Sunday, August 6, 2017

August Reads Part One

Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

First, let us start by disclosing that I am not, in fact, a child between the ages of 10 and 14, no matter how much my (imaginary) detractors might paint me. I am not, therefore, the target audience for L'Engle's well-regarded and prize-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. Still, with the upcoming film adaptation (let it never be said I am not a bandwaggoner), and my diving in the Catholic waters of Gene Wolfe, I thought this a good time as any to finally read it. Boy, was I disappointed. I was worried the overt Christian proselytizing would put me off, but this aspect wasn't that which stuck in my craw the most. Rather, L'Engle's flat plotting and tedious need to withhold from the audience got my goat. Any narrative which relies on the protagonist being told "this will all be explained later" or "now's not the time for questions" is a narrative I'm inclined to dislike. The same issue marring the entirety of Harry Potter taints every interaction in A Wrinkle in Time. Meg, the somewhat intriguing protagonist, is whisked on a quest for her father across time and space by three women who may or not be witches or angels or even stars (as in the gaseous source of heat and light for our planet), but any time Meg risks asking a question for clarity's sake, her efforts are rebuffed in clumsiest of manners. Never does anybody answer a direct question. It's infuriating. And obviously this is personal taste, as this narrative strategy is a well-used one for young adult fiction, meant to mirror the frustration of the young when they're told "you'll understand when you're older." Though it might be purposeful and effective for the younger reader, I found it beyond annoying. I could have managed through my irritation had the narrative had been otherwise compelling, but alas, the entire novel feels haphazard, bolted together from seemingly discrete episodes. The second half of A Wrinkle in Time changes settings to a planet controlled by what we're supposed to take to be Satan, I suppose. This totemic baddie manifests its evilness with—because it's the 1960s—communism. Yes, the great threat the protagonists must thwart (it's never clear why these particular kids and not any of the other billion people on the planet) is the specter of communism. *groan*. What kind of novel waits until the second half to introduce the primary conflict and setting? How much more shaggy and slapdash can this novel get? Alas, I will never find out as I jumped ship with 75 pages to go. I scanned the Wikipedia article for the remaining bits of "plot" as they are, and no, I can guarantee myself that I am missing nothing of import. An astonishingly boring novel, so boring I couldn't even finish 250 pages of it.

And thus, I finished the middle third of Wolfe's Solar Cycle. Nine books down, three to go. If I were to rank these four, I say: 2>4>1>3. The second one was terrific: paced as all hell, tightly controlled, and careful in its meting out of details. The third, with its long sections in the tunnels (oh god, the tunnels), could have used a trim. The fourth tamps down the insurrection plotline and the tunnels a bit (but there are still many scenes in the tunnels; oh god) for more existential dramas and some political intrigue. The fourth ups the metafictional quotient and obfuscates all that the reader has read before, in both compelling and annoying ways. A major reveal is so shrouded in Wolfe's style that it was entirely lost on me until I read the Dramatis Personae where it was revealed with little fanfare.

As for project as a whole? I loved it. Gene Wolfe is my quintessential "problematic fav." His treatment of women improves slightly with The Book of the Long Sun but he still finds time to denigrate sex work and have a woman completely naked for 200 pages. Breasts are always commented on, but only with the verb "heave" and Caldé Silk's love interest is the definition of beautiful vacuity. There's barely any reason for her and Silk to love one another but love one another they do, in the most simpering ways possible. I can recognize these flaws, both pervasive and structural, but I can't seem to give up on him. His "medieval fantasy world with traces of high technology" arrests me every time. I can't wait for my omnibus of The Book of the Short Sun to arrive so I can keep going.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July Reads

What Maisie Knew by Henry James
The Black Company by Glen Cook
A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
The Butt by Will Self
The Rift by Nina Allan
Caldé of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

