Tag Archives: fiction

the n-body problem

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

There is an xkcd for everything.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway - can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 

 

star thief

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey is a hugely silly and energetic romp around a space opera playset of no particular note, and, as such, was utterly charming to me. Just about every single trope of the genre is deployed with extreme prejudice – the MacGuffin (actually, several), technobabble tech, mercenaries (with or without hearts of gold), tough but caring sergeants, mad scientists, bad childhoods, indistinguishable same-language speaking planets, aliens, empaths, slums, the Fate of the Universe, etc etc. The plot is pure Scooby Doo, with Bad Guys and Red Herrings playing a game of idiot poker with the reader; I can see the cards you have, friend. But it starts fast and does not ever slow down to whinge about, like, politics or needless exposition or, god help us all, philosophy, which I actually count as a good thing. There’s a lot of cut-rate philosophizin’ going on in space opera, and reading one that wasn’t fussed about that jibber-jabber felt like a breath of fresh air. Just set the reactor to explode and haul ass.

Renna Carrizal is a 23 year old master thief who’s pulled off the most famous heist in the ‘verse (of course). She’s on one last job which will give her the money she needs to retire (of course) when it all goes wrong. She’s to pick up some technonanablasterthing, and (of course) is sidetracked in the rescue of a young boy she finds locked in a cage (of course). She has no particular maternal feelings (of course), but this kid is Different Somehow. Of course. From then on it’s all bew bew as she’s more or less blackmailed by some kind of military slash secret government outfit (?) to go get this one thing and bew bew bew. Also, there’s a Captain Tightpants with whom she has a history. Hubba hubba.

Frankly, there are a lot of things that don’t make a lick of sense about the plot. The somewhat snort-worthy named MYTH is an organization which is somehow both a Star Fleet-ish governmental agency and a secret organization with terrorist-style cells who don’t know one another because…? How does that work, exactly? Generally terrorist-style cells are used by terrorists, and all the military boy-scouting and honor of the soldiers just felt weird and wrong. People who are supposedly hardened mercs are a lot more gormless and guileless than I would expect. But whatever. The prose is just gleefully patchwork, tossing in all manner of hat-tips and allusions to other space operas, from the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to BSG’s frakking. It’s not particularly well synthesized, but then it’s also hilarious and awesome.

It is my understanding that The Star Thief is an indie title, and it shows. I didn’t notice any copy editing errors, but it did have some rough edges on it that a story editor would have ground off. Lines such as, “The entire word had shifted, like she was fucking Alice in Wonderland…” seriously cracked me up. If you want the f-bomb there to be read as an intensifier and not as a transitive verb, I humbly suggest rewriting the line as, “The entire world had shifted, like she was Alice in fucking Wonderland…” You’re welcome. There were some cut-and-pasty seeming conversations and thought processes, although some of this could be attributed to the conventions of the romance plot that’s wound through the proceedings. Boy, can romance heroines wheel-spin if you let them, though, admittedly, the spun wheels here weren’t lingered on too much. We’ve got explosions to walk away from, after all.

And while it may seem I’m praising this with faint damns, I’m really not. I’ve been hacking my way though the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey recently, and while that series is just brilliantly plotted and meticulous about its geo-slash-solar-system politics and world building, on some level it lacks the rough energy of something like The Star Thief. A better edited version of this book would not have the same slapdash charm. Jamie Grey was having just a helluva good time writing The Star Thief, working the kind of nerding that’s more interested in gameplay than rolling up the characters. No, this isn’t better than Leviathan Wakes, but on some level it’s more fun.

Which is not to say that the plot coupons and convenient Chekhovian guns couldn’t rankle in the wrong mood. The sheer tumble of the plot means that brutal, terrible things like watching the destruction of your home town are not given the emotional resonance they deserve, but then it’s not like this hasn’t been a thing in space opera since Vader vaporized Alderaan while Leia watched, and likely before. (I like Carrie Fisher’s quip from a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone that “[Leia] has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds—along with her hairdresser—so all she has is a cause.”) I also recognize that it is a dick move as a reviewer to praise a book for its lack of emotional depth, and then cut it for the very same reason. These are the cards I’ve been dealt.

Renna is nastier than Leia, more Cat Woman than Princess, not troubled too greatly about using her sexuality as a weapon or shanking assholes who deserve it. (You know, not that Renna is a better character or anything.) I could do without Renna’s casual girl-hating in the beginning, and the general non-importance of female characters other than Renna. Again, this is a general problem with space opera, which tends to fail the Bechdel test much harder (as a genre) than just about any other I can think of, short of werewolf books. At least the girl-hating seems to dissipate by the end; she has learned a valuable lesson about women in authority. Or something. Bew bew!

 

The_Destruction_of_Leviathan

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Original review January 2012

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz.

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! It’s cheering when books like Leviathan Wakes avoid this trap. The characters here are more types than actual people, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places.

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read.

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test - and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read.

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz!

 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.

grim

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

Wallbanger_Cover (1)

Review: Wallbanger by Alice Clayton

Like many – or maybe even most – romantic comedies, Wallbanger bumps along cheerfully until its third act, where the whole thing descends into unearned sentiment and willful stupidity. Situation comedies are almost always characterized by mistaken identities and misunderstandings – meaning the characters often have to be irrational, clueless or foolish to make the situation work – but the third act turn in Wallbanger towards just breathtaking stupidity and a frankly bizarre understanding of a woman’s sexuality felt egregious. This was one of a long list of fictions I’ve read ruined by its ending.

My husband asked me about this book right as I was mid-way through the third act turn, and I groused about the ending unfolding. He asked if I thought maybe I was just an outlier – lots of people like descent into treacle, obvs, or it wouldn’t happen as often as it does. And that’s a factor, sure. As with all comedy and romance, your mileage may vary. I guess I’m just annoyed with how stupid that third act turn was, incommensurate with the level of stupidity preceding. What I would like from my fluff reading is an even level of stupid and unbelievable so I can be prepared. Writing characters with a modest level of competence and humor only to abandon that for completely weird confounding action makes me sad.

Simon and Caroline meet cute after Caroline sublets an apartment from her boss. In her first week there, her sleep is interrupted by the neighbor in the next apartment having several loud assignations with several different women. (You know, not all at once, but serially.) Eventually, after weeks of trash talk with her lady friends and interrupted sleep, Caroline goes banging on the wallbanger’s door in the middle of the night to get him to STFU. It eventually turns out that Caroline and the wall-banging neighbor, Simon, are in a six degrees of separation situation, and her friends and his friends hook up while they razz each other and banter.

So far, so good. Again, comedy is personal, and this could certainly be the kind of humor to put you off, but I thought the middle sections of the novel were the kind of breezy, silly shenanigans I’m looking for from my lazy chick lit. No, it’s not particularly deep nor well written, but in terms of light entertainment, it got the job done. Simon is not a huge asshole and defends his situation credibly; Caroline clearly has seen too many Sex in the City episodes on Oxygen (the ones with the sex scenes and cussing expunged), but not in a nasty, label-obsessed way. Some of the situations made me cringe – the cabin - but mostly the interpersonal relationships were the kind of fakey, airless relationships that exist mostly to be punchlines, not profound statements on the human state or whatnot. Which is totally fine.

I’m given to understand that Wallbanger started life as a Twilight fan fiction, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how this has anything to do with Twilight. Unlike 50 Shades, the most successful of the pulled-to-publish fanfics out there, the characters in Wallbanger seem almost sensible and evenly matched. They’re roughly the same age and success level, and while Simon obviously has a different take on the whole monogamy thing than Caroline, he’s not a stalker psycho. The person whom I assume is the Jacob character has little in common with Jacob either structurally within the novel nor in terms of character attributes, and Caroline is no Mormon housewife slash shuddering virgin. In fact, my husband and I got into a whole thing about the ethics of published fanfiction – most of which I’m not going to replicate here – but I think the usefulness of the Twilight intertext is pretty minimal either way.

