Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tipping the Velvet


I'm not sure why I haven't yet read every single word Sarah Waters has ever written. Every time I pick up one of her novels, I'm utterly entranced, captivated, and blown away by her deft hand with plotting, characterization, and historical detail. She's truly one of the most gifted writers working nowadays. Previously, I've ripped through Fingersmith (loved it!) and The Paying Guests (loved it!). Both books were meticulous in their construction and unfolding; both are showcases of Waters' flair for plotting. I knew, going into Tipping the Velvet, that I wouldn't be disappointed.

What I was not expecting, however, was the sheer volume of emotion this book wrenched from me. I am not one to shirk or avoid demonstrations of emotion; I feel how I feel and I do not hide it. This means that I'm quick to weep in films, quick to laugh, and quick to righteous anger in favour of the protagonist. I've written before about emotion and how important I regard it in relation to cultural objects. What is art, after all, but a transformative experience, either in state of mind or being? Waters' previous novels did not affect me to the same degree; Fingersmith was more compelling as an intricate rendering than as a journey in which I was emotionally invested. The Paying Guests was heartbreaking in a distant kind of way.

Tipping the Velvet is markedly different than either of those novels. Rather than a cleverly forged plot, this novel focuses on the emotional development of its narrator, Nan. This is a Bildungsroman while simultaneously a tour through the queer subcultures—and counterpublics of Victorian London. The back of my particular copy includes a blurb that characterizes this tour as a look into the "demi-mondes" of London; I'm not sure if demi-monde is the current appellation. While the novel does depict hedonistic women, it does not depict them as "starving artists" or socially mobile women. They are lesbians—ça, c'est tout, but also not entirely. However, this is minor quibbling; regardless of the definitions, Waters' painstakingly and impressively researched début is concerned with depicting a world hitherto under-represented in culture. She uses Nan as her focal character, but wisely imbues her with a complex narrative arc that propels the tour and maintains the reader's interest.

Shockingly (at least for Victorians), Tipping the Velvet reproduces lesbian romantic entanglements, in all their messy and glorious reality—just like hetero relationships. At a theatre outing, Nan witnesses Kitty, a vaudeville performer who performs in the guise of a man (hold: vaudeville refers to a distinctly North American genre but in this case, it's the same format). Nan has a complicated reaction to Kitty's performance and beauty; she falls in love. She ingratiates herself with Kitty and in due course becomes her dresser (to help her change costumes quickly between songs, etc). They leave the small town, the town most memorable for its oysters (Waters is rarely subtle in her choice of imagery), and head to London. There, after some period of seemingly non-reciprocated love and anguish, Nan and Kitty become lovers. Kitty is quite anxious to maintain the relationship hush-hush, as "toms" (lesbians) are social pariahs. Meanwhile, Kitty's audience numbers are dwindling. Their manager has an idea: put Nan in drag and make it a double act! It seems that Nan is quite convincing as a boy, almost too convincing. The scene in which Nan dresses as a man for the first time features the cast repulsed; she is too much like a boy, so much so that it produces a feeling of the uncanny.

Fast forward a bit and Nan discovers Kitty in bed with the manager (man-ager). Heartbroken, Nan flees with no money, no clothes save her men's clothes, and no home. She wanders the streets until at one point, a man catches her eye. He requests that she service him for payment. She gives him a handjob and realizes that she has stumbled into another unknown subculture: rent boys. She does this for awhile, then stumbles across a rich lesbian who hires Nan to be a kept woman. The rich woman buys her men's clothes and fancy things and all Nan has to do is fuck when she's told. She's trotted out, like a horse in a show, to the woman's lesbian friends. This is the part that some might call the demi-monde. Of course, it ends with Nan again without clothes, without money, and she ends up staying with a social activist and her brother. Nan becomes their maid and then eventually, the activist's lover. The novel culminates in a protest and Nan gives a stirring speech to the hundreds gathered. She sees Kitty; they have a brief conversation; Nan feels nothing for her now; she is totally in love with Florence, the activist.

When she and the activist declare their love for each other, I wept. Nan has finally found her equal in love, her partner, her complement, after all this heartbreak and tragedy. It's also a political ending: Kitty was ashamed of their intimacy; Florence is not. Nan can be herself, whether dressed as a man or a woman, when she is with Florence. Her happiness is no longer contingent on society's expectations.

