Sunday, June 23, 2019

June Reads Part Two

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Arnett's Mostly Dead Things is getting quite a bit of praise here and there and for good reason. She has the control and attention to detail of a seasoned author with the immediacy of a debut author. Set in Central Florida, the novel is narrated by Jessa, the daughter of a taxidermist who takes on the family business after her father commits suicide. It's both a deadpan comedy of how wacky Florida can be and a meditation on grief and parental legacy. Up until the halfway point, I felt a bit deflated as the novel isn't as weird as I was hoping. But perhaps this is my own biased perception of Florida and what baggage I brought to the novel. Sure, Mostly Dead Things has goofy Floridian antics (like swimming in a pond just to tempt the gators) but it never strays from plausible, a good thing considering I'd probably find its depiction of grief as hollow if the tone in other sections had been madcap. Arnett's best skill is her attention to the body: the sweat, the stickiness, the zits, the hair, the blackheads, the skin tags, the taste of skin, the sensuality of it all. Any scene with two people touching is electrically charged, vibrantly libidinal from the possibility. Whenever Jessa's crush touches her, I held my breath, hoping for that eventual erotic release. But this works both ways. Bodies are both disgusting and beautiful at the same time. In one telling scene, Jessa and her niece trade stories about their periods:
"This one time I passed a clot the size of a garden slug. When I crushed it in my fingers, it felt like one too."
"Once I pulled out a tampon in a public bathroom. When I threw it at the little metal garbage can, it fell on the floor and rolled under the stall. Landed next to a woman's shoe."
"Never happened."
"Sweat to God."
"Did she step on it?"
"She kind of kicked it a little." (119)
Arnett's attention to bodies is no accident. The novel is full of gore, the details of taxidermy, of animals being skinned, scraped, gutted all for art. The novel obliquely, and sometimes not-so-subtly, draws a parallel to the intersection of the grotesque and the beautiful. It is only wading through the muck and the mire that art can be made, the novel gently suggests. I liked this novel quite a bit and I look forward to her next.

My partner and I watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (great for two episodes, shit for the final three) and I felt inspired to finally read Alexivich's Chernobyl Prayer and I glad I did. What a read. I've never read anything quite like it. It's not quite an oral history and it's not quite literature and it's not quite nonfiction. If one is looking for historical facts about the disaster, this is the last place to look. It's also not quite historical analysis, though a sort of misty central thesis emerges⁠—that the disaster rearranged how we think of the world, that to understand Chernobyl is to rethink our relationship to time, to the State, to populace. There is pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl. There is a new sense of time, one in which human lives are but blips. Alexievich herself doesn't suggest this directly but lets the voices speak for themselves (of course you could argue that Alexievich herself chooses to include the testimony which suggests any and all theses). I knew this book would be devastating, the small moments of heartbreak and pain, but still some bits took my breath away. Here's from a man who worked during cleanup:
We got home. I took everything off, all the stuff I'd been wearing there, and threw the lot down the rubbish chute. I gave the cap to my little son as a present. He kept asking for it. He wore it non-stop. Two years later, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. You can write the rest yourself. I don't want to say any more. (82)
Though the book isn't all doom and gloom. What surprised me, though I shouldn't have been, is how many jokes people tell. The darkest gallows humour. This is how people cope and Alexievich doesn't shy from it. She lets people tell it how they want to tell. Many people switch between jokes and philosophizing. One speaker even comments on the fact Chernobyl makes people philosophize. Often, they mention how atoms, invisible, tasteless, odorless, could do so much damage and never stop doing damage. 
Atoms of lead, sand and graphite combined and were shot high up into the atmosphere. They were dispersed over great distances, hundreds of kilometres. Now they were entering people's bodies via the respiratory tract.... The person affected dies, literally burning up; but whereas they are mortal, the hot particles live on. A person dies, and after a thousand years will have turned back to dust. The hot particles, though, are immortal, and their dust will be capable of killing again. (Falls silent.) (152)
Various speakers touch on the Russian identity, their fatalism, their distrust of technology, the Soviet faithfulness, the blindness, the life of a peasant. Many older folks lived through the Siege, through the War, through the Gulags and the Holodomor, only to eventually meet their finish at the hands of everything they touched, smelled, saw. Their potatoes, their vegetables, even their water was contaminated. They couldn't taste the irradiation. They went on with their lives because that's all they knew.
There was no need to invent anything. I wanted everything to be remembered: the globe of the earth in a school yard, crushed by a tractor; blackened washing which had been hanging for several years on a balcony to dry; doll which had grown old in the rain. Neglected mass graves from the war, the grass on them as tall as the plaster soldiers, birds nesting on their plaster rifles. A door smashed in, the house ransacked by looters, with the curtains drawn across its windows. People had gone, leaving only their photographs living on their homes, as if they were their souls. Nothing was insignificant or trivial. Everything needed to be remembered, accurately in detail: the time of day when I saw it, the colour of the sky, the sensations. (236)
There is no doubt Chernobyl Prayer will be represented on my best of the year list. An amazing work.

Silver in the Wood is a gay version of the Green Man legend from England, and it's a novella, a nice palate cleanser after the hard work of the Alexievich. I thought the novella was okay. I'm suspicious of M/M romance written by straight women for straight women. Just recently, a M/M romance was published with an epigraph from Ronald Reagan (here) and *barf*! Silver in the Wood is a fantasy of polite gentile white men doing the deed and being romantic, and sure, it's nice and fine and fluffy, but what a weird world we live in where gay men have become fetishes for straight white women.

Monday, June 17, 2019

June Reads Part One

The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco
The Dollmaker by Nina Allan
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

I've owned a copy of Cisco's Animal Money for a long time, but haven't got around to it or anything else by him thanks to his reputation as "difficult" or "impenetrable." The Divinity Student is his first novel, or perhaps more accurately, novella, and I'm intensely grateful that my local library, often not a bastion of Weird fiction, has three of his books in regular circulation! How divine! The Divinity Student might be described as surrealist fantasy, but I'm not convinced by this categorization. Yes, it's fantasy, if only in that the novel operates within the Fantastic (as per Todorov). I didn't find it that surreal and I suspect the word "surreal" has been exhausted of its specificity by overuse and liberal application. A more apt comparison might be to China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, fantasists working outside of the Tolkien hegemony. The eponymous divinity student has his blood replaced with words, scribbles on scraps of paper, and leaves the seminary for San Veneficio, a Spanish (?) town. He works for a word-finder, getting paid to produce ever more abstruse and obscure words. He finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy (though that word might be too dramatic for what this is) involving formaldehyde, divination by corpse, and a catalogue of forbidden words.

I found myself mostly unengaged by this work, I'm afraid to report. Partly due to its alienness and partly thanks to Cisco's elaborate writing. While his prose is often gorgeous, lush, evocative, it has a distancing effect. I never quite understood what was going as each sentence belabors, quite beautifully, whatever point or description it's going for. Similar to how in Moore's Jerusalem, when a character extinguishing a cigarette could take an entire paragraph, just having the divinity student do something quotidian turned into a baroque cathedral of words. An example, then. The divinity student has entered a laboratory wherein he will learn the secret of the formaldehyde:
Magellan's familiar waves the Divinity Student to an empty chair and scuttles off to the wings—where racks of jars stand in static dust: later the familiar will tell his wife, "Today I saw a bottle containing a witch. A witches' ladder, a rope with cockfeathers woven in between the strands, throws curses. An impaled slug on a thorn, in a jaw, withered, colorless, still, in formaldehyde. Shelves of stuffed animals, motheaten, ragged, semicollapsed, dirty, glazed milky eyes. Flat glass slabs for the invertebrates—fish, eels, worms, phosphorescent. On every surface, tiny, neatly penned labels in precambrian ink, dark jumbles. 
Gorgeous writing, the kind I'm always drawn to, with multiple clauses, multiple adjectives, a multiplicity of words. Many of Cisco's choices for descriptors work so beautifully. I'd rather an excess of adjectives than a dearth; they are, after all, the spice of writing. I just wish I had been more invested in the narrative. Luckily, this is only 150 pages, a dense 150, but only 150. I look forward to reading more from Cisco.

I hope to write something substantial about Nina Allan's tremendous The Dollmaker, her most ambitious, most finely composed work yet. It might not resonate as hard with me as with The Race, but that's just personal preference. Allan has outdone herself here. A masterpiece of weirdness, all seemingly engineered to frustrate the dilettantes of Goodreads.

