Sunday, July 14, 2019

Miami Blues


I've marked down somewhere on this blog that I've read Miami Blues and I don't think I finished it. I remembered the first third or so, but the turn at the halfway point, I did not remember (the synopsis on the back of the in-print edition gives the illusion this turn is the opening incident, which is not the case, and I'm glad I hadn't spoiled it for myself). I also don't remember the book being so weird, so offbeat. I'm extremely suspicious of myself. I think I wrote down that I read it just as a way to inflate my numbers! J'accuse!! 

I wonder what my reaction would have been had I finished the book. Certainly, I was kept off-kilter for almost the entire book by its aesthetics and I suspect a younger me might have been put off or have penalized the novel. I'm not sure I'm wiser now, but I think I'm more open-minded when it comes to aesthetics. Miami Blues is one of the weirdest crime novels I've ever read and I'm not 100% not referring to the plotting. Nothing particularly abnormal or outside the lines happens, nothing that wouldn't sit comfortably in a Leonard novel, but it's all in how Willeford tells his tale that made such an impression on me right now.

His Wikipedia page gives insight into the uniqueness: novelist Steve Erickson is quoted as saying, "The camera's not really focused on the middle of the scene. It's a little bit off. They're not plot driven or language driven, which makes them really different from most major crime novels. They're character driven and cunning in a very eccentric way" (here). The language isn't particularly beautiful—no one would praise him for poesy. And, as I said, the plotting isn't all that wild, either. But there's just something off about everything. Part of the effect derives from how flat all the description is. There's lots of paragraphs giving step by step directions the characters are taking, which highway and which street and that same flat delivery is used for scenes of violence. The gore and gunshots and bodies get the same treatment as clothes, booze, cars, desks, coffee, food. But Willeford rarely pays lavish attention to whatever object in the scene might be the central metaphor. Hoke Moseley's false teeth, for example, are rarely described or focused on, even when they're being thrown out a window. Broken bones, shot faces, blood and guts are rarely lingered over. Like Erickson says, the camera is just always off a little. Here's the inciting scene, when the antagonist meets a Hare Krishna in the airport:
"I want to be your friend," the Hare Krishna said, "and—"
Freddy grasped the Hare Krishna's middle finger and bent it back sharply. The Krishna yelped. Freddy applied sharper pressure and jerked the finger backward, breaking it. The Krishna screamed, a high-pitched gargling sound, and collapsed onto his knees. Freddy let go of the dangling finger, and as the Krishna bent over, screaming, his wig fell off, exposing his shaved head. (3)
The actual breakage is just a single phrase but the noise the victim produces gets three sentences and a variety of sounds: yelp, gargle, scream and then a repetition of scream. Just fascinating choices. 

In the next chapter, Hoke, his partner, an assistant DA, and the coroner are talking about the man killed of a broken finger:
"...I'll have to research this case, that's all. We can't do anything about it anyway until you catch the man in the leather jacket."
"That's all we've got to go on," Hoke said. "Leather jacket. We don't even know the color of the jacket. One guy said he had heard it was tan; another guy said he'd heard gray. Unless the man comes forward by himself, we haven't got a chance in hell of finding him. He could be on a plane for England or someplace at this minute." Hoke took a Kool out of a crumpled package, lit it, took one drag, and then butted it out in a standing ashtray. "The body's all yours, Doc. We've got all of the stuff out of his pockets." (11)
Mostly I quote this to highlight the single puff on the cigarette, but also to get a feel of the dialogue. People don't talk like this, but it also isn't stilted enough to sound false. It doesn't sound real but it doesn't sound not-real. It's like Willeford is editing a transcription. Again, it's that off-kilter feel to everything. Of course there's a standing ashtray. Of course he adds "or someplace" to the hypothetical location. Why England of all places? The world in which these characters live in is weird.

