Friday, January 18, 2019

The Sea, the Sea


It's been literally years since I completed a Booker Prize winner (The Luminaries, here). My project to read them all stalled out after I started university, due to a lack of energy and a change in focus. I have some faint nostalgia for those heady, rushed years during which I voraciously consumed Bookers willy-nilly; it was an exciting time, reading-wise, as the project asked me read books I would not have looked at before. My tastes expanded. My cultural literacy increased. I remember a day, a beautiful summer day, when I walked to the library (I lived down the block from the main branch), picked up J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and I read it in a single day thereabouts. I think fondly of that time, perhaps because of the relative peace and equanimity before my girlfriend of the time broke up with me, and perhaps because of the initial rush of freedom after university, when all of my reading time was my own. Funny how the project's temporary stoppage coincided with harrowing emotional shifts and drastic weight loss. Now, here I am, years later, much fatter, and balding, reminiscing when my hair was perfect, my social life existed. The blog helps archive but my memory remains for much.

This kind of self-indulgence is an apropos way of beginning a review for The Sea, the Sea, a long novel, winner of the Booker Prize in 1978, which doesn't begin for 91 pages in this edition. The first section, titled "Pre-History," does much of the stage-setting, so to speak, as Charles Arrowby, the retired theatre director, shuffles off to Shruff End, a house by the sea, where he will "adjure" the "magic" of the stage and write about his (unique, to say the least) culinary exercises and his memories. Long paragraphs of places, people, moments, and emotions flow from his pen, stymieing any modern reader expecting plot. This is my second time with The Sea, the Sea; the first I never finished it (obviously), frustrated by its passivity, its inactivity, its stodginess. Even now, as a different reader, the first section is a hump, an obstacle to overcome before getting to the meat. While this "Pre-History" is entertaining, perceptive, it doesn't vibrate with the electricity of the long middle section, when Murdoch lets loose, has all her characters on stage, so to speak. The manic setpieces in the middle are comic delights, theatrical farces with people coming and going, even if the reason for their exits and entries is darker, more corrupt than Charles himself would have you believe.

A monumental coincidence is the hinge upon which the plot turns: Charles bumps into his very first (and by his metric, only) love from when he was a boy. Hartley (her middle name) is now frumpy beaten-down Mary, wife of a void named Ben Fitch. Charles, intoxicated by the rush of memories, believes her to be trapped in an unhappy marriage. He rushes about, strenuous in his attempts at—not seducing her, but rescuing her from this trap of matrimony. When she resists, confused but determined to remain in her situation, Charles concludes the only solution is to kidnap her. Throughout this time, he congratulates himself on never forcing her, always allowing her her freedom if she so chooses, but eventually, she returns to Ben. 

There are a multitude of other characters, other complications, including the coincidental arrival of Titus, the Fitch's adopted son. Other people in the novel seem to the sole function of vexing Charles, such as his cousin James; an ex-lover hellbent on destroying any of Charles' attempts at relationships; an actor debasing himself to be Charles' butler. Much of these characters exist only to provide turns in the plotting and fodder for comic setpieces. Only James, the cousin, appears to elicit thematic depth from the novel. 

And there is much depth to this. The Sea, the Sea is a dense tapestry of thematic strands, so much so I'm at a loss to say what the novel is "about" without violently simplifying it. Murdoch's eye is brought to bear on the secretive nature of marriages, the lengths people will go to deceive themselves, the foolishness and sacredness of love, and of course the implacability of the sea itself. The eponymous sea looms in the horizon at all times in this novel, sometimes still but often sending its waves to crash at the edge of the reader's consciousness. Murdoch spends much time describing the sea in loving, threatening ways. Charles imagines the sea hosts a frightening marine monster, an eel of impossible dimensions, and it hungers for him. A symbol which works a bit better, not so naff, is Charles' repeated but always thwarted attempts at a rope to pull swimmers from the rocks where they emerge from their swim. Every time he ties a rope, the waves lap the knot undone. In other words, the sea has no interest in people's plans, in their ambitions, in the tiny dramas of their lives. The sea always gets its desires. 

There is an edge of mysticism in the novel that my review is hopefully hinting at. In the final quarter, James provides Charles with some much needed reality couched in the verbiage of Eastern religion and exoticism. This is the late Seventies after all, when the occult and New Age began their inexorable conquest of bourgeois society. For some, such as The Guardian's Sam Jordison, this angle is nothing more than "mystical bollocks" (here). For me, Murdoch's almost-but-not-quite magical realism works: Charles, the Prospero figure (or so he would like to think) has given up stage-magic and trades it for a more meaningful, deeper magic of the real world. Whether or not he grows during this experience is left up to the reader. Though the sea gives him a sign at the end of his re-acquaintance with Nature (seals lark about in the pool where he almost drowned earlier), the postscript, an over-long epilogue shifts things. Charles' self-deceit is still prominent, but maybe not as powerful. Murdoch appears to be suggesting, subtly, gently, people can change, but only a little. 

