fowler

Nebula Nominees: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

When I was in my first (and, come to think, only) year in the dorms, I had a friend down the hall who was Swiss. By which I mean she had Swiss parents, and her first language was French; she was otherwise American. She was raised, however, in a small Wisconsin town, if not from birth, then from a very young age. She liked to tell this story about her parents taking her to the zoo as a young girl, her French still the primary language, and shouting at the seals, “Le phoque! Le phoque!” You can imagine the consternation of small town Wisconsin when confronted by a girl yelling, “Le fuck!” which is more or less what the French word for seal sounds like.

We didn’t have much in the way of video stores on campus — this is back in the dark ages, before Netflix, or even DVDs, come to think of it — so we were mostly stuck with the selection at the dorm kiosk (which I ran on Saturday and Thursday; a story for another time) which was not good, or the selections at the local library. The library mostly had art films, documentaries about The War, and early cinema weirdness. I can thank the lack of selection for my actually sitting down and watching stuff like VampyrMetropolis, and Battleship Potemkin. My Swiss friend went in for the French art house stuff at the libs, as she actually spoke the language, and knew more than your average bear about French cinema, her upbringing being what it was.

So I watched a series of French films with her — a trilogy, I think, but my memory is a little hazy. They were in an essay style popular (I think) in the 70s. French people chatted and had upheavals of the lunching sort, interspersed with cards that informed the viewer of the philosophical import of the scene. She and I also had a thing where we’d go in together on a bottle of liquor we’d never tried before, purchased by another friend’s upperclass boyfriend with a car and a sense of capitalist opportunity: Everclear (not legal in my home state), stomach-churning gin (which put me off a fine alcohol for years), or, memorably, peach schnapps (I didn’t drink in high school, so I hadn’t learned this lesson yet).

I have this vision, no doubt manufactured, of us sitting in her room sipping a tragedy in the making, watching French films and arguing. I remember quite vividly when she was yelling about some character in the essay film — you know, the Italian woman? — and I was like, what are you even talking about, Italian woman? She blinked at me with the slow blink of the inebriated. You know, the woman with the Italian accent? The one having an affair with the other guy, the husband? Okay, I said, I know who you mean now, but how did you know she was Italian? Couldn’t you hear it in her accent? She asked. No, I most decidedly could not.

She had an entrance into the nuances of the film that I simply did not, raised as I was with English only. I couldn’t hear the accent because all I heard was foreignness, concentrating hard on the philosophical placards and the translations over the lilt of another tongue in a character’s speech. Since then, I’ve caught this lilt in a couple of movie characters in languages foreign to me — Ah Ping in In the Mood for Love, who sounds so different from everyone else, for example — but I couldn’t tell you what this means, exactly. Someone who spoke Chinese — or maybe more importantly, was raised with an understanding of Chinese cultural politics — could explain the inexact, interpersonal meaning to me, but some of it would end up being “le phoque” shouted at seals.

Which is my long-winded, digressive way of getting at We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s something about the narrator that’s off, which is not to say I didn’t completely love her wry, understated anecdotal style, or her loopy, sedimentary storytelling style. Her awkwardness and self-doubt were disarming and lovable. the way a story told by the gawky and odd can take the shine of comedy in retrospect. Comedy happens to other people, as they say; it’s tragedy when it happens to you. She knows how to split the difference between bathos and rhetoric like a champ. She takes the little philosophical placards, and doesn’t so much shred them as fold them into accented shapes that you can’t access through language.

Good gravy, what the holy hell am I on about? The tough thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a spoiler which is so central to the book’s bookness that it stops me up, in any language. You have to meet the narrator and stew in her thoughts long enough to understand her accent and where it comes from, her foreignness despite being a fairly average girl from a flyover state. You have to get good and drunk and argue what all that accent might mean, whatever meaning means, and you have to do it grappling with the way personal anecdote, or even possibly memoir, is a slippery, personal delivery mechanism for whatever essayish philosophy, insofar as as any of our lives can exemplify an argument.