What I really want to bitch about is the third act shitshow involving Caroline’s orgasm or lack thereof. This complaining will certainly involve spoilers, though of the minimal kind, because when a romance heroine tells you she can’t get off at the beginning, what are the odds she’s going to get off by the end? It’s like the Chekhovian gun, only this time it’s the Chekhovian vagina. Somebody’s going to fire that bad boy until it clicks. Caroline tells us early on that she’s lost her O, as she calls it, due to an unfortunate hook up with a dude she calls “machine gun fucker”. I think it’s a blind date set up, and MGF is status-obsessed and boorish. She eventually fucks him out of resignation, just sort of to make the date end, which I recognized from my gauzy memories of dating as an unfortunate but sometimes eventual sexual situation.

It’s not so much that you’re coerced into sex with a bad sexual partner – even though you know it’s going to be bad – but just that you shrug and figure that bad sex is better than no sex at all. This argument uses extremely suspect logic, and I’m not saying it’s true, just that it’s thought by people like younger me and Caroline at points. I don’t even mean to be hyperbolic here, but Caroline’s reaction makes me think this sexual experience is a lightly encoded sexual assault. I get this supposed to be a funny haha set-up, a fakey impediment to be overcome by fakey shenanigans, but it really seems to me that the loss of desire – of sexual response – is such a serious issue that it shouldn’t be treated as lightly as it is.

Not that long ago, I was standing out on the back porch smoking with a friend of mine. I don’t even know how we got on the topic, but she related to me that she’d recently lost her mojo, which had precipitated something of a crisis with her wife. “Why am I not responding to this person I love? Do I not love her enough?” They asked each other and themselves. She went to her doctor in despair. Turns out, she had something like a cyst or other perturbation in her lady-system, a physical explanation for a situation that had pretty serious emotional bearings on her emotional state, her relationship, and her sense of self. I related how my sexual reactions had been gutted by the double punch of breastfeeding hormones and chemical birth control in the months after I had my first kid, and how weird it was to find that my sexual response was something that could be gutted like that. I’d always thought of my sexual being as inextricable until it was extracted. “Oh thank god,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

I didn’t know either, for months, what was going on, that it wasn’t my fault or in my control. (Not that if it were psychological it would be any more my fault or under my control.) This isn’t even factoring in all the body trauma I went through simply bringing my son into the world. The process of rediscovering my sexuality was a long and complicated one, one that had as much to do with chemical changes as it did to my emotional reaction to them. And that’s not even getting into friends I’ve known who’ve lost their mojo over maybe more severe traumas – psychological or physical – who have to work and work at healing, who have had kind and patient lovers who nonetheless cannot magically repair these dampened and depressed sexualities simply through love.

So when Caroline trips the fuck out because her first time having penetrative sex with her man does not result in her elusive O, I kind of wanted to scream. I don’t think it’s inaccurate that she wouldn’t orgasm from penetrative sex - only about 25% of women consistently do - nor do I think it’s inaccurate that she would blame herself for that “failure”. What drives me fucking bananas is that she magically finds her O again in a scene played for slapstick. and from then on it’s an O rodeo. Just, fuck, I know I’m taking this personally, but this kind of easy magic that has women lit up like a pinball machine after some kind words and the old in-and-out just burns me.

I’m not trying to be unromantic or a crank, and I’m not saying that this book is particularly horrible in its sexy times. This was just the book where I noticed that so much sex writing focuses on straight up (pun intended) penetrative sex as the be-all come-all, and I just can’t anymore. Love is grand, but it’s not going to ring your bell ipso facto. Kindness and understanding – which Simon does evidence, a little – go far in healing, but they are not an elixir. The moment when you realize you’re totally drunk is not the moment you become sober. That’s a whole other process. The rest of it is work, and letting go the idea that your orgasm is a metric, and time.

