often at other women's hands, it transcends its quotidian mystery (which, and I'm not bragging here, I solved within 100 pages, that's how simple it is). After seeing Gone Girl and reading this book, I begin to understand the appeal of Flynn. She's tapping into the desire to see complicated women villains, to see women villains who aren't just femmes fatale or golddiggers or maneaters. They're women living in a patriarchal system, inescapably so, and how they lash out or writhe against those bonds. The show doesn't quite hit this note as hard as it does its affecting and extremely empathetic portrait of mental illness, my preferred aspect of the novel. I definitely cried watching the show. Where the novel stumbles, other than in its by-the-numbers mystery, is a tendency to over-explain. The narrator is at pains for you to understand absolutely everything. I'm surprised the narrator doesn't explain metaphors too while at it. The show's final few minutes are exquisite: suggestive, allusive, enigmatic. This goes against the novel's final 30 pages which are laborious, exhaustive in detail. Both are quite good, but the show is excellent.

The Separation is my first Priest novel and I suppose the first "science fiction" novel I've read since May. Though, my categorization of this novel as science fiction derives from the market's assignation of alternate history as science fiction. Surely we can all agree that alt-history falls under the umbrella of the literature of the Fantastic, but where it nudges against sci-fi is determined on a case-by-case scenario. I'm sure Priest is difficult to market for his publishers. His novels resist easy categorization. The Separation is World War Two alt-history, with a puzzling blurring of the contra-history and the factual history. There's no easy solution to the divergence; Priest only suggests a couple lynch points instead of laying it out. Instead, the alt-history and Fantastic elements are the stage-setting for a nuanced and conflicted portrait of pacifism, duty, and the corrupting nature of war. I admit I struggled a bit with this one. While I loved the puzzle aspect of it, the waffling about pacifism struck me as almost metafictional pacifism, a refusal to stop sitting on the fence. What is this novel about, exactly? It's tough to say and I'm not sure I have a clear answer. Pacifism? Brotherhood? Why use fantastical elements to tell a story which could have been excised of alt-history and probably still make its points? I still quite liked this book—it's elegantly written, ingeniously constructed—but I don't think my critical lens is sharp enough to figure it out. This is like reading Adam Roberts: I can detect the allusions, references, the superstructure, but I can't grasp them with any authority, at least not enough to glean meaningful or productive insights. Still, my own ignorance hasn't stopped from enjoying Roberts or The Separation (or at least not enjoying to the fullest capacity) so I'll keep trying!

I put Pet Sematary at number two in my "for shits and giggles" ranking of Stephen King's work (here). I'd have to read 'Salem's Lot again to be sure, but I still think it's a solid Silver next to the latter's Gold. It's definitely in vogue to dismiss King and his prodigious output but I still believe that King produced a handful of all-timers, maybe more than most of the Great Writers. Pet Sematary was a great reread for me. I first read it when I was in university (the first time around) and I was trying to fill in the gaps in my King bibliography. I remember so clearly, so vividly, reading the final page and being blown away. King often struggles with endings but he completely nails it here. It's easily his best ending. What disappointed me a bit this time around and maybe I'm being oversensitive is that I remember there being more of a cosmic horror angle. There's a suggestion at the end there is more to the Pet Sematary that meets the eye but when the dead kid comes back to life, he's violent and crude and annoying in the way all King villains here. It's a bit deflating when the monster speaks like it has the Hollywood version of Tourette's Syndrome. I guess years of reading cosmic horror, Lovecraftian stuff, Weird fiction has made me a bit resistant to King's singular brand of folksy conversationalist horror. Still, very glad I reread this. What a whopper of an end.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Reads Part Two

The Ritual by Adam Nevill
Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
The Likeness by Tana French