And I’m at it again, twisty sentence fuckery — or possibly phoquery — blathering and bloviating when I should just get to it. Here’s one thing: the plural of anecdote is not data, as the scientists rightly say. But as a talking ape, the force of the anecdote has its place in rhetoric. I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because it was one of the nominees for the Nebula this year. It took me a long time to accept this as science fictional. Doesn’t this all exist in the here and now? Isn’t this the experience of some few — some very few, admittedly; but still, it moves? I eventually looped around, after starting in the middle, the way the narrator does, into acceptance.

There are levels of foreignness beyond the dorm floor Tower of Babel  that occurs when we all get drunk on unfamiliar scotch — one girl lapsing into the Spanish of her native language, another’s Southie accent thickening to incomprehension, the French, the Wisconsin, all of us speaking the language of our homes at each other in some kind of bonding exercise that won’t be remembered with clarity the next day. But we’re all human, our accents notwithstanding. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate at some level, the one that looks around after the party has ended and wonders at our profound miscommunications with those closest to us, let alone the strangers, the neighbors, the acquaintances. Alien isn’t just alien, in the end; it’s the familiar. Which is the worst and best thing about it, the end.

 

Sheltered

Review: Sheltered by Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas

Sheltered is a perfectly lovely nasty piece of work, a “pre-apocalyptic tale” about all the horrible things people do in preparation for the end of it all. I enjoyed Sheltered immensely, but the first collection (which collects #1-5 of the ongoing comic) has an expectant, waiting quality about it, unfinished, almost unstarted. This dovetails beautifully into the themes of the comic: all of the potential of adolescence untapped and unstable, and how that adolescence slowly, choice by choice, resolves into dreary, irrevocable adulthood. Boo yah.

Sheltered first introduces us to Victoria and her father David. They’re newish members to the prepper community of Safe Haven, which lives somewhere in the hinterlands of Montana. Vic’s not altogether happy with her new digs, hanging out with Hailey, another teen girl who has been in the community much longer. “At this point I’d kill for a mall,” Vic says ruefully, sitting in a deer blind with a flask. “I hate malls. That’s how desperate I am for any sense of normality.” Her dad — an engineer of some stripe — talks shop with the other adults, obviously not quite with the whole prepper community ethos. There’s a pretty wonderful conversation about pulling permits, which I admit might not resonate for other readers who do not have a contractor’s license.

After the slow pan of the first installment, rolling over the bunkers and principals, we get to it: blank-eyed teenage psycho Lucas somehow gets all the other kids to rise up and kill their parents. The supervolcano over Yellowstone is going to erupt soon, within days — according to Lucas — and the food won’t last the three years necessary to survive the nuclear winter with all the adults alive. Hard times call for hard choices. Lucas’s motivations aren’t lingered on, nor are we given much in the ways of his persuasive arguments for doing this.

I thought about this narrative choice for a long while. It could easily be seen as cheating, rushing this hard to imagine brutality; bang, blood in the snow. But I thought it worked, in the end: this unexplained outbreak of violence in a community that has been preparing for a more explicable outbreak of violence. Plus, I dunno, I like the irony of a community preparing for the worst not being prepared for the very worst. Other than the newcomer Victoria, I get the impression that these kids have been raised with a shadow of doom their whole lives, the constant expectation of violence, and I can almost feel the relief when it arrives. Boom. Here’s your apocalypse.

Some of the mid sections are a little slack, with maybe not the best sense of place. Victoria and Hailey are bunkered down somewhere on the campus, Hailey injured, and I couldn’t quite tell you where their building was in relationship to others. Lucas makes a lot of terrible choices, and tends to respond to even perceived threats to his leadership with violence and cruelty. It works. He’s got the shiny blondness of a cult leader, but he’s still a kid. He’s marshaled his charisma to get the other kids to commit this unspeakable act, but he’s not mature enough or wily enough to manage their grief and guilt. What if you were wrong? What then?

