01 January, 2016

The List: Reading October through December 2015


Nino Orlandi, Carved Book


My thanks to Kristin S., Tom at Prospero’s, Our Lady of the High Papal Approval Rating and the Holy Paperwork to Prove It, Katrina H., Friend Ben-jer-min, and John A., for your recent generous book-giving. Around my late-November birthday I was actually worried that the number of incoming books would pin me into a tight spot, against the Department of Corrections’ strict property limits. But such fears were unnecessary. It turns out that I can actually read pretty quickly in a pinch. And so I spent the past three months gobbling up:

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G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen
Besides the recommendation of my second-favorite fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, I read Alif the Unseen blindly, hardly even skimming its back-cover copy and blurbs. Such is my trust in Gaiman’s judgment. As it turns out, my trust wasn’t misplaced. G. Willow Wilson’s first text-only novel (she’s written several earlier graphic novels) is by no means dumb or simplistic, and still it manages to be a page-turner. Genre works are usually dumbed down when they attain that label, so I was pleased. For this novel’s fantasy element, Wilson turns to the mysticism of the Middle East — jinn, shayateen, and Koranic metaphysics — which isn’t done nearly enough in English speculative fiction. Sure, a couple of her plot points are clichéed and there are two scenes that could’ve done without monologues, but this story was an entertainingly action-packed introduction to a speculative-fiction author with a promising future. Whatever she writes next will be worth a look.

Thomas Sweterlitsch, Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Sci-fi noir can go fantastically bad in the wrong hands. This bleak futuristic novel was so highly praised, in reviews that I read, that I had to find out what the fuss was about. The thing that struck me immediately was Sweterlitsch’s prose — two or three cuts above the norm. It’s hard-bitten and poetic by turns. Sweterlitsch has concocted a wholly feasible murder mystery, set in a debased America (just imagine!) overlain by the digital detritus of augmented reality. There are instances here where the ugliness he describes toes a razor-thin line between revulsion and reveling, and the book’s brutal ending will be too much for some readers, but Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a brilliantly conceived debut novel, overall, that I’m glad to have sought out.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam
Broadly speaking, satire doesn’t mix well with drama — too much of one and you get inanity, too much of the other and you get cynicism. The 1987 Robocop movie, starring Peter Weller, is a great example of sci-fi that takes satire and action to their extremes without detracting from the human pathos at the heart of its story: you feel bad for Murphy, the amnesiac automaton clomping through Hell on Earth (AKA Detroit), even while he himself cannot. Dystopian-future novels are particularly rife with satiric potential. You need only look as far as Orwell’s 1984, arguably the ultimate such work, to understand why. Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale is another exceptional novel in this vein. Neither could ever be considered lighthearted, but in their dour what-if prognosticating you can spot mischievous glimmers in the authors’ eyes.

In the first book of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy we’re given a world wiped clear — or very nearly so — of human life. The primacy of Homo sapiens sapiens has been ended by a supervirus that basically rendered people’s flesh into frothy red Jell-O. In our absence, the detritus of late-twenty-first century civilization is giving way to other forms of life, most of it GMOs: enormous butterflies; half-skunk, half-raccoon creatures; glow-in-the-dark bunnies; pseudo-pigs with human neocortical tissue. And then there’s Jimmy, the sad-sack protagonist of Oryx and Crake, the first installment of this series. He’s left alone with the race of simple-minded humanoids designed to propagate the planet in our stead, and it’s safe to say he’s not happy with his lot.

Jimmy’s a schmuck, a psychosexually disfunctional codependent whose longtime friendship with the mad genius responsible for this new world order was key to his accidental survival. His total unpreparedness for life in the wild makes for some comedic moments, as does, inevitably, his role as the humanoids’ reluctant prophet. But what stands out is Margaret Atwood’s authorial prowess here, making the reader overlook Jimmy’s sleazy tendencies and actually feel sympathy for the character. I really, really didn’t want to like him, yet Atwood still got me to cheer him on.

These books toe the line between dark and comic. The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam expand the world of Oryx and Crake while slowly pulling the thread that binds their many characters tightly together. By midway through the second book I was sufficiently wrapped up in the story that Atwood’s silly naming proclivities (e.g., BlyssPluss pills, the Paradice dome at the HelthWyzer compound, the CorpSeCorps) almost faded into background noise. Conversely, a much-foreshadowed climax with psychopathic rival survivors, in the final book, was over with scarcely a yelp. In sum, the MaddAddam trilogy isn’t perfect, but who wants their posthuman wastelands to be perfect, anyway?