I last read Nevill in 2013, when I read Last Days. I guess he didn't make too big of an impact on me because it took me 5 years to get around to reading another one of his novels. I'd heard from a friend with excellent taste that Last Days isn't great but The Ritual is a big improvement, and I can definitely see that. I liked The Ritual quite a bit, especially the first half. In fact, I would go so far as to say I love the first half. Ever since reading Ketchum's Off Season and Simmons' The Terror, I've had a bit of a jones for survival horror or backwoods horror. The Ritual doubles down on this fairly hard in the first half, opening with the characters already lost, one of them already injured, and tensions running high. There is little time wasted on flashbacks or motivations or what have you. Rather it's just the four hikers against the oceanic black forest in Norway. Once I had reached the halfway point, and idly wondered how Nevill was going to fill another 200 pages after killing off most of his cast, the novel pivots to something else and it's a small letdown. I didn't love the direction the novel takes, but I also still enjoyed it. This isn't like Justin Cronin's deeply dumb The Passage (which I never finished because it was awful) which takes such an irritating left turn after its pretty decent opening. The Ritual doesn't have big ambitions like Cronin did. Instead, it just wants to fuck things up and give the reader a thrill. I can respect that. I can respect genre work which knows what it is and what its limits are. I was impressed enough with how little needless cruelty there was in this. In fact, there's a stupendous and very welcome amount of empathy in this novel, for its protagonists and even for its hapless misguided villains. I was shocked by how emotionally engaging the finale was. I don't think I'll wait another 5 years before reading another Nevill!

I last read Woodrell in July of 2013, the same month I read Nevill (!). It was just coincidence I revisited these two authors after 5 years in the same month. I don't remember a ton about Give Us a Kiss but I do remember really loving Winter's Bone. Tomato Red is more of the same, of course—not as refined as Winter's Bone in terms of plotting, but Woodrell's obvious empathy for the underclasses shines through. This novel gives us some absolutely fine prose in addition to the gentle sympathy. Here is Woodrell's narrator on the "holler," an Appalachian pronunciation of "hollow" (which is an example of an epenthetic r sound):

This holler, at night or during the day, either one, had the shape of a collapsed big thing, something that had been running and running until it ran out of gas and flopped down exhausted exactly here. The houses were flung out along this deep crease in the hills and the crease surely did resemble the posture of a forlorn collapsed creature. Scrub timber and trash piles and vintage appliances spread down the slopes and all around the leaning houses to serve as a border between here and everything that wasn't here.
Woodrell makes this stuff look easy, this hillbilly poetry, but his prose isn't simply gorgeous and all unexpected verbiage ("houses were flung," a great example of the expert passive voice) though this surely adds to his overall magic. No, it's not just the intensified physicality of the details, but this holistic magic trick. Woodrell is the type of author I can't get enough of: he performs sorcery with words but never loses his humanist attention. Here he is on the rich:
You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich 'cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other. Which they and us have done plenty, and with brutal dumb glee. Just toss a five-dollar bill in the mud and sip wine and watch bodies start flyin' about, crashing headfirst into blunt objects, and our teeth sprinle from our mouths, and the blood gets flowing in such amusing ways. Naw, it's always just us against us—guess who loses?
The plotting of Tomato Red doesn't quite make this happen as clearly as it could have been. Lots happens off-stage, with characters telling the audience what is happening. There's never a clear antagonist or threat to their existence. In noir, the most obvious obstacle to the protagonist is the protagonist themselves, something Woodrell picks up on, leaving behind the rich oligarchs to manipulate off-stage. 