Machado was the highlight of Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume 2, and I was not disappointed by her debut collection. Her stories are little formal exercises, without ever losing sight of the short sharp shock of her ideas. The highlight, other than "The Husband Stitch," is the Law & Order pastiche, an exhaustive list of fake summaries for real episodes. The longest tale by far, "Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU," was slow to grab me; there was little connective tissue between the summaries, just as with the actual episodes. But slowly, like all good horror, the trick creeps up on you. The big picture reveals itself and it's just as frightening as anything a traditional horror author could come up with. I also loved "The Resident," another great work of short sustained horror, in which a writer take residence at a retreat, along other artists. Again, slow and steady, but working to a fantastic crescendo. I can't wait to read more of her work! Bring on another collection please!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Little Life

This is a deeply frustrating work of art. A Little Life is alluring, seductive, hypnotic, and all the while, messy, clunky, stubborn, myopic. At 720 pages, my patience was exhasted. I laughed at the climactic event, its absurd, pointlessly over-the-top major character death, which focused pornographically on the details of the car accident (the dying character soars through the air, amidst a constellation of broken windshield glass, long enough for him to contemplate his fate). The climax stands in for the rest of the novel, as everything else is just as fever-pitched and desperate to convey how much the cast suffers... though, in a way, they don't suffer; the cast is so fully and completed protected from systemic violence or oppression thanks to their wish-fulfillment level of class privilege. In other words, this is a throwback novel, a 90s novel which could have been written by Jonathan Franzen. While the characters might use email and texting, the novel could have been set during any period, as Yanagihara purposefully occludes any temporal specificity. The characters are post-racial, post-sexual, post-corporate, post-everything; one section of the novel is titled "The Postman" referring to the nickname the three friends bestow upon mysterious protagonist Jude St. Francis, he of ambiguous ethnicity and sexuality.

I will say this though, if I might indulge in some personal reflection, for all its faults and clumsiness, A Little Life provided me, maybe, with some insight into one of my cats. All three of my cats are rescue animals, adopted from a local no-kill shelter where I used to volunteer. All three have mysterious backgrounds, unknowable origins, and a host of behavioural tics, some of which are lovable, others not so much. Grimey, the "middle child," the one adopted second, is a grey long-haired cat perhaps a Nebelung, perhaps a grey Chantilly. He was named Grimeister by someone at the shelter and I have no idea where this name derives. We shortened it to Grimey but mostly we call him The Floof, or Floofie (the other two cats are medium haired, so there's no possible confusion on who is the floofiest). When I first met the cat, he was suffering from ear mites, severe dental problems, matted fur and subsequent lion cut shave, and a severe lack of confidence. He hid from me and others. Slowly, the cat healed and was placed into regular circulation, as it were, where he was ready to be adopted. We chose him in part because he is so beautiful and regal. After months in the shelter, his beautiful coat was growing in. So was his confidence. We also chose him because he lived in the same room as Maurice, the first of the three, so we knew they would get along (one of the shelter employees assured me she had seen Maurice and Grimey cuddling, and one would only need minutes of knowing Grimey to suspect this claim was pure bullshit).

Initially, the Floof was not a perfect fit. He was frightened, would not allow much touching, and absolutely refused to let us brush him or clip his nails. His neck and mane would get mats and though he would let me use scissors to cut out the worst of them, he would fight tooth and nail (literally) if I brushed him. He also developed a peeing problem we were extremely slow to notice. We thought he was ejecting bile or perhaps diarrhea and our apartment stunk to high heaven. I knew he was pooping in the litter box but I never caught him peeing outside the box. After we moved into our house, his peeing was not only noticeable but unavoidable. He would pee on the floor right beside my partner's side of the bed and there is nothing like waking up at 2 in the morning with your nostrils clogged by the hot stink of cat piss. We increased our litter boxes from two to six (as a rule of thumb, you should have one more box than you do cats). I cleaned the boxes more frequently. I began observing him closer and closer, trying desperately to figure out the pattern. There is no random behaviour in animals like cats; they aren't smart enough. No matter how obscure the pattern, it still exists. I just had to crack the code. But I couldn't. I can't. Even if I clean the boxes daily and put them all over the house (we have one in the living room!!!), he still often pees on the floor, beside the box. Just yesterday, I came home to find that familiar hot sweet stink in the dining room.

We've ruled out medical problems, we've never disciplined himwe're told it's extremely counter-productivewe still love him, even if I want to throttle him, to yell at him. The Floof is a sweet boy: he cuddles, in his own way; he likes being around us; he likes playing; he adores Moogie, our third cat, even if he never wants to cuddle. He's kind and curious and beautiful and funny. His meow is hilarious. When he is picked up, he eventually cries like he's being murdered (I pick up all the cats every once in awhile because I need them to be accustomed to it. If there's a fire, I don't want to have to fight a cat. Just pick him up and go). He's a drama queen. He's gorgeous.

But reading A Little Life gave me some insight, taught me a bit of patience. I suggested to my partner that maybe The Floof was abandoned those few years ago because of his peeing problem. Perhaps he didn't develop the problem while living with us. Perhaps he's always had it. The years before we knew these cats are as opaque as possible; they cannot talk, they cannot tell us the circumstances by which they found themselves on the streets, fending for themselves. Only the scars and behaviours can give us some insight. For example, Maurice has lost the tip of one ear to frostbite; we can assume then he spent at least one winter outside. The Floof has a single puncture scar on his shoulder, not noticeable until we gave him a lion cut last year. Who knows where these things came from?

Unlike Jude, the wounded, broken, disabled, secretive protagonist, Floofie can't tell me what went wrong. So I have to remind myself to have patience. His past will forever be inscrutable to me and he's not always responsible for the things he does. Like Jude, he is frustrating, he is annoying at times, but he is also beautiful and worthy of love, something I try to remind my cat daily, something the cast tries in vain to remind Jude. Maybe like Jude, Grimey cannot let go of his trauma. Did he have a bad litter box experience years before? Frustrating not only because I have to clean up pee but because I cannot "fix" him. I can't seem to figure out what he needs. But like Jude and his friends, I must learn, I must remember his past is traumatic.

So I did find value in A Little Life, even if it wasn't artistic. Hopefully other readers find value, learn patience, forgiveness, love for the folks in their lives who are hurt and in pain. But that's not everything a novel is. Novels aren't just moral lessons. And even if this one were simply a moral lesson, I would still find it clumsy.

A frustrating read not only because of its numerous technical faults, but because of its central figure, a man who refuses any help, who refuses to let go, but perhaps cannot. His three close friends can't determine what is it that wounded him and what could heal that wound. 720 pages of people trying to help him but he won't let them. This wears on the reader eventually. Not only his refusals but the sheer amount of suffering he endures. The novel reaches a point of absurdity. A friend of mine hesitated when using the word "farcical," but I think she's right. By the halfway point, I had begun to turn on the book, to bridle at the seemingly endless cavalcade of horror enacted upon the central character. By the end, I had soured.

To me, it's not a matter of realism—whether or not it's realistic Jude lived through all this. It's more of a matter of aesthetic purpose. Why does the author torture this character so completely, so endlessly? What is the aesthetic purpose to this? There is a beauty to be found in suffering, for sure, or else there wouldn't be the subgenre of Beautiful Death. Roger Ebert coined the term Ali MacGraw's Syndrome in reference to Love Story, in which the actor gets more and more beautiful the closer she gets to death. We also have a whole history of gay literature predicated on loss; I wrote about Call Me By Your Name and loss here. Combine the two and you have A Little Life.  Going back to one of the foundations of my essay on Call Me By Your Name, Brandon LG Taylor (here) writes about protecting and punishing his characters at LitHub (here). He writes, wonderfully, of his inability to introduce his characters to chaos:
There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be.
Taylor found his writing met with resistance in workshops. Fellow students would complain of a lack of interiority, of an aversion to catastrophe, a lack of urgency. But Taylor couldn't help himself; unconsciously, he protected them from all the worst life could offer but the cost of doing so was hollowness. His characters never fully engaged with the world. In the rest of the essay, Taylor uses the examples of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Alice Munro (amusingly, one known for a six novel cycle and the other for short stories, a study in contrasts as it were). Knausgaard and Munro let their characters descend into the muck, into the slime of the world itself without ever losing their grasp on the characters themselves. Taylor calls this a "radical openness, a willingness to let the story do what it must in order to be truthful" and truth is what the characters deserve if we are going to be faithful to them.