My god. I read The Portrait of a Lady back in my first run of university. At least I think I did. I remember much of it. And I remember not working as hard at it as I did with this slim novella. Only 266 in my Penguin edition and it took me a week. I'm still not sure if I've even read this damn thing. I had forgotten how labyrinthine his sentences are, how many clauses and adverbs and subjects he piles on and on, as if each sentence is a game of knots to see who can tie the most complicated one. Luckily, James isn't over-complicating the plot, such as it is: Maisie is shuttled from one "parent" to another, with each adult projecting their desires onto Maisie. James even spells it out for the reader, in a lovely turn of phrase:
What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.
One of James' more lucid sentences, I'm afraid. Though, when it suits him, he does provide a beautiful sentence or simile:
Their intensified clutch of the future throbbed like a clock ticking seconds; but this was a timepiece that inevitably, as well, at the best, rang occasionally a portentous hour. [my italics]
I provide the whole sentence here to show how James takes his simile and goes further with it. He doesn't simply dump it onto the page for the aesthetic delight, but also to make use of it. When James writes clearly, with purpose, like this, I was enamoured of my time with the Master. It was all those other times, when the paragraph went on for a page or two, when I lost track of the subject, that I found James to be insufferable. Certainly, he has a exquisitely sharp pen. If, as Kafka opined, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," then James' books are the surgical scalpels. I would love to read The Ambassadors (I purchased a Penguin copy years ago) but I'm reliably informed the novel is one of his three final masterpieces, the three most difficult works in his oeuvre.

I keep trying at fantasy and beyond Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock, I've found little to excite me. Paradigmatic high fantasy, such as Tolkien, or Anne McCaffrey, bore me to tears and of course, excite my suspicions about their politics more so than in science fiction (a tropical forest of hot takes about power and wish fulfillment, to be fair). Cook's The Black Company is the first in a long running series about a mercenary military company embroiled in wars, but always from the soldiers' point of view. At the time, the mid-80s, this was radical and almost revolutionary. 30 years after its publication, I'm sure the subject novelty has become old hat (I believe much of Grimdark fantasy, such as Joe Abercrombie, follows soldiers instead of Great Men). Since I don't read much fantasy, Cook's innovations are still fresh for me. Though what drove me through the novel wasn't so much the content but the aesthetics. Interestingly enough, Cook's terse, almost hardboiled style, provided a shot of verisimilitude, a dash of realism in a genre usually opposed to realism. The cast of characters speak in soldierly jargon, in colloquial English, use American swears such as "sumbitch," and generally avoid any of the pomp of Tolkienesque twee English ("verily, milord" etc etc etc). The narration, in first person from the company's physician, follows a similar pattern: unadorned, shorn of complex clauses. I should be careful not to ascribe too much "innovation" to Cook as he's working in the same mode of James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead): the daily life of the soldier as they are swept from one skirmish to another, with little explanation from command. What makes Cook so interesting is the installing of this aesthetic into medieval fantasy and still providing the same modulation of tone when discussing magic. Cook doesn't spend too much time on magic in these books—his is a world of military tactics—but he still presents the supernatural as being an element of the fabric of daily life for the soldiers. I'd be curious to see what Todorov makes of Cook's aesthetic progress in the field of fantasy fiction. As for the novel, I had an okay time with it. Similarly to Steven Erikson (apparently Erikson adores Cook and it's hard not to see the influence), Cook prefers letting the reader figure out backstory and exposition; sometimes, though, this leads to scenes of pure confusion as characters obfuscate to the point of pure opacity. Though just as often, Cook's stratagem reveals a confidence in the reader's ability, which is always welcome. I'll continue and finish the initial trilogy, collected in one volume.

I read a Guardian article about the books that helped writers come out (here) and a frequent mention from various authors was Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, a novel I've been meaning to read for ages. While perhaps not quite as earth-shattering to me as to others, the novel is painfully exquisite mostly. Narrated by a nameless protagonist, A Boy's Own Story captures episodes in his early life. Most focus on his sexuality, his desires, his sexual encounters, and his self-loathing. The book is set in the 1950s, when homosexuality was very much a social taboo. I suppose my... ambivalence is too strong a word (oddly enough), but perhaps my lack of adoration for the novel comes from the lack of engagement with the self-loathing. Don't get me wrong—in my youth, I was just as self-loathing with regards to my queerness as this protagonist, but as an adult who has read a decent amount of queer literature, I think I've "done my time" with tragedy pornography and excessive self-loathing. Like a bunch of authors, I should have read White when I was 15 or 16. In my adulthood, I'm just more drawn to different affective experiences. Though, White's novel is an aesthetic pleasure, full of stunning moments of beauty. I found the opening section, with its wonderfully erotic prose and ennui to be the most pleasurable section of the book. I didn't care at all for the final section, when the protagonist seduces and betrays a teacher at his school. It felt lurid and pulpy, tones the novel had previously avoided, creating whiplash for the reader in the final stretch.