A novel of memory and its delusions but too long and perhaps not dark enough (?). The Booker Prize tally stands at 60%, 32 out of 53. Maybe I'll try to read another in a smaller timeframe than before.

Friday, January 4, 2019

January Reads Part One

Howards End by E. M. Forster
Slimer by Harry Adam Knight

Forster's Howards End took me a lot longer to read than I was expecting. For a book only 360 pages long (the Everyman's Library edition, in gorgeous Palatino typeface), the novel used up 7 days of my reading time! I'll admit, my faithful reader, I struggled with Forster quite a bit. My initial impression was that all these characters were rich snobs, even the poor character! Each person to open their mouth, whether it be the annoyingly idealistic and naive Schegel sisters or the materialistic capitalists Wilcox family, seemed designed to fan the flames of violent revolution in my heart. Every single one of these people should have been put up against the wall. Though, as the novel progresses, Forster does some complicated characterization work, the kind other novelists can only dream of coming near in skill level. Margaret and Helen are given such beautiful speeches about connecting, about humanity, about duty and responsibility and ethics and art and romance, and one can sense the two of them are functioning as mouthpieces for the author himself. Why else give a character the "only connect" speech so frequently quoted (even by me) and representative of the novel's themes and aims? The trick is that Margaret and Helen are kind of annoying on purpose. They're not saints, but silly sheltered girls who have never experienced hard work or hard times. Of course they're idealistic. And idealistic folks say and do ignorant things. What the novel doesn't do, though it comes perilously close, is punish the Schegels for their idealism and optimism. Unlike a novel written today, the characters do not suffer an ironic fate, a kind of nasty nihilism plaguing contemporary fiction. The last 80 pages are a masterclass in technical skills, though the death of Leonard Bast, necessary for the plot, I guess, makes my radicalism scream. Forster might have had an excess of empathy—for his time—but he still had a way to go. Howards End is a great novel, but it's soured somewhat by its lionizing of the rich.

 
The Fungus was one of my favourite reads of 2018 so why not ring in the New Year with his earlier novel Slimer? I would have purchased a vintage paperback of it, but there was only two editions (UK and US) and both go for big bucks. Valancourt Press, of whom I've spoken before, reissued both novels this year with terrific cover. The new cover for Slimer accomplishes a rare feat: it equals the original covers without feeling ironic or retro or overly modern. Well done, Valancourt! The book itself is a slim 160 pages but never feels too short. Any more and I might have baulked. It doesn't quite reach the breathless apocalyptic heights of The Fungus either in scope or in execution, but it's a terrific version of Carpenter's The Thing: six smugglers in search of rescue happen upon an abandoned oil rig, populated by empty clothes and the odd blood splatter. Quickly they realize they're being stalked and picked off one by one by a creature science should have never created! The creature itself isn't quite as fully realized a threat as the alien in The Thing and this has to do with the near-constant scientific infodumps, which often feel like petulant justifications for the very existence of its fictional creation. It's okay, authors, you don't need to come up with a rationalization for its powers! You can just let it be scary and unknowable. Of course, the scientific jargon and breathless explanations were in vogue at the time, thanks to Michael Crichton and Robin Cook and other thriller writers. A desire for realism, in part due to Stephen King's folksy populism, choked a lot of the existential horror from these ephemeral paperbacks. Slimer still boasts the ever-popular sexual fetishes of horror written by men in their thirties and forties, though in two Knight novels, cuckolding appears both times! Women are constantly bearing their breasts and men are constantly leering at their crotches. It's weird. But at least the only real sex scene in this novel isn't depicted as sexy, sparing all of us readers from whatever the authors believe to be sexy, erotic prose *shudder*. Like The Fungus, I had a lot of fun. Can't wait to read the third Knight novel I have, Carnosaur.

Friday, December 28, 2018

December Reads Part Three

Crudo by Olivia Laing
Clear by Nicola Barker
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I felt excited for the possibility of Crudo: a slim novel, doing something new and interesting, challenging realism, challenging the form of the novel. Unfortunately, the experience itself is deflating. Of all the "this is the future of the novel" books I've read in the past couple years, this might be the worst, but only in that category. Stacked against other lit-fic, Crudo is just mediocre. A book written in real time which contends with the real time-feel of the 24 hour news cycle? Intriguing. But Laing never does anything particularly novel with this conceit. Rather, she puts the existential horror of reading the news against the narrator's petty bourgeois concerns. The result, for me, was increasing impatience with the narrator's concerns for her things, for her apartment, for her own interests (in the face of nuclear annihilation). If the hammering of the bourgeois concerns is a play towards a kind of Flaubertian satire, then it didn't work for me.

