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 "NĂ©le," 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.

No comments: