George Saunders has been buzzed about so much recently that it probably seems a little bandwagony to give this short story collection five stars. But...moreGeorge Saunders has been buzzed about so much recently that it probably seems a little bandwagony to give this short story collection five stars. But too bad. I am not remotely qualified to place the author here or there in the pantheon of Greatest Living Writers or what have you, but neither am I going to do a damn thing to discourage that sort of irresponsible hyperbole. Tenth of December is fantastic and you should read it!
The obvious fellow-travelers are Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, so if you like either of them you'll probably dig this too. In concept many of these stories shouldn't "work." They're gimmicky. Too schematic, too cutting. More than once I was reminded of the Coen Bros at their most misanthropic. And yet he manages to draw out -- in me at least -- this profound emotional response. I wondered when the last time it was that a book made me feel something quite so strongly. Have all previous books been medicated or wrapped in gauze? (OK, now I remember when: reading "The Third and Final Continent," the final story from Interpreter of Maladies.)
And the emotional response is not always a positive one. Most of these stories are pretty dark. There are several portraits of poverty and family dysfunction that make you hold your breath for pages. After a few of these I felt an urge to give my sleeping family members a kiss and count my blessings. He leads with humor and then sticks in the knife... but then he dresses the wounds at the same time. That despite the cruel satire he inflicts on his characters, there is also a deep identification with their struggles. As if he is actually laughing at himself, at some blunder, or misunderstanding, or foolishness he himself committed years before. Misanthropic and at the same time, sentimental, if that makes any sense.
The longest and best story here is "The Semplica Girl Diaries" which is a standard tale of class anxiety made volatile by the slowly revealed, and utterly bizarre, science fiction conceit lurking in the background. In contrast "Escape from Spiderhead" is exactly the sort of schematic sci-fi story that should feel tired and reductive, except that it packs a surprising wallop at the end. The final, title track of the collection inverts his usual pattern of light-then-dark and arrives at a moment of emotional catharsis that sums up the entire collection.(less)
Not really a fan, although Blake Butler's sustained experimental style is certainly admirable on a technical level. The central problem here is a lack...moreNot really a fan, although Blake Butler's sustained experimental style is certainly admirable on a technical level. The central problem here is a lack of contrast. Many of the individual passages here are interesting, even moving, and you could see them being powerfully deployed as elements inside of a better novel. But in the context of There Is No Year, the experimentation is literally all there is. There are no characters and only a whisper of a plot. In fact there's barely even reference to recognizable themes or aspects of the world. (Something something illness, mumble mumble suburbia.)
The worst is that Butler doesn't even remain loyal to his imagery. As we go from sentence to sentence, he jumps from experimental conceit to experimental conceit, without pausing to develop any of them. One sentence will have some bizarre/gross imagery, the next will have conspicuously awkward phrasing, the next will use a different font. And so on and so forth. There's no time to reflect on why people are covered with mold or what the black boxes symbolize, when immediately you're trying to figure out what the buzzing electrical sound is supposed to refer to and why he's formatted the text like that. After a certain point you realize: none of it really means anything at all. He's not deploying symbols as we usually understand them, but rather using imagery as a kind of wallpaper or muzak or found-art collage. It's for creating an ambient mood, not for advancing ideas. It's a 400 page trough of word salad. Yum.
So yeah: it's experimentaler-than-thou. Which is fine. He's definitely traveled a few steps further down the road paved by William S. Burroughs and friends. I'm generally on board with this sort of thing. I like dark, challenging fiction. If I had to pick one major influence on this book I would point to the films of David Lynch, and I am a big David Lynch fan. So why don't I find this very compelling? Again, it's the lack of contrast. Lynch's films are powerful because they embed moments of dark chaos within a superstructure of bright, shining Americana. I'm not sure I would want to watch Twin Peaks with no Dale Cooper. And this book is the equivalent of an entire TV show built out of the Red Room/Black Lodge scenes. In the end the author doesn't give much of a reason to care about this for more than a few minutes after closing the book.(less)
1Q84 is a long, intricately-plotted novel set in a slightly-altered reality. This is the first Haruki Murakami I've read, although I've long figured t...more1Q84 is a long, intricately-plotted novel set in a slightly-altered reality. This is the first Haruki Murakami I've read, although I've long figured that he writes the sort of cool slipstreamy fiction that I usually like. And I did like this and enjoyed the process of reading it. But I don't think I loved it. By the end I was left wondering what it really added up to, apart from an impressive stylistic workout.