An aside: if the adjectival noun for Flaubert, to denote his style or oeuvre, is indeed "Flaubertian," pronounced "flau-bear-shan," then I believe Gustave himself would at least approve of the euphony of the word. Also, adjectival nouns are some of my favourite things. How did we decide it would be "Mancunian" (that's a demonym, but it's a type of adjectival noun) or "Foucauldian"?

Crudo contains some euphonic and linguistic pleasures... but they're all lifted from Kathy Acker. The cycle went like this: I'd read a clever turn of phrase, a bit of poetry, and check the references at the end of the book, only to discover the phrase was lifted from Acker or someplace else. On and on it went. The cumulative effect was, again, impatience, and a renewed interest in finally reading some Acker, whom I've had on my to-read list for eons. I kept asking myself why I wasn't just bothering with Acker in the first place?

As a finished, published novel, Crudo felt like a batch of notes for a more fully realized project. The quotations, the ideas, the form of it all gave the impression of the journal a writer carries around jotting inside bits and bobs to be shaped and polished for a novel. But, it was only 130 pages, so I don't feel cheated. I also got my copy free from the publisher, so there's that too.

For most of Ironopolis, I could not prevent my brain from comparisons to Moore's Jerusalem. Both are about working class neighbourhoods being crushed under the boot of capitalism in the guise of "progress"; a lamentation for all the culture and history being erased and ignored and lost as the media and academic world find no interest in the lives of the working class; both feature a creature/spirit/something reminiscent of old English folklore, a something in the water which whispers to those who walk on land; a structural oddity; even aesthetically, at the level of the sentence, Brown's prose is the kind of laboured, 10-words-instead-of-2 kind of writing Moore favours. Where Jerusalem was this mammoth project covering the entire history of this town, Ironopolis is content to chronicle 50 years of the town, doing so in the same non-chronological order, asking readers to piece the narrative together and make sense of the twisted threads, the insular world of the working class. I once said, in a English literature seminar, that the British novel can be reduced, almost universally, to anxiety about class; Ironopolis does my theory favours. It's working class through and through, filled with characters struggling to make ends meet, to develop their own culture and history and live their lives without the boot of the upper classes. The poverty is harrowing without ever being poverty-porn, without ever being nakedly manipulative. Dampness, mildew, a chill you can never shake, mould everywhere. Having just enough to pay the bills, just enough to afford one two-week holiday at the coast per year. Scheming. Stealing. Confidence tricks. Ironopolis details this in the loving way Irvine Welsh does with Trainspotting but with the drink instead of skag. I kind of forgot how much I prefer working class fiction to upper crust stuff (not that I dislike fiction about the upper class). Ironopolis isn't perfect, though; like many first novels, it's everything thrown in, including letters, diaries, transcripts, poetry, stream-of-consciousness. Everything. There's something to be said about the maximalist approach, but Brown could have tapped the brakes just slightly. Otherwise, I loved it.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Clear


Nicola Barker's caffeinated prose is always the draw, even when she's writing about a subject I find unappealing, which is to say David Blaine. I'm a big fan of close-up magic, and watch lots of YouTube videos and mourn the loss of Ricky Jay, and Blaine's endurance tests, as with Houdini's escape feats, provide me with little to no excitement. I enjoy magic not for the magic but for the amateur's appreciation of skill vastly beyond my own. There are no stakes in illusionist schemes because every part of the game is rigged from the beginning (perhaps this explains my love for extremely competent protagonists such as the Seventh Doctor and Mike Carey's Lucifer, trickster gods who see in four dimensions). As nothing is risked, I feel no frisson when illusionists do dumb things like sit in a box for 44 days. I watch close-up magic for the same reason I watch martial arts movie: a drama played out with almost supernatural skill. Standing on a pole, inert, passive, or sitting and sleeping in a box isn't a trick. It's static and features no drama (such as "will he bring back the card he magically disappeared?"). Luckily, Barker's prose is in of itself a magic trick, something I've mentioned before.