Writing of her famous short stories, Taylor argues, "Munro does not protect her characters. She flings them out into the universe. Or she calls the universe to them, and the results are striking." She engages with catastrophe and what comes after catastrophe. She faces it head on, eyes wide open, and stares right back. The ordinary has its own terror for Munro's characters because it's inescapable, it is the daily material of their lives after all. Though Munro does so without "false heightening of rhetoric or a lapse into lyricism" or operatic gestures. She allows them to exist, even if existing is painful. In the conclusion to the essay, Taylor strikes upon the essential truth of why Munro is who she is, why she is so famous for what she does: "Munro’s capacity to get her characters into trouble without a clear idea of how to get them out—or even caring if they do—is brutal, yes, but her characters are so fully themselves that it never feels like she’s punishing them." And this where Yanagihara stumbles so much. Her characters aren't fully themselves. The trouble they get into is artificial, not of their own devising, but ridiculous circumstances stretching the suspension of disbelief of any reader. 

Her characters are punished so frequently and so completely, but at the same time, they're absurdly protected. They become hollow in Yanagihara's hands because they are so cared for by the narrative. All four main characters reach absurd levels of success in their respective fields. By the time artist JB is in his fifties, he owns a gallery and hosts a career retrospective of his own work. Architect Malcolm, with whom the novel spends some time in the beginnings before abandoning his life entirely, is so successful he builds museums and galleries across the globe. Willem, the actor, goes from being a waiter at the beginning of the novel to an Oscar-winning force of nature, with his face on billboards literally across the globe (Jude sees one in Beijing while there on business). And Jude himself goes from public attorney to almost chairman of a private firm famous for getting corporations out of lawsuits. They own and build numerous houses. They have drivers, maids, friends with money. They take trips to Morocco, Spain. In one telling scene, Jude just gets on a plane to Paris to be alone, and the novel takes time to mention all the friends he has in Paris whom he is avoiding! Imagine having so many friends that you fly across the world and have to avoid them even there too! They're never forced to face anybody of a lower class than their servants, none of whom have any dialogue. Jude sends a thank you gift to a nurse, but this is just to show the audience how teeth-rottingly nice Jude is. Despite the novel starting with the four of them in dire economic straits, they never really suffer. One lives with his friend's parents. They live in New York City for most of the novel and while their apartments are small, they still have more than one apartment! JB, the artist, has a studio and an apartment and goes back to his successful family's home for laundry and food when needs must. Jude is adopted as an adult by two law professors who own multiple dwellings. It's ridiculous.

Yanagihara wants to punish these people and she does, often in absurd and pornographic detail, but she still protects them, and this scrapes them hollow of any profundity. They're both the most sheltered people on the planet and the most tragic of all time. Jude's long litany of abuses wrought upon his body are awful, no doubt, but he still has a lifetime access to a gifted physician who never charges him for the decades of weekly appointments. Andy, this doctor, is apparently on call 24/7 and loves Jude so much he's willing to take care of him for years and years with Jude rarely if ever following his medical advice. What would the narrative have looked like if the cast hadn't had their insulating layers upon layers of class privilege? Jude even has a temper tantrum when Andy announces, tentatively, he wants to retire; he's 61 years old at this point and has been taking care of Jude for eons, but the narrative has never spent any time with Andy. We never learn who Andy is or what begot his absurd loyalty to a man who won't listen to him. On and on there are scenes of Andy debriding Jude's wounds or lecturing him on his low weight, and Jude never listens and the audience never gets an inkling why they stay friends, why Andy would put up with this other than for the narrative to keep Jude alive. It's just another brick in the artifice's wall. 

Jude suffers terribly in his childhood and Yanagihara can be applauded for seeing this trauma all the way through, for exhaustively detailing it, for never flinching. And though the narrative reveals his past, through drips and drabs and clumsy flashbacks perfectly timed like a carefully engineered airport thriller, I still found myself drawn to Jude's story. When you are standing outside this novel, you can't see anything other than Yanagihara's graceless hands, her lack of control, her clunky sentences, her frantic breathless cataloguing, but if you are inside, comfortably snug inside the narrative, you can't help but care for Jude, just as the characters do. I only shed one tear during my reading (and I'm a very easy crier) at the very end when Jude expects Harold, his adopted father, to hit him but instead hugs him. But I found myself invested. I was happy for Willem and Jude when they became a couple. I was relieved when the rift between JB and Jude is healed. I laughed when they told a funny story or when a character is lovingly mocked by his friends. I even gasped and tensed when Caleb punches Jude. 

The novel's descent into absurdity comes with the introduction and eventual dispatch of Caleb, Jude's first adult relationship. Of course, of course, in this novel's world, the first person Jude likes romantically is abusive. It's almost inevitable in this universe. Perhaps the novel is trying to make a point that victims of abuse gravitate towards perpetrators of abuse, that abuse is cyclical. If that's the novel's intention, it comes off terribly, clumsily, wild and uncontrollable as a point. The execution is dismal. Caleb shows no signs of abusive behaviour until it happens like a gunshot in the dark and the reader wonders why Caleb was introduced in the first place if his sole purpose to further damage Jude.

But just as the novel punishes, it protects, to a laughable degree. Caleb is taken off the board, as it were, just as fast and eventually, over the course of a couple pages, we find out he dies painfully and quickly of (surprise!) pancreatic cancer. Jude never has to face him, never has to confront him. Instead, just after Caleb, Jude falls into a romantic relationship with his favourite person ever, Willem, whom we're reminded, is an absurdly handsome successful film actor! 

Taylor concludes his marvelous essay with, "the idea is that one must be willing to leap and to plunge and not expect to rise, but to find in that great descent if not meaning then at least peace, or joy in the motion" and though other authors, such as Munro, find great beauty and artfulness in that motion, I'm not convinced Yanagihara can or even wants to. She wants it both ways and the novel suffers for it. Her characters are abused and beaten and beat themselves and abuse themselves, but paradoxically and exasperatingly, she still coddles them and comforts them and scoops them out of danger. They're both vessels for punishment and empty of meaning. Jude becomes the cliche, the beautiful gay man who suffers, and after 720 pages, I'd had enough.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

May Reads Part Two

While the Black Stars Burn by Lucy A. Snyder
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume 2 edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
The Expert System's Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I don't think I've read any pieces from Snyder previous to this collection, her second, called While the Black Stars Burn. But I have her Stoker Award-nominated third collection on order already as I liked this one a lot. Like so many compilations, not everything is a home run, but when Snyder is cooking, she's really cooking (if I might mix my metaphors). This collection runs the whole generic gamut, from dark fantasy, to science fiction, to horror and horror pastiches, all the way up to (a very pleasant surprise) a Seventh Doctor and Ace story at the end. There's a five story stretch in this 13 story collection where I thought Snyder had hit her stride. From the gruesome "Through Thy Bounty" all the way to the two-part Lovecraftian nightmare ("The Abomination of Fensmere" and "The Girl with the Star-Stained Soul"), Snyder completely astonished me. The five stories (the other two being "Cthylla" and the title story, a very knowing ode to Robert W. Chambers) range from science fiction to horror and back. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading more.

I haven't felt much like writing recently, so here's one sentence reviews of the other books.

- The King in Yellow was like nothing I'd ever read before and was amazing.

