Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017's best reads

I managed to read 76 books in 2017, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 6 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 69. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Shark by Will Self
Umbrella by Will Self
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park
Splinter by Adam Roberts
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

I did not hit gender parity this year, I'm afraid. I read 43% women, and 2.66% non-cis folks. As always, it's not challenging for me to read "more women!" as if it's something I'm required to do. Rather, I like reading everything and women have made significant contributions to the types of genre fiction I like reading, such as Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ann Leckie, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Nnedi Okorafor, and others. Unlike film, I never have problems accessing women authors and some of my favourite authors are women. As per usual, I'd like to increase my ratio, and incorporate more non-binary and trans writers into my reading. Luckily, one of my all time fav writers of short stories, Casey Plett, has a novel coming out (she is trans) and I very much look forward to reading it.

Not as many perfect scores as last year. Still, the ones that were amazing reads were life-changing, such as Plath and finally finishing Moby-Dick, which was way easier than I was expecting. In terms of goals I set for myself last year (finish the handful of series I had started in years past), I did end up reading more Wolfe and more Adam Roberts, but I did not read any Paul McAuley or M. John Harrison. I now own full series from McAuley (two series!), Harrison, Paul Park, and a handful of other dudes I haven't begun yet. Another year and I accumulated, by an absurd ratio, more books than I could ever hope to read.

If I had to diagnose some trends with my reading in 2017, I would happily point to my dissatisfaction with traditional modes of realism (not a surprise) and aesthetics. Two of my favourite reads this year were the first two in Will Self's modernist trilogy. Aliya Whiteley, Nina Allan, and Ali Smith were trying new things out and I followed them happily; either they were playing with narrative or playing with aesthetics or both, and I was right there with them. The more difficult or inaccessible, the more I seemed to like it (with the exception of Lisa L. Hannett's Lament for the Afterlife, which I had been hoping was even more difficult).

Something I've been thinking about in terms of goals for 2018, a fool's errand as always, as my years of blogging wishful thinking can attest, is perhaps I need to focus more on quality than quantity. In years past, I've tried reading as much as I can, which meant piling on novellas and pulp novels. There's nothing wrong with pulp or shorter works, but I tend to prioritize these over longer, more difficult works. So perhaps in 2018, I might try tackling longer works without worrying about hitting an arbitrary number of novels. Maybe I only finish 35 novels in 2018? Or even 25? What if I finally finish Infinite Jest or Les Miz or any of the mammoth Victorian novels I have kicking around? What an accomplishment. I have a short list of Big Fat Novels I'd like to read, but I fear posting the list might jinx me.

Friday, December 29, 2017

December Reads Part Two

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Clickers by J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams
The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

If I hadn't read other excellent novels in 2017, Winterglass would have clinched the top spot. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, I read some amazing things and Winterglass has competition for my favourite read of the year. It's stupendous; meticulous and beautiful prose scaffolds this dense and rewarding novella. Sriduangkaew has written some of the finest prose in contemporary SFF, with each sentence being its own reward. Like a bonus, after the wondrous form and aesthetics, the novel is also a complex political tale, one withholding of easy answers. Winterglass is simultaneously in conversation with the long history of Orientalism in SFF and still of its own making. I routinely kick myself for putting off purchasing her first novella, Scale-Bright, when I had the chance; it has since slipped out of print and fetches large prices. Hopefully it's either reprinted or picked up by another publisher.

See What I Have Done felt, at first, a bit of a forgettable experience. I read it quickly and thought it fine enough during the experience. But once I finished it and reflected on the entire experience, I can safely call the novel fantastic. The novel is historical fiction, about notorious axe-murderer Lizzie Borden. Where Schmidt strays from the usual historical fiction expectations is setting the novel in the days immediately after the murders, with brief flashbacks to before. Very little after the trial is depicted with the trial relegated to a couple paragraphs at the beginning of the third act. The unconventional structure of the novel, moving through time and through different focalizing characters, works in the novel's favour—crystallizing the plot around a central idea, that of women and agency... without ever coming across as moralizing. Rather, the novel's coy about its own stance on Lizzie: mentally incapacitated? bored? arrested development? This also works in its favour. A strong novel I worry will be forgotten because it's just so damn readable.

I had to keep reminding myself that Clickers was written in 1996, and thus, predates the rise of the New Weird. the novel feels like a throwback, but we have to remember that in 1996, throwbacks of this ilk weren't the norm like they are now. Clickers was probably novel in 1996, what with its use of Lovecraft and B-movie tropes. It's schlocky fun, eminently forgettable, but fun in the moment. A detail that makes me chuckle: whenever authors try to show off how cool or hip their characters are, a device often deployed by the middle age white guy writer, the character only comes off as being kind of dull or middle of the road in taste. The main character reaches for a CD while he's driving, and instead of leaving it at that, we're told it's an Alice Cooper CD. Which, in 1996, makes him seem a little old fashioned and out of touch. More often than not, these little details of verisimilitude give me the feeling writers have the taste of stereotypical dads.

