Thursday, October 10, 2019

Neuromancer and Count Zero

Part of me thinks I read Neuromancer in high school. I certainly owned a bunch of his paperbacks, but I don't think I finished the debut novel. I know I sold them all, because they all had uniformly hideous covers. I don't think there has been a modern cover design for Gibson that hasn't made me retch. But as I slipped through Neuromancer, I grew steadily sure I had never read a single word of this beyond the famous opening line. Most of the concepts introduced therein were already familiar to me, and how could they not, thanks to my steady diet of science fiction over the decades. What struck me with Neuromancer, beyond its surprisingly staid quest narrative, is Gibson's confident mature style. Obviously a careful writer, Gibson's sentences are glittering, shiny gems. I loved the experience of reading this, sentence by sentence, even when the plot was a bit meh. AIs and orbital palaces for the uber-rich? Not as radical as I expected from this.

Count Zero, though, was an improvement for me, as least in terms of plotting. The three threads of the narrative, which obviously converge in the finale, were each more alluring than Case and Molly's bouncing around from incident to incident. Each plot movement in Count Zero felt logical, a case of "and therefore" instead of "and then." The writing is as sleek and shiny as any chrome Gibson describes, but perhaps more forgiving, with more helpful exposition.

However, I read a negative review of Count Zero, which is not a minority opinion (it appears to be rated much lower than its older sibling), and I've been haunted by it ever since. The user named nostalgebraist (a clever nod to Iain M. Banks?) gave a measly single star to Count Zero. He concludes his review: "One star is too harsh a rating for a competent if totally unremarkable genre story, but Gibson pretends to do so much more, and that's frustrating" (here). The reviewer's main problem, the one that I said is haunting me, is that Gibson's vision of the future is as superficially constructed as any fantasy worldbuilding. He writes:
Overall there is a complete sense that Gibson's choices of scenery have no consequences whatsoever. It makes no difference whether something is a "god" or an "AI," whether a character is "jacking into the matrix" as opposed to "casting a spell to enter the dreamtime." It makes no difference that Gibson has chosen a futuristic "look" for his noir story, because in the end it's just a noir story.
In other words, the aesthetic chosen for the story are as arbitrary as the technology Gibson is intent on writing about. A damning indictment if true. Science fiction, some have argued, should set itself apart from realism (as fictionally constructed as any other genre) by its use of the novum, the central metaphor, usually technology. The core idea should say something about the present day material conditions under which the writer is working, what elements of society or humanity they hope to critique to observe, using that very metaphor as the crux. Obviously this isn't an inviolable maxim; science fiction using the future as its background isn't a crime against the genre. The problem is that these metaphors, such as "spaceship" or "cyberspace" are no longer metaphors but tropes. They've lost their sharpness through repetition and endless waves of production (in the form of shitty commercial fiction like the works of James S. A. Corey). Does Gibson's fiction fall under that category?

I don't have a definite answer to this. It's an ambiguous situation. On one hand, we have nostalgebraist's perceptive observation that "[c]omputer hacking is described so impressionistically that it bears no connection to real-world computing," the opposite problem plaguing post-cyberpunk such as Melissa Scott's Trouble and her Friends (here), which features long slogs of "endless paragraphs with details of hackers typing, plugging and unplugging cords, carrying around equipment, and countless mentions of seemingly 'technical' words such as 'routines, 'programs,' and other cool new terms" (from my own review). Gibson isn't interested in that at all. The decks the hackers use are rarely described other than to give the impression there's a keyboard involved. I'm unsure of the physical dimensions of the decks; they could be the size of an 80s Casio electronic piano for all the help Gibson provides. As for the hacking itself, Gibson gives us beautiful descriptions of "cowboys," as he calls them, literally flying through cyberspace, looking at beautiful neon patterns. It's definitely not grounded in reality. It could be anything.

But, we can't dismiss Gibson's contribution to the corpus of science fiction. He popularized our very conceptualization of cyberspace and coined the term itself. He might not have predicted every single aspect of the future, but his concepts are the very fabric of futurity. nostalgebraist is being disingenuous when arguing there is little difference between a "god" and an "AI" in Count Zero because it's of the utmost phenomenological importance to the plot. The AIs of this world have subtly rearranged the political conditions and have explicitly changed how humans interact with the shared delusion of cyberspace. The corporations of this future fight among themselves for dominance while Howard Hughes-like hoarders of wealth look to even exploit the AIs for immortality. One should not divorce the novum of Count Zero from the political of its own plot. More so here than in Neuromancer does politics affect the aesthetics which in turn affect the novum and so on in a cycle of science fiction writing. Perhaps gods do interfere in the economies of fantasy worlds, but to commune with them, warriors and knights and barbarians don't physically connect with machines. It's the root of Scott Bukatman's terminal identity theory: “an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen” (Terminal Identity 9). The magic rituals and conversations with gods in fantasy fiction aren't usually conducted with a machine that literally constructs new selves. Perhaps they are and I just haven't read it yet. I'm merely trying to suggest dismissing Count Zero's futurity as simple "computer-themed wallpaper" as nostalgebraist isn't productive. While the reviewer makes some incredibly helpful observations such as the resistors braided into hair, his overall point misses the mark.

I really should have done my PhD on cyberpunk. It's the genre that ignites my imagination and sparks some of my better writing.