I thought a detailed summary of the novel to be helpful in understanding why the emotional and political catharsis at the end is so satisfying. We become invested in Nan's journey through this careful accumulation of details. Without this long stretch of highs and lows, we would not—could not care about their declaration of love. Regardless if you agree with me or otherwise, my experience with Tipping the Velvet was transcendent, partly due to my emotional investment and partly due to Waters' powers as a writer.

Waters has an immense gift for description and immersion. My old nemesis rears its head again: realism. Waters is distinctly and definitely working within the realm of realism: her writing vivifies a lost period in as accurate detail as she can possibly manage. Of course, this puts me in the position of contradicting myself. While yes, I often find realism to be tiring and exhausted as a form, I can't help but have been swept up in Waters' descriptive powers. The strength of the prose is found in the sensual details, such as the smell of Nan's hands, or the vivid blue of her navy uniform. My stance on realism must be modulated. The problem with absolutist positions is that it makes hypocrites of us all. Thus, I must confess that Tipping the Velvet has relaxed my strident rigidity on the topic.

All is not perfect, alas. I can't say that I found Kitty to be compelling in any way. We are constantly being told that Kitty is vivacious, wondrous, electrifying, but the only Kitty we are shown (a discrete concept) is a mewling, timid creature that jumps at shadows and wallows in shame. While some might argue that a major theme of the novel is of acting and theatricality, I cannot believe that Kitty could command any attention off the stage. Her characterization is thin.

Additionally, and this is personal preference, but others might baulk at the painful obviousness of Waters' choice of symbols. The oysters and Nan's well known ability with cracking them open could strike readers as conspicuous and annoying, asking for too much attention. I did not mind it at all. In fact, I find Waters' evident symbolism to be endearing. I found myself chuckling when I considered that fingersmith has a multiplicity of meanings: fingersmith is a pickpocket, the person that reaches her fingers into the purse of another lady. Lol. But I understand that others could conceivably be thrown off from this.

On the whole, Tipping the Velvet is another of Waters' masterpieces. Her steady and methodical accretion of emotion and historical detail is exquisite and her character work is mostly first-rate. Again, I'm so pleased to write a third positive review in a row; it's such a change from my seemingly unending parade of negativity from earlier this year.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Woman in White

This is not the edition I read, but it's very lovely

 Let me start simply: The Woman in White is one of the best books I've read all year and possibly of all time. I cannot believe I went this long in my life without reading this masterpiece of plotting. My Oxford World Classics of the book, which I bought a few years ago and finally finished, clocks in at about 650 pages; I read that shit in about four days it was so compulsive. A typical instance of reading involved me completely immersed in the plot so much so that when I looked up, I had demolished 60 or so pages without a sweat. Victorian novels don't normally read this fast. Even Lady Audley's Secret wasn't as compulsive as this (though I loved that novel, too).

There are some similarities between the novels, I should think, and even some generalities about Victorian literature/society that can be expressed in the microcosm with The Woman in White. Firstly, the anxiety. It's no stretch to claim that Victorians were very anxious—about a lot of things: class, race, Empire, women, labour, children, and motion. The Victorian era can probably be summed up fairly neatly as a society that moved very quickly—both figuratively and literally. The advent of the rail introduced or at least exacerbated pre-existing fears about the speed of motion. Earlier, geographic motion was slow, methodical, and precarious. One would need to plan weeks in advance. I'm reminded of sequences in Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonaparte trilogy when even travelling by carriage can make one ill. Or consider the famous carriage bit in Madame Bovary. However, the Industrial Revolution provided the world with the train and incredibly rapid transit (comparatively). The Woman in White depicts and literalizes a bunch of these aforementioned anxieties, including an intersection of vectoring fears: women and the rail. The central moment that the entire conspiracy hinges upon is the determination of the day the heiress travels from the country estate to London—by train. The final third of the novel has the protagonist, everyman Walter, travelling to and from London by train to investigate and detect. 

Consider that in the scholarship of detective fiction, a central conceit is paramount: the detective is the only character who moves geographically and through different classes. The detective is the outsider: the one not in place with any class or any space, thus imbued with the ability to move through them all. A detective story is almost always characterized by the detective's movement, either through the country estate (Poirot) or through the entire city (Holmes, Marlowe, etc). The Woman in White is often considered a proto-detective story in that the protagonist spends a good portion of the novel attempting to detect clues, to find the weak point in the ironclad conspiracy as to bring justice and balance back to the status quo. Movement is both what clinches the conspiracy (the switching of women would not have happened without carriages and trains) and what breaks the conspiracy (Walter's travels back and forth from London). 