There’s a great sequence where Lucas mansplains to another boy about how he should stop hanging out with a girl because we can’t have any pregnancies and we all have to think about group morale etc etc. His mansplaination goes on waaaay too long, long enough for the other guy to be like, geesh, lay off already, mom, I was just talking. It’s hard to pin Lucas’s motivations here: maybe he believes what he’s saying, but maybe he’s also jealous and frustrated that he hasn’t got any easy joking friendships. He’s clearly cut himself into the loner leader role intentionally, but intentions at that age are mutable and jumpy. When he can’t admit he’s wrong — and he really never can, given the stakes — his only recourse is to double down.

The end of the last installment ends with a truck pulling up, the tall figure of a man flicking his cigarette off into the snow. “Hey kid,” he says to Lucas. “Your parents around?” Boy howdy, they are not. There’s been a lot of scrabbling and missteps by Lucas up to this point, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this situation goes. On some level, a new grown up threat is what Lucas needs, given that the younger kids — like the foul-mouthed little shit Curt — have been acting like kids without parents. (Or even acting like kids with parents, because impulse control is low, parents or not.) If he can cow them into submission with another threat, he might be able to keep this crapshow going long enough for the supervolcano to blow. That’s the American way, after all.

 

Thanks to sj at Snobbery for turning me onto this.

FASHION VICTIM

Talking style with the St Paul Mayor

From the second in a series of fashion profiles from the Star Tribune of elected officials:

After the start of his second term in office, St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has shown that a man can possess a serious sense of fashion and still be treated seriously. So what we’re going to do, in our interview, is not take him seriously at all.

Describe your style: “I’m a Midwestern politician and I was trained as a lawyer, so I’m going to go with hugely bland. A lot of my family worked in newspapers so we have a family tradition of a “wardrobe for print”. But I’ve got a bod for sin, just like Melanie Griffith.”

You feel best when you’re wearing …“Blue shirt, red tie. But sometimes I like blue shirt, blue tie just to change it up. But just between you and me, business casual totally stresses me out. How am I supposed to accessorize Dockers and a polo shirt?”

Where do you shop? “It’s absolutely killing me that Men’s Warehouse evicted the “I guarantee it” guy from the board. That place was my favorite, but now, I don’t even know. What will it be without George Zimmer? Burlington Coat Factory is also really nice.”

You never leave home without …“So, this is a little creepy, but I have this rabbit’s foot from when I was a kid. It was dyed green, but the color has faded, so it seems a little sickly. I’m reasonably sure it’s the reason for my political success though, so I had secret pockets made in all of my clothes. Its name is Melvin.”

What’s your No1 fashion rule? “No white after Labor Day. I’m working on legislation that will make this law in St Paul. Plus, socks with crocs are both morally and ethically wrong.”

Are there any fashion challenges that come with being a man in politics? “I’m legit sick of all the attention that my panty lines get. So I like old fashioned boxers, and they have a tendency to wad up a little. Really, it’s just a couple pair of them, for my “fat days.”  It’s not anyone’s business but mine and my boys’.”

How has your style changed since becoming mayor? “I wore more sweaters when I was on the city council, but I think I need a more national look as a mayor, you know? Like I’m the boss, but not like the boss boss. I’m worried I’m sacrificing approachability for professionalism, but the right tie can really soften the whole “executive branch” thing. It’s a balancing act, like eating peas without honey.”

Tell us about your hair. “It’s 100% my own hair. I would not want to pull a Traficant; that’s just awkward for everyone. My wife calls me a “silver fox,” but I still can’t tell if that’s an insult or not.”

Who are your style icons? “Oh my God, there are so many. I mean, obviously, JFK, because I rarely wear hats. Obama, Clinton, and both the Georges Bush wore suits a lot and were in government. I think my sweater period was a nod to Fred Rogers. I honestly shed tears when he died. Such a good man.”

I can’t help but notice that this interview is 100% grade A gold-plated bullshit. “Right you are, Star Tribune. Keep up the good work, you rapidly irrelevant nitwits. Maybe I’ll accessorize the end of this interview with my middle finger.”

(With apologies to Chris Coleman, who seems like a nice guy. For sure doesn’t keep the severed foot of a small animal in his clothes.)