After very much enjoying The Red Knight, I picked up the second novel in Cameron's "Traitor Son Cycle," called The Fell Sword. I should have expected the novel to open up for more worldbuilding but I guess I underestimated how many more subplots he meant to introduce. This second novel is less a standalone work and more the overture to a massive set of storylines. In the micro, The Fell Sword strains a bit because of the sheer amount of new and old characters. I regret not using a notebook to write down everybody's name because by 200 pages, I had forgotten a bunch of them. At first I chastised myself for my inability to hold it all in my head, and then moved to appreciation for making me work so hard. I suppose one could argue the novel's over-the-top launching of plots is a bug, not a feature, as at a certain point, it becomes untenable for a single novel. Where The Red Knight was pretty focused, The Fell Sword is everywhere. Thankfully, Cameron's plotting within each individual plotlines is superb and—one can step back and see a massive metanarrative being built out of the individual strands. It's the same good vs. evil nonsense that plagues these military fantasies but it's just done with such verve and entertainment that I can't help but be enamored.

So much of paradigmatic fantasy is about the restoration of patriarchal power structures, the fervent desire for order through control, centralized power, and the like. Kings are always crowned at the end, thrones are finally filled by the "correct" ruler, and foreign hordes are repelled to their own lands. Monarchist fantasies are politically queasy to say the least. Many modern day paradigmatic fantasies, especially the grimdark ones, try to diffuse the audience's pro-democracy anxieties about cheering for monarchies with hand-wringing about the "costs" of war etc etc. Many losses are felt—the rightful heir still gets the throne though. The increased focus on "realism" in medieval fantasy, and Cameron presses on this as hard as he possibly can, cloaks the insidious perpetuation of linear, hierarchical power structures. This is especially true of grimdark's obsession with rape. Rape functions as a marker of increased realism ("this is how it was for women back then!") and as a marker of the affected jejune nihilism which beats at the heart of grimdark ("nothing matters so may as well rape and kill everybody we meet").

The Game of Thrones fan wiki has an entire article on rape, "helpfully" delineating the differences between the source material and the television adaptation. Both cultural objects are rife with sexual violence; according to a statistical analysis by a fan of both, there have been 50 rape acts in the TV show, with 29 distinct victims, and 214 rape acts in the books, with 117 distinct victims. The fan's analysis breaks down each individual act, in an exhaustive and truly exhausting list, but their brief synopsis does not detail which rape is more detailed, or more impactful as an act of violence in a narrative. While the show has always been controversial, and the books figuring into the subgenre of "grimdark fantasy" (a more "realistic" and nihilistic version of paradigmatic fantasy in the Tolkien mode), it was Sansa's rape in Season 5 of the show which garnered the most amount of media attention. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have come under fire for both inventing rape scenes (honouring the situation of the narrative, rather than the specific instances in the novels) and including graphic scenes for shock and possibly titillation. The rape of Sansa in season 5 was for many critics and watchers, the final straw. The Mary Sue, a feminist-oriented pop culture site, wrote eloquently of their editorial decision to stop covering the TV show in light of the exploitative and gratuitous Sansa rape sequence. They write:
rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Games of Thrones and its source material fall under "grimdark," under the marketing aegis of fantasy (medieval settings, obsessive concern with monarchies and lineages, etc). In Get Started In: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (here), esteemed critic and author Adam Roberts suggests Grimdark is
standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their back on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was. I put 'really' in inverted commas there, since Grimdark usually has very little to do with actual historical re-imagining and everything to do with a sense that our present world is a cynical, disillusioned ultraviolent place.
In other words, rather than just an aesthetic mode (though it has some shared stylistics, such as contemporary cursing), grimdark is a feeling, or put more concretely, a structure of feeling, from the critic Raymond Williams. He defines a structure of feeling as going beyond strict formal concepts such as a "world view" or an "ideology," though Williams is careful to include those within the definition of the structure. He writes (here):
We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.
Pointing to formal aspects of grimdark's ideology might prove difficult, as writers from varying political backgrounds have tried their hand at the subgenre. Contrary to popular belief, there is little intrinsically conservative about grimdark fantasy, despite its superficial retrograde treatment of gender and race. Instead, as Williams helpfully guides us, the structure of feeling comprises "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable" (my italics). Without the rigid aesthetics of a more corporeal mode of artistic expression, grimdark can be and is conveyed in terms of overall affect, using violence, shock, titillation, gore, and nihilism.

