rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Via Mari Ness, who pointed out over at torcom that she had never read any of E. Nesbit's adult novels, and gave this one a fairly complimentary review. I realized I'd never read any of the adult books either.

It's very interesting. It's not a book in which much happens, but the ways in which things don't happen are, for 1902, revolutionary, and still, for fiction, in some ways impressive.

In short, this is a book about housework.

From a male perspective.

The protagonist and his wife, new-married and both working in artistic professions for a not-spectacular living, are left a house and a small income by an uncle. The house is gigantic-- twenty-nine rooms, far too large for two people, and besides has four adjacent cottages which belong to the property, an orchard and large garden, and a ridiculous number of necessary repairs. It would be silly to move into it. They promptly move into it; they cannot help it. (I don't think many people could.) And then they are caught in the trap that the things they want to do and most enjoy doing, which are fixing up the house and unpacking the furniture and building new furniture and going through the cellar and getting the mold off the doorstep and hanging the wallpaper etc. etc. etc., do not bring in any money whatsoever, but it can be very difficult to write and draw when you have a giant old house all around you calling out for things to be done to it and also half your clothes are still at the back of a pile of boxes under the stairs and damn it if you don't prune the peach trees this year they're going to fall over onto the roof.

The thing that I like is that this is an absolutely gender-neutral problem. They both work, neither takes the work lightly, and they are both in a state of new-house rapture compounded by still pretty much being on honeymoon compounded by spring. And neither one of them has ever had to do housework before, being of the class who keep servants, but they can't get one to stay; the house is too big. So there's the novelty value for them also, but in addition the organizational issue-- the protagonist thinks at one point that his wife knew how to be an organized person in the tiny house they had before this, because she had lived in a similar house growing up and was following her mother's rules, whereas in a tiny house he tried to spread out and claim territory all over the place. But in a large house she has to find out what rules she actually considers necessary, and he's turned into a person who wants to do the dishes between parts of dinner just so he knows where to find the things again.

Fortunately they have a good and sophisticated friend, who is willing to come in and gently sort them out, though one of the book's few sour notes is that she has an Obligatory and most annoying Romance of the kind that I almost suspect the Powers That Be of insisting on. Because in a book of this sort in 1902 having a woman of her sort (been to college, has a career) not have an Obligatory Annoying Romance would be sufficiently subversive as to be unpublishable. Still. Aargh.

The other sour note is that there are a couple of racial epithets of sorts that are nowadays not used, and which are not here used in reference to any specific people, but it is very odd and jarring to see them crop up in figures of speech and analogies: unpleasant.

Overall, though, this is a kind of book I thoroughly enjoy and approve of: it's a book about a happy marriage that I can believe, a marriage in which people talk to each other and in which they consistently and cheerfully enjoy one another's company. They are each other's best friends. And when she becomes pregnant, and they are both absolutely terrified and with good reason (they are twenty and twenty-two, they've only just sorted their lives out, and there is a real possibility of this killing her, because that happened randomly sometimes then), they talk out their fears to one another and are honest about the prospect of death. (Look! An Edwardian novel that mentions pregnancy!)

1902, people. This gentle, honest, humane, still unique book was the political equivalent of throwing a bomb. It's a sign of how well that bomb has exploded that lots of this is now actually somewhat quaint and even a little sexist. It's a sign that it is still exploding that my list of books which value housekeeping as a human art and endeavor is very short, and this is one of precisely two I can think of in which the narrator is male and his discovery that he enjoys housework isn't meant as a joke. (The other one is Gordon Korman's Losing Joe's Place, in which the entire rest of the book is a joke, and a good one, but not that bit.) I have a feeling this should not be this rare a quality in a novel; but at least, if three things make a genre, we are lacking only one now.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
[personal profile] rachelmanija sent me a package containing among other objects Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, a Harlequin romance entitled Wedlocked: Banished Sheik, Untouched Queen, and a postcard of le portrait présumé de Gabrielle d'Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars, 1594. (Painting link probably NSFW although in irreproachable taste due to its age, because a provenance of several centuries makes most things more respectable.) It's amazing how well this all goes together.

The painting is, actually, a reasonable metaphor for Prince of Tides: over-the-top and trashy, but with surprising artistic technique and critical credibility, and a story that only makes the entire thing multiple magnitudes weirder. This is, you see, the portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées made to serve as her announcement to her lover, the King of France, that she was pregnant. The child would of course be illegitimate, but royal, so she's holding but not wearing his signet ring. There's a woman in the background making baby clothes.

And she is of course naked in a bathtub with her sister groping her because her sister is demonstrating that she will be very good at feeding babies. No, really. This is a gesture you can see the Virgin Mary making on herself in various paintings when she's suckling Christ. Of course, the reason it is being performed by somebody else and both of them are totally undraped ladies is because when you are the maîtresse déclarée of the King of France you have something of a reputation to keep up, and also he was probably into that.

So it looks like an extremely formal portrait of sixteenth-century lesbian sex, BUT ACTUALLY it's an extremely formal portrait of sixteenth-century vaguely suggested lesbian incest serving as a note to a prospective baby-daddy AND a comparison of the subject to the Virgin Mary.

In a similar way, Prince of Tides looks at first glance as though someone has forcibly chained Tennessee Williams to a writing desk and informed him that he is to write Love Story. It is a fusion of the Southern Gothic with the Big Fat Seventies And Eighties Epic Novel, you know, from the people who brought you Shogun; a book that is meant to keep you more entertained than any other seventeen books by being as long as all of them put together and also by having the entirety of their content, pureed. It has a confusing amount of very good descriptions of food, a prose style that is not merely purple and not merely mauve but pretty much Fauvist, and characters who manage to be interesting enough despite the fact that the narrator is not as funny as he thinks he is and spends a bit too long in every chapter reminding you that his childhood was terrible, which, yes, we got that, a narration of events would have proved that. (I am not going to try to give you any kind of narrative summary of this novel. I told you, it has the content of seventeen novels shoved into it.)

Then you look more closely at it, and you go, this is a book in which an eighty-five-year-old man waterskiing forty miles on a bet to win back his suspended drivers' license is an interlude between the chapters in which melodramatic things happen. This is a book which contains, in its entirety, the text of a highly symbolic pseudonymous children's book written by the narrator's tormented-genius twin sister. This is a book which has not one but two scenes involving the narrator being very good at football which are genuinely emotionally effective, even if one does not know the rules of football (and I don't). THIS IS A BOOK IN WHICH SOMEONE BECOMING A VIOLENT ENVIRONMENTAL TERRORIST IS AN ANTI-CLIMAX BECAUSE THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED BEFORE THAT WERE SO MUCH WEIRDER.

Apparently I am going to spoiler-cut this. Huh. )

I knew about this plot point going in. It was even more spectacularly odd than I had been told to expect. It was also genuinely disturbing, in that way where there is a lot of violence in this book and when you pile violence upon violence after a while you are kind of ready to buy something when it goes THAT FAR over the top. It would be way less disturbing if you could even see the top under your feet, you know? This scene is, by itself, so completely outside the boundaries of all plausibility that it almost makes the entire book emotionally believable.


You see the analogy to the painting? I mean, that painting is so way the hell over the top that it only wound up in the Louvre.

It is true that, to date, of the things [personal profile] rachelmanija sent me, so far only one has had the supreme artistic accolade of having a Barbra Streisand movie made out of it.

It is, however, not too late. She may, after all, still get around to Banished Sheik, Untouched Queen. I can only hope*.