Last night, I was reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, mostly for his indispensable foreword and afterword, which operate as tiny history lessons, elucidating the social, political circumstances by which these theories (near and dear to my heart) were wrought. But in his first chapter, preposterously titled "What is Literature," he gives such a delightful explanation of what some of the Formalists were seeking that I felt it necessary to quote.
The Formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more or less arbitrary assemblage of 'devices', and only later came to see these devices as interrelated elements or 'functions' within a total textual system. 'Devices' included sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques, in fact the whole stock of formal literary elements; and what all of these elements had in common was their 'estranging' or 'defamiliarizing' effect. What was specific to literary language, what distinguished it from other forms of discourse, was that it 'deformed' ordinary language in various ways. Under pressure of literary devices, ordinary language was intensified, condensed, twisted, telescoped, drawn out, turned on its head. It was language 'made strange'; and because of this estrangement, the everyday world was also suddenly made unfamiliar... By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed. (3) (my bolding)
I quote at length here, forgive me, because the Formalists, while operating under some serious methodological and ideological deficiencies (structuralism et al didn't really account for the plurality of languages and cultures and publics), articulated (by way of Eagleton) that which I find so alluring about fiction, specifically prose in fiction. The telescoping (lovely verb choice by Eagleton) of language paradoxically brings vividness and renewal to the everyday language by juxtaposition. My ability to enjoy language is improved when language itself calls attention to itself and in doing so, envelopes all language under its aegis of aestheticization. I appreciate language, I am grateful for language, even the terse bureaucratic office-speak, because I know, without breaking a sweat to find an example, that there is language being "deformed" for my pleasure.

And this, this is why I love Nicola Barker so much. Not in spite of her twitchy, annoying writing but because of it. I shall provide an example. Here, on page 244, cannily and archly sequestered in an aside, in parentheses, comes some of Barker's most poetic writing:
(How I love this damn bridge at night... Although I love it best at dawn; the sky tender and blushing like some uptight, Victorian virgin on the morning of her deflowering, the clouds crazily spiralling, the random puffs of vapour from the city's air conditioning, the tug horns blaring, a thousand lights on the riverside blazing, then gradually growing dimmer and more ineffectual in the shimmering glare of the rising sun) (244)
Barker employs a series of gerunds to bounce the reader along from clause to clause ("deflowering", "spiralling", "blaring") while each clause waxes and wanes according to the rhythm established. Notice how "tug horns blaring" is the shortest of the clauses followed by the longest, a two part finale, a showstopper. I don't particularly love the simile which starts it out, but its grossness is in character for the narrator. This is language which calls attention to itself as an aesthetic object. The description of the bridge itself is inconsequential; the whole thing is shuttered off in a tangent. What this tiny sample of Barker's incendiary flash writing shows is that Barker can write and she wants you to know it. I salute this type of writing. I much prefer ambitious prose to workmanlike scene-setting as if from a screenplay.

Book Twitter was yesterday set ablaze by some doofus' essay arguing against the semicolon. It's a trainwreck of an argument because he isn't arguing against the semicolon, as he pretends, but rather against writing which challenges or provokes. It's a different animal. (Here). He writes: "Nobody likes a show off.... The semicolon is a flashing red light that says, 'Hey, reader, I know things.' And flashy writing isn’t accessible writing." Therein lies the crux of the problem. The demonization of adverbs, multiple clauses, complicated sentences, heterogeneous punctuation and vocabulary is a symptom of what folks have called the "blogification" of writing. Writing has become less about aesthetics and about becoming more efficient at conveying information. Books are read for plot, it seems, and ornate, descriptive, beautiful writing gets in the way of plot. This is a fallacy of epic proportions. Many pulp writers, writers of the most commercial fiction can still arrange a beautiful sentence. People may not appreciate the prose at the conscious level, but most folks, almost all folks, can feel the difference between good writing and serviceable writing in their bones. I'm guessing, based on the bestseller lists of yore and today, most folks prefer writing which doesn't call attention to itself. Just like close-up magic is an art not appreciated as wildly as it could be, ornate show-off writing isn't beloved by many.

But that's okay! We all read for different reasons. I once read purely for plot. I read oodles of time travel narratives just because I love the way these narratives are shaped. Now, I tend to prefer wit and rhythm and rhyme and alliteration and euphony and general musicality. My preference for Barker doesn't make Barker a superior writer to say, Stephen King, who—let's not forget—is beloved around these parts. I'm just yearning for something different and Barker delivers in surplus. 

I'll finish with a very typical exchange from Barker's pen. She loves synonyms, she loves rearranging a sentence, repeating it with a difference. Here, filed down to its more pure, is a classic bit of dialogue. 
'Unceremoniously,' he exclaims. 'It took half a fucking hour. That cow used up the entire Thesaurus for "you're ditched, you insensitive twat".'
'Discarded?' I ask (rapidly catching on).
He nods.
'Jettisoned?'
He shrugs.
'Scrapped?'
He merely grimaces.
'Junked?'
He scowls.
'Renounced?'
The scowl deepens.
'Pensioned off..?'
'Enough!' he bellows. (135)
Right, well let's listen to that exhortation.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