Tell me something Nhu

I had never heard of Madame Nhu before I came across this book, and that’s too bad, because she’s a fascinating character, and from beginning to end, her circumstances gave her unique “front row seats” to the complicated story of Vietnamese history between the period of French colonialism and the 1975 fall to Communism.

Tran (Nhu) Thi Le Xuan, the titular “Madame Nhu” was born to parents with long, aristocratic pedigrees which extend back to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who lost his kingdom to the French in the mid-1800′s. When the French ruled Indochina, the Chuongs (her maiden name) collaborated, going so far as to convert to Catholicism, and prospered as part of the tiny native Vietnamese landowning Elite. Nhu was born at the tail end of this era, in 1924. When the Japanese drove the French out in World War II, the Chuongs collaborated with them. When the Japanese were in turn driven out, and the French (briefly) returned, fortune nevertheless shone on the Chuongs, as Thi Le Xuan’s husband Dinh Nhu built up his older brother’s (Diem Ngo’s) political career. Through complicated intrigues, Diem would become President of South Vietnam, and Dinh Nhu the leader of his political party and de facto Vice President (who in Vietnam has powers akin to the American Secretaries of State and the Treasury). Diem was a lifelong batchelor, so the very public Madame Nhu came to be regarded as Vietnam’s “First Lady” even though she was technically the Lady Vice President. (“Second Lady”?)

So yes, this is a mercenary, ambitious, Machiavellian family, exhibiting not much in the way of idealism or loyalty… even to each other. When Nhu was First Lady, and her parents the Vietnamese ambassadors to the US, they publicly denounced her just prior to the coup which saw her husband and brother-in-law assassinated.

Most readers won’t actually like any of the characters in this book, but that’s besides the point, isn’t it? The enjoyment I derived from this book came from (1) having a lot of my questions about the genesis of the Vietnam War answered, and (2) boggling at the amount and complexity of cloak-and-dagger intrigues it details. Seriously, some of this stuff is so bizarre, I would have thought it was bad James Bond fan fiction, if author Monique Demery wasn’t such a credible writer.

To give you a little taste of what I’m talking about: the 1963 coup which took down the Diem regime began as a fake coup, engineered by Diem himself, and brother/advisor Dinh Ngo. Diem had been unpopular since a 1962 crackdown on dissident Buddhist monks, which ended in several displays of public self-immoliation (always a sympathy-grabber.) The fake coup was supposed to be controllable, as it would be started and orchestrated by Diem operatives who wouldn’t let it get out of hand. The faux-coup would disrupt commerce and cause general disorder, which would turn public opinion against Diem’s opposition, and which would give Diem an excuse to institute martial law, and a purge of moderates. Great idea, no? The thing is, the CIA knew about the secretly fake coup, and turned one of Diem’s generals into a double agent. So the CIA operated a double-secret REAL coup within Diem’s fake coup. Diem and Dinh Nhu didn’t catch on until the supposedly-rebelling soldiers -whom Diem had secretly ordered to shut down traffic in Saigon- didn’t follow script and stand down to Diem’s police. After a lame attempt to flee, Diem and Dinh Nhu were hunted down and stabbed to death in the back of an armored troop carrier. When Madame Nhu heard the brothers had been assassinated, she didn’t accept the news as real for three months. She assumed (as, actually, my own wife probably would) that he had faked his death, and was probably waiting somewhere for her out of the country.

And that’s just one of two death-faking stories in this book… and only one of three false-flag attacks… and Diem was only in power for nine years! That’s a average of one false-flag event for every three years in power. I wonder if that’s a record. (I am so naïve.)

Oh, did I mention that Diem was put in power by the French, because they expected him to fail? They figured his political inexperience and corruption would mismanage South Vietnam so badly that the public would be clamoring for a (pseudo)return to French (neo)colonial rule.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. This was a family of tenacious survivors, and Madame Nhu was at least as streetwise as her husband and brother-in-law, and maybe considerably more. When a pirate problem on Vietnamese inland waterways became so bad it threatened the economy, Diem and Dinh Ngo were prepared to negotiate. It was Madame Nhu working behind the scenes who convinced them to confront and destroy the underworld pirate/gangsters, which turns out to have been the right decision.