* (Look, I-- actually went through a Barbra Streisand period, as a young teen, where I saw everything I could get hold of containing her about fifty times each (though not this), and I still quite like her. I am one of the three human beings on the planet to have seen On A Clear Day You Can See Forever more than once. Having read this novel, I don't even have to look up what role she played to tell you that she was horribly, horribly, terribly miscast and that the whole thing cannot have ended well. But if she ever were to film that Harlequin romance novel, I would, in fact, see the movie. I thought I should make that clear at some point in here.)
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
It is very odd to read this book, to be reading it, to have read it; because I have known and loved the film since I was in high school. Woman in the Dunes came out as a novel in 1962, but Abe was already at work on the film script. The movie, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, came out in 1964, and is one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. I have never seen sand photographed the way that it is in that movie. It is one of those films that actually changed the way I look at an object, at the way that sand moves.

So you see the novel had a lot to live up to, and the film is an extremely faithful adaptation of it. The question is whether the additional input from Teshigahara and the other people who worked on the movie makes the work a better or a worse one in its trip across media.

The premise is of course the same in both. A man, whose name we don't initially know, travels into the country on an insect-collecting trip. He reaches an isolated village, surrounded by massive sand dunes that peter into ocean. Misses the last bus back. Is offered a place to stay for the night, and is lowered into a house in a sandpit, a house so deep in a sandpit that one needs a ladder to reach it at all. A woman lives there, alone, her husband and child buried in a previous avalanche. Her life is one of backbreaking labor, digging the sand away from the house, putting it into barrels, having it hauled out of the pit. Without this labor the house will be buried very quickly.

In the morning when her guest wakes up, there is no ladder.

It becomes obvious that the villagers will never let him go, and that the two of them can easily be made to work, because they don't get water or food if they don't. The man tries scheme after scheme. The sand trickles, flows, seeps, insinuates, itches, rots clothing and wood. The woman works. The sand hauled out of the ground is sold to a construction company, but the salt content is too high: the concrete made out of this sand will rot and crumble. The man is distressed by this. The woman doesn't care. Digging sand is the life of her house and her village; her dead are buried here; it would be, she says, the same anywhere else.

There are levels on which this is an allegory, of course, about human nature and the nature of work and the world, hardship, degradation and surprising redemption. There are levels on which it is about identity and the questions of Japanese identity in the wake of WWII, whether clinging to a village way of life is destructive or communal, whether the city is dehumanizing or freeing, and what individual personhood has to do with that. It is, also, genuinely about these two people and their personal reactions to each other and the sand, whether they are trapped, and whether they think they are trapped, and whether the status of whether or not they are trapped is affected by what they think about the matter.

The novel spends a lot of time inside the man's head. We get snatches of his daily life, in the city, what he thinks about that life, his previous relationships. We get the close-ups of his desperation, the intricacies of his plans, the moments when he is sure that something in him is breaking, the exhilaration when he thinks he might be getting somewhere.

The movie, as it must, has a much more exterior perspective. We can't see his plans until he carries them out. We must read his state of mind by his face.

Both are absolutely full of sand, the sound of it, the eternal presence of it, sand in teeth, sand in water jug, sand in clothes, sand falling in on one's head all the time, sand superheated by the sun. Teshigahara said about this story that there were three characters, the Man, the Woman, and the Sand. He is right. The novel has more freedom to indulge in philosophy, thoughts about the ways sand is fluid, the way it wears at things, the questions about why sand grains become such a uniform set of sizes (there is only a very limited range of sizes of grains of sand). The film has, as I said before, the greatest photography of sand ever performed.

I think that in this circumstance I like the movie better, because in the novel, I honestly think we lose something by knowing too much about the protagonist. He has Freudian theories that have since been disproved, and he has misogynistic tendencies that are annoying, and we get much more invested in his plans. Also he sees the woman from outside, so we don't get her subjectivity. In the film she is as much the protagonist as he, because the viewer can decipher from each of them only what the viewer can read from the facial expressions, dialogue, and so on. They are equal forces in the film, and although they probably are in the novel, the weight of the book is tipped to the man. Also, I really do like not having to put up with the misogyny and Freudianism. I suspect that the lack of these is one reason the film has lasted and will continue to last-- it's a very timeless movie. And I miss the soundtrack, which is music so cleverly threaded with the sounds of blowing sand that the two are inextricable.

There is, however, one thing about the novel I like better, which is that it is illustrated by Maiko Abe in a gorgeously sparse, spare style of precision linework. There's one illustration which just amazed me, which is at one and the same time a picture of the woman asleep on a reed mat, with a towel over her face to keep the sand out of her eyes and mouth, and a picture of the dunes leading to the sea and the small creek cutting through them. The towel is the creek, the reed mat is the beach grass, the curves of her body are both precisely recognizable as human curves and not so definite as to fail to be believable dunes. It's an utterly breathtaking drawing.

In general, though, this is one of those rare circumstances where I would urge you to see the movie rather than read the novel. Criterion has very kindly put it out on DVD, and I think it may even stream on Netflix-- I know it did at one point. Still, I am glad to have read the book, to have the reference point. It makes me appreciate the movie even more.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Read August 8th. Author via [personal profile] coffeeandink.

Gorgeous, delicious noir which both upholds the conventions of the genre perfectly and is quietly subversive on questions such as who has agency in the story. The prose is amazing.

This novel is based on a real murder which made the tabloids in 1931, one of those crimes which became a nationwide scandal but has by our day faded into the background for everyone except those who encounter it in an academic context. In 1930, Marion Seeley, twenty-one, doctor's wife, finds herself alone in Phoenix, Arizona working at a tuberculosis clinic. Her drug addict husband, de-licensed, has gone to Mexico to work as a mining company doctor, his last desperate hope at cleaning up and making some money so they can have a life together. Marion, by herself in the big city, is taken under the wing of one of the other nurses at the clinic, Louise; Louise is supporting a tubercular roommate, Ginny, and the two of them hold parties which are attended by all the wealthy men of the city. Sex and liquor and drugs flow freely, and at one of the parties Marion, an innocent abroad, meets one of the town's most influential businessmen, and falls instantly into lust for him.

The core of the book is the quadrangle formed by the three women and this (inevitably married) man: the women bound to him by economics and desperation, because they could maybe make rent and food on their salaries, but not medicine, and not parties, nothing that might be fun for girls in their early twenties who know they are one step away from homelessness and will do anything not only not to take that step, but to forget it for a little while; the women, bound to each other by friendship and love and the sexual currents between them that cannot be openly spoken about (even when acted on); the man who is not worth a smudge on one of their shoes, and who is rich beyond counting, and who doesn't think he's bound to anyone by anything.

It goes badly. It does not go badly in any of the ways one might instantly expect it to go badly, given the setup. It is worse. You need a certain gore tolerance, for this book, with its beautiful, nightmarish descriptions.

The thing that's amazing is that you never lose sympathy for Marion, Marion who starts as unforgivably naive, a girl who can't believe what's going on around her, and who at first is only having what comes naturally, an affair that fills her life with fire, something to look back on when she's old. But it slips beyond that and beyond that and beyond that, until even she doesn't know where the line ought to have been drawn, only that it ought to have. There is no line, that's the problem, it all feels inevitable although it can't have been; the important thing, though, is that there is a point where Marion looks around and says to herself, I am still here, I will still be here, and no one can take me from me, and that's a moment I can't recall ever seeing in noir before, film or novel. For a woman. In the movies they'd have made one of these women into a femme fatale. God knows the tabloids did. Of course, scratch the surface of the femme fatale and you find a woman who'd like to get off her feet, get off the street, and get her rent paid for the next six months solid. This book knows that.

There's a section at the end, after the novel proper, where the author tells you about the real murder, and what the newspaper coverage of it was like, and what we can and cannot know about it, and what she has done to extrapolate. It's a fascinating and sensitive reflection on what it means to be writing about other people's real, though historical, pain. I wish more novels based-on-a-true-story had sections like it.