There's also some anxiety and pleasure to be had in the female protagonist's movement. Marian, the mannish, not beautiful, but incredibly intelligent and independent secondary protagonist, has a couple scenes in which her mobility is what enables the plot to move forward as well as for the protagonists to ascertain clues in the conspiracy. There's a tremendously indicative scene in which Marian sneaks to her bedroom, removes her traditional Victorian bulky garb that restricts motion, and then sneaks back out to listen to the villains conspire. Consider the sensation this would cause among contemporary readers: women! moving about! eavesdropping! 

The Woman in White is quintessential Victorian scandal-making: there's lower class people fabricating their noble roots; adultery; unmarried sexual relations; asylums; people escaping from those asylums; contracts being broken; midnight meetings in cemeteries; and much more! The novel also features one of my most beloved and equally annoying tropes: the doctor and his primitive knowledge of medicine. For some reason, I find it almost intolerable to read about early medicine and the application of remedies, especially in the context of Victorians. But, like a witness to a car crash, I cannot bear to look away; I consume it greedily while grimacing and wincing. Victorians loved their medical discourse as it was a very popular topic of discussion. They adored speaking of their "complaints," the "bad air," the humours, etc. 

Another popular topic was the Law and its application. The Victorians loved crime and justice. Newspapers were full of salacious murders and thefts. Judith Flanders, a popular historian of Victorian society, wrote about the culture's morbid and almost depraved obsession with crime in a book called The Invention of Murder. I won't bother quoting at length from it; I mention simply for interest's sake. The Law and its byzantine complications were of endless fascination and horror for the Victorians. Countless words were written and exchanged in the composition of contracts and laws. The Woman in White does not shy away from this aspect. In fact, Collins himself was quite interested in the law's unequal implementation when it came to women. These women, already marginalized by discourses of medicine and science (women were the lesser sex, "proven" by doctors), were further marginalized and deprived of basic rights by the Law. They could not vote. They could not be members of Parliament. The Law regarded women as objects, valuable only in their exchange. The Woman in White dramatizes this what with the titular woman being a pawn in a legal game as well as the heiress losing her money thanks to complicated contracts.

A woman in Victorian society had less agency than men, but not altogether no agency. It's a common misconception that Victorians were complete prudes or unable to engage in discourse around sex. But it was the Victorians that produced a tonne of pornography. It was the Victorians who invented a mechanical dildo. It was the Victorians who wrote countless guides to love and marriage, how to flirt (eg. wink the right eye), how to choose a partner (choose a woman with a Roman nose), and mentioned the importance of the female orgasm! Author Fern Riddell aggregated a wealth of material on the Victorians and sex in her book The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and deviance in the 19th century, which I mention again for interest's sake. Women could do things but there was always the inevitable Victorian hand-wringing. Remember that the bicycle is often credited as being crucial to the modern feminism movement, as women were finally able to move freely without the companionship of men. Their locomotion was independent and self-produced, both figuratively and literally.

The Woman in White alludes to all of this. Despite featuring a male protagonist, Collins' allegiance and sympathies seem to lie with the women, the victims of this conspiracy. Laura Glyde, the heiress switched with Anne Catherick, the woman in white, is a victim, a pawn in a game. 

It's unfortunate, though, that Laura's characterization is so weak compared to the rest of the cast. Marian, Walter, Count Fosco, and Sir Percival seem to leap off the pages. They breathe, hope, dream, wish, desire, and anger. Laura seems to be even less of a real person than the woman in white herself, who only appears in three or four scenes. This sketchiness could be construed as purposeful—her pliability and her lack of character might be conducive to the conspiracy's success. Even if this might be true, her characterization pales in comparison with the main cast and especially Count Fosco and Marian, both of whom are incredibly vivid inventions. 

Modern writers could learn a lot about the construction of villains from Collins; his Count Fosco is one of the most complex villains probably ever, I might suggest. Fosco is both horrendously villainous in that he's willing to murder to get his money (a paltry amount, really) but he's cognizant of his own villainy. He knows the morality of his situation and yet he continues. He's also fascinated and enthralled by Marian, so much so that he weakens his own plan just for her. Imagine that he's like Tom Hardy's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: he's utterly hypnotizing any time he's "on screen" if you will (the essential difference of course is that the story surrounding Fosco isn't wet garbage).

