What a wild ride of a novel. Habash takes us into the head of a 22-yr-old wrestler, traumatized and decompensating as he strives for the only thing thWhat a wild ride of a novel. Habash takes us into the head of a 22-yr-old wrestler, traumatized and decompensating as he strives for the only thing that has structured and given his life meaning: winning his weight category at the North Dakota state wrestling championship.
Everything about Stephen Florida is mediocre and yet everything is also remarkable. Everything about the milieu in which Habash sets his character is nondescript, yet he imbues it with idiosyncratic detail and drama.
This is, on the surface, a very 'male' novel, and it took me a bit to overcome my natural revulsion for it. All the grotesqueness, the bodily fluids and violence, of male teens coming of age while doing sporty things in the mid-west; Habash is not sparing with the details. He amps up the ugliness like a Diane Arbus photo. And wrestling: man, he pushes the homoeroticism and violence of the sport to its limit, just as these bodies are pushed to their limits by the sport itself.
But I couldn't put it down. A good part of the reason for that is the frenetic, word-salady writing. The pace that Habash establishes pretty much from the outset puts you in a headlock and it doesn't let up. Stephen's intense and intimate first-person account becomes increasingly hallucinogenic and surreal the closer he gets to his goal, as more and more obstacles are put in his way (or so he perceives, and his perception becomes our reality). The writing is extraordinary. As Stephen plunges deeper into his zeal, as he becomes increasingly paranoid and sees collusion and conspiracy all around him, as his obsessions and delusions kick in to full gear, the writing itself fractures and scene-jumps, filled with non-sequiturs and the most startling similes and imagery. You feel its - and Stephen's - pent-up energy, its latent violence, viscerally.
This, Habash's first novel, is heavily-muscled, disciplined, and filled with self-assurance.
It is also a portrait of tremendous vulnerability. Stephen Florida is the very picture of the impact of trauma and toxic masculinity on a fragile psyche. This is an immensely sad, indeed suicidal, tortured kid, driven to the brink of madness by inner and outer violence. His braggadocio reveals his deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy (of course); his violence reveals his fear (it always does). We - at least this reader and, judging by the reviews, many others - start out not liking Stephen all that much; but by the end, our revulsion and disgust turn to pity and compassion (as they always, always, always should)....more
I am writing this huddled in a South Miami living room under blankets in 56 degree F weather as a "bomb cyclone" (WTF is that???) afflicts the U.S. EaI am writing this huddled in a South Miami living room under blankets in 56 degree F weather as a "bomb cyclone" (WTF is that???) afflicts the U.S. East coast – climate change incarnate – at the end of a year for which the term "regressive" is the mildest of all possible descriptors for the political shitfest raging in the country south of my own (which, of course, has global implications).
Let me say first up, I love Erdrich with a passion that knows pretty much no bounds – and is matched only by my unbounded passion for Atwood.
That said, I debated reading this one because, frankly, after being bruised and battered by 2017, I just didn’t know if I could do another dystopia centred around an oppressive theocracy that denies women’s reproductive rights. There’s only so much reality I can take in my fiction.
But I started it, and it seemed to be the best of Erdrich. Beautiful, lyrical, commanding writing. Quirky characters. Intriguing themes being woven together in an interesting way. Fabulous premise. A dash of magical realism, native spirituality blended with colonial realities.
There are two places that this novel falls short for me (neither of which are really fair comparisons, but there you go): 1) it’s not the best Erdrich; 2) it’s treading over ground first and presciently ploughed by The Handmaid’s Tale, more recently updated in the hulu adaptation.
For those who don’t know, Erdrich originally wrote a draft of this novel in 2002 immediately post-Bush. In November 2016, sensing a similar urgency, she went back to it, revised and published it.
Now, of course I don’t know exactly what she cut or changed (perhaps there is something out there on this; if someone can point me in the right direction, I’d be grateful).
However, I can tell you what it feels like: it feels rushed and opportunistic – and in this opportunism, she has not served her story well. We get something that clearly – Erdrich has said it! – was reworked and published for a political purpose, to make a political comment. We get something that, dare I say it, feels under-researched (normally a moot issue in Erdrich; but here, it seems to matter. There is a disturbing lack of detail, of specificity. Dystopias need specificity – that’s what makes them feel so real, so possible).
The dominant storyline, the one it seems Erdrich has chosen to home in on, is the reproductive rights angle. In this, though, she’s walking almost precisely in the footsteps of The Handmaid’s Tale. So much so, that she even employs cutesy, Atwoodian imagery and wordplay, e.g., the repurposed UPS vans (an acronym that now stands for Unborn Protection Service) that cruise neighbourhoods abducting pregnant women.