Monday, October 7, 2019

October Reads Part One

The London Train by Tessa Hadley
The Cipher by Kathe Koja
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

In On Writing, Stephen King advises would-be writers to eschew adverbs: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." His school of craft has a long lineage through the pulps, with Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard and James M. Cain being big proponents of this style. Tessa Hadley, on the other hand, probably hasn't read a single word of Thompson or Leonard and might have only read King for the novelty. No, hers is a world of Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, a world of prose sensitive to the shimmering possibilities of the almighty adverb. Or least, it hopes to be. Hadley loves adverbs. Uses them frequently, no pun intended. Sometimes though, these adverbs call negative attention to themselves; instead of adding unique flavour to the sentence, it blares and befouls the air. A prime example in The London Train comes at page 141 when a child watching her sibling is described as "womanfully scoop[ing] up the babies to safety." I'm not opposed to neologisms in fiction but I would protest constructions as tone deaf as "womanfully" which does not roll off the tongue. Sagely, maturely, sensibly might have done the trick. Admittedly, the adverb is quite specific and does convey unique meaning, but its sound can't be described as pleasing. Earlier in the novel, at page 46, Hadley offers up a block of council flats, described as "bleakly unlovely" which seems such a rejection of any advice regarding adverbs, to the point where I'm impressed.

Like Late in the Day, Hadley's talents are in the acute observational insights. She mines her characters for all that they can give up. There's a tendency, like with Rachel Cusk, for too much interiority, too much of characters having incredible insight into their own psychology, but I might be quibbling for the sake of quibbling. Another good Hadley novel!

My god. Here it is, in my hand, purchased for only a dollar! Kathe Koja's novel The Cipher, the novel collectors are all trying to get their hands on. I found it at the local charity booksale, a semiannual cornucopia of treasures. This year, I completed my collection of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, specifically the single volume editions with his own paintings for the covers; I found the hardcover omnibus of Ellroy's Lloyd Hopkins novels (which I had come close to pulling the trigger for online); the hardcover edition of the Dune Encyclopedia (I'm going to resell it—I can make a 300% profit on it); and some other gems. Nothing quite as breathtaking as the Koja. When I saw it, I almost started hyperventilating from the excitement.

The novel itself? There's just no way it could live up to the hype and to my expectations built in my mind over the decade I've been hunting for it. Which isn't to say I didn't like; I loved it! But it's certainly a product of its time. This might be the most Gen X novel I've ever read, maybe more so than Douglas Coupland's Generation X (which, by the way, is almost 30 years old, if that makes you feel ancient). The characters are all artists, or poets, work dead-end minimum wage jobs (video store clerk!!), and wear all black leather clothes. Reminded me a lot of Poppy Z Brite (here). And it's not just the aesthetics that call to mind Gen X, but the nihilism, the hopelessness, the emptiness of modern living. The plot of The Cipher has a would-be poet finding a black hole in the storage closet to his slum apartment building. The hole has bizarre properties including the manipulation of physical objects. Unable to stop himself, the protagonist sticks his hand into the hole and brings out a weeping wound on his own hand, seeping not blood but a clear viscous material like tears (or cum). The cipher of the title refers to, among other things, the protagonist himself, how he is empty and other project onto him what they want.

There's a subplot about personality cults, with people glomming onto him because of his affinity for the hole, though he's barely conscious when the magic shows happen with the hole. These folks fill his emptiness with their own desires and beliefs while his on-again-off-again girlfriend accumulates her own groupies. Again, very Gen X, in the distrust of authority figures and movements. Believing in anything is uncool, the Gen X stereotype goes. 

Koja's prose in The Cipher has that bebop bouncy style of horror/genre from that era, with lots of ironic signposting and cultural references. Imagine Tarantino's dialogue but without any of the racial epithets and you have an idea of her style. I enjoyed this a lot, even if the last 70 pages were a bit of a repetitive slog. 

Another great find from the charity booksale was three quarters of Ellroy's LA Quartet, which I've read back in high school. I found a mass market of The Black Dahlia and the Mysterious Press trade paperback from the 90s. Also found mass market paperbacks of The Big Nowhere and White Jazz, both in near mint condition. I already own a hardcover of LA Confidential (a first edition, but nowhere near the first printing). I haven't read any Ellroy since starting this blog (though I did try to read Blood's a Rover when it was first released) and going back to the first in the quartet seemed a great place to revisit the Demon Dog of American literature.

The Black Dahlia is as good as I remember it, if maybe a little bit better. So many scenes have been burned into my memory from the first read, such as the protagonist waking up in the back of a cop car overhearing a conversation that inadvertently provides a clue, though this isn't obvious to the reader. I also remember the double solution, the narrative presenting an answer to the mystery only to overturn it 30 pages later with a shocking twist. I had a hazy memory of who the culprit was, but this didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel in any way. If anything, I think I may have appreciated this even more as a wiser (hopefully) more well-read audience member. 

Ellroy's command of pacing is masterful here. If you've only read White Jazz, The Cold Six Thousand or any of his new stuff, you're familiar with his extremely staccato newspaper mode. But he didn't start out like that. In fact, this book is positively verbose compared to his later stuff, though just as full of slang and cop jargon. Like Cormac McCarthy, Ellroy understands the rhythm and length of sentences can impact the pace of the scene. Near the beginning of The Black Dahlia, sentences are longer, with more clauses, and more description. As the protagonist gets more and more compromised, or closer to discovering something, sentences are short, sharp, paragraphs aren't as long. While this might seem an obvious aspect of style, it bears pointing out that sometimes this effect is invisible because the reader is so absorbed by the plot. The form complements the subject. 

I loved this. I toyed with the idea of immediately picking up The Big Nowhere, which I remember being even more insidiously convoluted than its older sibling, but I don't want to burn out on Ellroy's machismo. His characters are all racist sexist pieces of shit and the only politics Ellroy seems to believe in is the individual's right to enact vengeance. Which means it's a bit of a bummer to swallow without a sneer. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Green Mars

Green Mars won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1994, up against big names like William Gibson, Greg Bear, and David Brin. I haven't read any of the novels nominated that year, but I can't imagine they'd be better than this. I liked Red Mars a lot when I read it back in January (here) but I wasn't prepared for how much better this sequel was going to be.