"The Traitor Son Cycle" is covered half by the small umbrella (but growing in size) of grimdark and half by regular old medieval fantasy in the Tolkien vein. Much of the two novels is fueled by Lord of the Rings: the invading horde, the mystical MacGuffin, the thrones in disarray, requiring union from the protagonist. But the feeling of grimdark pervades: rape is part of the texture of daily life, violence is hyperbolic, and there are dire consequences in war. There's a sense of futility about the Red Knight's missions; he runs a mercenary company so it doesn't really matter who he's backing as long as they're paying. Cameron has made some strides towards problematizing grimdark's nihilism by including the era's chivalric excesses. But yet, with two books in, the cynicism is pronounced and the ultraviolence quite ultra. The rape occurs in "The Traitor Son Cycle" but often off-screen, as if Cameron just can't quite commit to the true grimdark worldview. The novels feel torn between market trends (grimdark is practically the paradigm now) and Cameron's obvious affection for all facets of medieval society, including chivalry. It's a fascinating project and I'm still on board.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

December Reads Part One

Smiley's People by John le Carré
Shark by Will Self

A project almost a decade in the making, I have finally finished the Karla Trilogy, still in the same old hardcover omnibus I bought all those years ago, though it's yellower and stuck with more cat hairs.

What drew me to le Carré in the first place was the elliptical, opaque style, with baroque, ornate dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot. But what drew me back time and again was not just these surface elements, but the morose end-of-empire malaise that weighs upon the shoulders of every character. George Smiley is such an impeccably drawn central metaphor for the collapse of the Empire: downtrodden, frumpy, weathered, ineffectual, in an old wrinkled overcoat. Smiley's People gives the eponymous character his first major victory in the trilogy, but it's, of course, a Pyrrhic victory, in the way the best spy fiction is. I keep coming back to spy fiction not just for the cleverness of the plotting but what these novels end up saying about the intelligence community; I'm understandably more drawn to those of its ilk which are far more cynical than celebratory, such as Len Deighton and le Carré.

Smiley's People wasn't quite the masterpiece of the two previous Karla novels. Very little can come close to the practical perfection of the first entry, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In terms of its difficulty, this third volume is perhaps the most accessible: the plotting is more linear and the narrator seems more willing to give up the exposition goods, as it were. It's less opaque. Neither the first nor the third come close to the intricacy of The Honourable Schoolboy, which took hundreds of pages before Smiley's plan became clear to the reader (a close comparison could be Robert Towne's screenplay for Mission: Impossible, which withholds motivation from the audience, to great effect). I quite liked Smiley's People even if it doubles down on the kind of soft sexism bubbling throughout le Carré's Smiley novels.

For about half of Shark, I was convinced it was a lesser shadow of its older sibling, Umbrella. I wasn't sold on the threading of the multiple themes Self had set up for himself. Where Umbrella kept reminding the reader, kept finding novel ways of examining his themes, Shark felt a bit directionless, jumping from narrative thread to narrative thread, with little thematic connective tissue. I should have trusted Self because once the final third revved into action (if the word "action" can be called appropriate for a modernist novel about psychological trauma), the larger picture emerges, and I was left a bit stunned by how well Self pulls it all off. I still think I liked Umbrella more, if only because of its stylistic rawness, its novelty—the shock of the new and all that, even though the stream-of-consciousness style is definitely not new. Umbrella surprised me, and I think Self anticipated that the reader would be left a bit underwhelmed if he simply repeated himself; hence the dazzling structure of Shark, which, when I think of it holistically, replicates the circling of water down the drain, or more aptly, the circling of the shark around its prey. The strands of the novel I felt weren't connected enough? Self sews it all up with aplomb. He compares the shark's voracious appetite and inability to stop swimming to the hunger and ache of the drug addict, the self-medicating walking maw, constantly stuffing themselves but never feeling satiated. The teeth, chewing over and over, but never digesting. Self brings up multiple times the scene in which Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider cut open the tiger shark to reveal the fish's stomach contains a license plate (from Louisiana), indicating the characters' inability to pass the trauma they all carry.

The two authors I thought most of during my read of Shark was Alan Moore and Thomas Pynchon. I'm not sure how Self would feel about this comparison. Moore's gargantuan novel Jerusalem (of which I'm more than halfway through) concerns the decay and rot of Northhampton via the force of a psychic wound through time, localized on a garbage processing plant, a metaphor for the rapacious and insatiable jaws of capitalism. Self's thesis, or rather, the novel's thesis, reminded me of Moore's seething anger towards the decline of his hometown by the uncaring grasp for profit. I was also inclined to compare the two thanks to their sheer Englishness: there's a strong strand of English colloquialism and affection for the idiosyncrasies of the English. I read more of Jerusalem after finishing Umbrella and I've been jonesing to take back up again the mammoth novel after completing Shark.