I read a Will Self short story years ago and fell in love with his prose, but I never got around to reading any of his novels. Partly because the premises of the novels didn't interest me much. I picked The Butt as my first go because it seemed to have the most alluring concept of all: a man absentmindedly flicks a cigarette butt while on vacation and when it injures a native of the country, the man is thrust into a Kafka-esque labyrinth of arcane and bizarre law, culminating in a Heart of Darkness style journey into the country to make reparations. While the plot, not surprisingly, didn't really excite me too much (it's all a of-the-moment commentary on Bush's invasion of Iraq, a so specific satirical target that the joke was lost on me), the prose never failed to astonish me. It seems Self's reputation is built on his quick wit and adoration of the thesaurus, but none of his hyperbolic turns of phrase struck me as loquacious or irritating. In fact, Self's command of words impressed me in the same as Gene Wolfe's skill. Each sentence feels like a self-contained melody, always hitting resolution, much to my shivers. I wish I had taken some quotes, but alas, I was just mesmerized his sentences. I'll continue reading more Self books, without a doubt, even the ones with concepts not terribly invigorating, but he doesn't write for people to relate, which is always a plus in my books. He says he writes to "astonish people" and he does so through linguistic pyrotechnics, a goal other authors should be striving for.

I loved The Race (here) by Nina Allan and thus I was very excited to her followup The Rift. From what I know about Goodreads, this is a novel I think most users of the site would hate: opaque, abstruse, ambiguous to a high degree. There's a mystery at the heart of this novel, but Allan isn't interested in solving it for the reader. Nor do I think is the mystery one capable of being solved based on the "clues" offered by the novel. Rather, like her previous novel, The Race, this new novel wants to push what "science fiction" even means. "What does truth even mean?" is a question superbly suited to the novel as a medium, as even Cervantes and Sterne understood that back when the novel was novel. Allan, while perhaps not as adeptly as in The Race, suggests the malleability of truth and the infinite possibilities afforded by the genre of science fiction. My favourite genre, despite being chock-full of pure garbage, is still the best genre for asking the vital questions: what is truth and what does it mean to be human? While I don't think Allan is as successful here as she was in The Race, The Rift is still a fantastic addition to the canon of British science fiction.

I continue my trek through Wolfe's Solar Cycle with Caldé of the Long Sun (I read the first half here, coincidentally the same month I read Allan's aforementioned novel). The third of the second quartet—and eighth overall I've read in the cycle—didn't inspirit me as much as the second (Lake of the Long Sun), which was thrilling. Much has been mentioned, at least on Goodreads, of Wolfe's tendency to skip the "good stuff" (ie. battles, action, exposition). Instead, Wolfe focuses on minutiae of characterization, of daily life, of rituals and litanies (the omnibus of the first half is titled Litany of the Long Sun). In practice, Wolfe will elide or skim important moments of plot, using one or two sentences to describe in obfuscatory terms what is impossibly significant; then, using copious amounts of dialogue after the fact to explain what has occurred. Some readers might find this frustrating, but this does not frustrate me in the slightest. Novels, by dint of the medium, aren't well suited to dynamic visual action. Novels are the realm of the psychological and of speech (and even then, the stage is best at dialogue). Much of Caldé of the Long Sun is explained after the fact, with Patera Silk, the protagonist, apprehending the complexity of situation through dialogue and wonderfully astute deductive logic. Many of the characters in Wolfe's novels deploy higher-than-normal levels of logic, deducing things perhaps obvious to other readers but not to me. I always feel a bit humbled reading Wolfe as characters arrive at conclusions in a clean and hasty manner, leaving me gawping, sweating to keep up. Caldé of the Long Sun is more politically-oriented than the two previous novels, as Wolfe brings the civil situation to a boil. Silk is named Caldé, a civil leader, and he unintentionally heads an insurrection against the city Council. In the previous novel, we learned there are human beings in cryogenic sleep inside the Whorl, the generation starship and events intimated the gods the cast worshiped were AI ghosts of long-dead humans. Most of that fun stuff is left behind in this third volume, but not entirely, as the identities of the Council members are in question. The Book of the Long Sun is much more allegorical than its older siblings, it seems. Silk is the Moses figure, trying to guide his misguided people out from under the gaze of false gods. I'm beginning to suspect the god named The Outsider, the one whose telepathic catalyzed Silk's epiphany and the motion of the plot, is the Catholic God, perhaps not so vulgarly obvious, but the one true God. While the plot of this quartet is easier to follow, I sometimes yearn for the purposefully abstruse Book of the New Sun. I have one more book in this quartet, and then it's on to the final trilogy. Frankly, I'm very surprised at myself for sticking with a series this long. Normally I read one or two and abandon the project as I'm a fickle reader, but Wolfe has kept me going.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