December Reads Part Two

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I kind of wish I had read Rosenberg's novel while I was in grad school. It's exactly the kind of novel I would have wanted to write about: biopolitics, surveillance, expressions of the body, the fluidity of gender, the historiographic metafiction. Four years later and I still like books like this, so firmly rooted in academic thought and theory, politically minded and radical in its expressions of commonality and outright Marxism, though I find myself more interested in the aesthetics, the word-by-word moments, which this novel offers in plenty. Perhaps I'm just biased for the florid, euphemistic, highly metaphorical language of the 18th century, with all of its self-important capitalization. Rosenberg does an admirable imitation, though he never claims to authenticity of voice (in fact, the possibility of fabrication and sleight-of-hand are part of the plot, which allows for Rosenberg to have either intentional or unintentional anachronisms). I had a gay old time with Rosenberg's choice collective nouns. He describes a group of orphans as a "scrum of urchins," a group of policemen as a "clutch of centinels," and when a sleeping person lets loose some flatulence, it's described as "a Hoot of fart erupt[ing]" from the quilt. The plot, its nested narrative and complicated footnotes, reminded me, quite forcibly of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, including the climactic execution and subsequent reveal. Both protagonists are named Jack and both are legendary criminals. The key difference is that Rosenberg imagines Jack to be a trans man, a purposeful intervention into the traditional archive. As a radical political project, the novel works quite well, even if it's more often the opposite of "Show, Don't Tell." As a novel, it suffers from a bit too much plot. Especially the end. Still, I quite liked this. Makes me want to read some 18th century fiction, a long century of which I know little (compared to my reading in the Victorian age).

The hype for Sally Rooney is intense enough that I considered avoiding her entirely. The Guardian can't stop themselves from breathlessly profiling her and praising her every chance they get. They're teetering over the precipice of actually dubbing her the greatest novelist of the 21st century. Don't worry; such absurd proclamations are on the way, I'm sure. I read Conversations with Friends in less than 48 hours, surely a sign of a good read, I guess. Whether or not it lives up to the incredible hype is perhaps out of my limited critical range. Certainly, it's an astonishing debut, fully formed, and perfectly pitched. A blurb on the back compares the prose to Bret Easton Ellis and there are some similarities in poetics but not in subject matter. Where Ellis is only concerned with surface, Rooney is intent on exposing the internal for all its hypocrisy and self-delusion. Aesthetically, Rooney pulls off similar tricks, such as the non-paragraph-breaking non sequitur (an unrelated, but piercing sentence meant to elucidate a truth more truthful than what the narrator is narrating). These work of course, as gentle shocks, but where Rooney shines is in her careful, extremely precise modulation of the first person narrator. I haven't read a first person narrative so perfectly pitched since Kazuo Ishiguro (the undisputed master of the first person). Instead of, say, Gene Wolfe's unreliable narrator which adds narrative complexity, Rooney's unreliable narration works thematically. Much of the novel is concerned with the disjunction between Frances' self-loathing, the usual girl-raised-in-late-capitalism self-loathing and her obvious strengths (intelligence, beauty, wit, style). Characters are telling Frances about her but all she can focus on are her ugliness, her weakness, her reliance, her own self-acknowledged fakery. Here is a scene from around the halfway point, when Frances has engaged in her affair with married Nick:
I got into Nick's lap then, so we were facing one another, and he ran his hand over my hair automatically like he thought I was somebody else. He never touched me like that usually. But he was looking at me, so I guess he must have known who I was. (117)
This could either be heartbreaking for Frances' lack of self esteem or it could be read as disingenuous, a ploy to provoke sympathy. Much of Frances' narration walks this extremely careful line. Where she evokes sympathy, in clear and undisputed terms, such as her struggle with endometriosis, she speaks in almost clinical terms about her pain, her desire to simply disappear, either inside the pain or from the world. It's her coldness, her sneering, which she rarely does explicitly, where Rooney's tightrope walking shines wonderfully. She hates herself but so much so she hates outwards as well, putting off her friends. But it's so de rigueur for young women raised under the constraints of late capitalism to constantly hate. It's expected, encouraged, normalized for women to feel themselves, their own bodies to be precarious. Thus it makes sense, novelistically-speaking, for Frances to endure the betrayal of her own body by a condition specific to people with uteruses raised to see their bodies as commodities. Precarity under late capitalism extends even to wombs, the novel subtly implies. Even though the characters in this novel are middle to upper class, the sting of late capitalism, the utter rot and decay of it, extends to all facets, all classes. The decomposition of everyday life is the norm under late capitalism. That Rooney accomplishes all this through precise control of first person narration makes me believe the hype. I can't wait to read what she writes next.