It's about one hundred years later and the First Hundred, now down to about 40, are in their hundreds and are underground, driven there by the giant corporations fighting for control of Mars as an economic asset. The genetically engineered brood of Hiroko, a prophet and quasi-cult leader, have come of age and they are ready to take back Mars. With the atmosphere warming and the flora growing, the planet is on its way towards habitable, but who will own it and what will they do with it?

Where Red Mars had terraforming on the top of its mind and politics in second place, Green Mars inverts this hierarchy (pun intended) making the realities of revolution its absolute most immediate interest. Like many good leftists, Robinson considers the messy practicalities of revolution, how to best accomplish it, and what amount of bloodshed is acceptable or necessary. Robinson never flinches away from chronicling the ins and outs of revolution.

The endless meetings and arguments and chastising and exhortations inherent to political revolution can feel a bit draining for the reader, but it's just as draining for the characters, something Robinson is at pains to emphasize. Characterization is greatly improved with this second entry, and not entirely because the hard work has already been accomplished in the first book. There is a tremendous amount of new characters introduced, the second and third generations now adult, and a few of them are as textured and nuanced as with the First Hundred carried over from Red Mars. Nirgal and Jackie, two third generation Martians feature prominently, with the entire first section devoted to Nirgal's introduction to the world outside his childhood home and all the alienation and introspection associated with it. Nirgal's initiation into adulthood functions as a mirror for the reader's growing awareness; there is a new status quo for the reader to learn. Not a novel technique, but executed quite well, thanks to the mood and atmosphere on Mars as one of melancholy and regret, a theme simmering throughout the entire novel. The First Hundred must reckon with their failed revolution from the first novel and the planet they've left for the next generations to work upon.

Like this opening section, the rest of Green Mars appears to be the artful solution to an engineering problem. To generalize, the greatest compliment I can pay to this novel is that I could always see the ropes and pulleys and stagehands making the on-stage magic work, and those mechanisms were flawless. Each problem of how to depict something or convey information is handled as cleanly as possible, much to my satisfaction.

The whole novel is one huge engineering problem: how to use the form of the novel, finite, composed of discrete but sequential dramatic scenes, to describe the long, painstakingly slow process of terraforming? Novels and incremental processes happening at the microcosmic level do not generally go together. As well, terraforming happens over centuries, or at least, the plausible kind Robinson wants to depict, and keeping the cast the same over these centuries represents its own subcategory of problem. His solution to this is quite simple: the "gerontological treatment," a DNA-fixing medical procedure giving the characters extended life. That solves that problem. Robinson could have opted for a James Mitchener/Edward Rutherfurd approach, following a family over its generations, but how then to have the cast face their failure at revolution?

Robinson's gerontological treatment doesn't solve the macro problem of form, of course. Terraforming, at least in this series, is slow and small, and novels are big and brash with drama and prose. Robinson must decide from a technical point of view how much detail to include of the actual scientific process itself—and here's the tricky partin the same timeframe as the arcs of his characters. A sentence or two, a paragraph or two could cover hundreds of years of the terraforming description but that will elide the small incremental changes in the characters. He wants to keep both timeframes as even as possible. 

Thus, each scene is its own little engineering problem: how to both advance the characters and the planet's change at the same time? The answer seems to frustrate many readers, going by the Goodreads reviews. It's another simple solution: Robinson opts for travelogues. Scenes of character drama are played out with the landscape as its background. Characters travels for days, weeks to look at some aspect of the planet, and in doing so, this allows Robinson the space to describe the incremental changes taking place upon the biosphere and upon the characters. 

The most representative example is that of Sax Russell's section in the middle of the book. Sax was the lead scientist behind the terraforming effort at beginning of the trilogy. It's his "cocktail" of chemicals being released into the world to thicken the composition of the atmosphere. Now, after the failed revolution, he has undergone cosmetic surgery to hide in plain sight, and begins work for one of the many corporations working on terrforming. He's tasked with, brilliantly on Robinson's part, engineering robust flora to withstand the Martian atmosphere and to propagate and build up the biosphere. It is, after all, lichen, grass, and moss that's going to be the next step in the terraforming process. So Sax works on the plant life and takes multiple long trips out into the world to observe the slow colonization of ground by flora. Each trip shows him, and us, the changes wrought upon the world. Meanwhile, his trips also provide a window into the growing restlessness of the populace, how the revolutionary zeal is once again taking hold of the natives. He must reconcile his desire for pure science with the human cost of politics. It's a wonderful performance by Robinson. 

Each new section, following one character, expands upon the world, introducing more and more characters and concepts, until the endgame, when revolution is inevitable and the planet is irrevocably changed. Just as in Red Mars, Green Mars ends with a Biblical flood, but this time the atmosphere is warmer, and not everything instantly freezes. This flood is synced with a global catastrophe on Earth, where the Antarctic ice shelf disassembles, causing a worldwide rise in water of at least six meters! Now Terra is devastated, the Red Planet is in disarray, and the corporations are fighting among themselves. The new status quo does not necessarily repeat the failure of revolution from Red Mars, but neither is it a huge success. Rather, it's a prime set up for the precise refinement and establishment of a new political and ecological reality in Blue Mars

My appreciation for this novel is prismatic: as a leftist, I can't help but admire Robinson's commitment to staging yet another revolution; as a critic (I suppose), I find myself in love with how elegant is the juggling of formal and thematic elements. He really pulls it off here. He really does. Can't wait to read the final volume, after a break of course.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

September Reads Part Two

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

I made it 250 pages into D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow and I made the painful decision to abandon it. I had stumbled through its lush but thorny bushes for over a week and I had made little progress. Once I came to the halfway point, I realized I was despondent; I still had another 250 pages and a whole other novel to complete the story! With some introspection, I came to understand how closely linked my mental heath is to reading. I'll explain. I found myself feeling down while I avoiding reading The Rainbow. I invented excuses not to read it, such as playing video games or watching television (I'm almost done Season 9 of Curb Your Enthusiasm) but as the days stretched on, I felt more and more grumpy, not just with the media I was consuming but with everything. I could sense myself slipping down into the muck of a depression. So I abandoned it. I looked away and grabbed something I knew would be a fast read and a fun read: Nicola Barker.