the novels and collections of Stephen King ranked

Simply for shits and giggles, I thought I'd rank every single novel and collection I've read by Stephen King

novels:

30. Rage
29. Road Work
28. Firestarter
27. Cujo
26. Dreamcatcher
25. The Dark Half
24. The Talisman
23. The Tommyknockers
22. Song of Susannah
21. Desperation
20. Under the Dome
19. The Dark Tower
18. Insomnia
17. The Wolves of the Calla
16. The Wastelands
15. The Stand
14. Needful Things
13. Lisey's Story
12. Carrie
11. The Dead Zone
10. Duma Key
9. The Green Mile
8. The Drawing of the Three
7. The Gunslinger
6. Bag of Bones
5. It
4. The Long Walk
3. The Shining
2. Pet Sematary 
1. 'Salem's Lot

collections:

7. Hearts in Atlantis
6. Four Past Midnight
5. Everything's Eventual
4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes
3. Different Seasons
2. Skeleton Crew
1. Night Shift

If I were to rank everything altogether, Night Shift would reign supreme.

I'm less interested in historical revisionism, such as claiming King was always shit or his novels aren't any good or what have you. I firmly believe the top 6 novels I've ranked there to be masterpieces of horror fiction. While I'm less interested in revisiting any of these, I would consider re-reading Night Shift, if only because I'm sure it's better than I remember. I also recognize the contrarianism of putting Bachman's The Long Walk so high up the list, but the visceral thrills to be had there are masterful.

Friday, July 7, 2017

June Reads Part Four

The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst
The Weird of the White Wolf by Michael Moorcock

Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is one of the most important books of my life. So much so, I'm nervous about revisiting it and nervous about reading his earlier novels. What if they're of such an inferior quality as to retroactively lower his masterpiece in my esteem? I chose The Folding Star for our Queer Bookclub—I always choose novels, despite the protestations from my cohort—as this was an early Hollinghurst with which I wasn't familiar at all. The story of a tutor's infatuation with a student, this novel features much of the same hallmarks as his Booker Prize-winning classic: aesthete protagonist, sensitive, bitchy, educated and loquacious, learns more about himself and art through gay sex and interactions with the queer demimonde the novel depicts. Where The Line of Beauty was explicitly interested in dimensions of class, The Folding Star appears to be more intrigued by the dynamics of power. The main character and his student engage in a complicated seduction, though they each project their fantasies onto the other. In fact, much of this novel can be said to be about projecting, filling the other with desire as to overtake the subject completely. While a bit dense and bit long, The Folding Star is stupendously beautiful, achingly poignant, full of Hollinghurst's surgically precise language, exacting, demanding, but rewarding. Numerous times, I was close to tears just from the appreciation of his skill, his expert crafting of sentences, so beautiful as to be painful. While I didn't love this as much as The Line of Beauty, the novel rattled me—in the best way. A strong contender for best of the year.