The third act of Wallbanger ended up being Cosmo healing, a checklist of simple solutions to decidedly unsimple problems, using trips and tricks inaccessible to most women. Again, there’s nothing particularly uncommon about the way Wallbanger portrays a woman’s sexual response, so my irritation is more aggregate than specific. But its commonality is precisely the problem. This is emancipation by will, empowerment through bikini wax. It’s not that I don’t think such things are possible; it’s just that they are constantly portrayed as probable when I know the lived experience is so much cooler, more fucked up, and weirder than these fluff pieces let on. I’m not expecting strict reality from my fluff – I’m not a complete buzzkill – I would just dig if for once it didn’t descend to the lowest, most common narrative, this glossy tabloid psychology that has neither the bite of insight nor the sacrilege of humor. I can be amused by situational comedy up until the situation is a real one treated cheaply. Alas and alack.

beautiful-disaster-239x300

Beautiful Disaster: Most of this Title is Wrong

There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?

Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.

Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.

Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America,  who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)

So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.

Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.

People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.

“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!” 

Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.

What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.

The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances:  Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.

Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.

Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.

Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.

Fran and Ed

For There She Was: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a hard book to write about, for me. I read this on planes, and not on foot, in hard tubes that bolt up into the blue and down again into the strange sameness of airports; surrounded by strangers and boredom; trying to mask my weeping, coughing back my laughter; the phones off; the world insubstantial and patchy out the window of the plane. Wrong. I should have been walking, but then maybe flying is the better metaphor for Woolf’s strange prose, her perfect movement. At the end, wrung out after a week on vacation, I cried and pushed my head into my husband’s shoulder. We talked. I tried to convey why I was crying, but it’s all so inexplicable. Not sadness. Not sadness. Something more like the pain of recognition; the joy of disconnect; the shock of understanding.

Ten days before my husband and I married, twelve years ago this month, my grandfather died. My mother, in whose house we were to marry, was in Ireland. My sister, who was to be my only bridesmaid, was sick, so sick, ensconced in my mother’s bedroom. I would go there daily, more often if I could, and drop off videotapes of movies for her to watch, clear the dishes. She spent so much time lying down that her face swelled with uncirculated blood, narrowing her eyes to a squint.

Two days before he died he called me from the hospital, and we held a confusing conversation. He kept talking to nurses while talking to me, until he abruptly cut off the conversation and hung up. I tried to say I love you, but it was never said, or only said to the dead air on the phone. I cried then, cried hard, and I can see my not-yet-husband’s face while I wept into my hands alive with compassion and helplessness. He never did meet Grandpa. This week, in a shop in New Mexico, I looked over a set of string-ties, felt them with my hands, and told my husband that Grandpa would have loved these. I thought of his neck.

Grandma called to tell me he died. She told me not to tell my mother, not to disrupt her trip. Mum called me that evening, and I tried to lie, stupidly, bowing to the wishes of a woman who had lost her husband. I was strange, horrible. She called Grandma, who told her herself. Mum called back, and I confessed, broke it all over cords that run under the cold Atlantic all the way to Ireland. She was a daughter; I was a daughter; we owe these things to one another. That act of silence was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I found myself in Homestead, that homely, ghostly town, in the week before my wedding running the strange minutia of a funeral that is in profound & exact correlation with the detail of a wedding. There is music, and an officiant; an afternoon going through poetry to find the poem to read; a caterer, a church, a house. The front row cordoned off for the old women; hats; nylon stockings; shoes. My father, my mother’s ex-husband, in my grandfather’s suit reading Fern Hill to a room of people. To me.