She was tough (love that front cover pic), but also knew how to turn on the charm. Her flirtations with then-VP LBJ were “credited” (if one may use such a positive term) with bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid into Vietnam. That’s just one of many instances in this book when the “Dragon Lady” used her sex appeal to political ends. Obviously, the appellation “Dragon Lady” -with all its racial and gender stereotypical undertones- is problematic, but I’ll leave those discussions for some other reviewer.

No doubt the CIA would have been happy to kill off Madame Nhu along with her husband, but she was fortuitously having a minor operation in the United States at the time (removal of a conjunctival cyst). This saved her life, and she lived as a recluse for the next fifty years, first in Paris, and in old age with one of her sons in a suburb of Rome. Throughout the book, as she is telling Madame Nhu’s life story, the author also tells the parallel story of how this book was researched, and how she came to know Madame Nhu personally. This is not a heavy-hitting scholarly work, but a very readable account of a minor historical figure who probably deserves more attention.

A few unexpected tidbits:

Vietnamese resistance to French recolonializing efforts after World War II were in part the result of Japanese propaganda during the war. Even though Imperial Japanese forces were cruel masters, their Asian solidarity propaganda found purchase among Vietnamese who suffered long under humiliating French colonial rule. For all their evils, the Imperial Japanese broke the myth of unchallengeable European commercial, military, and technological superiority.

One of Madame Nhu’s other brother-in-laws was a Catholic cardinal who “went rogue” and started ordaining bishops without Vatican approval. Eventually he was ousted from the church, when they uncovered a plot by him and some others to elect a second pope who would challenge the sitting pope.

The Vietnam War arguably started with American CIA orchestration of the 1963 coup. There is a long list of reasons why the US wanted to oust Diem and his brother- mostly they were too independent-minded to take uncritical instructions from the US, but also because the Kennedy administration felt that Diem’s regime didn’t project a favorable enough image of what a liberal democracy should be, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s regime up in the North. President Diem appeared a bit too opulent and corrupt, and as part of the miniscule Catholic minority, it looked bad when he cracked down on Buddhist monks. One has to wonder whether the crackdown, and subsequent coup, and subsequent Vietnam War would have happened at all, if Madame Nhu’s family had been Buddhist instead of Catholic.

The Guardian announces a new prize for self-published books

Well, now, this is very interesting. The Guardian is launching a self-published book of the month prize, which I think makes them the first of the old guard reviewing platforms to grapple with indie publishing this closely. And good on that.

The Guardian and Legend’s new prize is open from today to self-published novels written in the English language – translations are also welcome – with submissions to be read by a panel of Legend’s readers. The panel will draw up a shortlist of up to 10 titles a month that will then be read by expert judges, with the winning entry to be reviewed in the Guardian, online or in the paper.

I’m discouraged to see the Guardian referencing the Hugh Howey “statistics” about indie publishing, which are more or less full on bullshit, but whatever. The rise of indie publishing is a thing, whatever the numbers, and I’m cheered to see a traditional review platform take on the world’s slush pile, because heretofore citizen reviewers have been stuck with the job themselves, to more or less terrible results. Terrible not because citizen reviewers can’t assess a book’s quality — especially in boutique genres that are largely ignored by professional reviewing in the first place — but because the average reader has been exposed to the myriad of batshittery that lurks in the slush pile.

I had a friend back in the day who worked at a very small press as a publicist. The small press had a fake employee who had a voicemail and an email devoted to taking all the crazy queries and unsolicited manuscripts. They did not want an actual person to have to field this stuff themselves — I think the unfortunate job of clearing the inbox rotated — and the imaginary person could take all the threats and blubbering to no ill effect. Unfortunately, my friend had the same first name as this imaginary slush pile reader, and would get a certain percentage of the crazy queries as creepers tried to socially engineer themselves into a meeting. “I talked to Elizabeth last week,” they’d lie. “Can you put me through to her?”