There are two main flaws. First, the central love affair between Aomame and Tengo is more an outline for a romance than an actual one. (view spoiler)[We're constantly being told how deep and pure their love for one another is, but since they spend basically the entire book separated from each other, we really have to take the author's word for it. I guess your reaction will depend on how romantic you find the idea of "destiny" and (moon-crossed?) lovers separated for decades. To be fair the eventual reunion (when it finally happens) does make up for it somewhat. (hide spoiler)]
Second, the central mystery of the Little People and the air chrysalis is really too obscure and sketchily drawn to inspire much of a reaction. (view spoiler)[It's really not entirely clear what Murakami's elaborate mythology is trying to say other than advancing the plot forward. He's clearly referencing Orwell's Big Brother, but to what end? If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that the sarin gas attacks carried out in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo cult left a big impression on Murakami. His non-fiction book, Underground, deals with the aftermath of the attacks, and the group clearly serves as a model for the Akebono and Sakigake cults found in 1Q84. In this reading, the Little People are a kind of an ancient, anarchic, destructive force that is periodically loosed in the world, but you don't really get that sense from actually reading the book. Their actions and motives and consequences are not really made clear in the course of the plot. (hide spoiler)]
Some reviewers have complained that the book is slow and repetitive, but I didn't find that to be such a problem. In certain passages Murakami achieves a kind of perfectly hypnotic and transparent clarity that the book almost seems to read itself. The ascetic personalities of Tengo and Aomame are well-adapted to this voice, but his writing style is so pervasive that it even sometimes spills over into the voices of minor characters like Ayumi, which can lead to some jarring moments. Still, a decent effort, and I do feel intrigued enough to check out some more Murakami in the future.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Never Let Me Go is a beautiful, emotionally-rich and disturbing read. The author has charted the twists of the story down to the last word, but has re...moreNever Let Me Go is a beautiful, emotionally-rich and disturbing read. The author has charted the twists of the story down to the last word, but has retained the smooth flow of the narrative. An effect much like holding in your hand an expertly-finished piece of woodwork, where you can see the joints and seams but you can't feel them and they don't detract from the appreciation of the craft. If you haven't read it yet but plan to, you should try to avoid the spoilers (below) since much of the fun is watching Ishiguro's puzzle unfold.
(view spoiler)[Since the main characters are humans who have been cloned and raised for the purpose of harvesting their organs, the book eventually comes around to the relationship between creator and creation, to the underlying ethical, moral and existential dilemma. But it does so only reluctantly and selectively, choosing to linger instead on the shifting and minutely-observed relationships between the three main characters: Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. (Although the theme is similar, the focus on characters rather than adventure-spectacle is the exact opposite of Ridley Scott's incoherent Prometheus, which I had just watched prior to reading this.)
Which is to say that the science-fictional premise is buried deep, and while it drives the story forward, it is almost of secondary importance to the emotional life of the characters. This framing delivers a deep sense of mystery and building tension, and drives us to identify strongly with the clones and to see the surrounding society as inhuman/e. This structure pays off spectacularly in the book's closing scenes, where the author makes you feel the full weight of tragedy while leaving enough open questions to keep you mulling it for days. It's an impressive feat.
One open question is how the narrowness of the world is maintained. At Hailsham, the boarding school, the clones were kept in a controlled environment and were heavily socialized to accept their place in the world. But beyond Hailsham, there is no mention of coercion or even the possibility of resistance. That seems to suggest the possibility that the clones are kept passive by more than just a lack of information (genetics? drugs?). Although the possibility is never really raised in the narrative, there is something just the tiniest bit otherworldly about Ishiguro's characters--their deliberateness and odd obsessions--that seems to hint in that direction.
Instead Ishiguro implies that social pressure and exclusion is sufficient to enforce passivity among the clones. Naturally this raises questions about our own social order and our own passivity to injustice (both to ourselves and to others). The moral questions raised are ostensibly about futuristic advances in biotechnology and our ongoing debate about bioethics. But unfortunately, we don't need to look to the future to find examples where one class of humans is despised, excluded and exploited for the benefit of another. We already have shameful experience with that. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A lush, engrossing, literary fantasy novel that, for roughly 2/3 of its length, studiously refuses to conform to the "adventure-quest" template. What'...moreA lush, engrossing, literary fantasy novel that, for roughly 2/3 of its length, studiously refuses to conform to the "adventure-quest" template. What's more, Little Big is deliberately coy as to whether the fantasy elements at work here -- namely, fairies -- should be considered real or not for the purposes of the story. Indeed, this central uncertainty is perhaps the principle theme of the book.
Now I can see how these two elements might drive some people up the wall. You keep expecting some grand, flash-bang, Hogwarts moment and are given only ambiguous, unsatisfying morsels of magic here and there. Add to that an occasionally pretentious and episodic writing style, and we could wind up stalled at the intersection of "twee" and "insufferable." Potentially, not good.
But Little Big really isn't like that at all. Crowley's stingy-ness with the magical elements frees up space to develop his stories of human foibles and tragedies and redemption. Like The Name of the Wind, it's a fantasy book that would work almost as well without the magic; in particular, the two central love stories are terrific. And our patience is rewarded during the final third of the book when Crowley delivers the magical goods we've been waiting for. And by that point the payoff feels well earned and very satisfying.(less)
Mieville has so many bizarre and astonishing good ideas and he packs them in, one after another. In particular, his conception of "science" is worth a...moreMieville has so many bizarre and astonishing good ideas and he packs them in, one after another. In particular, his conception of "science" is worth a graduate thesis or two, and the creatures he conjures up--the slake moths, the garuda, the re-made--are wholly original (and often creepy, and gross, and terrifying).
It's also refreshing to have a fantasy writer working in an urban setting with a smart sense of politics. Best, he has a knack for writing strong characters--especially his protagonist, Isaac--a skill which can get you a long way down the road even when the plot starts to fray.
And, over the first 3-400 pages this book had me totally in its thrall - five stars for sure. But then it meandered for the second half and ended with a clunk, so a few points off. Still all-in-all, very much worth a look for anyone interested in unusual and well-done speculative fiction. (less)