Monday, December 10, 2018

December Reads Part One

The Fall of Dragons by Miles Cameron
Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Walks with Men by Ann Beattie (read in October but forgot to mark it down)
Salute the Dark by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I'm not sure why I put off reading the second entry in Barker's Wounded Kingdom series. Barker is such a solid storyteller that even when toiling in the fields of homogeneous fantasy tropes (kings, assassins, blood, thrones), he reaps insightful and beautiful fruit. Girton, his complicated protagonist, full of angst, righteous anger at an unfair world, a cruel world, Girton, the honourable, the hyper competent but not too competent assassin, is a wonderful protagonist to hang a trilogy on. The fantasy I've read has not featured much in the way of meaningful or fluid characterization. Most characters react to obstacles, emotionally and in terms of action. Girton, on the other hand, like many human beings, doesn't evolve along a liner path from adolescence to maturity. There are steps forward and steps backward. The dynamic aspect of his characterization makes for a frustrating read if you hang all your sympathy for the novel as a whole onto the shoulders of the characters (we do not behave like that around these parts thank you very much). Girton will no doubt remain one of the most memorable protagonists thanks to this dynamism. As for the plot, it's a rehash of the first book (Girton has a mystery to solve, the identity of a traitor) but the stakes are dramatically increased (his master is waylaid by illness etc). Rehash might be too negative sounding. When the core storytelling is this good, the uniqueness of the plot is an afterthought. I'm friends with Barker on Twitter, but I don't think that's affected my judgement. Barker is really that good.

I've owned a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for eons but never have I got around to it. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir, is our queer bookclub pick for the winter. I never finished the last selection (The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, even though I was liking it) so I felt responsible to read the next one. I don't read a lot of memoirs because I find their form, their structure, to be a little staid, a little boring. I prefer the magic and wonder of a narrative, the tricks it can pull. Why Be Happy does some things differently, such as structuring the linear chronological narrative by themes, but it's still linear. What works for the book as an experience, and what obviously affected Winterson herself to a galactic degree, is the character of her mother, this imposing, larger-than-life, fervently religious manic depressive woman. She commands the stage when she appears, so when she is finally left behind after the second third, the memoir suffers for her. Hand in hand with her mother's presence is of course the Northern England setting. I'm a sucker for Northern England. The poverty, the language, the family dynamics, the insularity and backwards culture while still producing important cultural objects. I was reminded quite a bit of Alan Moore's Jerusalem while reading Why Be Happy; where Moore works his thesis into the cosmology of his myth, Winterson says it outright: the North was and is being eroded by capitalist governments who care more about profit than the people. The policies of the governments treat the working class as a problem instead of as an integral part of the fabric of the country. Winterson provides a short history of Manchester, highlighting the industrialization and the Nori bricks, as both context and metaphor for the ways in which the poor and working class have been disregarded, ignored, dismissed, downtrodden, oppressed by the ruling class. Where Moore imagines a waste incinerator as a wound in the world stretching backwards and forwards in time, depleting the North of England of its humanity, Winterson suggests Thatcher and her ilk are to blame. Neoliberalism and greed hastened the inexorable decay of the Mancunian culture. The uniqueness of Manchester can be summed up by this delightful bit of novelistic detail from Why Be Happy:
The outside loo was shared with two other houses. It was very clean—outside loos were supposed to be very clean— and this one had a picture of the young Queen Elizabeth II in military uniform. Someone had graffitied GOD BLESS HER on the wall.
I laughed very hard at this. Why is there a picture of her in the outside toilet? And if there was to be graffiti, why God Bless Her???? Hahahaha. Unfortunately, the chuckles end after the two thirds mark, when Winterson's mother exits stage right and the spectre of Winterson's birth mother enters stage left. The rest of the memoir tracks the writer's agonizing over her decision to meet the mother who gave her up for adoption. As somebody who is not adopted, but who has an adopted grandparent (my Pappy was born in abject poverty and was lifted from this status by a benevolent doctor and his wife. My family owes their middle class status, in part, to this much feted athlete, war hero, and physician Lorne Cuthbert Montgomery), I struggled a bit with this section. Perhaps because I'm so distant from her plight, I had trouble connecting. I grew impatient. Not only with the tedium of the bureaucracy she faced (no doubt intentional on the part of the memoir) but with Winterson's emotional turmoil. The description, the actual words she used, the sheer quantity of words, failed, I felt, to convey the depth of these emotions. The effect, unfortunately, is opposite to her intentions: in describing her emotions so much, and in such detail, they grew artificial. The overall feeling was not of a great well of feeling but of a show of feeling (like Eddie Redmayne: in his strenuous efforts to act, all that can be seen is his craft and not the soul of the character). Overall, I liked the memoir, but I did not love it, and I could have done almost entirely without the final third.