In a lesser writer, we would call this derivative. But in a writer of Erdrich’s power and stature and capability, it’s just outright mystifying.
And it’s also so freaking SAD. I am mourning the novel that could have been here; the one I was getting glimpses of in about the first two-thirds. The one that started off as an alternate creation myth; an exploration of what happens in the world when biological, political, environmental and spiritual devolution start to occur.
That story, and its scientific underpinnings, is being told through the gestation/birth diary of our heroine Cedar Songmaker née Mary (Mary, get it?) Potts, born to an Ojibwe woman and adopted into a white family, self-converted to Catholicism, an editor of Zeal, a Catholic journal whose current issue--the one on which she is working throughout her pregnancy and the story (her due date, btw, is December 25th, natch)--is focused entirely on the Immaculate Conception/Incarnation.
Here’s the passage that sold me on the novel, and compelled me to continue reading it despite my misgivings (post-2017 trauma, see above):
“I look down at the gleaming cracks in the cubes of translucent ice in the water I am drinking at the table. The water from the vast and beautiful hidden aquifer below us, the gigantic underground source of purity, which we’re all sucking dry. I am missing your father. I am seeing his face, I am wondering if in any way you will resemble him or if your features will obscure your parentage completely. I am seeing him, yes, I am flashing briefly on the gorgeousness of the moment of your conception when he laid me down and kissed me deep and covered me with his soft brown wings.” p. 33
That novel glimmered like Saint Kateri herself, prophesying a novel that was, alas, not to be. Erdrich never put the meat on the bones of that more interesting, more original story – a story that she, of all authors, is uniquely positioned and capable of telling. The one with the kind of comparative spirituality, lyricism, magical realism, quirk, that only Erdrich can create.
In the end, 5 stars for what it could have been; 3 stars for what it came to be. I blame Trump....more
Most serious Egan fans don't seem like this as much as her others, but I am giving it 5 stars: 4/5 because I am a contrarian on Egan; 1/5 because I trMost serious Egan fans don't seem like this as much as her others, but I am giving it 5 stars: 4/5 because I am a contrarian on Egan; 1/5 because I truly feel this hits the mark where her others fall short for me, namely:
1) I loved the wildly different parallel story lines, how they are roughly linear and sensible on their own while also weaving together in an intricate way to tell a larger story;
2) I *adored* the big metaphor and imagery- the sea, diving, submergence and emergence. I admired how Egan used it pervasively but subtly; used it as a link to tie her characters to the story and to each other. Buried secrets, always threatening to break the surface; plumbing the depths. There is a soliloquy in the novel of the metaphorical language derived from the sea.
And there is more to this imagery: there is the idea of lives lived in otherwise inhabitable, inhospitable environments, whether in broken bodies (like Lydia's), broken systems (like the "syndicate"), broken or abandoned relationships, like ... well, almost everyone's. Lots of liminality, characters on the edge of or between two worlds, land and water, light and dark, legal and criminal (Dexter repeatedly refers to dawn - that liminal time - as a comfort zone; he is also a man who seeks to "decriminalize" his livelihood, and ... it's not too far a stretch ... to cleanse his soul. (view spoiler)[And he does so - or attempts to do so - by leading Anna to her father; by, literally, diving down with her to find him and - on the ascent, having some kind of spiritual awakening. This scene is extraordinary and SO. WELL. WRITTEN.). (hide spoiler)]
Finally, there is incredible isolation and loneliness, and fear of it. It's striking to me that Anna is more afraid of being alone at night on the streets of New York or in her apartment than she is of being 30 feet under water, surrounded by blackness, connected to life by a fragile line of oxygen. On the bottom of the bay, she shuts her eyes. She is completely alone, in as alien an environment as it is possible to be in on the planet. This is the only time she feels calm. Incredible.
3) I *adored* her smaller metaphors and images, almost all of them apt and perfect, with the occasional blemish that just made the rest sparkle like sunlight off the waves (see what I did there);
4) I thought she handled with deftness the historical fiction aspect of the novel while retaining that Egan-esque perspective/story choices that feel contemporary and unique;
5) the descriptions of Anna's dive (view spoiler)[to locate her father's body, his shipwreck and subsequent time drifting at sea before rescue (hide spoiler)] are masterpieces of writing; suspenseful, poetic, dramatic (but not melo-) and atmospheric. Stunning. Part VI, overall, is a writing masterclass.
Highly recommended. Consumed by audio, with three narrators (one telling the story from Anna's POV; one from her father's; one from Dexter Styles'), which was at first challenging, then later facilitated the coming together of the story....more