Bill Henderson (editor), 2015 Pushcart Prize
This year’s collection of winners elicited more than a few wows. Barrett Swanson’s story, “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved,” is highly recommended. Maribeth Fischer’s essay about her months in thrall to a fraud, “The Fiction Writer,” was as well-told and agonizingly human as “The Last Days of the Baldock,”  Inara Verzemnieks’s piece on an improvised community of vagrants at an Oregon rest stop. Molly McNett won a Pushcart Prize for her story of an unhappy fourteenth-century marriage, “La Pulchra Nota,” and Michael Kardos won for his clever short fiction about modern-day disillusionment, “Animals.” The enlightening essay “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved,” by Rebecca Solnit, turned out not only timely, because of the current surge of popular interest in Henry David Thoreau’s dirty laundry I’ve been reading about, but also fascinating. Tarifa Faizullah’s elegiac poem “The Streetlamp above Me Darkens” compelled me to read it again and again (and again).

The crown jewel here, however, is Wells Tower’s jaw-droppingly perfect personal essay, “The Dance Contest,” which is as surreal as it is heartbreaking, hilarious, and thought-provoking, and which, even if the rest of this anthology were merely okay, would make it worth the cover price.

Aristotle (Renford Bambrough, editor; J.L. Creed and A.E. Wardman, translators), The Philosophy of Aristotle
The first 300-odd pages of this selection of Aristotle’s writings were a slog. His Metaphysics, Physics, Logic, and Politics bear the traits of so much later philosophizing by other minds, concerned with the tedious duty of arriving at terms to describe what comes after. This is why I find so much philosophy unattractive: too much of it boils down to semantics. Shouldn’t a good philosophy deal with what is in terms that require no mental gymnastics to define? In the sciences a good theory is said to be elegant in its simplicity, containing nothing superfluous. Can a similar standard not be applied to philosophy, or does the very idea of concision run counter to the philosopher’s mode of thinking? I was far more engaged with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Poetics, more relevant to modern readers who aren’t historians, philosophy majors, or weird natural-science buffs.

Alan Watts, The Way of Zen
Here’s a concise history and explanation of Zen practices. It cleared away a lot of misconceptions I had, and triggered several “Aha!” moments. The Way of Zen is the sort of informative book that sends the reader into territory with a map that’s accurate but only sketched, inviting further exploration. For instance, I’m now keenly interested in reading more about the seventeenth-century monk Bankei Zenji and his unpretentious brand of meditation practice. Apparently, people’s observation that a significant portion of my personal outlook, philosophy, and behavior is in keeping with the non-doctrines of Zen Buddhism isn’t far from the truth. Until I read Watts’s book, I would always laugh at the idea of that. But it seems that there’s something to it, possibly worth exploring.

Karl Shapiro (John Updike, editor), Selected Poems
Pieces like “Necropolis,” from Shapiro’s 1942 collection, Person, Place and Thing, establish his poetic competence from the outset:
Even in death they prosper; even in the death
Where lust lies senseless and pride fallow
The mouldering owners of rents and labor
Prosper and improve the high hill.

For theirs is the stone whose name is deepest cut,
Theirs the facsimile temple, theirs
The iron acanthus and the hackneyed Latin,
The boxwood rows and all the birds.

And even in death the poor are thickly herded
In intimate congestion under streets and alleys.
Look at the standard sculpture, the cheap
Synonymous slabs, the machined crosses.

Yes, even in death the cities are unplanned.
The heirs govern from the old centers;
They will not remove. And the ludicrous angels,
Remains of the poor, will never fly
But only multiply in the green grass.
The rest of Shapiro’s oeuvre, as sampled here, evidences a strong attachment to form. There are rhyme schemes aplenty. I preferred his free verse, as I prefer it in general, for the freedom to roam anywhere his mind took him (with Shapiro, this seems to have been frequently into the battlefield or some domestic scene). My familiarity with his work before reading Selected Poems could be compared with that of strangers who ride the same elevator every week or so — recognition, but no more meaningful acknowledgment than a nod. Now I feel as if we’ve been guests at a dinner party and pushed out the door, coats in hand, by the exhausted hosts at 2 AM, only to have old Karl continue talking as we stand in the cold, spotlit by a street lamp, his words rising, clouding, swirling into night.

Günter Grass (Breon Mitchell, translator), The Tin Drum
Having no basis for comparing this new, 2009 translation to the German-language original (nor to its first English translation), I’m declaring unqualified delight with this picaresque novel. The youthful travails of young Oskar Maserath, wending this way and that through a fractious mid-century Europe, captivated thousands around the world when The Tin Drum was first published in 1959. It’s no wonder why. The book is poetic, profane, perverted — I dare say perfect.

