I am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with s...moreI am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with somewhat gaudy cover art featuring people and places whose names contain an excess of vowels and apostrophes. So that I bought this novel on the day it came out and finished it in less than a week says a lot. To me, anyway.
I first heard of this author through her essays, in particular We Have Always Fought, which is a bracing rhetorical bucket of cold water over the head, one of those pieces of writing that articulated something I already kind of knew on some level but did it in such a way as to actually change the way I look at the world. It rearranged my brain. The way Hurley writes about stories as significant, high stakes political endeavors that can change the world in some meaningful way is immensely exciting, and something I believe, too. So of course I was curious about the kinds of stories she tells.
The first thing that struck me, however, is how epic fantasy-ish it is. We get the requisite map, the reminder that this is "Book 1" of what I presume is a trilogy, and the monsters and cosmology and vowelly-named people, places, and cultures that contain just a slight hint of real world ethnic and cultural markers. This has more to do with my ill-suitedness for the genre at large, though, than with anything germane to this novel. But it's worth noting that while MIRROR EMPIRE does a great many subversive, progressive, and downright refreshing things on the story level, its props and window dressing come straight from epic fantasy central casting.
Beneath the nacreous epic fantasy surface polish, however, is an amazingly complex, hyper intelligent, maximalist fugue of a story with a great many interesting things to say about pacifism and warfare, genocide, gender role mutability, self-violence, and even the deadly importance of books and the art of translation. On the thematic level MIRROR EMPIRE is probably one of the most ambitious fantasy novels I've read. Unlike some ambitious works that seem to lack the narrative underpinning to fully realize that ambition (such as Mieville's Bas-Lag novels), the story stays firmly on the rails, its heavy freight confidently in tow. (less)
McBain writes bog standard hard boiled in all its terse, grim, misogynistic glory. One of my more significant issues with crime fiction is that the na...moreMcBain writes bog standard hard boiled in all its terse, grim, misogynistic glory. One of my more significant issues with crime fiction is that the narrative formula is as entrenched as it is tired, and while I admit that these stories still hold some sway for me, the way a bag of Swedish Fish or Doritos will still manage to find its way into my hands, I am getting less and less out of it. (less)
Here is a crime novel that does something different. Driver, the semi-eponymous protagonist, is a Hollywood stunt driver, one of the best in the busin...moreHere is a crime novel that does something different. Driver, the semi-eponymous protagonist, is a Hollywood stunt driver, one of the best in the business, and on the side he puts his skills behind the wheel to use as a getaway driver for petty criminals. Until something goes wrong. That's the logline, anyway.
Driver is a charcoal sketch of a character, both badass to the core and totally hermetic on the page, and for that reason he - and this novel - feel alternately thin and mythic. In some ways Drive is a study in how to make a short novel (~150 pages) and its laconic, lonely hero feel more substantial than perhaps they really are. The novel's militant non-linearity, which frequently drops the reader without warning into episodes from Driver's deep and not so deep past, its oblique foreshadowing, and the pure badassness of even Driver's incidental actions (opening the throat of a skinhead on the way to his car, for instance, before driving off) leave ample narrative white space for the reader's own imagination to fill in. And that's really quite brilliant, so long as you don't think about it too hard.(less)
Last month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit od...moreLast month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odd sandwiched between new fiction by 21st century lit-fic superstars, but Simmons’s obvious love of classical literature, with a plot structure borrowed directly from Chaucer and frequent shout-outs to Keats among others, never lets the reader forget that the author is a classical literature super nerd. The only downside is that the novel ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but because the slow reveal had already given me a sense of what was going on, and because the the plot threads were starting to fray a bit towards the end I didn’t feel the need to dive into the second book right away. Perhaps I’ll save it for the winter.(less)
This very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-fel...moreThis very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felt episodes that glancingly attempt something more.
The book begins with our unnamed first-person narrator returning to the house of his youth on the occasion of (I think) a funeral. These opening pages are freighted with a deeply introspective world-weariness, and it felt like the story was gearing up for a kind of self-realization narrative.