I'm so pleased to write a positive review of something. I loved quite a bit about this novel: from the runaway train plotting to the clever use of false documents that comprise the narrative. The characters were mostly excellent, the conspiracy itself enjoyably intricate, so much so that I had trouble keeping the timeline straight in my head. Thank heavens the Oxford edition includes a timeline at the end of the book to help confused readers along. This was so good that I'm going to leap on other Collins novels and maybe even dip into his friend's work, Chuck Dickens himself—I've always meant to read Bleak House. Hopefully my revived energy with reading carries on.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blood Harvest


In some point in August of 2013, I read the previous Virgin New Adventures novel, All-Consuming Fire. I believe I concluded that I thought the book was enjoyable, but forgettable. Now, over two years later, I return to the New Adventures line with the 28th novel in the series (I hardly believe I've read 28 of these). I've returned, older and maybe wiser, because I found myself energized by the current series of Doctor Who—featuring the Twelfth Doctor. This run has had its downs (the Maisie Williams stuff I've found positively intolerable) but it has also featured some highs (the two parter about the lake and the two parter about Zygons). I was also energized by this video somebody posted:



Amazing. Completely sums up why I love both Seven and Doctor Who in general (if, at some point, this video no longer exists, it is a short scene from The Happiness Patrol in which The Doctor talks a henchman out of shooting him). I decided to return to the New Adventures because, on the whole, I've enjoyed them quite a bit—enough to read 28 of them!

Blood Harvest, published in July of 1994 (when I was 9 years old), presents two narrative strands that will obviously intersect by the end of the second act. In Prohibition era Chicago, the Doctor and Ace have opened and are operating a speakeasy with the nebulously defined intent of minimizing bloodshed during this period. Meanwhile, Bernice has been deposited on a planet the Doctor had previously visited (the Fourth Doctor to be specific) with the instructions to "investigate" and she eventually meets Romana II. Both strands in due course converge on a complicated plot by some Timelords to resurrect some elemental being of pure malevolence that manifests in the form of a vampire in order to win Rassilon's game in the Dark Tower. This is truly one of the nerdiest things I've ever typed out on this website.

Terrance Dicks, the author of this adventure, was the script editor on the show for years and also one of the most prolific writers for Target novelizations. He also wrote the second book in the New Adventures line. From what I can gather, Dicks's skill lies with plotting rather than prose, dialogue, or even characterization. Re-reading my review for Timewyrm: Exodus, I notice that I expressed fondness for the plotting, but not much else. (I wrote that shit in 2011! How time flies!)

Blood Harvest doesn't really stray from my thoughts wrought from my first experience with Dicks; the novel is competent and readable; I was able to complete the reading in two sittings. The careful and paradoxically haphazard deployment of previous lore from the show worked its magic on me: I felt like I was on the receiving end of an inside joke, one only intelligible to the initiated. I was energized by the reading of Blood Harvest, not surprisingly. It was just what the Doctor ordered, if you'll excuse the painful witticism.

As per usual, I thoroughly enjoyed Bernice Summerfield. She is neither hyper-competent and hyper-violent like the 90's version of Ace, but nor is she entirely helpless. Her expressions of agency and intelligence in the novel were surely the superior element of the experience. Normally, I find pseudo-medieval fantasy to be utterly unbearable and yet I found myself hoping the Chicago stuff would quickly end so I could get back to the "good parts."

Dicks decides to use a Raymond Chandler pastiche to narrate the Chicago parts of the novel, which sometimes work and more so do not work. Chandler had an impeccable ear for clever turns of phrases, and Dicks is, unfortunately, not on the same level. However, I didn't find any of the Chicago/Al Capone material to be insufferable; rather, I moderately liked my time in that setting. It helps that Dicks drops gratuitous historical and architectural references to display his weighty amount of research. While this might have been insufferable, it succeeds slightly if only because of my fondness for Chicago (which I visited in 2014ish).

As already repeated, I did enjoy my time with Blood Harvest. It's been too long that I was excited about Doctor Who. It is, after all, one of my favourite things in the universe. I should like to get through the New Adventures (all 61 of them!). Here's to the Doctor and may our time together always been at least convivial and entertaining.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

September-October Reads

Patternmaster by Octavia Butler
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I missed posting this in September, so I just waited until the end of October the middle of November to post them all.