I continue the saga of Elric with Moorcock's The Weird of the White Wolf , the third in the series, though I'm sure the chronology of publication and in-story timeline are exceedingly complicated. Like many genre "novels" of the 60s and 70s, this The Weird of the White Wolf is a "fix-up," a few short stories hitherto published separately edited to link together. Just as the previous one was a conglomeration of short stories, so to this third volume, and the seams definitely show; two of the sections have the same structure: a mysterious and sexy woman introduces a quest to depressed Elric, they depart for whatever it is they seek, some cruel twist of fate robs Elric of his prize, landing him in the same depressed circumstances as before. How much of the repetition can be ascribed to Moorcock and how much to the quest narrative is a murky proposition. It's an essential part of Elric's characterization to snatch things from his grasp just as soon as he achieves a goal. Moorcock's universe is almost nihilistic without stumbling into the Grimdark territory marring vast swathes of today's fantasy fiction. His imagining of the world is one of oppressive darkness but instead of political nihilism ("if everything is terrible and nothing ever works, why bother trying to improve society?"). The universe of Moorcock is one of philosophical nihilism, a distinct difference ("nothing has meaning and nothing has value"). Elric's quest for meaning is repeatedly thwarted; in the middle story of this book, Elric is tasked with searching for an ancient tome rumoured to answer great questions about gods and the universe's creation. He hopes to understand whether or not his existence is accidental. If purposeful, if he was created, then he knows meaning structures the universe. If a creation by chance, then he can find solace in knowing no order governs his universe. Unfortunately, or perhaps even fortunately depending on how you view it, the book crumbles the dust the moment he touches it, robbing Elric of his ability to satiate his thirst for meaning. He returns back to his previous circumstances, alone, depressed, morose, and still seeking some meaning. That he never finds any, or that whenever Moorcock reveals a power behind the curtain, he reveals yet another puppet's strings, speaks to the Elric saga's radical inversion of heroic tropes. Where previous heroes found their meaning through questing, such as Frodo's quest with the ring, Elric's quests never lead him anywhere but to destruction and despair. Anomie is the great spice of Moorcock's signature character. Each installment of this series makes me appreciate Moorcock's writing and command even more. Even though Elric is an altogether depressing creature, I'm utterly fascinated by how Moorcock teases him, prodding him along.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

June Reads Part Three

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I thought Binti was really good, but not great, so it was a surprise for me to find the second book in this trilogy (the third comes out in January of next year!) was better in almost all aspects. Okorafor has jettisoned much of the violence and spectacle of the previous volume for an increased focus on the protagonist's emotional state: her experience with PTSD and her increased feelings of alienation when returning home. Everything I said in the previous review holds true, if not more true: Okorafor's novella is an excellent examination of what it means to be the Other through a science fictional lens. I don't entirely love the series so far—there's such a major focus on the Bildungsroman element over the aforementioned PTSD aspect—but I'm suitably impressed. As with many bits of Adam Roberts' work, I can't quite shake his essay on YA and the Neo-Victorian (here). In an long and wide-ranging post (he touches on Moorcock, Lewis, Tolkien, The Hunger Games, and countless other texts), Roberts tries to grapple with YA's fascination with Victorianism and fantasy. His argument is wonderfully summed in the elegant final paragraph:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it.
Likewise, Binti and its sequel (and probably its third entry) grapple with the classic tropes of coming-of-age using as its distant backdrop the "public school" like Harry Potter and countless other YA books. The titular Binti spends her first adventure on the way to the school while the second novel has her leaving the school. Her literal and figurative journey to the school changes her identity through what is essentially magic (tentacle aliens reshape her DNA). Again, it's not mimesis as Roberts points out which is the driving force for the poetics of her growing emotional maturity—it's magic handwaved as science. While Roberts' argument doesn't fully apply to Binti, as Okorafor's novella is not rooted in Jameson's diagnosis of postmodernism as the "replacement of history as lived experience with history as a pastiche of empty visual styles." Instead, Binti mobilizes Afrofuturism (the aesthetic movement) in its depiction of Binti's development and her grappling with the spectre of the past. Binti's family, mathematically and practically inclined, disapprove of her escape to the stars. A recurring theme in the second novella is the exhaustion of Binti's possibilities for marriage; her trip to space, her flight from her people marks her as unfit for wedlock. Likewise, she comes face-to-face with a doubled Othering: her abandonment of traditional ways and her reshaped DNA code her as Other even to her own people, while simultaneously, Othered by non-Himba people for being black. Binti: Home brings all this to force along with the standard second-entry-in-a-trilogy revelation that "everything you know is wrong" via a secret history with which Binti was hitherto unaware. Where Okorafor takes the novel can't be too much of a surprise; Binti: Home ends on a cliffhanger: the strained peace between humanity and the Meduse collapses in violence, leading Binti to charge into danger, on a quest to unite people, an extension of her internal quest for "atonement" (at-one-ment), to reconcile the Othered parts of her identity, to coalesce into who she really is, while donning the mantle of humanity's saviour.