I felt the desire to read Pynchon afterwards, too. The American soldier around which the novel drains (haha), Claude Evenrude, feels like he walked out of Gravity's Rainbow or V. and onto Self's stage without a pause. He has that same rolling speech pattern, that same ironic racism, that same looseness, as if a good shake would bring all his words crashing down. Part of it is that he's a soldier and Gravity's Rainbow was chock full of them, stumbling around, falling into toilets, saying absolutely bananas things. But again, it wasn't just the superficial connections, but something more. Though Self is reaching back to modernism for his style, he is not writing in a vacuum, and has clearly internalized decades of contemporary realism and postmodern literature. It's almost as if he can't not write in that rolling breathless hypnotic way Pynchon does, the way his characters speak in rhythmic song, almost in meter. Self's characters, or rather their consciousnesses make constant references to popular songs, pop hits, famous lines. For every two references I would pick up, another one would slip by me, with only the context telling me the phrase was a reference to something at least.

Shark was a stupendous read. If I wasn't already sold on Self's brand of dazzle and wonder, then this would have pushed me over the edge.

Friday, December 1, 2017

November Reads

The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Red Knight by Miles Cameron
Winter by Ali Smith
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson
The Red Threads of Fortune by J. Y. Yang
Beneath by Kristi DeMeester

I read Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland back in August, in my "Part Two," which I never finished writing (I should do that) and I loved it: a stellar mixture of New Weird and Lovecraft homage and metafiction without being annoying about it. The Red Tree is more of the same, but longer, and more focused. The metafictional elements are woven into the text with skill, always far from the border of annoying self-awareness. While the horror elements of the novel didn't quite work for me as much as I wanted them too, I'm not convinced the novel is as interested in horror as its subject would have the reader believe. By which I mean, the novel feels more motivated by the tragedy and self-destruction of art than it does by eldritch horrors. This worked for me because the characters are really well drawn and the pain of writing is depicted with such a delicate and convincing touch. I loved this book and if it had leaned on the horror just a smidge more I might call it perfect. Not a slight against the novel as it had different ambitions, but more a preference on my part.

With The Red Knight, I try more fantasy fiction. I've been inspired to read a bit more in the genre thanks to playing Skyrim, the Betheseda video game (into which I've sunk countless hours). Cameron's series appealed to me because, and I'll be honest here, the cover design and the design of the physical object itself. My copy has a flapped cover, a deckle edge, a typeface for the title I'm inclined to like, and teeny tiny text set in another typeface I like. I had heard from a work colleague that the medieval warfare and combat were very realistic (the author is an enthusiastic reenactor) and exciting. Plus, the series is only 5 books long, with no individual title being more than 650 pages. I've abandoned Steven Erikson's magisterial Deadhouse Gates because it's just too damn long and too damn distant. I'd like to go back to it, but in the meantime, Cameron's just-finished series beckoned to me. While the cornucopia of medieval minutiae can be a bit wearing, the pacing is terrific, bounding ahead with its polyphonic narratives, but knowing well when to take a breath and demonstrate the humanity of its characters.

Something that sticks in my craw about The Red Knight though is the problem sitting at the heart of Lord of the Rings as well: the white Europeans are united against an impossibly large horde of uncivilized wild creatures. One of these creatures' name ends in "khan" which is obviously a problem. Cameron problematizes the simple dichotomy which is a staple of epic fantasy by having the creatures not be invading hordes but part of the very fabric of nature. In fact, the Wild, as the text dubs them, have been part of the land since before the arrival of man. Humanity has been encroaching on the Wild's borders, which is an interesting and discursively productive flip of the usual script.

Cameron's worldbuilding might be of interest to academic folks if only because at first glance, the world he's created seems enormously unimaginative: Christianity is the main religion, the French are called Galles, the Nordic folk are called Nordikon or something like that, and everything seems so faithfully transposed from medieval England as to be mind-numbing. Yet, there are glimpses past the veil of mediocrity to a fascinating world. The novel ends with the main cast meeting with a psychic avatar of a dragon the size of a castle who gifts them tools they'll no doubt use in the second book. There's a hint, just a hint, that maybe the cosmology of gods in this world is more complicated than the humans believe. Which intrigues me. I look forward to reading the next book.