Speaking of which, I was worried, for the first half, if this novel was secretly reactionary, secretly upset with immigrants, with how much crime non-white people "bring" into the US. Though Hoke is investigating this one crime, he's also busy with a quadruple homicide, one of the victims being a child, and another being a hotel maid. There's a misanthropic vein pumping under the skin of Miami Blues. Another aspect of the off-kilter vibe is that the antagonist, Freddy, keeps stumbling upon crimes-in-progress. He goes to the mall and watches a pickpocket; he pops into a convenience store for milk and interrupts a stick-up. Everywhere he goes, he runs into crime already happening. Miami, in this novel, is Hell, a thieves' paradise, a hotbed of ceaseless crime, shit piling up and up, with cops barely able to keep their head above the tide, or swimming with it. Hoke's cop friends are always on the verge of retiring because of the crime. One cop complains a guy on the street threw a cinderblock through the police car window. 

But the novel is also at pains to remind us Freddy is piece of shit, too. A "blithe psychopath" he's called in the first sentence of the novel. Though the reader might see a reactionary position, a hatred of Latino folks, the truth is that Willeford is frustrated with the systems of inequality, the way the gears grind, how the machine is lubricated with the blood of the poor. Innocent or criminal, the poor suffer in Miami Blues. Either they're destined for crime by dint of class or they're destined to be victims. All the while, in the background, never seen and never named, are the ruling classes who own the properties, the highways, the freeways, the very city in which they live. The threat of property development lurks on the edges of this novel all the time. It's capitalism to blame for the cycles of violence these characters find themselves enacting repeatedly. Of course, there's no accounting for "blithe psychopaths" in this schema, but he at least gets his comeuppance. 

Yet another example of Floridian literature where the panhandle feels like an alternate dimension. It sounds like America, it feels like America, but it isn't. There's a great moment where Freddy orders a Denver omelette and the waiter doesn't know what he's talking about. He describes it and Susan, his accomplice from Florida, says, "He wants a homestyle omelette." It's always just a little off. It sounds familiar but it isn't. Willeford spends as much time describing highways as he does the ever-pervasive humidity. Freddy complains it's like breathing underwater. Florida is a sidestep out of reality, where crime is this ceaseless activity always already happening and the swamp is creeping at your feet, always ready to swallow you whole. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

July Reads Part One

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard

I last read an Elmore Leonard novel in 2013 (La Brava) making it 6 years to the month. I'm currently on a smidge of a Florida kick; I can't stop thinking about this alien dimension just jutting out from the continental USA. It's this weird zone of everything all at once—swamps, forests, gators, beaches, lush land, pastel colours—and the people are famously (infamously) bizarre too. There's a "Florida Man" stereotype of bananas criminals who do the dumbest things. Florida is like if California was a hundred times more humid and without the patina of respectability offered by the film industry. It's pure id, all desire and grasp. Or at least that's how it feels as an outsider. There's a reason why Jeff VanderMeer set Area X in Florida!

Maximum Bob is generic Elmore Leonard in the sense that it's exactly what is say it's about and it's more about the good time you're going to have with it. During my experience with it, I tried to slow down and figure out the craft toiling away in the background. What is it about Elmore Leonard that makes this so good? His technical accomplishments feel effortless, as if he dashed this novel off in an afternoon. And maybe he did, maybe he's that gifted of a writer. The nuts and bolts, the actual words on the page get their force from the efficiency. Leonard has perfected minimalism; he provides enough physical detail in short sharp sentences to create the atmosphere and then lets his characters loose in that world. It's all about the elimination of the extraneous. I'm sure there's a highly verbose, lushly written crime novel out there as fun as Leonard's stuff, but I haven't found it yet.