“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

We took my grandfather’s giant, metal car though the car wash before the funeral. He had always loved those grandfatherly Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the seat belts belted to themselves so the warning lights wouldn’t chide him to buckle up. The car wash attendant, upon hearing of our loss, testified to Jesus. My atheism is soft – a lost tooth or a missing thumb – but I felt his foaming compassion in those imaginary fingers, in that void in my bite, in a way I have never before or since. He admired the car, and I think, had we not planned to drive that soul-body to the funeral, I would have given the keys to him and walked.

I married him, my husband, ten days later, in my mother’s house, with my sister, in a small miracle, by my side. During the reading of one of the poems, the Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d chosen before death sat me down to remind me of impermanence, I reached my hand back and found her hand and held it as hard as I could.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”

Maybe families are accidental, maybe. But maybe not. My sister dreamed of him, our Grandpa, the night he died, unknowing of his death. She went to the attic and looked through old pictures. When I told her he was gone, we sat on the floor and she recreated her steps that night: my mother as a child; the pictures of the family car, my grandmother stylish and stunning in her fur-trimmed jackets in front; trips to Florida; unremembered friends. We didn’t cry, but talked, and it was like crying in its release. I would be on a plane within a day, and land down into the Homestead of grief, into the city of loss. My sister was too sick to come.

Mrs. Dalloway makes me think of this, makes me think of me. It’s shocking to find me there, in London, planning a party, this inconsequential thing; to find me in London, moving, and also far above the earth. She went out to buy some flowers and napped; she ran into an old lover; the party happened and was marred & perfected by death. It’s dangerous and egotistical to find meaning in events. My grandfather did not live and die so that I could be reminded of this long string of being, this ineffable web, but I couldn’t help thinking it at the time, and can’t help drawing the narrative that way now. It writes itself, our lives, my life. A life is not symbolic. The truth is unflattering and lacks the grammar of logic, but it moves in beauty and the snapped sentences of emotion. I have my stupidity for comfort, my unintellectual love, the unthinking feelings of connection and desertion.

“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.

For there she was.”

 

lolfreud

A Blog Post from 1898: 100 Best Novels

I saw this blog post on my feed this evening, thanks to a friend on a social networking site. The blog post describes a blog post from 1898, when the latter was posted in something called a “newspaper” – sound it out, kids – and it details the 100 novels the blogger (or “literary critic”) felt were the best 100 novels published to date. The critic was mad about Tristram Shandy – a book he felt was too odd – being lauded as a groundbreaking novel (which it is), and this list was his rejoinder. I’ll let you go take a look at the list. I’ll be here when you get back.

I’ve lost my taste for arguing which are the best novels because it feels like so much posturing and bullshit. Which, maybe that’s a lie (and more posturing) because I certainly get sucked into arguing them every time they come to my attention. I once saw a round up on Kirkus (which I can’t find at the moment) of the best science fiction slash fantasy, and I laughed until I fired off an angry letter. Not only did it read as something put together by someone who only read literary science fiction (which is a thing, I assure you), including just a ton of stuff by people like Atwood and Chabon who sit decidedly uneasy in the genre. (I’ll give you Yiddish Detective’s Union as spec fic or alt-history, but Kavalier & Clay? Please. That isn’t science fiction, unless all histories who have characters inserted into them that didn’t exist are speculative fiction. I think even the most hardened sff nerd would object to that.) But it wasn’t even that I disagreed with the definition of best – the list was pretty good – but that I disagreed with their concept of genre.

Anyway, my grudges against Kirkus aside, top 100 lists are funny things, generally more link-bait than anything, so it was a trip to see one from so long ago. (I think they’d call it “circulation-bait” back in the day.) The 2013 blog post about the 1898 critic rightly notes that the 1898 blogger is weirdly squeamish about including living writers, adding in an addendum of 8 works by those still breathing that he felt might make the cut of history. (And by and large, they do, or did.)  I think we do now rush to add living writers to the canon. Some of this is the fact that there are so many novelists now, and, as the form reaches its end-stage, there really is a lot of weird, form-breaking and remaking stuff out there. Maybe it won’t make the cut of history, but it certainly makes the cut of now.

