09 July, 2013

The List: Reading April Through June 2013

The time I’ve had for reading, these past months, has been less than what I’ve managed in the previous three years, due to my return to the prison workforce, and yet the number of books I read this quarter is basically the same as it always is. Strange. I guess this means I have to stop complaining about how little free time I get. 

A few of the books below were ones I wanted to read for years. I was able to place a largish order with Amazon, thanks to a long-overdue refund from a certain well-known literary quarterly that somehow never figured out how to fulfill my subscription beyond a single issue. The (pricy) subscription had been a gift, so I figured the money returned by said quarterly would be most fittingly spent on other reading material. My wish list is now a little shorter. My literary life is now a little richer.

Here are the titles that have occupied me since April. 

* * * * *

Rob Ziegler, Seed
I wish it were possible to blame my disappointment with this book, Ziegler’s debut novel, on high expectations. After reading several positive reviews in Locus, then, for two years, anticipating how good it was going to be, only a phenomenal book would’ve held up, and Seed is, at best, mediocre.

Even without my overinflated sense of its literary merit, however, I’d have been sorely let down. To read the summary on its (well-designed) cover is to mistake Seed for an “idea” book about ecological disaster in a future in which extreme genetic modification — of foods and higher forms of life alike — is commonplace. The story does start out promisingly well, with shades of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but somewhere around the point where the reader is introduced to Satori, the living, breathing city that manufactures the titular seed for a starving nation, everything wanders off into cheesy sci-fi action as various parties converge, some in rebellion, some for communion, each wreaking its own brand of havoc on the deaf, dumb, blind Satori, about which it’s impossible to care.

Add to this farrago a slew of weird quasi-homophonic typos (such as pour where it should read pore, peaked instead of peeked, and upbraided rather than abraded) that make me wonder if the manuscript was dictated and the book’s credited editor, Russ E. Lockhart, literally phoned it in. Seed germinates no small resentment in the fertile soil of this reader’s mind. 

Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination
A defining characteristic of literature is its subtlety — deft introduction of ideas where lesser works would just bludgeon their readers heads, a modicum of ambiguity over which the readers can muse to arrive at conclusions about the text that are personal and, in this way, far more special than if the author had, as happens in most genre fiction, simply shoved it all at you, shouting, “Here, here’s my story!”

The Illumination imagined by Brockmeier in this group of interconnecting but, in a way, solitary chapters is an unexplained phenomenon: the sudden radiance of light from every cut, bruise, broken bone, and sickness the world over. Ulcers glow silver in people’s mouths, torn ligaments sparkle like a red-carpet burst of paparazzi camera flashes, leukemia casts luminous auras around its sufferers, self-inflicted cigarette burns shimmer like nighttime stars on the forearms of troubled souls. But the light and its causes are incidental to Brockmeier’s purposes here, a mere backdrop on which to project his beautiful exposition on the ways our pain defines us and our relationships.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age
In the face of unprecedented amount of digital text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance. If we think of words as both carriers of semantic meaning and as material objects, it becomes clear that we need a way to manage it all, an ecosystem that can encompass language in its myriad forms. No matter what we do with language, it will be expressive. Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.

The poetry world has yet to experience its version of Pop Art — and Pop Art happened over fifty years ago In spite of the many proposed alternative uses of language (concrete poetry, language poetry, FC2-style innovative fiction, etc.), writing in the popular imagination has by and large stuck to traditional, narrative, and transparent uses, which have prevented it from experiencing a kind of Pop Art-like watershed. But then the real question emerges: why? Things get tricky when we try to nail down exactly what literary appropriation is. Once those formal decision are made, there are ethical issues to consider. Does it matter if poets write their own poems anymore or is it good enough for a computer to pen them for them?

In a time when the amount of language is rising exponentially, combined with greater access to the tools with which to manage, manipulate, and massage those words, appropriation is bound to become just another tool in the writers’ toolbox, an acceptable — and accepted — way of constructing a work of literature, even for more traditionally oriented writers. The Web functions both as a site for reading and writing: for writers it’s a vast supply text from which to construct literature; readers function in the same way, hacking a path through the morass of information, ultimately working as much at filtering as reading.

Sculpting with text.

Data mining.

Our task is simply to mind the machines. Ironies abound. The future doesn’t look promising for us as creative entities.

[Note: I composed this entirely by cribbing text from the book, typos and all. It seemed the only fitting thing to do, given the subject matter.]