Tampa I read not because of its lurid subject matter, but because of its setting. Which is a shame as its setting doesn't impact the novel much. It's background information. I tend to avoid "disturbing" or edgelord stuff nowadays because they use their shocking subject material as a veil to hide a paucity of substance or meaningful engagement with ideas. In other words, it's shock for shock's sake. Which is why, despite enjoying A. M. Homes quite a bit, I haven't yet read her The End of Alice which sounds as edgelord as this. Perhaps I should. Perhaps the craft elevates the material? That's the case with Tampa. The treatment of abuse and manipulation wouldn't have worked as well as it does if the novel wasn't as funny as it is. I laughed riotously at the protagonist's absurd private fantasies, such as imagining the pleasure she'd have if a gigantic Godzilla-sized version of her crush would obliterate her under his massive foot. She goes on to imagine this giant crouching, his penis so large it crushes a nearby car. She compares said member to a sequoia and I couldn't stop laughing. I suppose that's the only way to write such objectionable material with impunity from society: use satire to scrub away any possibility of endorsement. I liked this well enough to seek out Nutting's other work!

I'm heartbroken to announce that The Sparsholt Affair is Hollinghurst's worst novel. Though with the caveat: his worst novel is still better than most of the dreck being published. The major issue, the fatal flaw, is the novel replicates quite self-consciously the structure of The Stranger's Child, but without the connective tissue of a poem. The titular affair is not a single thing but a pun, referring to a scandal (similar to the Profumo Affair, but gay) spoken of only in the background and the extramarital affair itself. Thus, it doesn't have the same force as the poem which unites the previous novel's disparate sections. Where The Stranger's Child is about memory and time and art, The Sparsholt Affair is more about the changing fortunes of gay men in England. Not necessarily a negative thing! In fact, if I hadn't read The Stranger's Child, I would call this one a classic! It's just less ambitious, less successful, and more ephemeral than its older sibling. What a shame. The novel is wonderful to read in the moment thanks to Hollinghurst's careful prose. He innately understands the importance of seemingly-banal touches and gestures during conversations. A hand on a shoulder has as much dramatic force as a gunshot in a Hollinghurst novel. I wonder if he has another novel in him yet.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

June Reads Part Three

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Supper Club by Lara Williams

There's a moment early in The Golden Notebook that gave me the widest smile. If I had been a white liberal on Twitter, I would have retweeted it, saying "YASSS KWEEN GO OFF," but that's exactly the kind of shit Lessing mocks in this novel. In one of the notebooks, Lessing's narrator and fellow author observes that the novel has become merely a travelogue for the bourgeoisie, a way for them to see How It Is Over There, with "there" standing in for any marginalized group exploited through the vagaries of realism. Lessing's observation is both severely acute and incredibly prescient as realism of late has increasingly lost interest in social realism, opting instead for heartwarming narratives of the poor "overcoming" their hardships by hard work etc. It's a shame the Americans with their masochistic Protestant valorizing of work have dominated the publishing world as true socialist realism seems completely antithetical to their project of naked capitalism. How else to explain the ceaseless waves of New York novels about affluent white people with marriage problems, published by affluent white people with family in publishing?

The Golden Notebook is an excoriation of bourgeois values, a call-to-arms, and absolutely feminist (second wave, but second wave feminism is better than none, I suppose). Its subject isn't just a challenge to the bourgeois—its very structure represents a provocation to the usual novel. At first glance, the narrator's disillusionment with the local Communist Party and its critique of Stalin and Stalinism might appear to be anti-communist, but dig a little deeper and you'll see the narrator loves the idea of communism and has only ire for the comrades who have twisted its goals for their own desires. Though, desire isn't quite the word. Perhaps appetites is a better word. The men in this novel are ravenous but only for exploitation. All they want is to use up women, to exhaust them of their individuality, their sex, their own desires.

My favourite sequence in the entire novel is a day in the life of our narrator. She wakes up and realizes her period has started. She's been trained to find menstruation disgusting and she does what she can to disguise it. She takes meetings with men and finds herself irritable. Is she irritated because of her period or because of men? Would she have been as irritated if she hadn't known her period had started? It's hot and sticky in London and her thighs feel gross. She takes the tube during rush hour and a man leers at her, his eyes wide, his grin lascivious. She gets off a stop early, just to avoid this man, but he follows her. "Fancy a drink, love?" he asks her repeatedly. It's harrowing and it's harrowing for its commonness. 