Salute the Dark is the fourth in Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series and, until I reached the final 50 pages, I thought it was yet another entry in this serialized story. The finale though changes the game, something not unwelcome. Tchaikovsky's plotting is still breakneck in its speed, sometimes moving so fast it feels there's another novel just peeking out from the edges. So much material, a surplus. Much of the issues I've had with this series persist—a lack of proper description, a homogeneity to the characterization, a surfeit of plot—though not to the point of distraction. The rougher edges are smoothed out better than in previous entries. At almost the halfway point (I can't believe I'm four books deep into a 10 book series), I can confidently affirm Tchaikovsky's mastery of just good storytelling. I'm invested in this world, hoping with each entry secrets are revealed, heroes turn out to be traitors, traitors turn out to be heroes, and the world itself deepens. I'm still of the mind that Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is Children in Time, which as time passes increases in esteem for me. 

Walks with Men is a novella by Beattie in her more typically obscure mode. The narrator starts a love affair with an older man, who treats her as a student to be educated in the ways of high culture and fashion and society. Later, the older man simply disappears, leaving the narrator to ponder the effect he had on her. There's not much plot to this, and characters are even more passive than in her usual style. Hence, the absurdly low Goodreads score. I liked it a lot but I wonder how much more glittering and diamond hard it could have been as a short story instead of a novella. Not sure why I didn't review it in October. Or November. But since so much time has passed, I don't remember much in the way of specifics. Still, a great read from a reliably terrific writer.  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Fall of Dragons


Could a reader of mine have predicted I would not only read a fantasy series, but finish it? And praise it? Well, not rapturously, but still praise it? I definitely finished it and read the final volume, all 600 pages of it, in 4 days. Let this review stand for both the individual volume and for the series as a whole.

Gabriel Muriens, the eponymous traitor son, has amassed his allied armies and marches towards the gates, interdimensional doorways to worlds unknown. He faces the Odine, a hivemind of body-possessing tentacles, and Ash, the Dread Wyrm, the fiercest dragon of all history. Will his plans, so carefully composed, come to fruition?

The series has been a sequence of disappointments after the first book, I'm afraid to admit. Though I found the experience of reading the third book the most memorable, volumes two through five are messy, chaotic, undisciplined bursts of high energy plotting. Cameron's plot gets away from him a few times, with too many threads. The first book, The Red Knight, has the luxury of a single setting, a siege plotline, and a manageable cast. The Fell Sword, the second, immediately introduces what feels like a million new characters and greatly expands the map—all necessary for the coming grand scale destruction and war Cameron has in mind. As fast as he introduces characters, all of them frustratingly similar, my investment waned. Every character speaks the same, a mix of arch tone and Brendan-Gleeson-in-Braveheart warmongering. Every character is smug but only Gabriel, the Red Knight, is called out for being smug. It's a sea of homogeneity but, I'll happily admit, most of the characters are charming in spite of their sameness. The lack of investment I had led to disappointment in the finale, as I had hoped the novel would be a bit more bloodthirsty in dispatching its cast than it is. In fact, Gabriel maneuvers his company to the back of the battlefield, sparing them and the audience of any heartbreaking death. The move makes sense in terms of Gabriel's character, but it's a toothless move from a series so gleeful in executing characters in a short sentence. If the lack of bloodshed wasn't irritating enough, the epilogue does its best to give every single character a neat little tidy ending. Everybody is happy! The world is safe! Despite all the incredibly harrowing horrors they've witnessed and participated in! 

A final note of frustration before we move onto the positives: my god there are a lot of typos in this professionally published novel. Speech sometimes ends without quotation marks, words are missing from sentences, causing syntax errors, a couple speech tags are attributed to the wrong character. No spelling errors, though, leading me to believe a computerized spellcheck was at least used. The sheer amount of errors leads me to wonder. A company as big as Hachette and they can't get a professional proofreader? Even more bizarre, as I mentioned in my last review for the series, the spelling of "boglin" changes to "bogglin" for volumes four and five! I asked the author on Twitter about it, after verifying I wasn't imagining things (I used Google Books), and Cameron admitted it was his fault! How did his editor not catch this?  Mind boggling, or should I say mind bogling? 

Normally typos don't bother me in novels (and I'll go on to say a bit more about immersion in a few paragraphs). They're almost inevitable when actual typesetting is no longer used. While typesetting wasn't impervious to mistakes, the process was at least another layer of editing. Although, I'm sure a Victorianist would argue a typesetter from an earlier era might be more likely to err as literacy wasn't as prominent. 

Two paragraphs of complaint, but these moans are minor at best. Typos? Lack of three dimensional characters? Not book-breaking. Especially when Cameron is, overall, such a great storyteller. That he can lead a very skeptical reader of fantasy through 5 (long) books about dragons and knights and elves and shit is a testament to his prowess.

