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 Tor.com 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.

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