The publisher did actually look through the manuscripts that were not written in crayon — which happened, oh yes — but the small but tenacious percentage of weirdos made the imaginary reader a professional necessity. I think this is more or less happening writ large in the publishing world. Anne Rice wants to strip readers of psuedonymity to keep them from “bullying” writers with their negative assessments of the slush pile. The average negative review is no more bullying than a fake editor ignoring a crayon manuscript. The slush pile weirdos have been foisted on the world, and they have never liked being shunted into an inbox. They want to meet you at home so they can tell you how wrong you are, which publishers have been avoiding for years through pseudonymity.

Now that I’ve gone out into tangent, I wanted to wind up by saying that I’m glad that the Guardian is taking the indies on.This is partially because traditional press has to adapt or die, and self publishing is here to stay. But another more selfish reason I’m glad to see professional reviewers take on self-published works is that I hope that once they start grappling with the slush pile like the rest of us have, they’ll get a fucking clue and stop using STRGB as a reputable source. The bullying narrative has been parroted widely in the traditional press, and I think a good part of that is how completely insulated they’ve been from the whackadoos out there.They’ll get to see the inbox in all of its glory.

Which is not to say that I think indie authors are all a bunch of loons, just as being traditionally published is no guarantee of sanity either. My mother, for example, self published a historical novel, and she is not trolling the kboards as we speak. (God, I hope not anyway. Mum?) It is also not to say that professional reviewers taking on the indies will solve all ills in a rapidly changing publishing landscape. But professional is as professional does, and adding professional reviewers into the mix will go far in helping readers to assess works that have been up till now more likely reviewed by friends and family than…let’s call it a less subjective readership. I’ve enjoyed many an indie title, and I will take any help I can get separating the good from the bad. I’ll be glad to see someone else’s inbox take the hit. Thanks, Guardian.

gorgeous nothing

The Art of Losing: Hope is a thing

This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.

A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.

When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.

When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.

I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.

In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.

In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power

 

falstaff island

The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games - har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.

the-returned

Resurrection, and the Returned: “I’m not sure it would be a good thing.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched network television, I realized halfway through the premiere episode of Resurrection, which is the newest revived-from-the-dead offering on tv. (Though I’m not bothering to google this, there are several such shows in production at the moment, I am given to understand.) Though I kind of can’t imagine network tv taking on the latent and blatant nihilism and grimdark nature of the zombie show – despite Walking Dead‘s cable ascendancy – I could see the more domestic concern of people in a small town returned years after their deaths working as a sort of Lost-ish mystery show. Who returned Laura Palmer?

Network television can pull off the Gothic melodrama, with even creature-of-the-week procedurals like early seasons of the X-Files bending towards the childhood traumas and interpersonal machinations of the principles. Alas, what I got from Resurrection was a whole mess of anxiety about whether the viewer was even going to buy the premise. The cold open works as an image – this boy in the rice paddies and his collapse in a Chinese town – but once the cut-rate X-Files agents get involved, it all goes downhill. A seriously put upon agent of ICE, which might be the least sexy of all federal agencies, picks up a boy who has been repatriated to the US because obvs he’s an American? Why are we being showed this travel time? Start in China, switch to the small town. Also no, the agent doesn’t just haul off to magical New England town just on the say-so of some rando kid.

The thing that killed me about Resurrection was how arm-wheeling the emotional and social problems are, all of these painful conversations with ICE ICE agent, man of exposition and explication, reiterating over and over how obvious the stakes are. The childhood friend of the resurrected boy now a priest, stuttering through his homily as the boy’s mother ushers him into the pew. The fact that every single person in Stars Hollow appears to be related to the resurrected boy, down to his doc. Also, you are seriously not allowed to put a lynching joke in the mouth of Omar Epps in a show this white, no. After the joke, my husband yelled, “Omar Epps, everybody!” Sorry, that’s a fail.