Ali Smith's Autumn didn't quite do it for me but that hasn't deterred me from continuing with her four seasons project. Winter, of which I received an advance reading copy, was an incredible improvement over the earlier novel. It's more of the same, of course, more of Smith's linguistic pyrotechnics, practically naive political thoughts, and highly amusing episodes of awkward modern interactions (where Autumn had funny stuff about passport photos, Winter has a more heartbreaking but still similar episode in a bank). All of the same Smith tics and tricks are here, but they've been tightened just so, just enough to push this from ok to good, possibly even to great. Her ambitions are far greater with this one, even if her techniques aren't quite as advanced as they need to. Smith is interested in time and how time can function within the novel, but the very form itself resists any tinkering with time while still maintaining a narrative (a sequence of events laid out from one point to another). A narrative's very linearity, whether or not presented linearly, limits the possibility of synchronous voices or counterpoint or any musical/choral technique Smith would like to incorporate. Of course, I would never discourage Smith from her ambitions or experiments—I wish the opposite, in fact: please, Ali Smith, please save the novel from its bourgeois ruins. 

Molly etc is another Tor.com novella. This is a great example of a premise better than the execution could ever be. No matter what Thompson followed through on, it was always going to disappoint from the promise of the central idea. Thompson sort of answers the ontological question at the heart of the novella, but not all of the way, but still too much of an explanation for my tastes. The novella isn't bad, per se, but it's kind of written in the same way a lot of contemporary SFF is: heavily workshopped prose designed to convey the maximum exposition possible, with little attention paid to aesthetics. Likewise, this is a novella operating under the logic of value, the logic laid out by Franzen in his essay "Mr. Difficult": the reader expects entertainment and any waffling from the author, any diversion from the path of the plot, any arty-farty interest in words, well that just distracts from the plot and thus betrays the contract, paid for by the reader. Which is to say that Thompson's novella is streamlined but at the cost of artfulness. Perhaps that's unfair of me, considering the purview of these novellas are to be short and sweet, but other authors under the aegis of the Tor.com imprint have tried aesthetics outside of the usual range, so I don't think I'm asking too much. The type of plot first writing encapsulates the direction genre fiction is going and it's a direction I'm very ambivalent about.

The Red Threads of Fortune by J. Y. Yang was great: a unique fantasy world that's just deep enough to be alluring but not so deep as to be off-putting. Yang's queer protagonist falls in love with a non-binary person, who uses they/them pronouns, which is going to be an automatic boost for me, as it's nice to see non-binary representation in SFF. For once, and this is incredibly rare, I'm reviewing a book that's "in the news" so to speak, or at least making waves right now as we speak. I won't bother people with a long history of SFF's aversion to queer identities outside the safe heteronormative locus of thought (Delany being the apex exception) but I will link my readers to "An Open Letter With Respect to Reviews Published on Rocket Stack Rank" (here) and Rocket Stack Rank's response to the Open Letter (here). The crux of it is that this established apparatus of criticism was docking marks for use of the singular they pronoun, the use of which is a) linguistically established and, more importantly, the everyday texture of people's lives. I won't be mounting a defence of the singular they because who the fuck cares. But I am interested in how Rocket Stack Rank's apology leans less on mea culpa and more on nitpicking the particulars of the accusations. Ultimately, their apology is an attempt at damage control ("look, we're not all transphobes here!") and luckily for me, I had never heard of Rocket Stack Rank before (I'm, admittedly, out of the loop with regards to contemporary SFF). Over at the generally gross File 770, commenter Arifel sums up my thoughts on the subject quite eloquently:
the really fundamental thing to me here is that this isn’t some detached, debatable linguistic issue for a lot of people; it’s their identity. Treating it as the former and then forcing people to defend their existence against the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever other historical authority about grammar you want to cite) is horrible behaviour, and at the very least precludes someone from writing an “objective” review site about SFF in 2017...
(here) This being one of the only times I would ever link to File 770, who have a grudge against the critic Jonathan McCalmont, for whatever reasons.

As for the novella itself, I quite liked it. Epic without being too daunting and intimate enough to maintain emotional stakes. My reading of fantasy has broadened a lot this year and my efforts to read non-paradigmatic examples has been the more rewarding (I've abandoned Tad Williams three times in my life now, most recently last month).

