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.

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