But once home, our narrator encounters a mysterious neighbor, and this encounter summons the memory of an experience the narrator had as a child. That story, as recalled by the narrator, is the meat of this novel, and it's interesting and just as full of monsters and fairies and magic as you'd expect from the byline. There are some dark moments, and a twist of tragedy. But it all comes across as very harmless and safe, even in some of the less comfortable and sad moments.
For me, though, the novel only became interesting in its final pages, after the narrator finishes recounting this experience he had and is talking with the mysterious neighbor. Without getting into specifics, it is only at the end that the story starts trying to broach some of the self-realization hinted at in its opening pages. But before it goes anywhere, the book ends.
I feel like Gaiman has a clearly defined comfort zone, and if he tentatively sticks a foot outside of it, as he does here at the very end, it is only to withdraw it a moment later with the hope that the attempt at something deep will count for the real thing. I look forward to the day he works up the courage to venture outside of his self-circumscribed magic circle and tell us about the monsters he really sees there.(less)
Arguably the most significant musicology book of the 20th century. Every time I pick it up I come away with a new insight into the music I've been lis...moreArguably the most significant musicology book of the 20th century. Every time I pick it up I come away with a new insight into the music I've been listening to since I was a wee little one. Some music theory knowledge is necessary to understand much of what Rosen discusses, but it's worth it for those who really want to understand how this music works.(less)
The wistfulness in Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is so tactile you can almost feel it through the paper, at least if you read the hard copy. The firs...moreThe wistfulness in Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is so tactile you can almost feel it through the paper, at least if you read the hard copy. The first-person narratives of two lovers unfold in alternating chapters, separated by time (a few years) and geography (Uganda & the United States), and also by cultural differences, secrets, and silence. It’s a kind of love story, but it feels more like a story about the limitations of love. It is not inherently tragic or violent or even unhappy, but even now, a few weeks after having finished reading the novel, I get distinctly wistful melancholic pang thinking back on it. And I’ve finally figured out why.
Our two narrators are “Isaac” and Helen. I put “Isaac” in quotes because it is not his real name, and also to differentiate him from the real Isaac, another character in this story who is, for a time, “Isaac’s” best friend.
“Isaac’s” narrative takes place in Uganda in the early 1970’s, and chronicles his deep and tragic friendship with the real Isaac. Helen’s story takes place in the American Midwest a few years later, when “Isaac” has fled to the United States and met Helen through the social services agency where she works. Helen’s narrative chronicles their relationship over the course of about a year.
At no point is “Isaac’s” real name revealed. Early on in the novel “Isaac” tells us that, “When I was born I had 13 names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have 13 names.” All we know beyond this comes from a brief passage later in the novel when we are told that it starts with ‘D’ and sounds to Americans like “Daniel.”
Outside of Isaac and Helen he does not seem to have any friends. His family gets only a few brief mentions, and apart from a taste for Victorian literature and a vague desire to become a writer we know very little about him. The extreme blankness of “Isaac’s” slate allows the reader to write in details large and small, which lent him a strange mythic quality, despite the distinct non-mythic nature of his story.
“Isaac” and Isaac meet during their freshman year at university in Kampala. Isaac is charismatic in extremis, gregarious and funny and endowed with a satirist’s eye for politics. “Isaac” is very nearly his opposite: introverted, shy, and very serious. Opposites attract, and so of course the two become fast friends.
A word about the historical setting: this is Uganda in the early 1970’s. Idi Amin has recently seized the presidency from Milton Obote in a military coup, and though neither person is mentioned by name Mengestu depicts the place and time with such specificity as to make it perfectly clear. In September 1972 Obote’s supporters, aided by members of the Tanzanian military, attempted to recapture the presidency from Amin, and failed.
Isaac and “Isaac” find themselves caught up in this coup, or at least in Mengestu’s fictionalized version of it. When the Isaacs realize the rebellion is a lost cause, Isaac, who has become an officer in the rebel army, decides to stay and fight to the end. He gives “Isaac” his passport and his identity, and tells him how to get to the United States. The violence of the rebellion mutes the sadness of their parting . Thus ends “Isaac’s” narrative, just as Helen’s is about to begin.