And here I’ll just gesture to my pet theory that art forms, like the novel, or poetry, or whatever, have their rises to popularity and then falls, and I think right now we’re in the Decline of the Novel. Which is not to say that novels are getting worse, or that I think that that means it’s the End of Western Civilization or something, just as a form, the novel is being replaced by newer, sexier art forms as they work out their trajectories. Things like television. After the stale episodic nature of tv at the beginning, television is turning into something surprising and weird. Deadwood, The Wire, Community – these shows are all building on the tropes of the medium in ways that I find exhilarating. Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there, but 95% of anything is crap. Many of the works cited as the first examples of the novel in English are included in the  1898 list - Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe – and as a well-established genre now, I think people tend to leave these off.  These works are formative and influential, but maybe not best. They belong on another list entirely.

I did find it interesting how many books by women make the list. That surprised me until I thought back to my 19th Century lit class, and about all the screaming and hand-wringing in the 19th C about how the novel was an example of the End of Western Civilization, its dangerous domesticity and lurid tropes read (and written) often enough by women to be suspect. Northanger Abbey – not on the list, but by Austen, who is on the list for another work – takes aim at Mysteries of Udolpho – on the list – for its hysterical Gothic trappings, and what they might do to impressionable minds. Anyone who was Serious and Important was writing poetry in the 19th C, and the novel was for icky and suspect things like social commentary – Trollope, Dickens, Morris – or girls – Brontes, Austen, Eliot – or horror/Gothic – Radcliffe, Le Fanu – or sentimentalists – Cummins, Stowe.

Though formative doesn’t always mean the works will stand up – I think the weird titles I’ve never ever heard of attest to that – sometimes 1898 nails it, like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Sometimes it’s like, why Salammbô and not Madame Bovary? We can agree that Flaubert was awesome, but not which work was the awesomest. I don’t think anyone reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin except as an artifact of history; it’s not “good” so much as “historically important”. My dad and I recently had a conversation about James Fenimore Cooper, who is included on the list. His English teacher in high school looooooved Cooper, and assigned him copiously, but I don’t think, short of the movie with hunky sex-pot Daniel Day Lewis, anyone knows who he is anymore. Same goes for Trollope, and Le Fanu, and Burney and, and… Many of these novelists have become the fodder for footnotes, and the boutique interests of novel nerds. They may be good, or influential, or occasionally both, but they’re also forgotten.

The elisions are also important. Whither Moby Dick? I think we can all with rancor and fighting agree that Moby Dick might be the first Great American Novel. But, it is my understanding that Melville died in obscurity, and it was only later critics/bloggers who dug Melville out of the ash pit of history to straddle American literature with his great, white, swinging whale. (That’s a dick joke, friends.) Which kind of makes me want to live for another 100 years, so I can see what novels I’m totally missing, the secret ground-breakers, the oddballs, the things that make literary critics/bloggers so mad they have to make a list of the 100 best novels to counter them. That’s the stuff I want to be reading: the things that piss the Brahmans of literature off. The things the list-makers miss because they’re too odd. The things the list-makers avoid.

The thing I notice about lists is that the books that tend to get listed year after year, century after century, are controversial in some way. A novel that is revered by everyone as “good” when it is written often just sinks into obscurity, because good is often boring and too culturally specific. To write a lasting work, you have to piss people off, break rules, and generally fuck with expectations. That’s what I want in a novel. When I don’t want comfort food, of course. Being the problem with the concept of “best.”

 

Splendor in the Moss: Shenanigans in the GIUK Gap

The context of this novel is that it was published in 1948, when Hiroshima was a fresh memory, and the old alliances of World War II were giving way to the new ones of the Cold War, in which Iceland became vitally important to the West’s containment strategy towards the Soviet Union.