Kristi DeMeester's Beneath tickled my desire for horror and zagged where I expected it to zig. Similarly to Barker's Coldheart Canyon (reviewed here), DeMeester doesn't fuck around with the usual "I don't believe it" until the third act. Rather, in the first third, she puts the pedal to the metal, which is refreshing. An issue this brings up, structurally speaking, is how does one maintain the forward momentum, or the atmosphere. Unfortunately, Beneath does run into this problem. Around the halfway point, the characters are in a holding pattern: the narrative can't kill anybody major (because who would the novel then follow?) and the apocalypse can't come yet (because what else would follow?). It's a structural issue I'm not sure any novelist can truly overcome or at least if they have, I'm unfamiliar with them. The other issue plaguing Beneath is DeMeester's commitment to short sharp chapters. I'm presuming the intended impact is one of suspense, with each chapter ending on a sting, but the effect leaves the novel feeling choppy. No sooner is one scene set than we shift to another. Despite my qualms and quibbles, I did like the novel; it especially reminded me of T. E. D. Klein's short story from Dark Gods called "Children of the Kingdom" (reviewed here), and I mean that as a very strong compliment. DeMeester also reminded me a bit of the aforementioned Clive Barker, especially in her depicted intersection of sex and horror; characters often feel the heat of arousal during moments of fear; and one of the major subplots of the novel tries to delicately handle pedophilia, without ever feeling salacious or "Movie of the Week" in its earnestness. I've read some DeMeester short stories before and I plan to read more of her stuff.

All in all, a very good month, even if I felt a bit meh on a couple aspects of the texts I read.

Friday, November 10, 2017

August Reads Part Two

It by Stephen King
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Last month, I ranked It as the number five best novel written by Stephen King. After finishing it, for what I believe to only be the second time (I originally only made it to the halfway point when I was a young'un), I don't think I would shift its place. With such a long and dense novel such as this, it can be difficult to maintain precision with critique. Like the sprawling plotlines themselves, I worry my words of praise and damnation could unspool themselves to epic length.

Let us begin, then, with the positive attributes of this mammoth tome. King's powers, many that they are, include a control of suspense practically unmatched—surely placing him among such masters of the form as Dickens and Collins. Each session I had with It had me running through a hundred pages or more without noticing the steady tick of time. I'd glance up from the paperback and be almost late for work. The absorption is practically total. The success of this can be attributed to the casual ease of his prose (King demands little of the reader's expertise with vocabulary or syntax) and to use of repetition. A hallmark of King's prose is the recitation of almost talismanic phrases, either irrupting from the subconscious (marked, typographically, with a paragraph break, in italics, often contained within parentheses) or repeated by the narrator. These phrases function like musical motifs, grounding the reader's attention in the whole work, like signposts marking progress, warning against straying from the path. In It, the talismanic phrases are not simply aesthetic or poetical devices but rather narratively motivated: the phrases repeated by the protagonists as defense against the psychic intrusion of the antagonist; the phrases used as weapons against the protagonists, to shake their confidence and increase their fear. In a novel of average length, the repetition might not wear so much on the reader, but after 1,100 pages, I began to tire of reading the same gaggle of words in italics.

When I first read this and the second time, I remember thinking the Derry Interludes were dull and unnecessary filler, but this time around, I thought higher of these sequences. King's project isn't simply to illustrate the trauma of childhood carried into adulthood, but the intergenerational trauma carried from one era to the next, personified, literalized, as ritualistic eruptions of violence. The Derry Interludes, narrated by historian/librarian Mike Hanlon, offer glimpses into the past of the long shadow Pennywise casts over Derry. One of the most successful effects in the novel is the insidious way Pennywise is woven into the fabric of the town itself, to the point where their definitions blur into each other. Can one have Pennywise without the town and vice versa, a question wisely posed by the novel through the Derry Interludes. One of my favourite scenes in the novel and the miniseries, which looks to be adapted differently in the forthcoming film version, is the haunted photographs of Derry's past.

Something I had never considered in my previous readings of the novel was how King uses the discourse of children's adventures stories to scaffold his novel. In some ways, It is about the reckoning of the past and trauma through the detritus of popular culture (an example: for Richie, the terror manifests as a teenage werewolf, complete with classic 1950s varsity jacket, distorted from the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf). King's fiction has often been postmodern:
the past is no longer something to orient ourselves with in the present but rather a vast collection of images from which to draw on repeatedly, like frantic waves of seemingly novel commodities which "randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles" (Jameson 19) (quoting myself from here)
While his cannibalizing is often overt and on-the-surface, in It, he draws upon the long history of children's adventure stories without signposting them so obviously. While the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are explicitly referenced in a scene or two, King doesn't signal his mobilization of the structure. This effect is similar to that in The Little Friend by Donna Tartt: both are self-conscious imitations of a pulp style, but through a postmodern lens. And I don't mean postmodern as explicitly self-referential or aesthetically avant-garde. Rather, I use postmodern in the Jamesonian sense, the cultural logic of late capitalism. I should even be careful to attribute this use of children's adventure stories to King himself but instead to the text, because I can't with any specificity point to King's intentions.