All the above makes it sound as if I was uninterested or apathetic about Okorafor's project and Binti's journey. While I confess Bildungsromans don't really tickle my fancy, I still adored this second entry, more than the first, and hope the third also jettisons the classic excess of violence which mark conclusions.

An aside about trilogies: probably my favourite moment in any third entry in trilogies occurs in Return of the Jedi, which so wisely anchors its climax on two emotional arcs (Vader's and Luke's). After departing Dagobah, Luke surrenders to Imperial forces and enjoys a moment of quiet with Lord Vader. There's no need for violence or even confrontation. Their mutual respect is palpable and speaks to the emotional maturity of the sequence: Lucas and his crew trusts the audience gets both characters know the conflict is now spiritual, not physical. Other than the Tatooine sequence at the beginning, this is the only bit in Return of the Jedi I find interesting and of course, it's the least violent or showy of any.

Maurice Broaddus and Tor.com offer us Buffalo Soldier, a steampunk adventure heavily influenced by Jamaica and their culture of storytelling. Like Kai Ashante Wilson's two novellas, this is a fantasy speckled with an awareness of code-switching and the utter specificity of the black experience. I'm very skeptical of steampunk, going so far as to dub it politically dangerous, but it feels like Broaddus has anticipated my reservations. Instead of the bland, implied celebration of Empire that usually characterizes the genre, Buffalo Soldier is explicit in its condemnations of imperialism. Its plot concerns rival nation-states in a fractured North America vying for political power. They seek this power through the manipulation of a clone, a resurrected Messiah with murkily-defined powers. The plot follows a mercenary with the young, naive clone under his wing as they escape the various competing powers. In terms of execution, the novel forgettable. Its details slip my memory immediately. But what sticks is Broaddus' interest in storytelling as oral history. The short novella finds time, three times, to arrest the forward momentum completely and have a character tell a story. The Jamaican protagonist tells one, an Indigenous character tells one, and a Southern Belle archetype antagonist tells a final story. They're more interesting than the plot of the novel and Broaddus executes these digressions with precision. Less attractive is the finale, a chaotic mess of noise and violence, which did nothing for me.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu was recommended to me by Aaron Bady, a Twitter acquaintance, and an expert (would he agree with such a compliment?) in African literature. He, in facts, introduces the novel in this edition. Touted to be the Great Ugandan Novel, Makumbi's text is fascinating and compelling. Starting with the historical figure of Kintu (pronounced "chin-tu"), the novel tracks the curse which befalls him and his many descendants in 21st century Uganda. Each section works as a standalone short story, detailing the fate suffered by the particular protagonist, but each section lacking an ending, leading to the climactic and final section, a huge family reunion and attempt at lifting the curse. Makumbi wrote the novel in English, but avoids translating any word in common usage not in English. Most words can be figured out through contextual clues, but sometimes, I just didn't know what they were talking about and that's okay. Kintu is, like Okorafor's Lagoon, not made for the Western gaze. Where the great Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart for Western audiences, a movement against colonization by using the tools of the colonists (read: the English language), Makumbi writes in English for her audience. Thus, the novel is multi-lingual and doesn't laboriously explain the history of Uganda. Readers are expected to be already familiar with Idi Amin, history, colonialism, and geography among other subjects, and of course, they would be: citizens of Uganda (I hesitate to say "Ugandans" as "Uganda" is an arbitrary border drawn by colonizers and not even the proper pronunciation of the word describing the ethnic group Bagandans) these citizens lived through this and wouldn't need the refresher. This made moments in the novel a smidge difficult for me, as I'm not terribly familiar with the specifics of Ugandan history.