If “Isaac” is introverted, Helen is completely closed off. “Isaac” at least had his friendship with the real Isaac. Helen seemingly has no platonic relationships, with the possible exception of her boss at the social services agency. While Helen’s relationship with “Isaac” develops naturally enough, even at their most intimate there is an abyss of secrets between them that they confide only in the reader, an abyss that persists more-or-less unbridged through the end of the novel.
And here, I think, is the source of the novel’s ingrained, underlying sadness. Helen and “Isaac’s” parallel narratives, with their extensive interiority and introversion, reminds us that whatever trauma and tragedy and joy and rage and sadness we contain, only a tiny fraction of it escapes the gray matter between our ears to be shared with others. It’s as if we spend our whole lives with the deepest, thickest, juiciest, hairiest roots of our identity wrapped within a hermetically sealed garden into which only our dearest intimates can sneak the occasional peak. Among other things, All Our Names is a graphic, somewhat exaggerated illustration of humanity’s seemingly hardwired reticence even, or perhaps especially, with those we love the most.
That’s what Helen and “Isaac” tell us in their different ways. And that’s why this book, beautiful though it is, kind of bums me out.(less)
The twelve stories collected in Redeployment use the structure and devices and tropes of contemporary literary short fiction to add a different kind o...moreThe twelve stories collected in Redeployment use the structure and devices and tropes of contemporary literary short fiction to add a different kind of depth and perspective to the way soldiers’ experience of war in the 21st century are understood. More than The Hurt Locker or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Redeployment uses the strictures of a mature art form to communicate certain things that are not necessarily possible in other forms.
Putting it like that might make it sound like Klay’s stories are didactic editorials—and, indeed, some of them do come off that way (more on this in a moment)—but these are all first and foremost very engaging, often captivating stories. Klay has a talent for catchy, fast-paced openings that, at their best, got me invested in the story almost immediately. Here, for instance, is the first paragraph of the title story, Redeployment:
We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.
But the grim glibness of this opening does not foreclose the possibility of emotional depth, Later in this story, when the narrator returns home from his tour of duty to find that his own dog is terminally ill and must be put down, he does the deed himself, and Klay makes the reader feel the full weight if the act.
Which is not to say that glib machismo doesn’t have its uses. In Frago, after as a squad is on the way to the hospital to visit one of theirs who was wounded during a violent mission earlier that day, we see this humor being put to theraputic use:
We’re quiet as we get close, and then McKeown says, Sergeant, that was really fucked up.
But now’s not the time to have that conversation, so I say, Yeah, that’s the most blood I’ve seen since I fucked your mom on her period. And then the guys laugh and bullshit a bit, and it breaks the mood that was settling.
But Klay also shows us the shortcomings of such humor. In After Action Report, a character, in the midst of a dark, confusing attack, shoots a young boy who was brandishing an AK47. Afterwards, back at the base, the narrator shows the limitations of levity and the thin line separating dark humor from the deeply serious:
When we finished the convoy, Timhead helped me out of the gunner’s suit. As we peeled it off my body, the smell of the seat trapped underneath hit us, thick and sour. Normally, he’d make jokes or complain about that, but I guess he wasn’t in the mood. He hardly said anything until we got it off, and then he said, “I shot that kid.”
Klay deploys a similar level of emotional nuance and subtle intelligence in dealing with other aspects of the experience of returning soldiers. Living with PTSD, self-medicating with alcohol, and coping with disfigurement, the suicides of friends, sexual repression, and the trauma of taking human lives, even enemy lives, are omnipresent themes in these stories. When not foregrounded, they are often artfully and discretely lurking in the background.
Not all of them, however. Some of the stories in Redeployment come across as editorials, or even outright polemics, costumed in the fashion of technically competent literary fiction.