Now, onto the not-so-great stuff. Here, I shall quote myself, where I defended charges of sexism against the novel. It seems, in reaction to feminist readings of King's fiction and re-readings of the novel, the climactic sex scene is being re-examined. I maintain the scene is gross and sexist. I wrote this in another spot:
It’s not so much that Beverly is *defined* by her gender or her sexuality. That much we can all agree on and it’s a credit to King’s skill at characterization that she is more than the constant references to her “budding” breasts the narrator can’t seem to forget. No, rather, and here I shall mobilize that “lazy trend” of feminist critique, it’s not the individual character, but as Mike points out, the gender imbalance. It’s also not simply Beverly herself as a character but Beverly as she exists in the *discourse* of children’s adventure stories, a rich and complicated history King is drawing upon (hence the setting of the 1950s, the end of the era’s golden age). Other than Nancy Drew (to which King explicitly draws a comparison, specifically highlighting Nancy’s father’s intervention), girls in adventure stories often did not have starring roles or if they did, their agency was subordinate to that of the boys’. King’s attempt at rectifying this, by making it her idea to have a tween gangbang, is a classic example of “good intentions” (as with lots of King’s politics, they’re marred by his reductive sense of good intentions… cf. the Magical Black Person). We must widen our lens and look at Beverly in *context* of the discourse in which she has been placed. Again, we have yet another girl whose agency is expressed through her sexual viability, her currency as sexual creature. I hesitate to use “sexual object” because as you note, the objectification her body (which is pronounced throughout the novel, either in the 50s or the 80s) is at least thematically motivated. Bev’s character, while rich in some ways (most importantly, her steady hand and steady eye with the slingshot), is still another girl characterized by her body. In “Woman on the Market,” Luce Irigaray writes that “wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men” (172). The only way she can think to bring them together is to open herself to them and allow them to essentially take a piece of her (virginity). The scene is icky not just because of the ages of the characters but because none of the boys offer up their butthole to accomplish the same end. Her value, when it comes down to it, is how she can be used, exhausted as a commodity to artificially create a bond.

But what's the point of rehashing the same argument about the gangbang? Most people dislike it and it's been wisely excised from both adaptations. What matters is how this use of Bev is dismissed as just simply gross and not indicative of the ways in which women are objectified and commodified by heteropatriarchy. Enough of this.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy was okay. I did like how when the protagonist meets the anarchist hottie, he asks for her pronouns. I did not care for the peppy quippy narrator voice which irritated and did not do enough to get across the horror of this summoned demon.

Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland was incredible. It's a classic Lovecraft homage with some hardboiled shit tossed in but what elevates it from ordinary is the aesthetic push. The narrative cuts between stories and rarely provides much in the way of exposition. Similarly, the novella deploys a fun bit of false document, with a very real-sounding lost film. I loved this. These Tor.com novellas have been mostly good. I'm going to keep with them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October Reads

Umbrella by Will Self
Age of Assassins by RJ Barker
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I Will Not Serve by Evelyn Mahyère


Let's start with the not-so good: The Grip of It should have been great. A literary haunted house novel is a premise right up my alley. The major issue, without a doubt, is how over-written it is. The stink of writer workshop wafts up from every sentence: the affected terseness of the male narrator and the pretentious lengthy verbosity of the female narrator both feel so calculated and workshopped as to be evacuated of any of the immediacy or possibility afforded by the genre. One aspect to horror's success is the potentiality: anything could happen. But the prose in The Grip of It holds everything back, asking the reader to focus more on the poesy than the slow creeping dread of the premise. Like Atwood's science fiction novels, this book feels like it was written by somebody who has never read any other horror. I get that sense from the archaic premise (haunted house? in this economy? who can afford a house, haunted or otherwise?) and from the antiquated unfolding of the plot (childhood trauma, town secrets, etc). Throwback novels aren't the problem, but if you're going to do Shirley Jackson, you better bring something other than tired aesthetics.

I haven't felt much like writing recently, but I'll say that Umbrella and The Bell Jar were incredible and will easily crack my top ten best of the year.

Monday, September 25, 2017

mother!