- The highlights of Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume 2 were Nick Mamatas and Carmen Maria Machado

- The Marrow Thieves was one of the better written YA novels I've read but its science fictional elements were poorly integrated and its novum made no sense

- The Expert System's Brother works in one of my favourite subgenres: fantasy setting turns out to be science fictional.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

May Reads Part One

Batman Eternal by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Ray Fawkes, John Layman, Tim Seeley, and a whole host of artists including the completely atypical choice Ian Bertram (click here for an example)
Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt
Weird Tales of a Bangalorean by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

I don't normally review comic books for this blog anymore, despite them being the impetus for the blog's very creation, but Batman Eternal was a lot better than I was expecting and I thought I'd jot down some thoughts on it. First, I appreciate that the Joker wasn't part of the story at all. Too often, the Joker is ultimately revealed as the big baddie, and I'm tired of that. I've read my fair share of stories in which the Joker is posited as symbiotic with Batman, that the two feed off each other. Okay, great, but Batman is more than one character. Batman Eternal crafts a complex story over 52 weekly issues, with rotating script writers and artists, and thankfully, it never gets too big for its britches and tries to make sweeping artistic statements about what it means to be Batman. In fact, our eponymous hero shares much screentime, as it were, with his supporting cast, helping make the series feel fully rounded. I'm not suitably familiar enough with the New 52, or whichever continuity they're on now, so I wasn't sure where Dick Grayson or Damian Wayne were supposed to be in this series, but Stephanie Brown and Harper Row make great foils for each other and for Batman. The story never felt 52 issues long, a huge compliment I should think, and kept me on my toes for a bit. The reveal of the true mastermind was lost on me due to my lack of familiarity with the character but that's not the fault of the series. Most of the art was hideous but readable, something that could be said of almost every American superhero title. What tickled me was the inclusion of the aforementioned Ian Bertram, an artist working in the shadow of Frank Quitely, but still enthralling nonetheless. His use of Reubenesque women makes for a breath of fresh air considering how awful women are drawn normally. Anyway, I took Batman Eternal out from the library and it was worth every penny.

Greener Pastures wasn't the masterpiece I think I was expecting, but I definitely liked it. I suppose I was mentally prepared for horror and what Wehunt is doing here is more Weird than horror. It's also a lot less nasty than most other horror I've read. Many of the stories are flush with an all-encompassing sense of loss, either literally or figuratively. One great story has a man growing wings after his longtime wife has passed away. Another follows a father whose split-second lack of attention cause the disappearance of his daughter. The very last story features no supernatural effects at all! None of these things are negatives and I certainly liked my time with the book, but I wish it had been a smidge more horror. My favourite story is the only true horror story, the one with a haunted house, and boy does it fucking rule. I hope to read more from Wehunt. This came out in 2016 and I can't see any clue about a forthcoming collection—some chapbooks, but no collection. I liked this a lot but not enough to start buying his chapbooks.

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a friend on Twitter. We became friends after S.J. Bagley introduced us. After knowing him for years, I realized I've never purchased any of his collections. I'd certainly read pieces by him in various anthologies here and there. Weird Tales of a Bangalorean seems to be the only available collection in print and it's from 2015. A slim book, with a handful of poems, and a subtle connection between a couple pieces, I quite liked this. Satyamurthy has a careful prose style, one focused on the cityscape, the passageways, the living breathing heart of the city. Most weird fiction I've read feels untethered from specific locales unless it's self-consciously Appalachian or Southern. Thus, it's a treat to be submerged into a entire city fully realized through short stories (as opposed to one of those State of the Nation city novels I used to be fond of). Where Satyamurthy loses me a smidge is his dialogue, which sounds a bit tinny to be honest. There isn't much dialogue, the author probably aware of his limits and plays to his strengths, but what little there is bangs with an out-of-tune drum. The true gem, sparkling and frightening, is "The Song Of The Eukarya," a relationship chamber piece which builds to an incredible ending. Of course, part of the appeal of this story is the use of fungi. Always a welcomed aspect of horror fiction, if you ask me. Weird Tales of a Bangalorean is great and I hope to read more. I gather it's difficult to make a living from writing little weird tales, so no pressure.

The Secret of Ventriloquism is fucking dooooope, as close to perfection as weird/horror short fiction comes. What I didn't know going into this was the connections between the pieces. I assumed this was just the previously published pieces put together. But no, there is an insidious and subtle through-line. Each story stands on its own, though, thankfully. Many of the pieces toy with form, such as one phenomenal story in the form of a how-to manual, in 20 steps to mastering ventriloquism. Another piece, perhaps my favourite of the shorter works, plays as if advertising material for a theme park ride. This story, “The Indoor Swamp,” completely sustains its doom-laden, can't-look-away atmosphere. Each part of the story feels like little random thoughts the author has had, but they're strung together coherently and effectively. Only one story was a mixed bag and not because of its horror elements. “The Infusorium” is kind of the centerpiece of the whole collection in that it provides lots of exposition and ties many of the other stories together. Its horror elements are top notch; the story is replete with all sorts of horrific and imaginative nightmares, but Padgett has tried to emulate a world-weary cop narrator which does not work. It stinks of fakery. Still, the rest of the collection is so good and even parts of the mixed bag story are so good I can't help but give the book the full five stars or whatever.

I'll review In Our Mad and Furious City in full in another post, I think. If I don't get around to it, suffice it to say I liked the prose a lot, the use of dialect, but found the central thesis a bit too "All Lives Matter" for my liking.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

April Reads Part Three

The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald
Spring by Ali Smith
Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan
The Nest by Gregory A. Douglas

There comes a time when you have to admit an author pulled one over on you. Usually, I can predict twists and solutions to mysteries. I've read enough mysteries to get a feel for how these stories move. The killer won't be that character because it's too obvious, but it can't be this other character either, because that's not tragic or shocking enough. And while I might have guessed a substantial part of the mystery in The Ivory Grin, the eponymous skull and the rest of its skeleton, surprised me. Which is lovely! It's fun to be surprised! As with other MacDonald novels, I loved this, especially its quiet moments. He deploys these Ozu-like transitions, these moments of quietude between long scenes of dialogue, and this is where the poet in MacDonald shows off:
It was late afternoon when I drove through Arroyo Beach to the ocean boulevard. The palm-lined sand was strewn with bodies like a desert battlefield. At the horizon sea and sky merged in a blue haze from which the indigo hills of the channel islands rose. Beyond them the sun's fire raged on the slops of space.
I  turned south into traffic moving bumper to bumper, fender to fender, like an army in retreat. The arthritic trees cast long baroque shadows down the cemetery hill. (210)
The novel grapples, quite consciously, with Black folks being railroaded by police. Even though one character couldn't have possibly committed the murder, he is arrested and jailed without charge because he is Black and he was there. MacDonald wrote this in 1952, 3 years before Rosa Parks, 3 years before Emmett Till, and 2 years before Brown v. Board of Education. For a white writer of mysteries, he risked little to express this sympathy for Black folks, but that he did is pretty commendable. However, his Black characters still have a taint of simplicity to them. Perhaps this improves with subsequent volumes.

The next Archer book in the series is Find a Victim, which I read in January of 2014. I'll skip it for The Barbarous Coast, the last novel in the "Archer in Hollywood" omnibus I own. After that is The Doomsters (which I read November 4, 2010) and then what everybody considers the high point of the entire series, The Galton Case. Eventually, and not in the too-distant future, I'll have read every single one, and I can go back to re-read the ones from 2014 and earlier.

Spring might be Ali Smith's longest novel and most ambitious. In one plotline, a washed-up TV director, now forgotten by the masses, considers suicide by train. In the other, a guard for a migrant detention centre gets roped into a journey by a little girl, fulfilling the classic Smith role of precocious disruptor. These two strands converge, things get disrupted, puns are made, and it ends with an honest-to-goodness climax. I liked this one more than Autumn, but not as much as Winter, which rises in my estimation with time. I don't have much to say about this, but we're 3 books down, with 1 to go, and this is an incredible project. I feel so blessed to live in a world where Ali Smith publishes a book a year.

I read the short story "Mr Gaunt" about four years ago in the anthology New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird and I was so jazzed by it, I started an entire blog post about it. I took notes, I drafted an opening paragraph, but then was distracted by this or that. On the strength of that memory, I purchased hardcover copies of the collection and his debut novel House of Windows (I picked up both used and cheap, so it wasn't the end of the world cost-wise). Finally, I got around to the collection, and it's a bit of a mixed bag. Rereading "Mr Gaunt" was a bit of a letdown, I'm afraid to report. I kept asking myself what I was so fired up about with this story. It's okay! Langan's prose is lovely, truly a close disciple of Henry James and M. R. James, both in prose and in affect. His stories are lush with detail, long and patient, but it's this adolescent self-consciousness which drags the stories down. He's not satisfied with clever easter eggs; his narrators explicitly name-check the influences. This attitude strikes me as snotty: "I'm not like those other horror hacks; I've read the classics and I want you to know." It weighs down the stories, makes them stuffy and almost inaccessible. The horror becomes distanced, more abstract than the physical details Langan describes intend. T. E. D. Williams managed this threading of influences with visceral horror quite a bit more smoothly. The final story, a previously unpublished novella titled "Laocoon, or the Singularity" was my favourite of the bunch: an sculptor discovers a weird Giger-style sculpture in the garbage, brings it home, and obsesses over finishing its face. The disintegration of his personal life, coupled with his failed artistic career, are handled well. The symbiosis of pop culture artifacts and texture with the horror and the personal doesn't quite work as well. Still, a good story. Langan shows a lot of promise, and hopefully with his next collection, he's shaken off the teen angst at being taken seriously.