The Likeness was better in some ways than French's first novel and worse in other ways, I'm sad to report. It seems everybody claims her second novel is her best, and if that's the case... I'm not sure how many more in this series I'll finish. The Likeness is fine. Just fine. Very readable. The prose is great, French's management of suspense is great, her characterization is pretty good. What she excels at is the low descent into chaos, the way her characters think they have things under control but they don't, the reader knows it and in the back of the protagonists' minds, they know too. Where The Likeness really sets itself apart from what I assume as vast swathes of homogeneous murder mysteries is the centering of the victim herself. I'm going to quote at length a bit of narration from Cassie, the protagonist.
Here's one of the more disturbing things about working Murder: how little you think about the person who's been killed. There are some who move into your mindchildren, battered pensioners, girls who went clubbing in their sparkly hopeful best and ended the night in bog drains—but mostly the victim is only your starting point; the gold at the end of the rainbow is the killer. It's scarily easy to slip to the point where the victim becomes incidental, half forgotten for days on end, just a prop wheeled out for the prologue so that the real show can start. (152)
It's hard not to read French as frustrated with her peers. And it's exactly the reason why I struggle with so much of the mystery genre: this pornographic obsession with the body of the victim and nothing to do with the life. Cassie's focus on the victim has a cost, much like the detective of the previous novel paid a cost for his investigation. The ambitions of The Likeness are admirable but it just wasn't enough to wow my socks off and I'm not sure if I can pinpoint what could have been done to do so.

Tremblay's novels have been enjoying hyperbolic praise, especially this new one, and I felt I had to read it. I'm not sure I can accurately state how good this book is. I'll have to leave it as just this, I'm afraid. Sometimes novels are so good as to defy analysis or review. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

August Reads Part One

In the Woods by Tana French
The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight

I generally avoid modern mystery novels because I find the violence inherent to the genre quite distasteful. The victims end up being forgotten, or barely props, their bodies poured over in almost pornographic detail, and usually, the victims are women, their violent deaths "solved" by troubled but brilliant detectives. From the reputation and the covers, I avoided French's series. However, the admin department at my work are all going bananas for these novels. They're all reading them and gushing over them, and since I trust (some of) them, I gave the first one a try. The great big positive I can say is that it's readable and the solution to the mystery is an afterthought, in the best way. Murders can't be "solved"; murder is an irrevocable problem without a reversing fix. Detectives can only find the transgressor and hope justice might prevail. I prefer my mystery novels to either have no solution (such as George Pelecanos' sublime The Night Gardener) or consider the irreparable damage a murder can have. French's In the Woods has two mysteries, only one of which has a solution, and that solution is presented without any of the usual fanfare. In fact, the detectives figure it out during a interrogation, an almost quotidian ending compared to most climaxes. However, the drawback to this casualness is that the victim and her family are less important to the whole narrative than the narrator's emotional crisis. The whole cast, save for the narrator's partner, feel disposable, like props in a stageplay to be discarded during a soliloquy. Thus, In the Woods feels like two competing, opposing forces: an investigation into the way the past haunts us and a murder mystery about sociopaths and the lengths they'll go to get what they want. It doesn't quite add up and it's almost frustrating because French clearly has a way with words and with characterization. The prose reminded me a lot of John le Carre, surprisingly, in the long spools of twisting dialogue and the careful, melancholy observations of the physical world. Everybody in the back office says the second one is better so I suppose I'll keep going.

The Fungus was the most fun I've had with a horror novel in a long time. I'm struggling with things to say about it, but I think it captures the kind of horror I like the most: the fungus is unstoppable, it is everywhere, in everything, from the largest to the microscopic and it is so terrifying in its totality that the novel verges on pure nihilism, an existential panic so complete as to be paralyzing. This novel marks a great halfway point between the more implacable Weird fiction and the creature-feature genre, which externalizes an internal threat (in this situation, the fear of plague and contagion). Fungus is one of my favourite "characters" in horror fiction and I'm surprised more isn't written about this mysterious and singular kingdom. This, by the way, is the cover of the edition I purchased.

I found out last night that venerable (but expensive) publisher Valancourt Books is releasing new editions of this fantastic title and Knight's harder-to-find Slimer. I also picked up, just by chance, Knight's Carnosaur (the basis for Roger Corman's Jurassic Park cash-in). So look back for more Harry Adam Knight in the next few months because I definitely loved this one enough to give more a try.