Jesse Ball, The Curfew
With his surreal debut novel, Samedi the Deafness, Ball mesmerized me using a spell of simple yet evocative prose. With his second, The Way Through Doors, he led me through a waking dream. Now, with The Curfew, he has given me a puppet show.

Of course the book is not only that. The story begins as an intimate portrait of a man and his eight-year-old daughter, who eke out their happiness despite the murders and disappearances being carried out by secret police in the city of C. The father is an epitaphorist (Ball’s characters often have interesting, unheard-of professions), composing messages for the graves of the departed — fitting, for a man whose mastery of the violin is mooted by the government’s ban on music. Once he dares to venture out after dark, when “GOOD CITIZENS PASS THEIR NIGHTS ABED,” the daughter copes with her concerns by performing a puppet show with the neighbors in whose care she is left, a puppet show of such intricacy that its characters’ very thoughts are made visible and “mice” — ants to which tufts of fur have been glued — scurry at their feet.

This glancing attention to marvelous details is one of my favorite things about Ball’s writing. Another is that he doesn’t trouble himself with cohesive narratives, those meddlesome trivialities that are definitive beginnings, middles, and endings. He admits as much on page four, in the voice of an anonymous narrator:
I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty. Though violence may connect them, though pity, compassion, hope may marry one thing to another, still all that is in process cannot be judged, and that which has passed has gone beyond judgment, which leaves us again, with lives and belongings, places, shuttling here and there, hapless, benighted, discordant.
Replete with quiet tragedy, love, and simple beauty, The Curfew may not quite match the success of Ball’s previous fictions; though, his alert prose and talent for… not necessarily storytelling but rendering moments made this book a pleasure to read.

Nikolay Gogol (Ronald Wilks, translator), The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories
I was surprised, upon finally reading this collection by the Russian literary great, to find a quality that doesn’t generally spring to mind when thinking about nineteenth-century Ukraine-born authors: humor. Gogol had a firm grasp of the absurd, and, even while his writing verged on Realism, with lavish attention paid to what were often the minutest details of affect or place, he saw the ridiculousness of so may situations around him, the scaffolding on which he built all of his tales.

In his story “The Nose,” a mid-ranking civil servant awakens one morning to find his nose missing from his face, naturally assigning blame to his drunkard barber, and bounds through the city, searching for the absent appendage, only to encounter it, personified and dressed in a government uniform that signifies an even higher rank than his own, praying in a church. The nose later appears inside the hot roll being eaten for breakfast by the aforementioned barber, who, horrified, throws it in a river only for it to later reappear, without explanation, on the face of the civil servant to whom it belonged.

In “The Overcoat,” a man saves and scrimps to buy himself a coat to replace the one he’s worn nightgown-sheer, only to have the luxuriously tailored garment torn from his shoulders by a couple of muggers. The man falls ill from stress and grief, then dies. An urban legend soon arises, telling of a ghost going around Saint Petersburg, ripping off gentlemen’s coats.

It could be that I’m an unlearned simp for failing to see how “The Overcoat” deserves critics’ designation as the finest short fiction in all of Russian literature. I thought “The Nose” was a good deal more artful, also more entertaining. But for what unevenness I found in this selection of Gogol’s short works (the content is mainly stories; “The Government Inspector” is a clever play), each piece does stand on its own as a fine glimpse at what brought the author his reputation for greatness.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium
From satiric nineteenth-century Russian lit, I dived right into this contemporary British sci-fi/fantasy, craving escape of a drastic sort. China Miéville, another author who deals in genre-bending fantastical novels (and whom I quite admire), calls M. John Harrison an “anti-science fiction writer” — an ambiguous designation that nevertheless fits to a tee. The only other book of Harrison’s I’d read before this was his stunning, complex quantum masterpiece, Light, that rarest of books that inspires a reader to think of its author in terms of favorites, before ever reading anything else from the writer’s oeuvre. Viriconium, a collection of novellas and short stories, displays all of the qualities that I so loved about Light, while taking an entirely different tack with them. Continuity throughout is faint to nonexistent, and each of the tales offers a different take, sometimes meditative, often adventuresome, on the fluid existence of the endless city, Viriconium, in “a world trying to remember itself.” There’s escape here aplenty. Where Light was pure sci-fi, Viriconium swathes its science-fictional elements in the baroque garb of much fantasy, rich and thick, and sets the stories in a fluctuating future so far distant from now as to make myth of the lost sciences of a long-dead age.