Here are photos of four pages from a sequence around the middle of the book, when the protagonist Mira A has a dream, and strange glyphs invade her mind. How Barker chooses to depict this incursion is clever and aesthetically beautiful. The whole novel isn't like this, thankfully, but there is copious amounts of textual play: font colour shifts, gnarled spiralling text, a cathedral shaped by words on the page, and so on and so forth. Barker takes what is a ho-hum dystopia and livens it up with graphic design and a clever take on music and colonialism. It's also a bit more interior than I'm used to with Barker. Usually her novels are endless fountains of dialogue, words words words, but there is less dialogue here. H(A)PPY is mostly internal monologue with spare conversations. Not a judgement on my part, just an observation.

Hotel Du Lac was Anita Brookner's win for the Booker Prize back in 1984. During my feverish Booker project of a decade ago, I'm not sure why I didn't read this one, as it's short and accessible. I mean, I read Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist and I don't think I understood a single word! But Brookner's accessibility is illusory, I believe. As an older, wiser reader than 10 years before (and hopefully still improving, all the way to my inevitable, but welcome death!) I can guess I would have disliked this book. Nothing happens, all the action is internal, and the delight of Hotel Du Lac is in the careful observations and interrogation of its cast. I might even step a toe in the waters of accusation to levy the charge that Brookner doesn't seem to like women much. In Hotel Du Lac, Edith Hope, a novelist of modestly successful romances, is sent to a hotel by Lake Geneva for a month of rest and relaxation. There she meets and interacts with a varied cast of rich people. I use the passive voice ("is sent to") because she is shipped off by her friend for a social transgression not revealed to the audience. The short novel is mostly a series of comedic mishaps with these people painted unkindly by Edith and by the narrator. Yes by both.

I thought of Adam Mars-Jones while reading this, and how frightened I am of his critical eye. I read his review of Hadley's Late in the Day in the London Review of Books. In his essay, called "Faithful in the Dark," he has some kind things to say about Hadley's novelistic powers, her elegant turns of phrase, but even with all these compliments, his eye is too incisive to let go of minor quibbles. He writes of Hadley's shifts in perspective:
The lack of definition between points of view is at odds with the way scenes are sometimes cut arbitrarily short, before the characters’ interplay has run its course, something that draws attention to the executive decisions of a writer who, most of the time, would prefer to be undetectable.
This problem is minor, he admits, but the consequences are significant: "when points of view proliferate the psychological space available to the reader is whittled away rather than opened up." I couldn't help but think of this as I read Hotel Du Lac, which for the record, I enjoyed. My reservations though extend to the voice, the perspectives, just as Mars-Jones did with Late in the Day.

I worry there's little space between the narrator and Edith. So little space as to have Edith's crypto-misogynistic beliefs bleed into the narrator's, a reversal of how characters often act as mouthpieces for authors. In the beginning, when I was unfamiliar with Edith or the plot or anything, I was struck by Brookner's strong choices for verbs. On the first page, Edith is described by the narrator as "a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name" (1, my italics), a wonderfully active verb operating as both descriptor and pun. Within a matter of pages, the narrator switches to the letter Edith is writing to David (of whom we know nothing at this point). Other authors might have withheld switching perspectives so immediately after the opening pages, but Brookner doesn't seem shy about it. Right away, Edith's choice of active verbs feel familiar. She describes a bow-legged woman as "throw[ing] herself from side to side in her effort to get ahead" (4). Again, a wonderful turn of phrase, and provides the reader with an indelible image and a clue into the character of Edith herself (her inability to move forward in her own life). But to me, there's a troubling closeness between Edith's perspective and the narrator's. One might call this free indirect discourse, which is a third person perspective dipping in and out of a character's perspective, but that feels generous. With this style, one would expect to feel a narrator distinct from the character. But in this case, some of the verb choices are the same. In one letter to David, Edith describes Mrs. Pusey as "heaving" herself out of a chair. A few dozen pages later, the narrator has Mme de Bonneuil "heaving" herself out of a chair. Is this a failure of imagination on Brookner's part to repeat herself in a novel only 180 pages long? Or is it a purposeful choice to make the narrator as undetectable as possible, a strategy whereby the narrator mimics the protagonist's thoughts? Why then the letters? Why the shift in perspective to third person to first person in the letters? I don't have answers to these questions, but I can confidently judge the psychological space available to the reader, me, as whittled away instead of opened up. It's a curious and unfortunate problem, but not fatal.

There's a great bit near the beginning of the novel when Edith is having lunch her agent. She's asked some innocuous question and she works herself up into a lather getting mad about life, people, romance novels, sex, etc etc etc. She dismisses the sexually liberated woman as a way of living:
'Harold,' said Edith, 'I simply do not know anyone who has a lifestyle. What does it mean?...'
which made me laugh. In other words, I'm definitely going to read more Brookner. By chance, I found two novels by her at the recent charity booksale (which I'll discuss more in a future post).

Red at the Bone was terrific. Part of me wishes this was longer, a family epic in epic length, but a wiser, older part of me recognizes Woodson accomplished everything she set out to do in only ~200 pages. The characters feel alive and textured and frustrating the way real people do all thanks to Woodson's astonishing dexterity and efficiency. However, the brevity does have its costs; the novel feels a smidge slight in the endgame, especially in its gestures towards 9/11 which has the unfortunate side effect of feeling like a twist ending. Still, a great read. 

