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.


Paul said...

Some of the other elements I think are at work in "Kling" are the biblical tale of Balaam and the ass (reenacted by Dallas and his mule), the third MIB's comment about becoming as children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and the two references to the Aleph (Chillingsworth reports seeing a giant Hebrew letter in the zone, which strikes me as a reference to M. John Harrison's EMPTY SPACE, itself a take on ROADSIDE PICNIC. The narrator has a dream of a giant ox plowing the zone at the end of the story, the image of an ox being what the character for Aleph represents).

matthew. said...

Wow. Thanks for this Paul. Just goes to show how impressively clever Adam is!