There was altogether too much hugging, speechifying, and shaming going on in Resurrection for my taste. I do not even get why everyone ragged on resurrected boy’s dad for not believing this miraculous kid was his, even though the boy was unchanged after 20 years and reappeared on the other side of the planet. I get that Americans don’t like skepticism or science, but this is beyond the emotional pale for me. I’m going to need some time, DNA tests notwithstanding, to accept this manifest creature of a family’s grief as something other than its shocking reiteration. Quit mansplaining what I should think, ABC, sheesh. (Also, total waste of a few of my favorite character actors, especially the boy’s parents.)

Which was why the first episode of The Returned, “Camille”, was so damn good. The events occur in a small town in the French Alps, with four or five – its not entirely clear – people returning to their lives after years of the absence of death. Camille dies in a bus accident with 38 other people. Years later, we watch a group therapy group consider the monument to the loss that is to be installed in order to enact their dubious healing. Camille comes home and her mother follows her through the house, shaking, getting her a robe, pulling down the half-considered shrine on her dresser. “Why did you rearrange all my clothes?” the girl asks, and the mother doesn’t answer. A creepy boy keeps being framed through glass. A morpho eugenia butterfly, pinned to a display case, flutters, and then breaks free.

a blue butterfly

There is little dialogue in The Returned, more a series of reaction shots and tight Gothic interiors interspersed with tight Gothic landscapes: a reservoir, a row of suburban alpine houses, an underground walkway with flickering lights. None of the relationships are telegraphed in megaphone dialogue, but in subtle nods of the head. Camille’s parents are divorced now, but were not 4 years ago when she died. “Tu fumes?” she asks her dad, as he pinches a shuddering cigarette with his ex-wife beyond the glass of the sliding door, hissing at each other, what are we going to do? What do you even say, years past someone’s death? How awful would their return be, a tearing of all the scar tissue, both personal and societal?

I don’t mean to keep hat-tipping Twin Peaks, even though I do, but there’s something here that reminds me of that. Not in the pin-wheeling grotesquery of Lynch’s middle America,  but in the Gothic dread of the small town, the flickering iteration of civic grief, and the half-careful invocation of the supernatural, like a shrine swept suddenly into a drawer. (Also because the cinematography is gorgeous.) When the priest avows the durability of the human soul and then demurs about the resurrection of the body – “I’m not sure it would be a good thing” – I was all in. I suspect there will be fewer answers in The Returned than there will be in Resurrection, which I count as a good thing. There is no answer to grief.

 

sagas

More statistical wonkery, this time about the Icelandic Sagas

Earlier today I posted elsenet about how someone has done a statistical analysis of how many lines people in Shakespearean couples actually say to one another. The take-home: Romeo and Juliet have the least lines to one another, doi. But the literary statisticians have been busy, bless their hearts.

I can’t find an example of this right now, but I’ve been lured in the past by facebook apps that generate maps of my social network, producing these spidery images of all the connections between the people I am connected to; big hoops of family, school friends, work friends, out to strange outliers who are unconnected to any other person I know. These maps look a lot like the art produced by Mark Lombardi, who is a “neo-conceptional artist”  - wiki’s phrasing – whose mapping of the relationships between government, business, and fraud are both beautiful and chilling.

relationship chart by Mark Lombardi

(I’m kind of freaking out here because I didn’t know that Lombardi killed himself in 2000, and his pre-9/11 documentation of the relationship between the Bush, bin Laden, and al Saud families, for example, ended up being the subject of FBI investigation after the fact. Jesus. Deploy the tin foil, friends.)

Anyway, on a less ominous note, some statisticians have created relationship maps for a bunch of ye olde narratives —  the SagasBeowulf, the Iliad, and the Irish Táin Bó Cuailnge –and found that the ones that are purported to be based in real events produce relationship maps that look a lot more like modern social networks that the ones understood to be fictional. Observe:

relationship maps for the Sagas and the Tain

The one on the left is a relationship map for the Sagas, the right is from the Táin. The latter is understood to be fictional, and the former based on fact. You can see how one has the messy, lived structure of a social network, and the other has the artificial importance of a single protagonist.

Whoa.

It would be seriously freaking interesting if someone would turn this kind of statistical analysis of social structures in, say, the book of Exodus, the Gospels, or the Rigveda.

 

 

 

marrows_pit (1)

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.