Green Mars I will talk about in depth in its own forthcoming post. For now, I liked it more than Red Mars.  

Thursday, September 19, 2019

September Reads Part One

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Thank god: a month containing new releases from Dave Hutchinson and Nina Allan! Though, The Silver Wind is not new; it's a reissue from Titan Books, who have been releasing Allan's work into the North American market.

Alas!! I did not like The Silver Wind!!! And I'm heartbroken to report such! It's advertised as a collection of interlinking stories, but I suspect this is a retroactive label: a diverse set of stories sharing some names squeezed into the limiting box called a "short story collection." Perhaps I was set up for disappointment based on this assumption formed by the cover copy. My own assumption, of course, let's not be dishonest. Individual stories are fine, some ranging from great (the opening salvo) to whatever (a later story), but the project in totality feels like a practice run for the more accomplished and cohesive Dollmaker. The similarities abound: both protagonists are craftsman working in obsolete, practically antiquated fields (horology, dollmaking); both protagonists suffer some sort of disability (club foot, dwarfism); both protagonists harbor and nurse a fire within, a crush (bordering on obsession) for a fickle woman. I'm not opposed to writers using short stories to work out thoughts and ideas for longer projects! Not at all! Perhaps my deflation was from reading both projects so close together! The Dollmaker only came out in April. Oh well. I still think she's our finest writer of speculative fiction working right now.

Oh Dave. Dave, Dave, Dave. You are truly one of a kind. Am I bragging when I say I figured out the joke of the title, the solution to the mystery, as it were, in the first 50 pages? I'm attuned to the tricks writers use, I suppose. Same as any nerd buried head deep in genre as long as I have been. Still, knowing the ending didn't diminish any of the pleasure I had reading this practically perfect slice of "science gone wrong!" Hutchinson makes it look easy: the steady accumulation of dread, the sardonic humour that isn't so cynical as to be unbearable, the gentle poking fun at conventions. Hutchinson's obviously tickled by genre and hopes to deflate its pompousness a bit without devolving into adolescent rebellion or malice. I get the sense (from the book, and from following him on Twitter) he's read widely. Exploding Man features some fun Len Deighton moments of spycraft but taken down a peg. I think Deighton, with his sense of humour, would appreciate. All in all, just another terrific outing from one of our best writers of spec fic.

I've searched long and far for a copy of Of Human Bondage that didn't have a shit cover and wasn't printed with that matte cover all books seem to have now. Who would have thought Dover of all presses would be my saviour. This edition was only 12 bucks and was set in Electra, a bonus I wasn't expecting. As I didn't notice any wobbling of the letters on the lines, I believe this was freshly set from a digital source! Not what I expected from Dover Thrift Editions. This challenges my prejudices towards non-Penguin, non-Oxford presses of public domain literature.

The book itself shocked me. Not its content. But by how anonymous its style is! I don't know what I expected but I don't think it was this journeyman prose. Maugham has such a strong grasp of plot and character but he struggles with any description or bon mot. Many of his adjectives are repeated continuously. Unless a "scrappy" meal was an actual thing, it's kind of irritating to read every meal being described so. And the meal itself isn't even described! Not that I care that much; I'm not looking for an Iris Murdochian cataloging of meals, but you know what I mean.

I liked Of Human Bondage. I felt queasy reading it sometimes, as the protagonist, Philip, sounded sometimes like a proto-incel/MRA. He seems to hate women. He treats them like shit even when he loves them and he manipulates them to treat him like shit in turn. Very bizarre to read this in 2019. I'm suspicious of the happy ending he receives, even if, emotionally, I felt exhilarated when it arrived. I can't say I'll read another Maugham but I do own a copy of The Painted Veil, so we'll see. A friend mentioned Maugham's best stuff is his stories grappling with colonialism.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

August Reads

Broken Harbour by Tana French
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwan
The Barbarous Coast by Ross MacDonald
The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Prestige by Christopher Priest  
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway
The End of Alice by A. M. Homes
You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann
Joe by Larry Brown
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

August was very productive thanks to vacation!

Let's start with the not-so-great. R. O. Kwan's debut novel is tantalizingly close to good but the writer gets in her own way. The Incendiaries follows two young Korean-American students, one a former evangelist, the other succumbing to the allure of a charismatic cult leader. The narrative gallops towards a tragic conclusion and because of this momentum, the novel never slacks. The problem is the prose is a bit too mannered, a bit too fussy for the immediacy and vividness of the plot. The religiosity of the writing is welcome and thematically appropriate, but when diving into matters of the flesh, of the irrational, of the violence, the narrators keep their writerly flourishes. I liked this, but I can't say I'll ever read it again. I do hope to read her next project, though.

Water Shall Refuse Them thrilled me less in the ways intended by the plot and more in the way Hardy writes. There's an extremely welcome physicality in the prose, a sensuous, almost drunken attention paid to the body, to the stickiness, to the sweat, to flesh. The teenage protagonist experiences a physical bout of Teenage Magic (of which I wrote about here) thanks to a sexy boy and then goes through some literal magic. Everything is great up until the end, when all the big revelations hit, all of which are a bit deflating. Another example of an author I hope to follow and watch grow.

Broken Harbour was terrific, another stellar example of sharp crime writing from the venerable and reliable French. The opening scene of the novel lasts over a 100 pages! With each page, I asked myself how long she could sustain this opening scene, and to my delight, it just kept going and going. I briefly held hope the entire novel would have been the opening scene (a dream of mine is write something that's all opening scene and nothing else) but alas, this wasn't to be. Whatever disappointment I felt encountering the first scene-change was dissipated entirely by her commanding skills. The mystery itself was more mysterious than in previous French novels, which I was surprised by, but she still hangs her social commentary on top of it, in this case, the recession and subsequent depression that ravaged Ireland in 2008-9. The murder victims in Broken Harbour are literal victims of "keeping up with the Joneses" and she bangs on this drum quite loudly. This novel's narrator, Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, has a voice a bit too similar to that of the previous novel's narrator, Frank Mackey. But I wonder if this is more of a byproduct of French's commitment to realism and how cops all speak the same. I've heard that the next French novel, The Secret Place, is the worst of them all, but we'll see.