I am also not going to get over the prose of this anytime soon. It's an amazing combination of hard-boiled, rhythmic, and sensual, the lushness of one of those thirties movie boudoirs turned mean (not that those rooms weren't vicious already). It's the sort of language that makes me want to read the entire thing aloud, except that for content reasons I really don't. I highly, highly recommend this.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Read August 1st.

Oh of course Rudyard Kipling wrote a British-boys'-boarding-school book. What was I thinking?

And, of course, the language is magnificent. Kipling has a way with slang and rhythm and cadence that does not fail him here, so that even when the argot is so dense you have no idea what is actually going on you don't actually care because it's so damn colorfully spoken.

I am not sure why the book is called after Stalky, as he is not particularly the protagonist, but he is the only one of his trio of friends whose legally given name we ever find out, so maybe that's it. The three of them are at a school which is a training-ground, mostly, for boys going into various military areas; and they are politely, calmly, and stubbornly determined to do whatever they like to set the place on its head if they are not allowed to do whatever they like. Insulting them has a way of coming back in your face, somehow, and most of the schoolmasters are simply not able to keep up with the sheer deviousness they exhibit.

It's funny, of course, and terrifyingly colonialist, of course, and has basically no women, of course. There is one moment I found politically fascinating, in which a Member of Parliament comes to speak to the school about 'Patriotism'; eighty percent of them were born abroad and seventy-five percent into career military families, and the reception he gets is a stonewalled disbelief that any man can possibly be so stupid as to say the things he is saying. He ends with a flourish of the Union Jack and half of them don't know what it is, because it has never been a matter of practical importance. I enjoyed that; it felt both true and genuinely subversive.

But the meat of this book is in watching its three hellions get a better education than they think they are getting, by raiding the reputable and disreputable literature and techniques of Higher Academia in order to, for instance, learn enough about architecture to put a dead cat under the floorboards of the rival dorm. And the language. Kipling is one of those authors where as long as he keeps talking sometimes I almost don't care what he says. Almost.

I recommend this to Kipling completists, people who like to pick up obscure slang, and people who've read too many books set in boarding schools of the sort that make you want to throw those books, very hard, at the author and explain that children are amoral little hellions. This is specifically working against that last set of tropes. Stalky and friends would fit right in at St. Trinian's, if they were female, although they've a deep-down belief that other human beings are, you know, human beings; otherwise it wouldn't be nearly so pleasant to watch them hell around. I can see why I never encountered this as a kid, but it was worth looking at.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Read July 29th, in a hallway at Otakon, dressed as a My Little Pony (Twilight Sparkle). There are probably pictures of me reading this somewhere on the internet, as people kept asking to take photos of the costume and then saying I shouldn't look up from my book as reading was very much in character for Twilight.

This is early Pelevin, earlier than either of the novels of his I've read, and it feels like a writer trying to find, not his voice, but his genre. The voice is there all right, ironic, snarky, obscene, catching at pop culture from odd angles but with surprising bitter dignity when the time calls for it. The genre here vacillates between relatively straightforward fantasy such as the title story, which is as straightforward and friendly a story about werewolves in central Russia as you can get (not very: I... think there may be a political point about collective farming in it I am not culturally equipped to get), through outright and rather dull allegory (yes, the protagonist has spent his whole life in a prison, we get it, life is a prison, done now), into wildly subjective first-person hallucination, out-and-out surrealism in the classical sense, and something I can best describe as post-modernist post-Soviet up-yours bricolage.

There are werewolves and they are very neat; there are Soviet towns full of unreasoning bureaucracy, fear, confusion, griminess; there is a men's toilet which the Committee transforms into a palace when the cleaning woman discovers radical solipsism. There is an incident in which a man working on an assembly line catches a nuclear bomb when it would have fallen from the conveyor belt, preventing it from going off, and is told that he will be commended in the paper, except that the bomb will of course be described as a large container of creamed corn and his name is going to be changed to be more mediagenic. There's an entire version of the Soviet Union which turns out to be literally taking place in an anthill. Some of this is more effective and some less. All of it is wildly inventive, never trying the same thing twice, grabbing any technique that goes by and testing to see if any of this is working, mercilessly throwing out any gambit that looks like it doesn't.

And then there's the last story, 'Prince of Gosplan', where it all snaps into place, and this is the genre I've seen Pelevin in before, the fully mature writer confident enough to do whatever the hell he wants. There isn't a word for what he's doing here. It's not surrealism, quite, it's not allegory, quite, it's definitely not magical realism; but it pays no attention to the structures and tropes of fantasy as one sees them elsewhere.

The concept of the story is so simple it is laughable, and also brilliant: everyone in the story, employees at various perestroika-era Russian companies, is also engaged in playing, all their lives, a video game. Which game varies with which person. The protagonist is in a Prince-of-Persia-type RPG in which he climbs things and ducks traps, looking for the princess, but he rises so slowly up the bureaucracy what with all the requisition forms, he's been working here for years and is only on level two and he hates those damn body-shears on the escalators and what if he forgot to save last night? Anyone can run out of lives and vanish at any moment, after all... It's an amazing piece of work, funny, touching, bitter, and with an odd coherency to its incredibly insane worldbuilding. The rest of the book is fun and interesting. This one is unmissable.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Links to the reviews I posted during the recent LJ outage. I am not reposting, but anonymous and open ID commenting are open over there (though I would appreciate some kind of name signed to anonymous comments so as to be able to maintain continuity of conversation).

Day 325: Trilogy, H.D.. Poetry, unfairly overlooked lesbian author.

Day 326: Paying For It, Chester Brown. Graphic novel. Interesting but highly problematic memoir about prostitution from the perspective of a customer.

Day 327: Faerie Winter, Janni Lee Simner. Good YA fantasy by a friend of mine.

Day 328: The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Unfairly obscure Argentinian science fiction indirectly responsible for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

Day 329: Earth X, Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Graphic novel. Dark Marvel Comics AU with a very interesting take on Captain America.

Day 330: Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As Ghosts, Ursula Vernon. Fifth in Vernon's fun series of illustrated kids' books; not a strong entry.

And the two since made it through crossposting.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Today's book. Caught up, yay! Author via [personal profile] coffeeandink.

I was recently on a (lovely) panel at Readercon about cities and the fantastic, which turned into a discussion about how to write cities in fiction believably: cities in fiction are never as strange as real cities, never feel as crowded, as full of things that you may never understand. Cities in reality are unexpected in ways that meld history and chaos and economics and human nature and above all multiplicity. Cities in fiction are lucky to get one or two of those elements, because a city in a novel is a story-tool, and it is a large and unwieldy tool, so quite often authors trim that tool to fit the story. When a city is trimmed too much, it may work for the plot but it does not feel real. It does not breathe. And there is so much in making a city feel real-- the distances, the way that transportation works, the class structures, the perfectly chosen detail. You have to cheat somewhere, as a writer.

I wish I'd read this book before the panel, because I would have used it as an example all over the place, never mind that it has very little to do with genre. Maggie Helwig's Toronto is alive in a way that cities in books rarely are. The way she cheated is simple and effective, and centers on a twofold strategy: one, you feel all the distances, because characters are always walking or taking public transit or not having public transit get them where they want, because this is not a book where people sit in rooms much. Conversations are mobile. People run into each other unexpectedly because of the patterns of their personal mobility; a man walking down a new street realizes that an acquaintance he hasn't seen much of for ten years has been working at a church on that street all this time, and he didn't notice because he usually walks one block over... and of course all the streets, subway and streetcar and bus lines, distances, ravines, are real.