Regardless of my own awareness of history, Kintu remains entertaining and productive throughout. One of the things I liked most about Okorafor's Lagoon and Adichie's Americanah, a major novel of Nigeria, was the reminder "Africa" isn't this monolith of poverty and AIDS and the rural. Instead, like any country, Nigeria is complicated, a tapestry of rural and urban spaces, of poverty and affluence, of criminality and bourgeoisie. Like Lagos, Uganda's Kampala (the setting for a good chunk of Kintu) is complex, a place of contradictions and synchronicities, a space for hustles and for families, for crime, poverty, AIDS, sex, affluence, love, etc etc etc. While Kampala doesn't figure into the novel as a character in the same way Lagos does in Lagoon, a portrait is quickly erected of a city wrestling with the legacy of colonialism while forging on its own.

Most affecting in Kintu was the widowed father, suspicious his wife died of AIDS he gave her, and utterly terrified of finding out if his only son has the virus as well. From interviews, Makumbi has stated her novel is "masculinist":
focusing on the fragile edifice of paternity, she emphasizes the toll that patriarchy takes on the people who happen to be men. For that same reason, it’s also one of the most feminist books one is likely to read.
(here). Paternity and patriarchy looms menacingly over Kintu. The father who suspects he has AIDS probably got from his unprotected sex with women from when he was a DJ. It is patriarchy which exhorts men to "sow their seeds," and it is patriarchy which demands men erect an impenetrable shell of strength around themselves. The father can't bear to learn whether or not he or his son have AIDS because he can't bear to lose anything more. The guilt eats at him, both the guilt of probably infecting his wife and thus killing her and the guilt of not knowing. His is a Schrödinger's Virus; he won't know until he looks but for the time being, he acts as if he doesn't and does have it. This man's whole section is harrowing, not just for the cruel reality of living in a world of AIDS, but for the ways in which patriarchy supports and even encourages his behaviour. At the funeral, men gather around the widowed husband, assuaging his guilt by offering milquetoast observations that all people must die, it's just a matter of time. They tell him what's done is done, and any further introspection or reflection on his behaviour isn't warranted. A chilling scene for the ways in which patriarchy extols the virtues of men forgiving men for their masculinist crimes.

I didn't love the final section, the reunion in which the curse is confronted. The section tried to juggle too many balls, leading to some confusion about who is where etc, and I wasn't terribly convinced by some of the happy endings afforded to the cast. Yet, the exorcism/exhumation sequence was utterly gripping. Like a lot of first novels, Makumbi tries to do everything and not all of it works, but I'm completely in thrall to her writerly powers; I eagerly await her next novel:
But when I asked her why she didn’t call it “feminist,” she laughed, and explained that I would have to wait and read what she was writing next. When I had, she said, I wouldn’t have to ask; that would be feminist.
(here again)

Monday, June 19, 2017

June Reads Part Two

Stone by Adam Roberts
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Oh Adam. Recently, I read somebody describe him as an "overachiever" and nothing in his entire life will ever better describe him. Stone is one of his early novels, showcasing his fascination with individual criminals and their hapless journeys through time and space. Where his later novels feel to be a bit more focused, Stone, like Gradisil, jump all over the place and let Adam indulge in his ability to toss out as many science fictional/fantastic ideas as possible. Where Gradisil meandered, Stone has a more classical narrative hook: whodunit? Who has employed the protagonist to murder an entire planet? Unfortunately, the middle bits aren't quite as tight as I think the narrative would like you to believe. After escaping an inescapable jail (a classic Roberts overachieving trope), the protagonist wanders from planet to planet, being pushed over the edge of sanity by the existential question of who and why? She visits multiple one-dimensional planets, the kind of stuff Star Wars traffics in: a planet under constant drumming of rain; a planet composed mostly of mountains; an oceanic planet with "land" being stiff fossilized plant material. While the ideas are always fascinating (what would a planet be like if it never stopped raining?), they didn't feel integrated into the overarching narrative. The protagonist's emotional arc, if what transpires could even be dubbed such, purposefully waffles around, finally reaching resolution in the final stretch, but getting there is a bit of a chore. This and Gradisil might be my two least favourite novels by Adam, and even then, the two are enjoyable, readable, clever. Perhaps I just prefer Adam's more abstract novels of his present career.