I didn't read The Nest in the fancy new Valancourt edition. Nor did I read the American paperback with its famous cover. I did buy a copy online, expressly due to the cover, but the edition I was mailed was the UK edition, with a not-so-great cover, pictured above. It's also riddled with more type errors than I've ever encountered in a professionally published work. Yowza.

 This is one of the worst novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I try not to hate-read or hate-watch or irony-consume anything. I like to meet cultural objects at their level. And for most of The Nest, I did. I got a kick out of the purple prose, the completely wild violence, the better-than-average command of plotting. But as the novel wore on, for 450 pages, my patience began to deplete. Part of it is the incessant exposition, the entomology factoids lobbed at the reader, over and over. Two of the characters are the classic professor, the patrician expert from Harvard or whatever, spooling out reams of information, all meant to rationalize the horror. Which is my least favourite part about horror from the 80s. You don't need to justify the existence of this monster! Just let the monstrous invade the Real!! Perhaps that's why I gravitate more towards cosmic horror than creature feature stuff. I prefer my horror existential than physical.

And physicality is this book's raison d'être. There's an alarming amount of sexually-adjacent violence and genital mutilation described. In one telling scene, a man, running naked through the woods with his hand cuffed behind his back, decides to nestle into a pile of leaves to sleep through the night. No, the circumstances by which he finds himself there don't matter, so don't bother asking. He quickly realizes this pile of leaves feels enough like a woman (????), he is aroused, and he fucks the pile of leaves, the vibrations being enough to awaken the nest of sleeping cockroaches dangerously nearby. There are also numerous instances of penises being eaten or orifices being invaded by the villainous insects. One hilarious bit has a man and woman enjoying a steamy makeout session and he slips his finger inside her. She begins to protest because she doesn't like to be touched there—"there" being her anus—and it only takes the reader a second to realize the man isn't touching her there, but something else is!! A nasty bit of humour.   

As a final bit, I hope you're ready to enjoy the worst sex scene I've ever read. I'm going to quote it at length:
...and she spread herself wider, welcoming, wanting, lusting for him now. She felt Peter Hubbard enter her body. He was full and strong and straight. She uttered one cry which gave away in a moment to a gasp of ecstasy.
She held him fast inside of her as the deck of her life lsted in the sudden story of emotions she had never sailed before. She clung to him harder as her body became a skimming craft on swelling seas. She rose and fell, bobbed and turned and wheeled and heeled. She was a ship running before the wind of love; she was its sails; he was its keel. She was a bird; he was its wings.
Then suddenly she was the wind itself, and scudding clouds filled up with thunder and with the lightening he was charging up in her and charging up in her. Until she could contain it no longer. Like a storm sky she split, the thunder crashed out of her and the burst of her orgasm shook the world.
They came crashing to release together, both riven to the core. Then the tempest passed, easing easing at last to let their hearts clear and quiet in the fading wind, quieted the deep-breathing in a sleepy peace in each other's arms. (412)
Just awful. Men should be banned from writing about sex and/or women.

Monday, April 15, 2019

April Reads Part Two

Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted near the beginning of April he suffers from impatience with writers who frame their reviews with their personal connection to the cultural object in question. I have extremely well-developed search engine skills (my partner refers to it as "Google-Fu") leading me to suspect he deleted the tweet as I cannot find it. He deleted the tweet. But it gave me pause. Perhaps I do indulge in too much personal reminiscing when reviewing books. I often start my review by connecting the current object under scrutiny to a previous object. Is this mode stale? Am I putting too much of myself into these scribblings? Frankly, I write this blog for myself, and I'm eternally grateful for whoever might stop by, even if for only a moment. I thought of this opening gambit, this metacognition, because I knew exactly how I would open this review of a Kōbō Abe novel: by reminding readers I last read the author when I was 15 or so, struggling vainly against The Box Man. I wonder what is the point of mentioning this. To prove that I'm literate? To create a chronological connection? To illustrate how long I've been reading as an adult? Is it just narcissism? I'm not sure.

I was inspired to read Secret Rendezvous by Joachim Boaz of the blog Science Fiction Ruminations (here). I'd purchased the major seven Abe novels off a pal from Letterboxd about two years ago but hadn't got around to them. I'm glad I did, though, as this novel was a laugh riot. The narrator, unnamed of course, watches helplessly as an ambulance shows up to his house and takes away his wife, despite her being in good health and despite neither of them phoning for medical assistance. He hopes to track her down and goes to the local hospital, a nightmarish labyrinth of shifting geography and in-fighting bureaucrats. It's as funny as it is frustrating as the narrator never receives a straight answer to any of his questions and slowly, just like in modern day bureaucracies, he manages to ascend the job ladder to head of security. Kafkaesque, sure, but far more pointed in its satirical aims. Abe was a medical doctor, though he didn't practice, and from what he saw, he was angry. This should probably be a required text for any and all hospital administrators.

It's been too long since I've read an Abe book and I won't make the mistake of waiting >15 years to read another.

I don't think I'm well-versed enough in Catholicism to do justice to O'Connor's dark, psychological thriller. I read some reviews of it, and the Wikipedia article, and I knew I was in trouble, with regards to my critical lens, when I read the secular uncle was the antagonist of the book. I also read the book as quite critical of religious dogmatism and blind obedience, but apparently, the ending isn't that, because the prophecy is fulfilled and the mentally handicapped child is killed, but it's okay because he was baptized first. Reading these deeply religious works often frustrate my sensibilities; not in any prosaic, atheist way, as if my beliefs were being challenged, but in the sense that I'm coming at these texts without any of the background, cultural knowledge. My reaction to Scorsese's Silence was a large shrug (I could not fathom why Andrew Garfield wouldn't just step on Metal Jesus' face, even to save lives!). I liked The Violent Bear It Away because it's beautifully written and dripping with the much-loved Southern Gothic flavour. The prose was a lovely change of pace from the bland book I had just finished (here), but it was like reading a transmission from another planet, an aesthetically pleasing transmission, but confusing nonetheless.

I knew I was going to love the Didion collection pretty much right from the opening piece, a true crime bit of reportage which feels tired and soporific and stylistically energized all at the same time. Her voice, this perfectly pitched, pretentious, haughty, judgemental voice resonates outwards from each piece, no matter the subject. She is the subject. Yes this is style over substance but what style! what lexical precision! From her piece on keeping notebooks:
"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they regard one another in silence fora while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me.... (140)
Stunning. It's not just the careful accumulation of details (the Pucci bathing suit, the dipped toes) but the efficiency of it all. The switch from California to New York in the same paragraph, the "harsh" wind, her being "irrevocably" tired. It all hammers home this precision, this despondent, fin de siècle prose, a yawning emptiness she can't help but see everywhere she goes.