The Barbarous Coast was typical MacDonald: beautifully written, melancholic, fiery, and moralist. Here's a sample that sums up the novel quite beautifully:
I didn't mess with any of it. I wanted no part of Stern's death. I drove home on automatic pilot and went to bed. I dreamed about a man who lived by himself in a landscape of crumbling stones. He spent a great deal of his time, without much success, trying to reconstruct in his mind the monuments and the buildings of which the scattered stones were the only vestiges. He vaguely remembered some kind of oral tradition to the effect that a city had stood there once. And a still vaguer tradition: or perhaps it was a dream inside of the dream: that the people who had built the city, or their descendants, were coming back eventually to rebuild it. He wanted to be around when the work was done. (481)
This sixth novel in the series provides us with a sadder, angrier, wiser Archer, one who has realized, or is coming to realize, that his proximity to the corruption he's constantly exposing will have its inevitable effect on him. He cannot observe without being changed by that which he observes. When Archer encourages a character to answer questions, in an effort to "solve this murder," the character replies, quite sagely, "'Will it? Say you do, then what will happen?... The same thing will happen that happened before. The cops will take over your case and seal it off and nothing will happen, nobody get arrested'" (479). Slowly, with each book, we see a detective beaten down not by the crimes he witnesses but by the inexorable corruption which leads to crime. This novel takes Archer back to Hollywood, where a former boxer is being turned into an actor and an estranged wife is being blackmailed. In what can only be said to be trademark aspect of each Archer mystery, every character the detective meets is lying, cheating, and part of the complicated web spun by greed. While The Barbarous Coast wasn't as top tier as The Ivory Grin or The Drowning Pool, it was still a cracking read.

Reading The Death of Sweet Mister, I think, concludes the set of all the contemporary-set Woodrell novels he's published so far. I have only his historical fiction to look forward to now. I didn't love this one as much as Give Us a Kiss or Tomato Red, but it was still terrific. I wish I had read these novels in order of publication to see how each novel expands its scope and anger from examining the individuals who are greedy and murderous to the way in which poverty and society force these people to victimize each other. The "death" of the eponymous sweet mister, ie Shuggie, the overweight adolescent protagonist, is not literal, but the death of his innocence and his inevitable slide into ruthless, inescapable helplessness. It's a coming-of-age novel in which you pray the character won't age, won't be forced to see adulthood any more than he's already forced to by poverty and rootlessness. Instead of blaming these sad sacks, Woodrell saves his ire for the lack of opportunities and the disparities of class they cannot escape.

The Bluest Eye was obviously a fucking masterpiece. There's so much going on in the novel, though, so even if it's a masterpiece, it's a smidge less of a masterpiece than say, Sula or Beloved, both of which tread some of the same ground but do it in a more focused way. For example, there's a long section devoted to Soaphead Church who serves, narratively-speaking, to send Percola over the edge of sanity, but it's 50 pages of overwrought monologue to get there. It's too much. But otherwise, this was incredible.

The Prestige surprised the hell out of me. I'd always avoided reading the novel because I worried my familiarity with the film adaptation would make reading the source tedious. Thankfully, Priest's novel has one additional layer of narrative the film dispenses with, and it provides the best surprise I think. Especially since Priest's narrators assume the reader has figured out what the film presents as the major twists, such as the Bordens being twins. It's assumed as fact about halfway through the novel which is neat. I loved the novel but honestly, I would have gone gaga for it had I not seen the movie. Alas!

The Beauty was terrific. The edition I have is the North American one which includes a similar length story called "Peace, Pipe" which I thought was interesting but not all that great. "The Beauty" was a unique take on the post-apocalypse genre and there were sentient fungus in the shape of human women so who could hate this?

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy was recommended to me by Brandon Taylor and I loved it a lot. I read this slowly over the course of a month (started in July) and finally whipped through the last third in one day. Meloy reminded me a lot of Richard Ford in the careful unadorned prose, the plain speech, and attention to the ways people sabotage themselves in life and in love. I wouldn't mind reading more of her work.

I very much wanted to like Pseudotooth more than I did. From its synopsis, I was expecting this to be about a young woman's life with severe mental illness and how the world just doesn't understand neurodivergent folks. And yes, that's part of it, for about one third of the novel (my preferred third, obviously). However, the novel veers into traditional portal fantasy and loses me. I'll mention briefly that I'm using "portal-quest fantasy" as Mendlesohn defines it in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy:
In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not have [her italics] to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are, and the rhetorical position taken by the author/narrator is consistent. (1)
While the protagonist of Pseudotooth doesn't go on an explicit quest as in say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but there looms, behind the scenes, the idea that the secondary world's stability is linked closely to the mental stability of the first world's two human characters, and so, solving the problems of the secondary world will do so for the protagonists. Mendlesohn writes "the portal-quest fantasies are structured around reward and the straight and narrow path" (5) and though Pseudotooth does not conclude with a reward or even dangle such a bauble over the head of the protagonist, the route from unwell to atonement (at least mentally) is a linear path. The secondary world in this novel is Weird as Fisher defines it:
The sense of wrongness associated with the weird—the conviction that this does not belong—is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete [his italics]
It's not a world made of orcs and dragons but a British village, with factories and chocolate and shops and gossips, but slightly wrong, slightly off. Magic might exist in this secondary world, but maybe it doesn't. The protagonist has to navigate this new world and find her way home, despite wanting to stay here forever. But I was never invested, neither in the secondary world (too sketchy, too cosy, like a 50s pulp story from the UK) nor in the protagonist. I can't remember her name and don't really feel like looking it up.