Two, everything in the city that is relevant to the book gets mentioned. Everything. Her narration is semi-omniscient, centered more tightly on one character's perspective or another at times, but when an incident related to the plot occurs, the narration will include it, whether the people it involves know the other characters or not. The passages with people the other characters and the reader don't know are interwoven with great skill and lyricism; they never feel like interruptions. In fact they are incredibly atmospheric, because as the plot goes on they create an almost unbearable free-floating tension-- who will be involved next, in what is going on? No one in the city is disconnected from the possibility of being in the narrative.

Which is appropriate, because one of the things the book is about is a city-wide dread. Girls fall down. That is part of what the book is about. On a subway, a young woman falls down, vomiting, breaks out in a rash. So does one of her companions. They say they smelled roses directly beforehand. Blood tests and hazmat tests bring back no anomalies, but other girls fall down. Then men, women, children. A smell that isn't a smell, one says. Usually on the subway. Sometimes on street corners. Terrorism is blamed, of course, there are hate crimes; windows smashed, a man arrested for being the wrong nationality, the mounting certainty of war. The book is set in 2002 and the memory of New York City hangs in the air. Or is it a plague? Or is it only mass hysteria, or is there no only about it? There are a pair of taggers who weave in and out of the novel, writing on flat public surfaces: FEAR. And nothing else.

The principal characters are afraid, too, of other things and have good reason to be, so afraid that they register the subway incidents only as interruptions to the course of their lives. The principal one is a photographer, a diabetic, looking at the consequences of too many years spent playing games with his blood sugar; the ex-lover to whom he is inexorably connected has a similar possible time bomb of the self, and a brother who is her responsibility, deeply loved and deeply wounded. The web of connections between these people, their wider circle, and everyone involved in the incidents spans the mad and the sane, the wealthy, the homeless, the young, the wrecked, the happy, and the doomed. This is a book with a great range of things in it, not only desperate fear (there is a while where the reader wonders whether this is an oncoming apocalypse, the journal of a plague year, where everything is disintegrating beyond recall), but a delicate and ever-present humor, a pitiless eye for human frailty, a deep compassion, and a very fragile but never-quite-failing hope.

Her prose could cut glass. It is lovely beyond easy description. Here's the beginning:

The city is a winter city, at its heart. Though the ozone layer is thinning above it, and the summers grow long and fierce, still the city always anticipates winter. Anticipates hardship. In the winter, when it is raw and grey and dim, it is itself most truly.

People come here from summer countries and learn to be winter people. But there are worse fates. That is exactly why many of them come here, because there are far worse fates than winter.

It is a city that burrows, tunnels, turns underground. It has built strata of malls and pathways and inhabited spaces like the layers in an archaeological dig, a body below the earth, flowing with light. People turn to buried places, to successive levels of basements, lowered courtyards, gardens under glass. There are beauties to winter that are unexpected, the silence of snow, the intimacy with which we curl around places of warmth. Even the homeless and the outcasts travel downwards when they can, into the ravines that slice around and under the streets, where the rivers, the Don and Humber and their tributaries, carve into the heart of the city; they build homes out of tents and slabs of metal siding, decorate them with bicycle wheels and dolls on strings and boxes of discarded books, with ribbons and mittens, and huddle in the cold beside the thin water.

It is hard to imagine this city being damaged by something from the sky. The dangers to this city enter the bloodstream, move through interior channels.

If you see what I mean.

It wasn't easy for me to find a copy of this, because Helwig's books don't seem to get U.S. releases. But I am going to track down the rest of her stuff, and I highly, highly recommend doing likewise. This is a brilliant novel.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Review of the book I read Saturday, July 23rd.

Adolfo Bioy Casares was Jorge Luis Borges' best friend. The Invention of Morel (La invención de Morel), published in 1940, was the first novel Casares felt was really successful. He'd been publishing for several years at that point-- in fact he started in the late 1920s, with short stories-- but Morel was where his style came into its own. The introduction is by Borges and the cover of the first edition by Borges' sister Norah. It is, however, definitely a book to be appreciated for itself, rather than for its connection with a writer who turned out to be more famous.

Morel comes from Casares' lasting obsession with the film star Louise Brooks, and his meditations on the philosophical implications of the cinema.

A man, a fugitive, escapes to a deserted island, which has on it only a chapel, a museum, and a swimming pool. The island is generally shunned because it is supposed to be the incubation ground of a terrible and deadly disease, but the fugitive prefers the possibility of illness to the certainty of life in prison. One day, he sees a beautiful woman sitting on the rocks and watching the sunset, despite the fact that no boat has come to the island. A large party of tourists appear to have taken up residence in the museum: they dance on the lawn, they swim in the pool. They have conversations which repeat in a strange way. They play the same two records over and over again, annoyingly. Gradually the fugitive realizes that they are images, the simulacra of people who came to this island at some point previously. But what caused the images? What is making them repeat? And is there any way for him to find out whether the image of the woman (whom he has grown to love) is capable of seeing and understanding him?

This is a novel which knows something about the science fiction tradition-- the name Morel is meant to recall Moreau-- but which is working in what at first appears to be an almost surrealist mode. The viewpoint is tightly confined, and one is never quite certain about the narrator's sanity. The language is spare and taut, and the logic has both the inexorable building of fact on fact that one expects from hard SF and the flowing image-linkages of a dream. It's quite short, more novella length than novel, but it packs a lot in.

Alain Robbe-Grillet would later fall in love with it and cite it as the work that directly produced his Last Year at Marienbad. I am inexpressibly charmed to know that there is a causal link between the career of Louise Brooks and Last Year at Marienbad.

The Invention of Morel is a quiet masterpiece, without a sentence out of place. It's available now from the New York Review of Books press, as are so many wonderful things. It deserves to be read more by science fiction readers and by persons who write about the history of science fiction; it also deserves to be read by people who enjoy suspense novels, or surrealism, or trying to understand odd first-person narratives. In short, it ought to have a wide audience; I never heard of it when I was going through my adolescent readings of all the criticism I could find. This is one of those books that still reads as though it was written yesterday.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Review for the book I read Thursday, July 14th. Borrowed from [community profile] papersky by way of [personal profile] nineweaving.

This minor but sweet and pleasant novel is set in a women's theatrical hotel, a sort of residential club, in the 1920s (mostly). The protagonist, Mouse, in the process of learning that she is a terrible actress, works as a secretary in a theatre for a very famous actor/director, and of course falls in love with him. Her three closest friends at the club weave through the plot in various entertaining and complicated ways, and we get flashforwards to them forty years later, so that we see how it all works out.

The things that are enjoyable about this book are the atmosphere of the club, which reminds me pleasantly of college as it was for me, a place where everyone worked and was in and out at all hours and lived in no space whatsoever and was happy; the theatre, its architecture and workings and rehearsals and the exact manner in which Mouse is a believably terrible actress and the way that celebrity can turn anybody's head; and Mouse herself. She has boundless self-confidence and joie de vivre, an appreciation for the little lovely details that can make life worth living. She knows what she wants, career-wise and sexually, and goes after it explicitly and with delight. She has agency and a sense of her own value, and though the man she wants is not worthy of her, the process of her learning that is not one that crushes her spirit. The text does not condemn her for desire. This is very rare for a book written in the late sixties and set in the twenties. It's not a romance novel, it's explicitly not, and it would be a worse book if it were and most writers would have written it as one. It is a novel about dealing with the fact that at eighteen people do not usually have any idea of what makes a good partner. (There are exceptions. I have to say that, having married at eighteen, happily.)

The annoying part of the novel is that one of the things that happens to one of the friends is not good, and is not right, and is explainable only by all of the characters subscribing to twenties social codes in a way that they do not do in the rest of the text. I disliked seeing women who usually cheerfully ignore anything that stands between them and their goals unconsideredly bow to the worst of class-based nastiness, and they really never do question it, and it is odd for the book to leave that one thing unquestioned. This is why I use the word minor.