Later, in a piece on the uniqueness of Los Angeles, she goes to a piano bar, where in is written "the oral history of Los Angeles". She writes, all in one perfectly pitched paragraph:
A drunk requests "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." The piano player says he doesn't know it. "Where'd you learn to play the piano?" the drunk asks. "I got two degrees," the piano player says . "One in musical education." I go to a coin telephone and call a friend in New York. "Where are you?" he says. "In a piano bar in Encino," I say. "Why?" he says. "Why not," I say. (224)
This is, of course, the last paragraph of the essay, a shock to the system, a wry and sad period ending the piece. The amazing part about reading Didion is seeing where all of my favourite writers have gotten their style. Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Beattie, without Didion they would be nothing. Of course, Didion didn't entirely invent New Journalism, nor did she invent the absurdist non sequitur dialogue much cherished by short story writers (I've heard Samuel Beckett is the one to really nail this. I must investigate). But she certainly aced this style. I can't wait to read more of her work.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Light Brigade

I've had a few Kameron Hurley novels on my to-read list but hadn't got around to reading any of them until this newest one, of which I received an advanced reading copy. The Light Brigade has a clever-ish premise: soldiers are deployed, via teleportation, to Mars to combat insurgents. The method of teleportation is to break the soldier down into light, send them at light-speed, and reconstitute them in situ. The drama is derived from the time displacement issues the protagonist is experiencing. She perceives her life non-linearly, hopping around from moment to moment. It's a clever conceit, a way to replicate, with science fictional elements, the absolute chaos and disarray and confusion when dropping into a combat zone. It's infinitely disorienting. Each new deployment has the discombobulating effect of the opening to Saving Private Ryan: beautiful chaos. But more so, as the protagonist must not only orient herself in the battle but in her own timeline. This is supported, thematically, by the complete absence of calendars and regular timekeeping instruments. No, not absence—the purposeful withholding of these orienting tools. The military organization keeps their soldiers in the dark as much as possible, drilling into them the maxim of "stick to the brief," ie follow these immediate orders and ask no questions. Hurley's political aims in this book aren't subtle: the soldiers are being lied to, the enemy they're fighting is not who they think they are, corporations are waging vast wars across time and space using poor people as pawns to fuel their practically meaningless competitions. This is not subtext; this is literal text. One character paraphrases Marx's thoughts on bloody revolution. All very admirable and I applaud Hurley for finding a way to make war unappealing (anti-war films mostly inadvertently glorify war due to aesthetics) and to tie a science fictional element into the themes. Well done.

But I found reading the book far less enjoyable than thinking about the book. Hurley's sentences are simplistic, short, as if I'm reading See Spot Run and not a novel for adults. I suppose, if one were generous, one could ascribe the relative plainness of diction to the protagonist's lack of education, but how then to account for the moments of poesy? No, it's safer to say that these sentences are the reality of commercial fiction. Yesterday, I had a conversation with a coworker about The Expanse series. She hadn't really heard of the television show, but when I explained how many copies of the numerous volumes we sell at the bookstore, she was befuddled. Who watches this show? Who reads these books? (I loathed Leviathan Wakes for its holistic blandness) This got me thinking about what we readers expect from commercial fiction. I can't help but suspect that commercial science fiction is calculated to answer plainly these questions asked by readers:
  • "are these characters shippable/likable?"
  • "does the plot confirm my own political beliefs as a good liberal incapable of racism/sexism?"
  • "can I read this fast because too much time spent on one thing is bad"
I started reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen last night, an example of an opposite to commercial fiction, and my partner informs me Rankine designed the book to be less edifying and more experiential. She didn't want the usual methods of analysis weighed against the book in order to extract meaning from its words, thus abstracting the feeling, the political immediacy of the work. Thus, the book resists the usual mode of close reading. It also made me uncomfortable. For all my good white liberal hand-wringing, I'm still complicit in and benefit from white supremacy. It's politically necessary to induce discomfort.

The Light Brigade does not do this. Its aesthetics can't be described challenging, leading me to believe its simple sentences are strategic: the clarity of the message cannot be risked by anything so fancy as poesy. But is Hurley changing any minds with her safe science fiction tale, so easily consumed and so easily forgotten?

I'm torn by this novel. I did read it—quickly, in fact, surely a sign of competence. But I took nothing from the novel. I felt nothing, I was unmoved. Even though its subject matter was categorically adult (violence and gore and war crimes), the novel never felt grown up. It doesn't help that the spectre of Joss Whedon hovers over this, just like he does with so many geek properties. Characters aren't people; they're collections of quips and quirks. Every person the protagonist meets gets the barest minimum of characterization.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Gretchen Felker-Martin's essay, "I Don't Wanna Grow Up (And Neither Can You)" (here). She argues the necessity of transgressive art, the worst kind of art which wallows and even possibly celebrates the darkest possible aspects of humanity. She writes, articulating what I'd hoped to but better:
From the callous Islamophobia of the Iron Man movies to the US Air Force and CIA-approved wokeness of Captain Marvel and Black Panther, the whole enterprise is bent on saying as little as possible while looking as socially conscious as it can.
Gone are the truly radical works of art, for they have been erased or sanded down by the Left (and the Right, let's not forget about their moral crusades) in an effort to "protect" the marginalized, the traumatized, the wounded. Felker-Martin argues, passionately:
But what's left in art once you scour away the things that make you uncomfortable? What's left for the people who make their living and/or maintain their sanity by approaching our own suffering from a place of skill, assurance, and safety? What's left for readers and viewers trying to grow as people, to find empathy for those they've been taught to despise, to understand their own sexual shame and fear? What's left for people struggling with the isolation of abuse who have no support and no words to help them name it?
How can we grow if we can't explore the deepest, most taboo parts of our psyche? She demands we ask of ourselves what happens when all media confirms our pre-existing political, sexual, personal beliefs. We can't grow up if we don't ask, of ourselves, the difficult questions. For many folks, exploring the darkest, most traumatic aspects is the only way to come to grips with those same traumas.

Of course, you might disagree. That Hurley is arguing for communism is radical in of itself. That Hurley's expose of war crimes committed by soldiers is radical, is traumatizing, is taboo, for in the United States, the veneration of the military is taken as gospel. And I might perhaps agree with that. This might not even be a fair example of commercial fiction to examine through this lens. Maybe I'm reacting negatively against a book which ticks off all the right boxes and I'm just being a contrarian for the sake of it. I offer no easy answers to this.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

April Reads Part One

Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud
Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time edited by Hope Nicholson
Falling In Place by Ann Beattie

Wounds was tremendous, easily one of the best single author short story collections I've ever read. I had read two of the six stories already—"Atlas of Hell" in Year's Best Weird Fiction and "The Visible Filth" in chapbook format, which I guess makes me one of those weird fiction/horror nerds. The other four stories, new to me, with one being new to the collection, ranged from ok ("The Diabolist") to absolutely one of my all-time favourite ever ("The Butchers Table"). The collection is loosely, very loosely interconnected, mostly in how the borders of Hell rub up against our world, with all kinds of terrible things bleeding over into our reality. In "Skullpocket," a small town lives somewhat uneasily with a house full of ghouls, whose religion has seeped into the minds of townsfolk, replacing the Christian Church. Every year, children are summoned, by dream, to the house of the ghouls where they learn of the very first ritual in which they're current partaking. It's wonderfully plotted, cutting between flashback and the present, all the while the readers' idea of this story-world coheres, culminating in an incredible "punchline" at the end. "The Maw," which would have been my favourite story if but for the finale, reminded me of Alan Moore: a neighbourhood has been invaded by things from Hell and a small economy has built up in the aftermath: people desperate to find loved ones, mementos, etc left behind in the neighbourhood pay wily children to guide them through the Hellish urban space, where Surgeons, tall shadowy figures who create walls of human flesh, roam, and gaping maws of teeth and skin breathe from the centre of buildings. The last story, "The Butchers Table" might be described as an R-rated Pirates of the Caribbean: a group of Satanists employ a pirate ship to take them to the borders of Hell, where they will Feast on a human being and summon the Dark Lord himself. Hot on their tail are a quartet of hungry, mindless angels who can possess anything, even if the possession in turn destroys the physical body of the host. However, not all the human characters have the same goal; there are competing organizations of Satanists with different plans, a hired bodyguard with ambitions, and a gay Captain in search of his lover left behind in Hell the last time they were there. It all culminates in some of the best plotted finales I've ever read, full of blood and gore and reveals, and did I mention a kraken possessed by an angel? Ballingrud's imagination is on fire with these stories. I can't wait to follow him back into Hell. Highly recommended.