In Bodies, the narrator is a marine returning from Iraq where he was on Mortuary Affairs duty. His job was to pick up and dispose of the corpses, some of which are severely disfigured. While the morbid nature of his experience, and the fish-out-of-water scenario of his return home was enough to keep me turning pages, the thrust of the story felt more like a sermon. After an unsatisfying reunion with the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, he goes to a bar and rattles off some gruesome war stories to a civilian man. When the man tells him that he respect’s what the narrator has been through, he responds:
"I don’t want you to respect what I’ve been through," I said.
That confused him. ‘What do you want?” he said.
I didn’t know. We sat and drank beer for a bit.
"I want you to be disgusted," I said.
Preachier still is Psychological Operations. The narrator is a Marine who had a pretty easy tour of duty doing PsyOps in Iraq. He returns home and goes to college on the GI Bill, where he meets Zara Davies, an idealistic fellow student whose sincerity and liberalism is the oppposite of the narrator’s practiced military cynicism.
While at first they clash, to interesting effect, the story quickly turns into a monologue, with Zara listening to the narrator tell her about his life and experience in Iraq. The monologue has flow, and it culminates in an interesting little tale about taking out an Iraqi warlord, but Zara the semi-mute interlocutor is a waste of a good character. Zara is colorfully drawn and, for my money, more interesting than the narrator, and could have been more fully realized if she were more than just the narrator’s sounding board
This story is one of two where the narrator is in college, and it brought to mind an interesting parallel with literary fiction’s current zeitgeist, the campus novel. There are some interesting parallels between the literary campus novel and literary war fiction as Klay writes it.
The arc of Franzenite fiction goes from leaving the bosom of an institution to finding a place in the world of markets and neighbors. This journey is often shared by the members of a clique, a group somewhere in between friends and an economic tribe.
Franzenite novels are not afraid of becoming institutional profiles. Camps and universities are natural subjects for the bourgeois novel of the moment because they have become expensive ways of replicating privilege, of falling in with the right sort of people, of learning the prerequisite social codes.
If the ur-story of the campus novel is the journey from the bosom of cozy university life to the harsh realities of mating and career-dom, the ur-story of literary war fiction seems like the campus novel in reverse: a return from chaos and murder to a place of relative order and peace. The social codes acquired during war are at best irrelevant back home, and any privilege and power soldiers in war zones posses vanish.
Even the people—the close friendships forged during war time—can only help so much. Klay captures this, too. The chaplain who is the narrator of Prayer in the Furnace has the following interaction with a soldier who has lost friends to suicide:
I fingered the small cross. “In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.”
Rodriguez turned and spat into the grass. “Great,” he said.
I hope for more such stories from returning soldiers in the future, both to give a broader perspective on this unfortunately massive and timely realm of human experience, and as a kind of corrective to the genre of literary fiction, which sorely needs to temper its fascination with stories of burgeoning bourgeois privilege. (less)
Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump...moreQuickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (p. 46)
Calvino, in the above quote, is discussing a characteristic element of folk tales. The narrative speed of folk and fairy tales accounts for their immediacy and the ease with the reader accepts certain implausibilities.
Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is one of the best embodiments of Calvino-esque quickness that I’ve come across lately. A story about twelve sisters in 1920’s Manhattan, sequestered by their petulant, reclusive father in their Upper East Side town house, who sneak out every night and dance their feet off at prohibition night clubs, the novel packs a lot of story in its 277 pages.
Jo is our protagonist. The eldest of the twelve sisters and their de facto leader (their “general,” as her sisters call her), she becomes a sort of surrogate mother after their real mother dies. Befitting her nickname, Jo is a master tactician, especially during her and her sisters’ nightly escapes to the nightcblub, cooly and efficiently ushering her siblings to and from taxis, into the clubs, monitoring for trouble and organizing a hasty but organized retreat when trouble arrives.
But Jo’s leadership comes at a cost: her responsibility to her sisters precludes her from the fun: she doesn’t dance, but sits at the night club table and watches her sisters like a hawk. And when a love interest appears in the form of Tom, the owner of their regular night club, she is compelled to rebuff him, and then some.