Alex Kuo, shanghai.shanghai.shanghai
For some readers, a novel’s winking self-awareness ruins its appeal. A lot of readers are similarly turned off when a novel shirks conventional narrative, AKA plot. Experimental fiction is often freeform metafiction, divorced from action-based structure or fourth-wall insularity. It’s rarely emotionally engaging, because, well, eliciting “feels” isn’t the point.

What can fiction be? becomes the driving question. It’s intellectual. Does fiction need an ending, a beginning? Does it even need to be linear, or can a work of fiction dispense with temporality and still function? (It’s a mistake to think that function necessarily equates with readability, in the experimenter’s world; the carrying off of the work’s so-called writing — and here you must bear in mind that much experimental work is pastiche, cut-and-paste, or partially plagiarized — is all that matters.)

Kuo’s willfully obtuse novel, if it can be said to be about anything at all, concerns itself with Chinese censorship, of the self- and governmental varieties, and with that country’s political history. But that’s like saying Gravity’s Rainbow is about World War Two. Like Pynchon’s novel, shanghai.shanghai.shanghai (published by redbat books, which also published my collection of essays and poems) leaps without warning, between characters and time periods, dragging the reader hither and yon with run-on sentences prone to changing subject or tense midway through, and practically daring her to give up any hope of following. Color-coded text and font changes help orient readers only until the next paragraph. The novel’s full-color photos are similarly chimeral. Toward the book’s “end” is a turn-by-turn description (complete with diagrams) of a tournament bridge game, which the author admits, in a very meta aside a few pages later, constitutes a metaphor you’ll fail to understand unless you’re familiar with the intricacies of the game.

Is this device clever or lazy, on Kuo’s part? Are shanghai.shanghai.shanghai’s attractive design elements intended to distract or enhance? Can one appreciate a work without truly understanding it? What is the role of ambiguity, of inscrutability, in art? Discuss.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Seven American Deaths and Disasters
As it happened the day I checked out this collection of conceptual poetry from the library (but before I'd read any of it), I watched an interview with the founder of the video app Periscope. Periscope owes much of its massive popularity to the fact that videos broadcast by users are automatically deleted after twenty-four hours — just like Snapchat posts. This ephemerality makes using Periscope or Snapchat the equivalent of building a sand castle (or the lowbrow, writing a swear word in the sand): it's very here-and-now. Its appeal also baffled me. Why trouble with recording yourself it not for posterity, to be archived for the life of the human race — or the Internet, whichever comes first? Clearly, I was missing something.

Seven American Deaths and Disasters consists of text transcribed from live radio and TV reports of seven American deaths and disasters. Clever, right? Goldsmith is infamous for his ingenious plagiarism. (He won death threats for a recent reading of a poem excerpted from the Michael Brown autopsy report.) His concept here is that there's a visceral intensity in the prose, matched by its ad libbed cadence, and that by rendering the audio as text he can show the structuralist underpinnings of the chaos. Being utterly of the moment, these reports do attain moments of horrific Zen beauty.

Once I saw that, it all came together for me. Goldsmith's conflux of "the insanely meaningful and the dreadfully mundane" is arguably seen as much in the Monday Night Football interruption about John Lennon's murder as in a Periscope video shot by a refugee fleeing Syria. Meaning and mundanity aren't mutually exclusive; in fact, one can engender the other. How inane it might seem of Periscope viewers, messaging a broadcaster to show the content of the refrigerator (a popular Periscope meme). Yet consider how fridge-peeking is a shortcut to intimacy, the same as snooping through someone's medicine cabinet. Given the format's immediacy and transience, its social interactions naturally evolved a certain incisiveness, and in that urgent, often silly-seeming sharing are planted the seeds of the profound.

Sara Eliza Johnson, Bone Map: Poems
Quiet, vaguely sinister femininity like something primal in a storybook by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, pervades these thirty-six dreamlike poems. Johnson's recurring motifs — deer, horses, bees, apples, milk, mouths, bones, blood — echo the fairy-tale imagery of old, but rather than witches or ogres we encounter barren icescapes, lonesome forests, and dark, pitiless seas. She writes, "all moments will shine / if you cut them open," then proceed to slice. The resulting blood pools in the snow.

Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
Research material. Why the casual zombie fan would want to read this survivalist primer, by the best-selling author of World War Z, eludes me. But I mined a few gems from it, and found my urge to work on my own zombie book reinvigorated, too. Here's to maybe finishing this long in-progress novel in 2016!

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