By controlling the “GIUK Gap” (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap), the West could keep the Soviet Northern and Baltic fleets out of the Atlantic.  Powerful Britain could be relied on to cover the gap from the Scotland to Iceland, but a NATO (read: American) naval base was needed in either Iceland or Greenland to cover the rest of the gap. Iceland’s existing infrastructure and comparatively more welcoming climate made it the far more attractive option.

 

Thus, immense political and economic pressure fell on Icelandic leaders to agree to a base… the titular “Atom Station” (i.e.  a platform from which an atomic war could be started). The Icelandic population, however, was not enthusiastic. For one thing, a NATO base was regarded as an assault on their sovereignty, and it was thought that it endangered the country by elevating it to a high-priority nuclear target. Furthermore, Iceland had attempted to remain neutral in World War II, but was invaded by Britain in 1940, and occupied throughout the war by British and Americans.  (Aside: it’s popular to say that no liberal democracy has ever invaded another liberal democracy, but clearly this example disproves the theorem.) The occupation was punctuated by a lot of friction between locals and the foreigners, so the prospect of a permanent American presence was decidedly unwelcome.

The domestic politics of this controversy is the backdrop of the story, and a lot of reviews of this novel consider it to be political commentary.  Author Halldór Laxness- a self-identifying Communist at the time of the writing-  had been a critic of the U.S. naval base in Keflavik, so it’s probably fair to read the book bearing that in mind.

But the Cold War has been over for twenty years, and the U.S. naval base in Keflavik was completely decommissioned in 2008, so I found myself drawn to some of the more enduring themes in this short, thoughtful novel. The story follows twenty-one year old Ugla (pronounced “Ooog-lah”, according to the preface) from hard times in her small Northern village of Eystridalur to a maid position in the Reykjavík mansion of an Alþingi (i.e. Icelandic parliament) member, Dr. Arland. Through her eyes, traditional sensibilities are sharply contrasted with the cosmopolitan moores of Reykjavík.

At first, I thought this was going to be a very clichéd set-up where the poor girl raised the with simple, unassuming wisdom of time-honored custom sees through the materialistic, shallow decadence of the city folk… sort of an Icelandic Heidi maybe. There is some of that, but it is balanced by persuasive counter points.  The Arland kids run wild, get drunk, steal things, sleep around, and (SPOILER: one of them ends up with an unwanted pregnancy. )  It’s a disgrace, yet Ugla’s memories and experience gradually reveal that no debauchery in the city is without a counterpart back in the North country.  At first, she is repulsed at Reykjavíkers who seem to lack pride (i.e. self-respect), a sense of cultural heritage, and the convictions of a traditional upbringing, but when she visits Eystridalur after a taste of the city, she sees how these very things, taken to an opposite extreme, hinder her village and keep it in a poverty which suddenly doesn’t seem so noble.

Rural Iceland with traditional sod roofs.

There are a lot of interesting social class contrasts here too. The Arland family is spoiled and wasteful, but also cultured and sophisticated. They play Chopin and other refined foreign music on the piano, quote poetry and listen to jazz, but they don’t even know any of Iceland’s own glorious sagas- some of the oldest and most dramatic literature in all of Europe. Their eagerness to embrace all things foreign and cosmopolitan at the expense of their own cultural identity is tragic to her “true Nordic” values… yet she grudgingly admits that Chopin is beautiful, and is secretly jealous she can only play a few simple church tunes on the harmonium.

Modern Reykjavík

Apart from the topical issue of Iceland’s role in NATO,  The Atom Station examines more general themes about corruption and hypocrisy in a representative democracy.  I haven’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s  Remains of the Day, but the vehicle of using a domestic servant’s gradual disillusionment with [her] ruling-class employers makes it a natural comparison. The Atom Station was written over thirty years before Remains of the Day. I wonder whether it was one of Ishiguro’s influences.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read; a snapshot of a nation in transition, but also the more timeless story of The Country Mouse and the City Mouse set in fascinating and beautiful Iceland.

Öxarárfoss waterfall, Iceland

 

ice

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it - like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 

Whatever. 

I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.