Reviewers have praised his commitment to medieval warfare realism, the most minute and detailed descriptions of sword fights and cavalry and armour. There's almost a bit too much of it; sometimes when the Latin (Italian? I'm not sure) terms are flying fast and furious, my eyes glaze over. I get the idea. I don't need a blow-by-blow, but at least it was different than I'm used to. The realism of combat felt fresh, at least compared to the usual action scenes I read in genre fiction, which is often written by dudes raised on action movies. There's this obsession with making prose replicate cinema, when scrupulous accounts of which fist moved where and how each leg twisted are ultimately enervating, an opposite effect to action cinema's usual exuberance. Cameron falls into this trap, but never to the level of tedium, thankfully. His sword fights are often short, a paragraph or two, and he provides them with dramatic enough stakes by including the physical exhaustion inherent to such exertion. The longer a fight goes on, the more desperate things become. 

On the macro scale, Cameron's use of military tactics is realistic enough. Obviously I know little about medieval warfare and all the battle scenes, with their "lines" and "companies" and "reserves" left me a bit baffled. There's the illusion of realism, I suppose, as Cameron could have made all this shit up and I wouldn't be any the wiser. Again, something the reviewers have praised and so, in a way, I must. I bow before the author's superior knowledge and ability to integrate vast amounts of research into his texts. Rarely do I find info-dumps or extravagant displays of knowledge pull me out of the book. Even the idea of immersion fills me with skepticism. I've probably complained, offhand, about info-dumps (probably in a review for a Neal Stephenson book), but I feel I've modulated my opinion enough. "It pulled me out of the book" isn't, in my view, a fait accompli negative. Immersion can be so easily broken, I wonder why we laud it so much in the first place. I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge my kvetching about typos earlier in this piece, so let me be clear: there's a difference between typos (there should be none) and internal reality-piercing efforts by the author. Cameron's research shouldn't be praised ipso facto, but neither should he be judged solely for his ability to integrate "organically" such research into the text. I use scare quotes around the one word to indicate I find combining organic and narrative a specious and scary road to travel. Characters and plot aren't plucked from the story-tree once they've ripened. What or who does it serve to imagine narrative in such a way? 

The overall narrative of the Traitor Son Cycle is typical of the fantasy genre, with its single protagonist who saves the entire universe (possibly even multiverse), who is, of course, a straight white male. Cameron sprinkles strong women into the mix, a laudable effort, and mostly he succeeds in deflating the usual sausage party feel of fantasy fiction. The women he writes are mostly all the same, women version of Brenden Gleeson in Braveheart, but there are moments which glitter among the dull blandness of characterization, such as the saint Amicia, the nun with whom Gabriel shares such intense sexual attraction, though they never consummate the relationship, much to Cameron's credit. She's saintly, but struggles with her physical desires. Like almost everything in this series, it's far more compelling and successful in the first volume, and its force diminishes with each subsequent entry. A Goodreads reviewer made mention their difficulty in discerning Sauce from Sukey and I can't help but agree. Though I know now how the two women end up didn't help me during the middle moments when they're effectively interchangeable.

Luckily, as I mentioned, Cameron's one character, who he uses for everybody, is at least charming. They quip, ie my least favourite thing genre obsesses over, but at least the quips aren't Joss Whedon-style. God I hate hyper-articulate teens in the Whedon mode. I'm a bit older now than when I first saw and adored the Gilmore Girls but their banter now grates on me.

I praised Dave Hutchinson for dropping me without life-preserver in a sea of complexity with his Fractured Europe sequence and I feel for fairness's sake I should extend similar compliments to Cameron. Yes, sometimes his plot threatens to tumble, and yes sometimes he relies too much on characters exclaiming with awe "wow you really planned all this?" but the scale Cameron is working with lends itself to intricacy to the point of confusion. Sometimes not knowing every step of the way is freeing. For many members of Cameron's audience, an awareness of story structure and the fantasy novel is bone-deep. Withholding information, making us work for it, is commendable in of itself. Cameron doesn't always pull it off, but his ambition is praiseworthy. I would much rather obfuscation than hand-holding. 

A true sign of success, even with all my quibbles? I want to reread this. I want to get deep in the second and third book with a better knowledge of who all these damn people are. It's the same desire I have to revisit Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle: now that I know all the cast, I can appreciate more the subtleties and intricacies of the plot. I will, one day, reread this, starting from the beginning. I might skip the fifth novel, which I think is the weakest of the five (a 100 page detour through three different universes and I'm still not sure what it accomplished). Well done, Miles Cameron. I'm not convinced enough to read your historical fiction, but I will give your new fantasy series a try.