CN: violence against women, misogyny

Allegory sucks. Or rather, the way most writers use allegory sucks. Most writers suck—their technique is sloppy or poor or missing entirely and since allegory takes a delicate and careful hand, which most writers lack entirely, writers suck at allegory. Case in point, Darren Aronofsky's irritatingly titled mother! with its lower case m and it's perky exclamation point. 

mother! has two major problems going for it: the allegory isn't subtle in the slightest; the allegory is open ended enough to bear the weight of practically any interpretation. This is not a paradoxical claim. Aronofsky's story, that of a cruel creator subordinating a feminine figure to the point of abuse, is a mash up of multiple well known stories from the Bible. The film is even divvied up into two major sequences: the arrival of annoying houseguests in the first part, then the escalation of an absurd amount of houseguests in the second part—mirroring the two testaments of the Bible, of course. Jennifer Lawrence's titular mother figure represents, all at once, Eve, Lilith, Mother Nature, Mary, and a host of other maternal archetypes while Javier Bardem's poet can be considered the Abrahamic God or any creator who gives himself up at the expense of his loved ones. None of this is astute or perceptive analysis of the allegory because the allegory doesn't need any investigation. It announces itself loudly, almost to the point where one expects Darren himself, clad in his trademark scarf and pervert mustache, to face the camera and explain "THIS IS ALLEGORY." But when the allegory gapes open so wide as to allow anything and everything, the technique loses any forcefulness.

What is Aronofsky trying to say other than that he's trying to say something?

Which is a shame as the first half is an exquisite endurance of tension and anxiety. Lawrence is plagued by a well meaning but clueless husband and a gathering of intrusive and nosy houseguests who overstay their welcome within minutes. Later, during an extended gathering, Lawrence is forced into the role of hectoring harpy, padding barefoot around the partygoers, admonishing them for disobeying what little rules she has set out for her home. People continue to seat themselves on a non-load-bearing sink, much to her mounting exasperation. The level of inconvenience and intolerable behaviour from these guests reaches a level of hilarity verging on absurdity. I was encouraged when other audience members seeing the film with me laughed at the same bits, though I'm skeptical Aronofsky meant for his allegorical houseguests to elicit such a reaction. He probably meant for them to be frustrating and menacing in a vague way, but really, most of the first half climaxes into the tonal landscape of a sitcom. I couldn't help but laugh.

Unfortunately, mother! doesn't maintain the dark humour. Instead, the last third of the film is an extended tableau symbolizing Homo homini lupus: violence, destruction, rape all depicted in short sequences with the camera tucked in close to Lawrence's face as she bears witness to all the awful things human beings do to each other. At first, these vignettes are gripping and startling but the film can't sustain this—eventually these bursts of violence become numbing and altogether ineffective. 

It ends, now infamously, with Bardem offering the unruly mob his only son, and in a moment of hollow horror, the kind of flinching from the real stuff of horror, the film shows the mob munching on the already killed and divvied up baby. It's a moment of filmic cowardice, the kind evinced so perfectly by Eli Roth's weak and frightened film The Green Inferno. Like a posturing pubescent, these films pretend to be powerful and scary but can't commit themselves to true terror, the true existential dread which characterizes the best horror films.

After this moment of allegorical cannibalism, the mob turns on Lawrence, beating her and ripping at her clothes. This is probably the hardest moment for any audience member, including myself. Even remembering this moment is making me anxious. Throughout the film, there has been a quiet threat of sexual violence against Lawrence, culminating in a quasi-violent act of lovemaking which produces their only child. In one particular scene, Lawrence is asked by an anonymous party guest to go "for a walk." She refuses and when rebuffed, the man turns nasty. Just as with this man, the mob turns on Lawrence. The violence is subtly flavoured with her sexualization and it's godawful. 

I can't compute why male filmmakers are so quick to depict the beating of women under the guise of feminism. It's abhorrent. I'm sick to death of watching women get beat to shit by men just for "entertainment" or—even worse—meaning, no matter how illusory or shallow the depth.

Perhaps this is the year we, collectively, have had enough of Film Culture's toxic relationship with women. With Devin Faraci, Harry Knowles, and the other headscratchingly obtuse things the Alamo Drafthouse has done in the past year, maybe we're all at a point of frustration heated enough for change to happen. Because nonsense like mother! doesn't happen in a vacuum. The same well-meaning but ultimately dangerous attitude which brought us this garbage movie is the same entitlement plaguing the film industry and all its satellite discourses such as criticism. Nice Guys like Bardem who ooze sexual danger and this film which smuggle a desire to beat women via "deep" allegory feed into the toxicity of the critics who feel they can get away with threatening women with sexual violence or turning violent when rebuffed. For years, for decades, powerful men in powerful positions use their power to cover the asses of their friends, at the expense of women in the industry. mother! might gesture towards this but the execution is so flawed as to backfire horribly, violently, hyperbolically. 

None of the positives of the film (its stellar sound design, its mounting claustrophobia and anxiety) can outweigh the damage the film has done and, more importantly, represents as the worst kind of Mediocre White Man movie. 

Fuck this movie.