And so, in the year of 2017, I struck another tome off the Bucket List of famous novels to tackle in my lifetime. I worried I would abandon Moby Dick quickly as its reputation had me believe the novel is difficult, digressive, impenetrable, with difficult archaic language. While these attributes are definitely true, they didn't hinder my enjoyment or even my usually speedy pace. From the very beginning, I was enthralled with Melville's absolutely genius manipulation of language. Reading the Wikipedia page, a place to start to harvest critical works to consume later, critics have observed Melville's internalizing of Shakespeare's use of language with great success. While my knowledge of poetics and linguistics is amateur at best, even I can appreciate the lexical magnanimity and poetic dexterity sublimated from Shakespeare: lots of addresses, rhythmic interjections, asides, and similes, of which there seem countless. At first, I attempted to mentally note when similes were grounded in metaphors of the earth, such as when Ishmael would compare whales to mountains or the sea to plains. But as the production of similes seemed cornucopic and endless, I lost track. Part of my inability to keep it all in my head was Ishmael's adoration of digressions. The novel feels almost rhizomatic in its efforts to understand the whale in its totality—leaping from subject to subject, handling the aspects within and switching to without immediately. This is intentional, no doubt, as Ishmael never really "conquers" understanding the whale, just as the crew of Pequod never conquer the whale. Whatever the whale symbolizes, and I'm not convinced it can be reduced to a one-to-one analogue as with similes, this purposefully escapes the grasp of its cast and crew. The barrage of similes never seem to amount to a full cognizance, as if Ishmael is quixotically tossing as many as he can in a strenuous attempt to capture the whale through words, mirroring Ahab's monomaniacal quest. The language, even in non-narrative chapters, when Ishmael is digressing, is always a treat to read, making the "boring" parts pleasing. In fact, much of the digressions are wholly fascinating, not only as a glimpse into whaling but through Ishmael's wondrously evocative language. I was never bored by Moby Dick!

Anybody who was "willing" to listen to me during the time it took me to read this novel was forced to hear my praise for Moby Dick as the best horror novel ever written by a non-horror writer. Melville imbues everything with this overwhelming sense of malice and malevolence, an almost mystical evil from the very beginning. There's two bits which will stay with me for all time: how Melville describes two glasses of booze in the beginning, as if the glasses themselves were warped by the very world; and the moment with a shark eating its own intestines only to have them spill out again. I'm finding a lot of how the dialogue works reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates, frankly; how people stutter and exclaim reminds me so much of her characters struggling to articulate themselves. I shouldn't be surprised by how much of a shadow this casts over American horror, but I was taken aback by how horrifying the whole thing is. The novel is surprisingly gory for a 19th century one, though this shouldn't take readers aback as the practice of hunting whales is inherently violent. Melville describes so poetically the waves of blood rushing from whales, the innards spilling with a splash onto the deck of the Pequod. Another great moment features a man tumbling into a hole bored in a dead whale's decapitated head, only for the head to plummet into the sea. Ishmael describes how Queequeg leaps after the fallen head with sailor entombed, and deploys obstetrical language to convey the man's escape from the sinking jail of whaleflesh.

I kept exclaiming to my partner how surprised I was at myself for making it so far into the novel. They kept replying, "but aren't you enjoying it?" and of course. Even with my critical eye merely skimming against the surface of this abyssal novel, I was overjoyed. I'm excited to dive into the critical corpus built around the novel. I've got my eye on a couple anthologies of essays available at my university library. There's so much in the novel, it risks overwhelming the reader with sheer quantity of detail, but there's a pattern, a plan in place which is discernible, apprehendable.