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time was our queer bookclub pick this month and it was a mixed bag. Three of the stories I outright hated, two I was indifferent, and only two did I actually like. The anthology is Indigenous-written and queer-focused and perhaps if the anthology had been left in the realm of realism, I might have found it more successful. However, the theme is science fiction and therein lies the problem. Many of the stories felt as if their science fictional elements tacked on, after the fact, without much thoughtfulness. "Legends Are Made, Not Born" by Cherie Dimaline depicts a young Indigenous person being brought into the world of Two Spirit by Auntie Dave, a memorable character unto themselves. However it's not until the end when Auntie Dave clumsily reminds the protagonist and therefore the audience the setting is New Earth, as Old Earth was abandoned. What's the point? The first story, "Aliens," is over-written, didactic, and diagrammatic to a fault. It's awful. The worst story is the most science fictional, "Imposter Syndrome", by Mari Kurisato. Imagine somebody who doesn't read science fiction trying to write a parody of all the worst tropes of science fiction. That's this story. It made me think of Raymond Chandler's famous dismissal of science fiction:
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It's a scream. It is written like this: "I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels."...They pay brisk money for this crap? (here)
That's what reading "Imposter Syndrome" felt like. However, not all is terrible. Gwen Benaway's "Transtions," a very lightly science fictional story, weighs the scientific method against the traditional methods. It's the story most accomplished and most writerly. Benaway, of whom I've only read some poetry, writes professionally, writes expertly, knowing how to pace a story, which details to include and exclude, and how to end. It's terrific. The other story I liked was "Néle," by Darcie Little Badger, an extremely fluffy F/F romance set on a Seed Ship taking dogs to the new colony on Mars. The protagonist is a vet, woken up from stasis to take care of the dogs, an extreme luxury item. She falls in love with one of the pilots. It's cute and it has zero dramatic stakes. Wonderful stuff. It's also the only story in the entire anthology which needs science fiction in order to tell its story. The premise and setting completely depend on the Fantastic. A mixed bag but those two stories were great.

I will admit it took me 2 weeks to read Falling In Place. The blame is shared equally between the book itself (good but could've been better) and myself. I've mentioned in the past, sometimes my tastes change in an instant. These last two weeks, I've been consumed with playing Batman: Arkham Knight on PS4. I don't write much about video games because I often feel unequipped to dive in with any acuity. Which sometimes deprives me of material with which to blog, as I do play video games. Recently, I've played Just Cause 3, Skyrim, and Bloodborne and I have not written a single word about them. Oh well. Falling in Place isn't quite as accomplished a novel as Chilly Scenes of Winter but still moved me. The scale is much larger: Beattie undertakes the glacier-cool breakdown of the late 70s American family and their orbiting friends and lovers. The cast's size might be the problem; much of the first half of the novel feels like vignettes, peeks into everybody's lives, so fleeting that the late turn towards actual plot can feel galling and unwelcome. Part of my problem with the novel is that I found certain characters a million times more textured than others but those were not the characters Beattie felt she needed to spend the most time with. On a scene-by-scene basis, though, Beattie is masterful, heartbreaking, wry, aloof. Some might accuse Beattie of disliking her own characters but I think there's a pity there, a sensitivity to the impossibilities the characters are faced with. I liked this novel but I didn't love it.

Monday, April 1, 2019

March Reads Part Two

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan
American Appetites by Joyce Carol Oates
Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds
The Burning House by Ann Beattie
Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Man Who Would be Kling by Adam Roberts

I never reviewed it, but I read Tim Maughan's Paintwork back in 2012, making me an oldschool Maughan fan (Maugfan?). I'm sure I heard about it from Jonathan McCalmont (pretty much all the good SF I've read has been recommended by him). I can't believe it's been 7 years since I read Paintwork and 7 years until he published his debut novel, Infinite Detail. Like Paintwork, this novel concerns itself with technology, urban spaces, music, and alternate modes of community engagement. Infinite Detail is split in two, cutting between the two: before the catastrophic collapse of the internet and after, when society is barely scrapping by. The highest compliment I can pay this magnificent novel is that I wish I could teach this. Maughan touches on so many of my favourite subjects: the erosion of community by the gentrification of England via destruction of council estates, the insidious grasp of global capitalism, British music of the 80s and 90s, architecture, and of course, excoriation of the white bourgeois class. This is the science fiction equivalent of the work of Mike Davis and Owen Hatherly. Maughan is only one of the only writers I've ever read in my life who writes about music in a way that is immediately gripping without ever being so abstract or Pitchfork in its metaphorical language. I listened to a long 3 hour jungle mix today at work in honour of finishing the novel. This was terrific. Easily one of the best novels I'll read this year.

Permafrost is my first Reynolds in a while. I was plugging away at Chasm City but it was like hitting a brick wall so I abandoned it. I hope to return to it at some point. Permafrost is another one of those novellas that I'm very keen on. 170 pages or so, readable, and finished in one or two sittings. Reynolds is a fantastic writer. I love his stuff. But I'm always passing his books on my shelf for shorter things. I wonder if it's market forces ballooning his novels to >600 pages. Anyway, that's beside the point. Permafrost is terrific, a cracking time travel story which doesn't get too bogged down by shenanigans and has the courtesy not to overstay its welcome. If they adapt any Reynolds property to feature length film, this would be a great place to start.

I read The Burning House over months which has fogged my memory of it, of course. After I would finish a novel, I'd pick this up and read a handful of stories before diving into the next novel. That I never felt impelled to continue reading it all in one go I think speaks to the unevenness of this collection. There are a handful of stories in this which rocked me to my core, which brought me close to tears, either of sadness or due to that ineffable exquisite pain good writing can provide. Only a couple stories were a bit tiresome or a chore to get through. Still, with almost every Beattie story, her glacial coolness, her beautiful non sequiturs, her razor sharp scalpel of insight, they all thrill me. Some of the standouts were "Jacklighting," about a couple after the death of their son, "Running Dreams," about a dog but isn't about a dog. The one about abortion just wrecked me, but I can't remember the title at the moment.

The Man Who Would Be Kling has the dubious distinction of being the best "Worst Cover Ever" novels I've ever read. The cover is fucking hideous, making it seem like it's self-published. This published, NewCon Press does these series of novellas, each one by a different author, but the four or five titles of the series connect to make one large picture. I only purchased this because of Adam Roberts. Like his other work, this is clever clever science fiction operating at a level I'm not sure I fully "get." It's set in Afghanistan, where a mysterious Zone has emerged which fries any and all electronic activity. Two cosplayers (yes I'm being serious) embark on a pilgrimage, despite the Zone killing every single previous interloper. The cosplayers hope their commitment to their roles of Klingon and Vulcan, respectively, will appease or placate whatever unknown presence controls the Zone. So we have a pastiche of Roadside Picnic (the Zone), Rudyard Kipling (the title, the colonial esprit), and Roberts' usual mucking about with Star Trek and fandom. I'm not 100% sure if I understand what he's getting at, other than to levy the twofold, connected charge that Afghanistan has been the playground for rich people to exercise their weapons and Star Trek is a middle-class bourgeois fantasy which perhaps allows people the fantasy (or delusion) that they're really liberal. The implication, I'm sensing, is that the same people who pretend to be liberals are the same people who would stage wars and lie about how logical/necessary is war. It's a lot for 70 pages but thankfully, it's entertaining as all hell and Roberts' skill with prose is unmatched by his peers. I'm always grateful Roberts is out there doing his weird thing (publishing an entire novella based presumably on a pun he dashed off on Twitter one afternoon) and will continue to follow him where-ever his bizarre proclivities take him.

American Appetites was such a B-list Oates novel: not terribly ambitious, not out-there, not Gothic, and concerned with middle-aged academics and their infidelities. But that's okay! That's what I wanted! Not every Oates story has to be this grotesque trip into the mind of the world's worst, though the liberalism evinced by these schlubby profs could potentially put them in that category. The "appetites" of the title refers not only to a character's job as cookbook writer but to the hunger for more outside of a marriage. Symbolism! It's not the deepest novel and doesn't quite have the lexical dexterity of her other works, but I was entertained for a few days.

Normal People is a masterpiece and if I could summon the energy to write about it, I would. I haven't been feeling writing much and my reading has taken a small dive these past few weeks. I was resistant to the hype, to the cult of Rooney, but after devouring two of her novels, you can mark me down as a loyal disciple.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

March Reads Part One

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates
Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

The more time goes on, the more I think Children of Time is one of my all-time favourite science fiction novels. Despite my enthusiasm for what I thought was a stand-alone novel, the prospect of a sequel did make me a bit wary. The novel had reached a satisfying conclusion; I couldn't imagine where a sequel would go. I shouldn't have been so nervous. Children of Ruin is bigger, yet scaled more intimately, and, instead of retcons or time travel or space battles, is a thoughtful exploration of sentience and communication.