I'm shocked by how much I disliked The End of Alice. I've previously enjoyed A. M. Homes a lot! I think, often, of May We Be Forgiven, and its deadpan tone more deadpan than I'd ever encountered before. But The End of Alice is not deadpan at all. Instead, it's the purple prose of a convicted pedophile in prison who corresponds with a college girl who plans on seducing a child. I thought the correspondence would be the bulk of the story, but it's more about the convict navigating prison than anything. I don't object morally to this novel. I've read worse. But at least with similar novels, like Lolita or Tampa, there's an insidious counter-narrative slowly revealed, in which the narrator is delusional or at least, self-delusional, and a loser. There's no counter-narrative here; we already know the narrator is a loser. Nothing changes by the end except a revelation about the titular Alice which problematizes nothing in the narrative, though it's meant to, like one of those shitty twists which ask the protagonist to compromise themselves morally (like in Fede Álvarez's Don't Breathe). Anyway, this sucked but it was only 250 pages.

It took me 8 days to read Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels and by the end of it, I was a bit resentful; not of the novel, but of the time spent with it. I could have probably read four novels in the time it took me to read this one. It was entertaining as all hell, like a messier Pynchon, and just as fun, but perhaps without the singular genius that is Pynchon, often imitated but never duplicated. When explaining the novel to friends, I was at a loss: a war between the Establishment and an alliance of revolutionaries and the insect kingdom? an ahistorical history of electricity? a simulated computer game between two narrators? You can see why I accuse this of messiness. But as I said, I had a lot of fun with it and can't wait to read another one of his mammoth tomes.

Joe was revelatory. Like a Cormac McCarthy story in an Elmore Leonard plot but set in Mississippi. It's a slow novel, with the two protagonists not encountering each other until almost the halfway point, and it revels in that slowness. A scene might start with Joe walking up to the local store and sharing a beer with a friend for pages until a crucial bit of plot pokes its head out. Larry Brown has the gift of living inside his characters and, critically, living inside the setting. The landscape plays as much a part of the story as any other character, thankfully. I will definitely read more Larry Brown, don't you worry about that.

Late in the Day is not really a novel I thought I'd enjoy so much. It's definitely the most bourgeois novel I've read in a long time. It concerns itself with two couples shattered by the death of one of their own, leading to adultery and copious flashbacks. The structure, with its laborious flashbacks, and its slow forward momentum, its cast of wealthy "middle class" people who drive Jaguars, own art galleries, have scintillating conversations about Tarkovsky, pour over art books, and enjoy first editions⁠—these all would have driven me up the wall save for Hadley's effortless style and psychological insight. A very old-fashioned novel, to be honest. A. S. Byatt might have written this back in the day. I read a review of this in the Guardian which called it a "Hampstead novel," apparently a derogatory term for novels of the 70s-80s written by women about middle-class adultery. One of the victims of this accusation back in the day was Margaret Drabble (sister to Byatt, surely not coincidentally) and so I guess I will give Drabble a try. And probably another Hadley I liked this so much.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July Reads Part Two

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Someone At a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
Dancer at the Dance by Andrew Holleran
And Shall Machines Surrender by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

An almost perfect run here, folks. Five books in a row that blew my socks off in the best possible way. Let's start with the clear winner, The Age of Innocence. Never before had I finished a Wharton; I remember stalling out with House of Mirth about 11 years ago, but this did not happen with Age of Innocence. I picked it up, the Library of America College Edition I bought in Chicago around 5 year ago, with the intention of sampling it. I read 100 pages in one sitting. Wharton's style is one of exacting lightness, each word so carefully, precisely chosen, without ever getting bogged down in Henry James-style circumflexion. Sentences are brisk, readable, but never simplified. Wonderful stuff.

What surprised me is how much I felt Wharton had written a novel for me. I don't necessarily mean the plot, though this is the kind of plot I'm drawn to. Mostly, I'm referring to its structure, scene to scene, and its style. This blog is, as often mentioned, a remembering machine for me. It tracks my tastes, the shifts, the avalanches of thoughts and opinions as they undulate across my brain. For now, my interests are mostly aesthetics, but still with a wide eye on plotting. I think more about individual scenes and how they're described than whether or not the Story as a whole succeeds for me. How I'm seeing a novel now is an aggregation of scenes beautifully written and smaller stakes, to the point where scenes should be one-on-one, two people with different goals, possibly opposing goals. I'm also, as the years go by, more interested in style than in efficient delivery of information. The other day, Priscilla Page, a film critic, posted a picture of a letter written by Raymond Chandler:
A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like 'he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water'. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just help up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.
Forgive me for posting a solid of text, but I needed the whole thing to get Chandler's point across. This isn't the first time I've posted about Chandler's thoughts on fiction and I'm finding the older I get, the more my desires align with his goals. I found myself savouring the transitions writers would compose, the scenes of landscape description or traveling or whatever banal action takes the plot from one beat to another. I remember my mother complaining Thomas Hardy was all descriptions of landscape and when I finally read him, I was astonished by a) how inaccurate this was and b) how disappointed I was not to encounter endless adjectives reporting the English countryside. These moments of quietude offer writers a moment to show off. The spotlight is off the characters and writers can put it on themselves at least for a paragraph or two. It is in these stretches where you'll find the best poetry. And Chandler is right: these lines create emotion. If readers really wanted action, they'd go to the theatre or read a play, where everything is held up by the actors. No, what we really want is emotion conjured forth from all the literary tools in the kit.