J.G. Ballard, Crash
Sexual fetishists who get off on car crashes. To say this is what Crash is about would be accurate, in the crudest possible way, just as would be describing Orwell’s 1984 as being about a guy who’s just after some privacy. Okay, so the 1996 screen adaptation of Crash, moodily directed by James Cronenberg and starring the period’s go-to guy for sexual deviance, James Spader, overran with auto(mobile)eroticism. The book’s an altogether different story. Although sex suffuses nearly every page of this novel, none of it’s sexy.

Ballard is apparently known for being critical of modern technology’s increasing prominence as a bridge to human relations, so, in Crash, affairs abound without a single deep connection being forged. The style of his writing matches this clinical attitude, not least when the first-person narration provided (conveniently enough) by a character named James Ballard turns to musing about a life-changing automobile accident:
I was surprised by how much, in my eyes, the image of the car had changed, almost as if its true nature had been exposed by my accident. Leaning against the rear window of the taxi, I found myself flinching with excitement toward the traffic streams on the Western Avenue interchanges. The flashing lances of afternoon light deflected from the chromium panel trim tore at my skin. The hard jazz of radiator grilles, the motion of cars moving towards London Airport along the sunlit oncoming lanes, the street furniture and route indicators — all these seemed threatening and super-real, as exciting as the accelerating pintables of a sinister amusement arcade released on to these highways.
and climaxing coolly in this later scene with his wife, when the couple stops on a deserted service road:
When I put my arm around her shoulders she smiled briefly to herself, a nervous rictus of the upper lip which exposed her gold-tipped right incisor. I touched her mouth with my own, denting the waxy carapace of pastel lipcoat, watching her hand reach out to the chromium pillar of the quarter window. I pressed my lips against the bared and unmarked dentine of her upper teeth, fascinated by the movement of her fingers across the smooth chrome of the window pillar. Its surface was marked along its forward edge by a smear of blue paint left by some disaffected production-line worker. The nail of her forefinger scratched at this fretline, which rose diagonally from the window-sill at the same angle as the concrete ledge of the irrigation ditch ten feet from the car. In my eyes this parallax fused with the image of an abandoned car lying in the rust-stained grass on the lower slopes of the reservoir embankment. The brief avalanche of dissolving talc that fell across her eyes as I moved my lips across their lids contained all the melancholy of this derelict vehicle, its leaking engine oil and radiator coolant.
Ballard’s portrait of emotionally stunted people turning to more and more extreme proxies for meaningful connections is scathing and adroit, and as cold as shattered glass.

William Gibson, Zero History
The last title in the Blue Ant trilogy — three novels like tech-geek catnip, involving the covert bleeding-edge endeavors of intrepid multiplatform mogul Hubertus Bigend (you’ve got to love Gibson’s names). It’s as satisfying a summer read as its predecessors, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, and perhaps more so for wrapping up with almost-forgotten characters and subplot points from the previous books in that glib manner Gibson geeks like myself revere him for.

But. The world is forever changing. Yesterday’s futures, all but the most prescient ones imagined, become nothing more than curios, quaint relics of the naive periods that birthed them. The cyberpunk masterpieces that began Gibson’s career in the 1980s, full of wetware data ports, brand-name bionic implants, and Yakuza enforcers hot on everybody’s trail, were very much of their time. The tomorrow depicted in the Blue Ant books could literally be tomorrow, when the gee-whiz gadgetry is a kludged line of Java or a stolen DARPA project. There is an iPhone in almost every hand. Am I the only fan who wishes Gibson would turn his attention back to a future more faraway? SF is risky business — predicting the future always is — but that risk is what makes it more fun. Bill, please give your readers back their distant dystopias full of exotic tech. If we want to see what tomorrow’s London, Los Angeles, or Vancouver will be like, there’s this wondrous machine called an airplane….

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
A man returns to his childhood hometown, in rural England, to attend a funeral, and makes startling discoveries about an unremembered past. It’s an old trope, sure, but Neil Gaiman, masterful storyteller that he is, makes it new with the elements of fantasy for which he’s so renowned.

Just as the neighbors’ duck pond, described by The Ocean’s nameless narrator, is a good deal larger than it seems, and the trio of weird women on whose land it sits are actually much, much, much older than they look, this slim book contains quite a bit more than it at first seems. A deft exploration of a meek young boy’s existential frustrations, and a tale of fell childhood adventure that isn’t for children at all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is easily my favorite Gaiman title since his excellent American Gods. No mean feat, that.

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