But it is sweepingly exuberant, wonderfully different, and has that uniquely funny voice that Dodie Smith can summon. It reminds me somewhat of early Josephine Tey, or some Rumer Godden, but does not annoy me as much. So I do recommend it.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I swear Naomi Mitchison was writing things in the twenties that nobody else considered for decades. This collection, which came out in 1929, ends with a short story set in an extrapolated dystopian 1935 Britain in which, to pacify the incredibly poor, short-lived, and overworked masses, every year everyone above a certain income carries out the plot of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', publicly.

Of course, Shirley Jackson didn't write 'The Lottery' until 1948.

When I think of Mitchison I think of her as out of her time, as a voice we still haven't caught up to, and I also think of her as a historian, as one of those few writers who really internalizes the ways that people thought in different parts of the past and can show how different it was.

Barbarian Stories is not quite as glowingly, magnificently brilliant as The Delicate Fire or Memoirs of a Spacewoman, but it is an amazing book: a collection of short stories, none of which contain any characters in common, none of which share a geographical setting, none of which have plots that are in any way similar, none of which even take place within fifty years of one another, which are nonetheless clearly and obviously all about the same thing. The key is in the title. In each of these stories, there are two cultures or groups which meet, sometimes clashing and sometimes not; these are stories about the ways that groups of people see one another as human, and don't, about the drawing of lines in the sand, about how this can be done within a tribe and outside it. Nobody has the moral advantage, though the sides who think that they do are more likely to be worse.

So there are people of Iron Age Dorset here, a woman whose chieftain husband has been captured by enemies, desperate to ransom him so that his followers do not make her a common possession, cold pragmatism backed with solid bravery backed with cunning, and loyalties turning on a dime for the main chance. There is a Roman citizen captured by pirates from the North, who complains all the while about the food and the weather and the work and cannot see that the people who have caught him are ransoming him fairly and dealing with him more lightly than his temper might provoke. There are the Varangian guards of Byzantium, facing the practices of courtship of the Byzantine Greek women who differ from them in everything from height to religion, all sides lost in a morass of total sexual confusion. There's the ghost of an early Christian martyr, speaking to the author to explain how it all went badly, how difficult it is to be brave at the last even if you mean to be good; there's a young Roman boy in Britain and his father and his uncle, who ride to a place called Mai Dun and cannot figure out what the natives built it for, or why it is filled with sheep. There are wishing wells and angry devils, crops planted and crops failed, attempted rape and successful marriage, Harald Hadrada of Norway helped in battle by his dead relative Saint Olaf. And all of it comes down to the increasingly angry and confused under-question: how do you decide which side to be on? and why does there have to be a side?

The writing style changes, story by story, clear and simple language in the early Bronze Age moving to the crisp diction and sunny images of the reach of Roman law, and then the confusion and complexities of Byzantium. There are happy endings and unhappy endings and uncertain ones, and many of the stories are very short for the punch they pack, though some are better overall than others (the one with the martyr's ghost comes so close to working, but doesn't, quite, is ever so slightly too sentimental a voice).

Someday I may read a Mitchison that doesn't read as though it were written yesterday about tomorrow. This is not that day; I recommend this. It's less ideologically slanted than I've made it sound, for it does care about its characters and settings and plots individually, deeply, and it is mostly questions rather than answers.

And then that final story, both extrapolation of her question and a possible answer to it (the mere shift in setting from past into future lends the never-was the semantics of distressed, unlikely prophecy): the lottery which the observer finds completely numbing, neither horrific nor interesting, another day at the races-- but, she thinks, the people must get some satisfaction from it; only the death of those they hate can make their lives bearable, even if it's almost entirely symbolic and enacts no real change. Interestingly, this story predicts that there would be a second world war, worse than the first. I don't see many stories from the twenties that do that. The killing of the rich was started, here, as a gesture against the war profiteers by a tired and traumatized generation of veterans. I'm not sure how well it would read without the weight of the entire book behind it, but as a climax it's so sharp it cuts almost painlessly. After all, what else is anybody going to do, in times like that, considering?
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Today's review, and caught up.

It's very difficult to portray good people well, in fiction. I don't mean people who are heroic, necessarily, or unusually courageous, or self-sacrificing, or working on plans which are good things for the world: I mean people who are simply good people, on a deep level, who do good things because they are loving and wise. It's hard to write those people, and it's hard to read them, because they are usually portrayed as overly saintly with no flaws whatsoever, or as incredibly self-righteous, or something like that. And then there is the conviction, popularized by among others Tolstoy but hovering in the air in general, that evil is always more interesting than good and that bad things make better news and better stories. Jo Walton over at torcom has talked about searching for books which do not contain violence, because they are rarities; the believable portrayal of genuine human decency is just as rare, and incredibly rare in a viewpoint character. I collect these portrayals when I find them. (The most notable to date is Tenma-sensei, in Naoki Urasawa's manga Monster, which has major flaws but is an amazing portrait of a good man faced with an unbearable moral crisis.)

Chihiro, the narrator of Banana Yoshimoto's most recently translated novel, The Lake, is one of the most unselfconsciously, matter-of-factly good and decent people I have encountered in fiction. It is very restful. Chihiro herself would deny it; her ideas of goodness have to do with energy and force and wanting to better oneself and the world and do heroic things, whereas she is a mostly ordinary person, and she drifts, and she is rather spoiled, and she makes a living painting murals but does not consider herself an immortal painter or even a professional caliber of painter. Nor does she aspire to be a greater painter than she is. Her one goal, with her murals, is to paint something that while it is not necessarily good will in ten years or twenty or fifty still fit its surroundings and not look dated; she is happy with that. And she's been very busy and confused since her mother died, after a long illness that was traumatic for everybody.

The thrust of the book is about her relationship with Nakajima, who is probably her boyfriend. She is falling in love with him slowly and almost reluctantly, because something that happened to him when he was younger, something too large to talk about, has left him irrevocably broken (and when we find out what it is, it is in fact that bad). She knows she can't save him, because she isn't a hero. She's not even sure if she can love him, because that might be too much for them both, and if she fails him it will be messy and may kill him.

But because he is never willing to lie down and give up, and because she is at the core of her relatively wise, they can try to learn every day to take it one day at a time.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers, almost always evanescent and subtle, sometimes peaceful, sometimes frightening, sometimes both at the same time. Her protagonists tend to be women who are aware of their own flaws. There is often a breath of the numinous across her work, something which might be the supernatural if you looked at it more closely, or might not. She has the misfortune of being best known in the U.S. for her worst novel, Kitchen, which isn't terrible but plays to very few of her real strengths. The Lake is Yoshimoto at her best, a book without a wasted sentence, one of the few books I've seen about trauma to realize that healing does not come as a single revelation but as incident after incident of things getting slightly better, and that sometimes what you are aiming for is 'as good as it can get', and that can be enough. This is a minor masterpiece, and I am very glad to find that she continues to be translated. I would like everything of hers I can have.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Via [personal profile] coffeeandink. *looks at shelves* I seem to have a pile of Things Mely Recommended In 2008. Okay then.

This is a brilliant novel and I don't know how to talk about it. I am sorry if I get it wrong.

It's set in Jamaica, and it ranges over about thirty years (it came out in 1987) and swirls around one family and the things that happen to its far-flung members, and this is not helping, this is not giving you any bloody idea at all.