Here's a bit from the very end of The Age of Innocence, when an older Newland Archer has arrived in Europe with his adult son. He is due to meet the Countess for the first time in 30 years.
He got up and walked across the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries gardens to the Louvre. She had once told him that she often went there, and he had a fancy to spend the intervening time in a place where he could think of her as perhaps having lately been. For an hour or more he wandered from gallery to gallery through the dazzle of afternoon light, and one by one the pictures burst on him in their half-forgotten splendour, filling his soul with the long echoes of beauty. After all, his life had been too starved.... (Chapter 34)
 I might have chosen something less portentous, but I wanted to show off Wharton's economical style. In one sentence, she provides us with a "dazzle" of light, which is immediately compared with the pictures "bursting" on Newland, as if he is wandering through a constant shimmer, the way light vibrates in the heat. As if the Countess herself is a mirage in the distance. And in many ways, she is. It's efficient and sustains the emotion of regret, nostalgia, but also homecoming all at the same time. Just a smidge after this paragraph:
They had come out into the great tree-planted space before the Invalides. The dome of Mansart floated ethereally above the budding trees and the long grey front of the building: drawing up into itself all the rays of afternoon light, it hung there like the visible symbol of the race's glory.
More light, more splendour, all hammering down on Newland, a weight that's both heavy and comforting, burdensome and relieving all at once. The mirage of Countess floats "ethereally" just as this dome does. It's a visible symbol of what he didn't choose when he stayed loyal to his wife. These bits don't advance the plot, but they create the emotion. We can't have characters announce their feelingsthis isn't a playso why not let the landscape do the heavy lifting? So yes, superb in all ways. A masterpiece.

But this wasn't the only masterpiece I read this month. Baldwin's If Beale Street... was the kind of experience which reminds you why you read in the first place: the rush of emotion, the growing awareness that you're in the hands of a master, the dawning reminder that literature can do this, can be this, can accomplish so much. From the very beginning of novel, you know you're in masterful hands:
I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I've come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. (6-7)
Baldwin's narrator, apparently the only time he ever used a woman narrator, balances this beautiful spirituality and clear-eyed honesty about the world. The crossing of the desert, the plight of the Jewish peoples, the oppression of the Black people. It's connected.

I didn't love the ending of the novel. It's a bit too abrupt. And this criticism has to be significant because I generally love abrupt endings (an example: Dog Day Afternoon). But it feels like Baldwin just stopped writing. I don't mean the plot. It's not necessary to know if Fonny is released from prison. But it just ends on a scene already in progress. I wish there had been one or two more pages. Otherwise, just wonderful.

Someone at a Distance is Dorothy Whipple's most famous novel, I believe. I found two of her novels from Persephone Classics (a Virago analogue) at a charity book sale, quite a find considering they each retail for about 30 dollars in paperback. Whipple is the kind of writer who makes it look easy. You read it quickly, enjoy the odd beautiful turn of phrase that purposefully calls attention to itself, and you set the book aside. But, like I've said of other novels, that efficiency is a mark of true quality. The kind of writing that flows this cleanly isn't a mistake. It's professionalism. It's talent. Someone at a Distance chronicles the buildup and fallout of infidelity. A middle class English family finds a cuckoo in their nest, a French woman who seduces the husband out of boredom and out of material greed. I wish the novel had began with the affair already in play, ie the old chestnut that stories should start as late in the action possible, but the methodical building of the circumstances offered their own pleasures. I quite liked this, even if at times I felt the novel was a bit inconsequential. That's the problem with these middlebrow novels from the mid-20th century, and I 100% do not mean "middlebrow" in the pejorative.

Dancer at the Dance is one of those seminal important gay novels I just haven't read because I spent my youth reading Stephen King instead of exploring my identity through fiction. This is not a bad thing, of course, because younger me might not have enjoyed Holleran's novel for its aesthetic beauty, which is distinctly the pleasure here. Holleran charts the rise and fall of a Gatsby-like character, a beautiful and damned gay man who bounces from one lover to another.
It got very hot very soon that summer⁠—tremendous heat that made the East Village almost sensual for a spell: shadows, and breezes, and the sun beating waves from the pavements toward the clear blue sky. The fire hydrants were open, gushing day and night. Peaches were ripe in the fruit stalls on Second Avenue, the streets south of Astor Place were empty at dusk, and every figure you came upon walking south shimmered for a moment in the distance, then materialized into a group of boys playing ball in a lot littered with broken glass. (200)
The whole novel is like this: light on plot, heavy on sensual, opulent physical detail. I was saying to a work colleague, a gay man in his 50s, who has read all this shit long before I was born, that one reason why I return to gay fiction over and over is that gay men labour happily under the looming shadow of Oscar Wilde. The decadence of gay life is mirrored in the decadence of their prose. Everything is all the more sensual, all the more lavish, because they had to hide in the dark for so long, that the minute the light hit them, they went wild. Even that single comma after "shadows" feels garish and expensive.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew's latest novella, And Shall Machines Surrender (which I keep transposing the "shall" to after "machines"), is more of a mystery story than previous efforts. I didn't love this aspect of the narrative, especially when it necessitates copious amounts of exposition. When Sriduangkaew is writing individual scenes, such as a wonderfully violent action sequence (in which a cis dude, American of course, gets his face peeled off), she's writing on a level other writers can't even glimpse at. She always picks the interesting or off-the-beaten-path adjective or adverb, giving her writing a colour that's utterly unique. My favourite scenes, other than the boorish American dying a horrible death, are the sex scenes between the two protagonists. I'm not embarrassed to admit I was flustered by Sriduangkaew's obvious skill. I wish the novella had been a bit more contained, less sprawling, but this is still science fiction at peak quality. What I love about Sriduangkaew's writing is not just her aggressive, resolute queerness, but her attention to detail. She isn't just "writing the movie in her mind" like so many godawful genre writers do. She's considering her words, she's writing, not just transcribing some fantasy to make a buck. It's a breath of fresh air.