As difficult as Jo’s life is already, her challenges are compounded when her father announces his intention to marry off each of his daughters, setting off a series of events that, before the novel is over, leaves the sisters scattered across the country, enmeshed in various new friendships and relationships, and even running their own night club.
I kept thinking of the above Calvino quote, and the essay, Quickness, from which it is taken—so much so that it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I later found out that Girls at the Kingfisher Clubias a retelling of sorts of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a German fairy tale fist published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Unfamiliar as I was with the original fairy tale while I was reading this novel, the Calvinoesque quickness with which Valentine’s story unfolds nonetheless left me with that distinctive fairy tale feel.
But this novel’s quickness is both a feature and a bug: the fast pacing (coupled with a large cast of deeply interesting and economically drawn characters) kept me engaged and intensely interested, but it also let the story get off easily with some rapid hand-waving around a few key plot points.
One scene in particular where the narrative quickness comes at the expense of believability occurs at one of the most crucial moments in the story.
[NB: following couple of paragraphs contains spoilers.]
After Jo and Tom spend their first night together, Jo convinces Tom to enter into a sham marriage with Jo’s eldest sister, Lou. Not only does this involve Tom marrying someone he doesn’t love (he loves Jo, and Jo loves him back), but it means Tom will abandon his night club business and moving to Chicago. That’s a lot to ask anyone ever, let alone some guy after only one roll in the hay.
This is an impossible request and the narrative does nothing much to show us what kind of tidal shifts in Tom’s character had to occur for him to agree to it. Basically, when Jo and Tom are laying on the bed enjoying post-coital intimacy and, after Jo tells Tom about the conditions under which her father keeps them, she looks him in the eye and says “I need a favor.” We see Tom’s resistance to the idea, and Jo’s ultimate ability to persuade him, only during snippets of flashback in the scene that immediately follows. Tom is driving Jo back to her house. Before the reader even learns what the favor was, we are told that:
The ride was silent; everything had been silent after she’d asked for the favor and they’d fought.
(“Do you know how dangerous this is?” he’d shouted, after he’d stopped saying no, no, no; after he’d stopped trying to explain as he would to a child that what she was asking had risks.
“No worse than being trapped in that house,” she said, buckling her shoes. “No worse than that.”
If he thought she could be frightened into seeing the comforts of staying quietyly at home, he’d picked the wrong fight.) This is an important moment for the story, where a character has to be persuaded to do something that is so against his will that it seems implausible. To believe this as a reader I need to see that persuasion in action, and Tom’s gradually diminishing resistance and ultimate capitulation if I’m going to go along with it. But all we get is the above four short paragraphs. It certainly moves the story along, but at the loss of dramatic tension and readerly disbelief.
(One other thing, which is more of a stylistic quirk but kind of related, I think: Valentine is very fond of extended, multi-paragraph parentheticals, such as in the above quote. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but more than once I felt like story elements that deserved more real estate were wedged between parenthesis for the sake of narrative momentum.)
But apart from a handful of “pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain” moments in the narrative that veer the story into two-dimensional territory, this novel is full of psychological complexity emotional nuance and just plain human-ness that belies the story’s speed. It even had me close to tears at one moment toward the end, which I think is the first time that’s happened with a book this year. Calvino would be envious of Valentine’s talent.(less)
I was so ready to love the stuffings out of this massive novel that I missed all the warning signs. Meandering prolixity, narrative navel gazing, and...moreI was so ready to love the stuffings out of this massive novel that I missed all the warning signs. Meandering prolixity, narrative navel gazing, and some serious hand-waving around modern technology (a young protagonist in the 21st century who doesn’t use his smart phone for nearly everything?). The only thing that got me through this nearly 800 page text block, apart from my innate mulishness, was Tartt’s knack for timely reversals and plot twists. To be fair there were some great character moments buried in here, a few interesting observations about visual art, and some great and too in frequent deep dives into the antique trade (if Neal Stephenson had written this novel it would be no shorter but nearly a third of it would consist of granular details about technical aspects of antique furniture restoration, and it would be better for it imo). But as is this novel contains a great novella hidden under inch-deep layers of flab. (less)