When I went to St. Thomas a few years ago the guide we had there said to the group of tourists ""St. Thomas, of course, has no natural water, and no industries. Remember that without the generosity of tourists this entire island is dead in the water." She said that as we walked by her on our way back to our boat. It was the last thing she said to us. In the entry in which I wrote about that I totally failed to express everything important about the way she said it, the reason I remember it perfectly now: the delicate and unashamed scorn too disinterested to be real contempt, too self-concealing to be rage, laughing at herself for having to ask for tips this way, laughing at herself for condescending to try to keep her dignity by not outright asking, laughing at us for everything that was right there in her voice, bitter laughter, and I could see everyone else there failing to hear her, just hand her a twenty and move on back to the cruise ship after all it's raining again, and then the choking rage I couldn't figure out what to do with because what the hell is there to do right there right then but hand her a twenty and my rage wasn't going to do any damn good to anybody and hers would cost her her job and both this beautiful intelligent woman and I stood there for about five seconds (as I gave her the money) united in this extremely futile and completely justified literally unspeakable hatred of everything I could not help but represent.

When I hear the word colonialism now I think of that. And I got to go home again and have a life where I don't have to think about it all the time. That's what happens when you represent the privileged. When you have privilege. Hell, I have the privilege now of being openly angry.

The protagonist of this novel (though she doesn't appear for the first third of it), Jamaican-born but raised in New York, educated in Britain, accepted as white wherever she goes that isn't Jamaica until she opens her mouth and has an accent, is trying to make the journey away from colonialism, from that repeated moment where the way things are dehumanizes you whichever side of it you're standing on (and she's standing on both, and one side, of course, is far, far more painful than the other). The history of her family stretches across the whole of the island's class system; the book begins with the bloody murder of a family of her cousins by their (of course darker) yardboy, a kind of unconscious class warfare. By the end for her terrorism is an emotionally comprehensible decision, one she's made because if she has to be one thing or the other of the several things she is she knows which way she must commit herself to be able to sleep at night. Violence seems the most sane resolution of her life of contradictions, as long as it's aimed in the proper direction.

The book's prose is also a glorious set of apparent-but-not-actual contradictions, sweeps through different countries, different classes, different kinds of slang, Oxfordian academic-speak, hillcountry patois. The delight of the language carries the book, along with the magnificently swirling structure, which initially seems aimless but closes in and in and inward. Cliff has a gift for turning from horror to beauty on a dime and back again: a lovely lyrical description turns out to be a portrait of small boys diving into the harbor after coins thrown from the tourist boats. "Some of them didn't come up again," she says, after showing you exactly how the light spangles on the shillings, "but no one was keeping track."

Jamaica here is dystopia, utopia, and an ordinary country people have to live in; longed-for home and place to escape as fast as possible; the center of the universe and a backwater subject to the whim of greater powers. Things seem to spiral apart and apart, social order disintegrating as the book gets tighter and tighter. The novel this reminds me of most is J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, and Jamaica, technically, isn't even a war zone, though Cliff makes that debatable.

As she says, there is no telephone to heaven. This is not a comfortable book. Merely a magnificent and necessary one.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I have noticed that Tove Jansson's books seem to take place either in summer or in winter: summer at its most exuberantly summery, winter at its most mysterious. The principal exception I can think of, Moominvalley in November, is an odd book all round and sees autumn as a transition more than as a season of its own. This may have something to do with the essential Scandinavian nature of Jansson-- hers is a world where seasons are sharp, clear, and noticeable, and where they substantially affect one's way of living more than they do in, say, most of the U.S.

This is a winter book.

In a village so small that everyone lives not only in one another's pockets but in one another's daydreams, Katri lives with her brother, Mats. Their mother died in the fall. Katri quit her job at the only store soon after, because the storekeeper wanted her. Katri is intelligent, brutally honest, and disliked, a woman as hard on herself as on everybody else, who doesn't name her dog, who can do anything with bookkeeping, who has yellow eyes and wears a wolfskin collar. The children throw snowballs at her window and chant 'witch' though she is only twenty-five. Katri would do anything for her brother, who is young and underestimated by everyone, and dreams.

Up the hill in a decaying family mansion lives Anna Aemalin, old and alone, an illustrator of books for small children which sell hugely and are greatly critically acclaimed except for the rabbits: they have too many cliched little bunnies in them. The village calls her house the rabbit house. Anna is wealthy.

Katri knows both what she wants and, she believes, how to get it, but it isn't that simple. Jansson's books are never simple. Neither Katri nor Anna are victim or villain. They are two people whose proximities, whose enforced intimacies and non-intimacies, make clear to each that she is the opposite of the other, and that her own beliefs are not exactly working. Over the course of this deceptively simple novel, wrapped in the appearance of non-plot, shot with winter light, they ambiguously break and heal each other.

In the foreword it is mentioned that Jansson found this novel the most difficult of her books to write. Understandable, but it doesn't show at all. As with much of her work, this is as all-of-a-piece and flowing as a rock from the bottom of a river. The details are precise and sometimes funny, the lists of silly things people write to Anna to ask her about merchandising (she wonders desperately why they want to put a noisemaker in the little rubber bunnies when rabbits do not make sounds except when screaming), the way Katri demolishes the storekeeper in three words every time she talks to him.

I like Katri better though her motives are probably worse; witch is in some ways the right word for a person who so emphatically breaks herself over and over on the rock of her own absolute will. She has some kinship to Lolly Willowes, or to Bulgakov's Margarita, women who not only ignore the social norms of their cultures because of inner promptings but who do not even notice on some levels that there are social norms to be ignored. The image I take away most strongly from this novel is the one that Jansson also used for the front cover, Katri walking through the snow in the morning before the sun has risen, smoking, with her great nameless dog at her side, and her changing yellow eyes. Katri would not approve of that as a romanticized version of herself: she is probably thinking about accounting. That is the reason it is such a brilliant novel.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This was recommended to me after I fell in love with Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. It's a novel in which Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian, tells the story of how he unearths his own past at a very late age, the ways in which he finds out that he was sent from Prague to Wales just before the outbreak of World War II, the ways he looks for his childhood home and the memory of his parents and the knowledge of what might have happened to them.


This is where I run into the issue, as a critic, that I am essentially a genre reader. I tend not to pay attention to the mainstream of literature (if such a thing really exists), and I have what I jokingly refer to as an obscurity curse, which means that if I find I have read something by a famous writer it will be their least famous work. I read science fiction, I read fantasy, and I spend a lot of time reading unclassifiable postmodern whatsits, and biographies, and I have studied architecture a lot, and so on, just about anything that doesn't get filed under literary fiction.

I watch anime, also. Therefore when I saw Aronofsky's The Black Swan, which was much loved by many critics and award-givers, the only thing I could think of it was 'well, somebody believes nobody's ever watched Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue'.

And so I look at this really very well-crafted, very careful, very subtle book by W.G. Sebald, which was much loved by many critics and award-givers, with its neatly circling and quite effective symbolism and the way it obliterates time on objective and subjective levels and the way the unnamed narrator and Austerlitz are and are not each other and the way that it uses uncaptioned black-and-white photographs of unknown provenance to emotionally amplify portions of the text and the only thing I can think about it is 'well, I guess Mainstream Literature did not read Iain Sinclair's Downriver?'

There are three (3) differences between this book and Downriver: 1), this one is about the Holocaust and Sinclair is talking about London; 2), Sinclair is willing to go anywhere at all in the service of his premise which means his work has little to do with realism, and when we are talking about the blurring together of time past and time present a lack of realism is really a better idea; and 3), Sinclair's prose can be a tad purple on occasion and Sebald, or his translators, are almost fanatically restrained.