A exploratory vessel, crewed by a human-spider alliance, is on the hunt for more planets, more life, more anything. Their mission might have practical parameters but is truly pure science, the kind popularized by the ethos of Star Trek, the original series. The ship finds substantial evidence of another lifeform, whether completely machine or alien or yet another evolutionary project gone wild, they know not. As they attempt to make contact, the alien lash out defensively, putting the humans and spiders in mortal danger. Meanwhile, in the distant past, another terraforming ship finds a planet they call Nod and an ocean moon orbiting it. The human crew find themselves in (yet again) mortal danger and one member hopes his modified octopuses will evolve fast enough to save them. If these weren't enough balls for Tchaikovsky to juggle, the secret of the planet Nod reveals itself to be utterly terrifying. The author gets to indulge himself in some of the most frightening and harrowing scenes of space-horror I've read in a long time.

Spoilers after this line

In the present timeline, the octopuses have become spacefaring but only thanks to the presence of the human technology. They're too fractious by nature and territorial and indecisive as a species and thus they have polluted their own waters and have accidentally unleashed the plague from Nod, which I still won't spoil the specifics. But suffice it to say, what makes Children of Ruin better than I had hoped is that Tchaikovsky's end is predicated not on "might makes right" or who has the best arsenal of weapons but the ability to cross the almost insurmountable gap of communication between species. The climax of the novel isn't about violence at all, though a ticking clock does feature in the suspense. Instead, like many great Star Trek episodes, crisis is averted by finding common ground and mutual learning. The plague on Nod, the octopuses, the humans, and the spiders discover a compromise through communication. This pushes the novel from the realm of good to great even if during a long stretch in the novel, my patience was thinning thanks to the passivity of the plot. Most of the plot is comprised of the protagonist reacting to something rather than being active participants. This isn't necessarily a negative point but after 300 pages, their passivity gets a bit tiring. Otherwise, this was superb.

I finally bought a hardcopy of Scale-Bright after years of hemming and hawing. I'm not sure how much of the ebook I read way back when (I used an ereader for a bit) so I'll mark this as a first read. I devoured this in two sittings, stopping at the halfway point just to savour it a smidge. I'm so glad I bought the hardcover because I'm going to read this over and over, just to enjoy the prose. While the writing isn't quite as refined as in Winterglass (which, by the way, is a masterpiece), it's still miles ahead of most shit I've read. Most negative reviews have complained of the ornateness of her sentences, the way she piles on descriptors and adjectives, but these work for me as the spice of variety. There's a carefulness and thoughtfulness put into her words and her characters, pushing what could be a standard urban fantasy into the realm of beautiful and poignant. Obvious villains turn out to be more complex and are portrayed with sensitivity; likewise the protagonist learns from her experience without her starting point being useless or ignorant. Her struggles with the fantasy aspects mirrors her personal struggles, but the fantasy never feels like a simple one-to-one extension of her interiority. I wish more authors would write 5 star 100 page novellas instead of 3.5 star 500 page novels. Make the novella standard!! I demand it!! Plus, one has to admire a novel which doesn't pass the gender-reversed Bechdel Test: I'm pretty sure no man speaks to another man in Scale-Bright. For that alone, this is five stars! Thankfully, there is an abundance of pleasures to be had, including a vivid description of one lesbian god wearing a bespoke tailored suit like a boss.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Female of the Species

Shamefully, it appears the last Oates book I read was in Feb-March of 2017. I had a friend pick up this collection of short stories for me, a first edition in hardcover, with its dust jacket in okay condition. I read this and immediately remembered why I love reading Oates so much: her writing is so feverish, so shambolic, so atavistic, like she's tapped into the primordial darkness itself. Even when she's not quite firing on all cylinders, such as a couple in this collection, the stories still manage to thrill, to excite from just the prose itself. Lots of folks do not vibe with her sentences, either because they're too messy, too rickety or because there's just too much of them. I understand this complaint. But for me, her words feel like an explosion of feeling, a compulsion, an obsession. She must write and write she must. Though I haven't done this in eons, I will review each of the stories individually. Part of the reason why I'm doing this is because the stories themselves were so impactful and memorable that I'm easily able to differentiate them.

"So Help Me God" is a portrait of both an abusive relationship and a high school sweetheart situation. When she's only a teen, the protagonist falls in love with a very young cop who harbors some sinister darkness within. When they first meet, the cop pulls her over from her bike, asks her where she got the bike, where's her license, etc. He threatens to put her in jail and all the while, she's crying and sweating, just a little girl. He puts handcuffs on her, puts her in the back of the car. He revels he's just teasing, and the protagonist even reflects this is sexual and physical harassment, but there's an obvious frisson of sexual excitement. The allure of the punishment, of the humiliation, the crying, the sweating through thin summer clothes. It's all very feverish and sexy, even while at the same time, disgusting and off-putting. I suppose one could argue Oates is implying the girl is complicit in her own, later abuse, but I'd say the story is more complicated than that, especially as at the end, the protagonist finds a measure of self-actualization.

"The Banshee" was the story in the collection when I knew I would love this book. A young girl with a brand new baby brother finds a novel way to attract her parents' attention during a busy cocktail party. This is the true example of suspense: I barely remember reading this, as I tore through it as fast as I could, just to get to the end. It's a mixture of heady delirium and careful accumulation of physical details, such as how hot the baby feels, how heavy he is in her arms etc. 

"Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi" is the kind of fucked up shit Oates is known for: a road trip story about a father who prostitutes his daughter and the bloody way by which she rebels. Not my favourite piece as Oates always finds the creepiest way to describe pubescent bodies. The effect is purposeful but it's transparent and tiresome. 

"Madison at Guignol" is my favourite story in the collection. What starts as a cliched portrait of rich people, with the usual easy targets of consumerism and narcissism ends up in the realm of the Weird and the Eerie. The closest this collection comes to pure horror. A rich trophy wife in search of the perfect belt for an outfit demands entrance into a store after hours, only to discover a marvelously macabre end. The "Guignol" of the title is no mistake.

"The Haunting" has a bit too much of Oates' tendency to vocalize as a child. Writing in a child's voice is not Oates' strong suit but it's a well from which she continues to draw. In this one, a sister and her old brother grapple with life after their father's mysterious death and the endless cages of rabbits in the basement of their new home. A good one but not the collection's finest.

"Hunger" is one of the longer pieces and its careful construction and suspense makes it one of the better stories. A rich trophy wife on weekend holiday at the beach comes across a beautiful young man with a mysterious background. Slowly and inexorably they are drawn together until they consummate the relationship. But when she leaves to go home, back to her life, the young man turns up at her house. They take risks, they make love. Again, it's the feverish feeling the prose creates, like your head is swimming and you're not in control of your body. You make these potentially disastrous mistakes but you can't help yourself. Oates' debt to noir shows in this one, as the protagonist can't stop herself but the taboo and the illicit are always a draw. 

"Tell Me You Forgive Me?" is the most structural ingenious of any of the stories. A mother attempts to confess a terrible crime to her daughter and from there, the story works backwards chronologically. I wasn't on board with this one at first, as it opens with a letter, one of my least favourite mediums of literature, but once I realized where the story was going, I was enthralled. The crime at the heart of this story isn't nearly as important as how the crime affects the characters, an important distinction often missed by more salacious writers (and not to say Oates can't be salacious. Often she revels in the illicit and squalor). "Tell Me You Forgive Me?" is perhaps more entertaining as a concept than as a story, but still very compelling.

"Angel of Wrath" has Oates leaning into the more fucked up shit again. Here, a mute giant previously abused by his mother becomes obsessed with a single mom and stalks her, leading her to take drastic action. Sometimes I get the feeling Oates just piles on coarse details not for the sake of the story but for an effect, and while this usually works in her favour, here it's cheap, tawdry, like she's slumming and not in the good way. Most of the giant's life and physical presence feels this way. Even though I loved where the story went, this could have been better.

"Angel of Mercy" was a tough read, following a young nurse in a stroke and tumour ward in a hospital, where patients deteriorate at an alarming speed and become empty husks, mummies full of piss and shit and nothing else. The nurse is quickly enthralled by one patient, a handsome rich kid disfigured in a car accident of his own fault. The lengths she goes to care for him begin to stretch her sanity, her professionalism. This was a great read, full of the depravity Oates is good at while still maintaining a successful affective pitch.  

Overall, a great collection. The Doll-Master might have the edge on this one because it's a bit shorter and the individual stories are a bit tighter. Even still, this is exactly the kind of work I expect from Oates and she delivered in full force. Highly recommended.