Later in the novel (or early in the timeline, it's difficult to parse sometimes), the narrator goes to a cocktail party hosted by blacklisted Americans hiding in the UK. This provides Lessing with an opportunity to mock Americans for their caustic humour, their aggression, their need to hurt everybody. A married couple trade some gentle barbs, but it's clear there's resentment underneath. It finally explodes:
(With a look at his pretty blonde wife wich said: Don't worry honey, you know I'm just covering up, don't you?) but it was no good their covering up, the group of protection was not strong enough for the moment of violence. Nelson and his wife were alone, forgetting all of us, standing at the other side of the room, locked in hatred for each other, and a desperate yearning plea to each other; they were not conscious of us any longer; yet in spite of everything, they were using the deadly, hysterical, self-punishing humour (469)
This little bit gives us insight into the rest of the novel's feelings about marriage and couplings. In the fractured modern world, individuals are pitted against each other, and even if they strive for harmony, the very conditions of modernity preclude it, forcing people into adversarial relationships. The whole novel is a bit second wave in many ways, especially it's biological essentialism and vague homophobia, but its clarity of purpose overrides some of the problematic aspects. It is a 60 year old novel after all. While behind the times in many ways, it's aggressively progressive in other ways, such as its frank treatment of orgasms and masturbation and periods and anger, righteous fury. 

I loved the novel until I didn't, though. The last two hundred pages a bit of a slog: the narrator gets into an emotionally abusive relationship with an American expat and while its commitment to depicting the cyclical nature of these kinds of relationship is admirable, it's exhausting. By the end, I wanted one of them to murder the other just for a change of pace. Otherwise, an astonishing book.

Supper Club is the kind of book that's going to get the most annoying press. It's already being marketed as "Fight Club for women!" which is obnoxious in the same way "Sally Rooney is a JD Salinger for the Snapchat generation" is. Lara Williams' novel isn't quite as anarchic as Palahniuk's debut and it isn't as beholden to the thriller mode, thank god. Instead, it's more of a sibling to Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation (here) in that it's a righteously angry book about being a woman in the 21st century. The characters aren't likeable, the plots are thin excuses for diatribes against the ways women are marginalized, minimized, ignored, disrespected. Like other books I've read this year, there's a pleasing attention paid to women's bodies—specifically not in an objectifying way: blood, guts, periods, vomit, intoxication, snot, clots, sweat, stink. Supper Club's narrator speaks to me on a spiritual level; like myself, she regards her body as a elastic prison of flesh, growing and shrinking of its own will, laden with semiotic meaning to the point of overburden. But there's a great sense of humour about it:
I leaned over, stepping into my pants [underwear] and turning around to look for my bra, and froze when I saw the little boy from the other family suddenly in front of me. He promptly burst into tears and ran away at the sight of my naked breasts.
"Everyone's a critic," I said and my aunt started laughing. (106)
I literally laughed out loud at this bit. The whole novel is filled with these little snatches of wit, which I'm grateful for, as the subject matter often made the novel heavy going. The women of this novel are scared, angry, beaten down, raped, abused, insulted all the time in their daily lives, a reality which necessitates the titular supper club, a space where they can celebrate their own appetites and literally take up space and be loud and be themselves without the risk of embarrassment or social punishment. These women are paradoxically alienated from daily life and forcibly imbricated into it. The supper club is their chance to wedge their desires between the scales on the skin of society.

I wish, though, that the novel wasn't quite so didactic. Much of the themes and meaning are explicated. It's superfluous and kind of slows things down, but on the other hand, sometimes being precise and clear is necessary praxis.

But I like I said, it's often hilarious:
I'd been to only a handful of weddings in my life, always marveling in their total abstraction, like finding out your friends own a yacht or are furries. I wondered what sort of people even had weddings—and how they planned and paid for them. It was like my mum was revealing herself as part reptile. (225)
hahaha

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.

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 MiƩville 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.