Other than that, same approach to history (through architecture, a lot of the time), same allusions to all of pop culture (yes, Sebald, we get that Austerlitz has wandered into Last Year at Marienbad when he goes to, in fact, Marienbad, where he does not remember having been as a child), even some of the same landmarks when Austerlitz spends some time in London. Like, I think there are photographs of the same cemetery in each book. I will admit it is an extraordinarily evocative cemetery.

So I spent this entire book feeling as though I'd read it already, only better, previously.

Please note that I am not trying to say I think the Sebald is derivative in any way. I don't think so. I think that Sebald has independently evolved the same set of literary devices to deal with time and applied them to a different set of times and spaces. It's just that it has, in fact, been done, and that Sinclair's insane throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks passions work better with these methods than subtle and allusive understatement. There is one detail in the Sebald I did like, which drops the reader into the void below the text as he is trying to do. In south Germany in 1933 Austerlitz's father, hiking, buys a new kind of boiled sweet which are pink and have a raspberry-colored melt-in-your-mouth swastika swirled into them; this is what convinces Austerlitz's father that the entire German polity has gone mad, not just the military and media. I believe that those existed. That paragraph of the book is a trapdoor leading somewhere unthinkably dark.

But then Austerlitz has to go and start talking about the distribution of the forested areas of Bavaria and the whole thing diffuses again.

Oh, I don't know, the Sinclair is probably not to everybody's taste and probably shouldn't be, and is I think not famous and probably not famous for good reasons, but I cannot help admiring the person who invents the tools more than the person who merely makes an occasionally very fine use of them. (Did anybody else read Downriver? Angela Carter told me to, in her collected journalism, back in the late nineties, which is why I did.) Maybe I am just reading the wrong Sebald, although the internet thinks it is his most praised. Maybe the tools you can use to write (in my opinion) the Great Novel about London do not work on the Holocaust, which would not surprise me. Maybe something Sebald is doing is going over my head. At least this does not suffer from the traditional problems with the Holocaust novel, which are legion and execrable; it never has the sense of undervaluing tragedy or of using history for unearned emotion, so that makes it better than much of its genre right there.

Anyway: very fine. Very well done. Go read the Sinclair.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Writing a review of something by James Joyce means that I am required by law to link you to this awesome synopsis of Finnegans Wake (warning: TV Tropes).

Now that we have that out of the way:

this collection of short stories is in perfectly plain language, being early Joyce; I am informed there are a couple of pieces here that are run-ups for portions of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But mostly it's what it says on the tin, it's about Dubliners, people who live in Dublin, many different sorts of people.

I suspect that there are ways in which I can't appreciate how good this book is because too much of it has been internalized and is now just The Way People Write. It certainly does not feel nearly a hundred years old; any of these stories could appear in a modern literary magazine tomorrow and not appear dated. That is rare. There is not much in the way of plot here, in a conventional sense. These are stories of the form I associate with Chekhov, the seemingly motionless snapshot of people at a specific moment, doing specific things, which turns out to be a deep portrait of these people at a time when something vast is changing in or around them.

Therefore these are stories in which about ninety percent of the heavy lifting is going on under the surface, so I can tell you that there is a story about a boy who's just had a priest he knows die, and a story about the people who come in and out of a politician's headquarters in the process of canvassing, and really it tells you nothing at all about the pure sexual confusion and terror that hangs over the first story or the delicately ironic balancing of patriotic emotion, pragmatism, and alcohol in the second. There's an active living underlayer to everything in this book which makes summary a mockery. There are things going on here I am entirely sure I don't understand, possibly because of lack of cultural context on occasion, but I can still tell they are there if not what they are.

So I will cheerfully admit this is the great masterpiece all the critics say it is, especially 'The Dead', which I had read before at an age when it went so far over my head it probably hit the wheel of the zodiac, and which I had not expected to have so much merriment in it. (That's the one where there is a party, and a man who discovers he does not know what may be a huge and significant thing about his wife's emotional life, not that that is an adequate summing-up.)

It is however an odd experience for me as a reader who is also a writer, because it is that rare bird, a masterpiece from which I have no desire to steal any particular mode or bit of technique whatsoever, because it is not what I am trying to do. It is so incredibly not what I am trying to do that I am free to admire it purely and without the usual degree of a certain direction of studiousness, and the absence of that is like repeatedly missing a stair. Very unaccustomed mode of thinking. Now, Ulysses I will rob blind, if I think I can get away with it. This, no. It's like seeing a hawk in the wild or something, a beautiful experience that gives me no impetus at all to try to make a hawk myself. Whereas the phoenix that is Ulysses, you damn bet I'm out there setting feathers on fire.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] dorothean, with thanks.

I thought throughout most of this book that I did not like it very much, because it is a story that has been told so often. Joanna Russ talks in one of her essays about the plot arcs available to heroines in books where it is predetermined that the principal story of a woman's life is How She Got Married, which becomes old news after a while, and what a writer can do about that, the dodges and stratagems available to let your heroine do something. This book has one of the arcs that Russ suggests is a possible replacement or addition to Getting Married, which has come in fairly recently: How She Went Crazy. Specifically, in this case, how she was driven crazy, in a story that also includes how she got married, which was a significant contributor to how she was driven crazy.

In short, I thought through most of this book that it was the story of a woman as an exemplary victim, a novel in which every bad thing possible happens to the heroine so that the author can explain to you how terrible it all is. And it is terrible, in real life, really genuinely terrible things happen to women, but in a novel it is possible to make your reader overdose on misery, just say 'this is too much' and clock out. I thought this had made that mistake, and I have read that book many times and would rather read a good nonfictional work on the relevant atrocities, which would tell me, maybe, where one might start to do something about them.

Because this is a book where many terrible and quite realistic things happen to the protagonist, Firdaus, who is born into great poverty, suffers FGM without ever knowing what it is, spends a long time as a prostitute, is never loved by anyone, is betrayed by everyone she ever loves, and eventually kills a man who has become her pimp and is trying to prevent her from leaving him. She tells her life story to the narrator while on death row for the killing.

And I thought for a while that the style was too self-consciously literary, that the ways that things repeat in Firdaus' life (quite frequently word-for-word, motif following motif in the same precise order) was too intentionally symbolic.

But gradually it began to dawn on me: this is in fact a book I hadn't read before.

In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus (who is talking about punk music, but never mind) makes a distinction between nihilistic and negationist art. Negationist art is revolutionary art which says: all this (whatever this is) has to go, get rid of it all, burn it all down with whatever violence necessary, and then we will see what comes out of the ashes when we start over. Nihilistic art is revolutionary art which says: all this has to go, get rid of it all, it all has to burn down, with extreme violence, and that violence is the only point left, because nothing can rise from the ashes anymore.

This is a genuinely nihilistic feminist novel. Firdaus achieves the total freedom of the sociopath, through many years of being pushed well beyond human endurance, and reaches that peculiar state in which there is no distinction between pain and pleasure, fear and welcome, in which nothing can touch her anymore and she kills because it is the right thing to do. (The question is asked in the book several times: "Who says murder does not require that a person be gentle?" Firdaus is very gentle.) She agrees with Ti-Grace Atkinson that heterosexual marriage is an economically exploitative form of coerced prostitution (and for her it was) and with Valeria Solanas that men are not human (and for her they were not). Once she's torn a large sum of money into shreds, no human thing can arouse her respect. The infinite circling and repetitions, the motif following motif, are because she is the one telling her life story, the marks of her first-person voice and her insanity. You can see, sometimes, things that might have been ways out for her, but only in the instants of their vanishing. Each repetition is a tighter spiral of the vortex that will end with her death as the happiest moment of her life.

And all the narrator can do-- the narrator who, the author says in the preface, is herself; this is a story she did hear from a woman awaiting execution, and fictionalized-- all the narrator can do is say, in wonder and frustration: she was braver than I am.