I finally finished Butler's Patternist series, ending with the book published first. Reading them in internal chronological order as opposed to publication date was an interesting project. Butler is, of course, an absolute master of science fiction, from what I've read. This last book wasn't the best out of the series (the second book, Mind of my Mind was the best one, I believe) but it certainly wasn't a bad experience. Rather, Patternmaster was just a bit awkward, both in execution and ideas. Her prose and dialogue (never her strongest suit, let's face it) are stilted and stumbling while her ideas lack the similar depth and care that she bestows on other ideas in other novels. That being said, I still enjoyed my time with Butler's world, enough that I'll keep reading her stuff. I still haven't encountered anything by her that was better than Kindred.

I've been meaning to read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun since I was in high school. The first time I tried, I think I made it three pages before giving up. But I kept hearing about its ingenious metafiction construction and I want to try more fantasy (I generally loathe fantasy in the Tolkien mould (mold? I can never remember)). I read the first two books back-to-back—something I almost never do—because I like it well enough. I'm not sure if it's as brilliant as everybody says. The whole unreliable narrator only really has meaning if there's a metanarrative counter to the narrator's account, and I'm not really sensing one here, other than perhaps, these people, on a societal level, have deluded themselves into forgetting the past. There's one bit, I can't remember which book, in which the narrator gets a glimpse of the past/future (doesn't matter which really) when humans boarded a spaceship, an ark, to leave Urth when it was called Earth. This is a cool moment, but it's just kind of empty worldbuilding, I should think, as the idea doesn't really add much to the narrator's emotional or narrative journey. I would like to finish the series; I think I shall.

Friends With Boys was okay. I didn't really need the ghost aspect of the plot as I felt the protagonist's relation with her family, her new school, her new friends, was good enough to support my interest and the narrative. There's not much else to say about this.

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One was pure literary trash, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures if I had derived any pleasure from the experience. It's a quinessentially 21st century science fiction in that it's post-postmodern, an empty hall of mirrors in the form of references. It's not a good book, but there are some good elements to the novel. I like that the book considers the presence of women on the Internet and how precarious things are for them (in the form of sexism, misogyny, and even violence) and I like that the book considers the intersection of race and gender. However, the aggressive nostalgia for the 80s is oppressive and off-putting. Similarly, the climax, with its giant mech battles, is ludicrous and tedious. This is, on the whole, the book version of a Buzzfeed article. 

Both Sword and Mercy were terrific—when you consider the two of them halves of one long novel. Separately, they're not up to the same level as Justice (but what is really?); put together, the two novels make a stupendous finish to the trilogy. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is the best space opera of the past twenty years and perhaps some of the best science fiction ever. The treatment of politics, technology, gender, nationalism, religion is always mature and nuanced. The future civilization at the heart of the novel is always depicted ambiguously, with positives and negatives alike. Even the protagonist, a masterful composition indeed, has shades to her. Breq's portrayal is asymptomatic of contemporary culture's infantilizing obsession with antiheroes; Breq isn't a white hat, a black hat, nor even a grey hat; she simply is and that's fucking terrific. 

Though, I must be honest with myself. Ancillary... isn't innovative or cutting edge; the major selling points of the trilogy (the gender neutral language, the ancillary bodies, the complicated quasi-Roman society) all come from New Wave science fictionsuch as my beloved Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Joanne Russ, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Again, I must stress that originality does not intrinsically equate to better quality; Western civilization has prostrated itself at the altar of originality for the longest time. Execution is far more important, I believe, something I've gone on record saying before. I just mention Leckie's antecedents as acknowledge rather than criticism.

My distinct lack of reading this year has depressed me in many ways. I own a lot of books that I haven't got around to, books that have been on my shelves for years without being touched. Yet, I use up my time with mindless Internet browsing and watching movies. In my defence, I've watched more films this year than in any other year of my life (as of November 15: 224) and not all of them trash cinema (a good chunk has been High Art cinema).

I find myself somewhat distant from reading for reasons I do not understand. Introspection and reflection is required; praxis is required.

In other news, I've written two long essays on Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (films I and II) and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You can find the former here and the latter here. I've used the platform of Medium.com because I love the layout and design and UI (however I don't like that it doesn't read like a blog, but more like an online magazine). I don't really love Blogger anymore but I've had my writing here for so long I'm not sure what I would do without it.