That book, I had not read before, no, and I am glad someone wrote it. It has the cold clarity of the point zero it claims to be. You cannot come away from it with the sort of reassurances you bring from a book which allows any rays of light inside itself. It will make you angry because it offers no answers whatsoever. The anger of unanswered questions is a useful kind of anger. Firdaus, herself, is the question.
rushthatspeaks: (platypus)
For centuries the novel told in verse
has neither read nor sold one-tenth as well
as books in prose (although they might be worse);
so Seth said to his muses, what the hell,
I've got this beat, this long-disused tetrameter,
my knowledge of a simile's parameter,
hilarity from all my friends, a pen,
a travel book in presses-- therefore, then,
present to me a sonnet-cycle/novel.
The muses said to Seth, we like your line,
and Berkeley's as good as any hovel
a poet's lurked in waiting for our wine.
Only we must as kind daimones warn you:
doggerel's what you'll get from California.

Seth didn't mind. The characters were sound,
the through-line true, the subtleties were there.
If sometimes cluttered near-rhymes ran aground,
the story-shapes should make the reader care.
And so they do. The book is very good.
Our protag, John, computer-jockey, would
like love, but all his head is out of joint.
His best friend Phil (who really is the point)
struggles with having to be a single father,
loves a man and loses him to God,
wonders why religion's all this bother,
is gently funny, sweetly loving, odd.
Triangles and circles, change of partners, seasons,
and life and death: the usual plotly reasons

apply as in the prose work of your choice.
But due to Seth's unusual form and mode,
his California has a stronger voice
than other authors have found down that road.
It's not roman à clef if it's a sonnet.
You get a different viewing angle on it,
a deeper heart, a joy in all this cleverness.
Not Great American Novel-- what ever is--
but a California Novel I will take.
I mean, the table of contents, dedication,
acknowledgements and bio do not break
the mold in which he worked his aspiration.
What should a cheered and tired reviewer do
but (for my sins) inflict some sonnets too?
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] dorothean, with thanks.

This novel follows the life, chronologically, of Lilian, who lives in Sydney, Australia, is born in 1901, and watches the city and herself change around her over decades. It is not a conventional life-- for one thing, Lilian chooses at quite an early age to be fat, and it is a conscious choice, because there are several dangers it keeps her safe from. The book does not judge this choice with any of the possible judgments, but simply recounts it, which is not usual in a novel. In fact there are several things about Lilian's life that are not usual in lives but are fairly common in novels, but there are also several things which don't turn up all that often in fiction, although I suspect they do in lives. For instance, she is homeless by choice at several points, which is something I have met in talking with people far more than I have in books.

It is apparently Kate Grenville's first novel, and I can tell. She is struggling with the form of a novel, which says that certain things are likely to happen, and persons are likely to recur, and possibly there ought to be something you can put your finger on as a plot or even just as a structure, whereas what she is trying to do is tell a story where there isn't usually story told, a story that does not have a shape and a form and a novelistic ending and a set of answers easy or otherwise. Often she attains a gentle compromise between what a reader might expect and what she would like the reader to actually get, and those bits are very fine: but it takes rigorous discipline to work to no form whatsoever, and if she had trusted her (unique, personal, unmistakable) first-person narrative voice to be its own propellant I think the book could have been finer still. This is not for example a novel that is best served by being told chronologically, because all the most conventional bits are together at the beginning, where she is trying to work against them as well as trying to use them to soften you up for later, and undermining herself both ways. But this is moving towards being the sort of book Virginia Woolf would have liked to see women write more of, and I mean that entirely as a compliment.

For she does after all have a good grasp of character, and a memorable narrator, and a sense of place in Sydney that felt plausible to me, for all that I was only ever in Sydney a week, but they do have those fruit bats in the Domain still, don't they. And she is trying to give voice within the reader to a woman who is literally the sort of person people avoid on the street because she is so embarrassing, and to show where the world and life have failed her heroine (where you would expect) and where they have not (mostly also where you would expect, but as I have said this is not a bad book, so also elsewhere). The language is good, too, purposefully unpretty and full of strong images.

I recommend this, then, if you're in the mood for a picaresque, or something set in Australia, or work by and about a woman that is trying to do something new (though not always reaching it). I should pick up something later of the author's, as apparently she was famous right from the beginning (this made her a name, and should have) and her other novels start talking about things like colonialism and have awards piled on their heads, and now I am intrigued.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
As I have said before, bless the press of the New York Review of Books, for they consistently print things I want to read. I picked this up at Raven Used Books in Harvard Square while I was in town over the weekend; Raven is one of those places where you may as well just hand your wallet to the cashier when you walk in, and go from there. They stock a lot of NYRBs.

Jansson is primarily known for her magnificent Moomin books, those friendly but still numinous collections of the adventures of funny, endearing, never ever human people of several different peculiar varieties. This is one of her novels for adults, and I have to say, it is fascinating watching her write human characters, as I have never seen her do that before. She is, unsurprisingly, very good at it.

The Summer Book is--

well. I need to resort to analogy here for a moment. There is a French movie I am very fond of by Jacques Tati, called M. Hulot's Holiday, which is set at a seaside resort, and which has the peculiar property that it is so timelessly filled with summer that every time you watch it it does not feel as though you are watching the same film of the same summer over again, but rather that you are watching the next year along, with everything going on about the same as last year, just as it ought to, in the subtly shifting rhythms of the world. I can tell without having reread it that The Summer Book will have this quality.

It is composed of short vignettes, which might take place in the same summer, or in different ones, or in all summers at once. There is an island in the Gulf of Finland, and every summer for forty-seven years the same family has lived on it (according to them they live there always, and they are quite contemptuous of summer people although they clearly have a winter house; the island is where their real existence lies). Right now there is a little girl, Sophie, and a grandmother, and a father, though he spends most of his time in his study typing away at something. And there is no mother, which is the one change from the way things have always been, and not a good one.

Sophie and the grandmother have the island in their bones. Sometimes there are visitors, who don't, which is confusing for everybody. Sometimes there is weather, all the drama of storm and wave. On Midsummer there are meant to be fireworks, but they are a bit salt-encrusted. The grandmother carves animals out of roots in the thickets, builds a tiny scale model of Venice for her granddaughter, smokes too much, is intemperate and intransigent and impossible to live with and absolutely without question the best grandmother I have ever seen in fiction, end of sentence. Sophie is writing a book on the natural history of the angleworm, to explain whether it is all right that it splits into two halves to avoid being put on a fishhook. (Does it live, after all that, happily? Does the tail end grow a new head, or does it decide to be the head, and move up in the world?) She has a complex and tormented relationship with her cat, as who does not. She is a bit young to have grasped the concept of generations and doesn't remember her grandfather, but she is invested in asking questions and is fairly convinced the Devil has something to do with death-- the grandmother says that at her own age she is too old to start believing in the Devil and she's damned if she's going to.

This is clear water of a book, both deep and crystalline, the work of a writer at the height of her powers, using them lazily and in perfect mastery, with a crooked smile. Jansson was over sixty when she wrote this, and it shows, a lifetime of having learned herself and her art and her oceans. It is the kind of book that invalidates many standard ideas about the nature of the novel, because it is in a conventional sense plotless, arcless, conflictless, not even really a pastoral. This is one reason I am quite often annoyed at standard ideas about the nature of the novel: The Summer Book is vital, there is nothing else like it. It is full of the sound of an old woman and a little girl laughing and quarreling, on an island, in the shadow of a newish grief, somewhere in the Gulf of Finland, every summer.

It is perfectly itself.


rushthatspeaks: (Default)

March 2017

56789 1011


RSS Atom

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Mar. 25th, 2017 09:43 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios