The Hare by César Aira

the hareSo Charles Darwin’s brother-in-law, Tom Clarke, travels to Argentina in search of the ‘Legibrerian Hare’, which apparently flies (or might be a priceless diamond, or a metaphysical quandary). He sets off for the pampas with a guide, a teenage painter, and an extraordinary horse gifted to him by the country’s dictator and instantly becomes embroiled in the local indigenous people’s politics. The denouement of which involves an enormous amount of coincidences that go far beyond unrealistic into a sort of nostalgic absurdity that reminds me of children’s books where every detail and character mentioned in the story must be tied together in the end.

The story is meandering, the lead is inconsistent, the secondary characters one dimensional, and the novel is most probably racist*. Events don’t make much sense with some regularity. The prose is sparse. Usually. Complex events will be summed up in a paragraph, but characters will also chatter on about nothing, exchanging pleasantries. Or ponder philosophy. Aira apparently has some wacky writing methods involving lack of revision, constantly pushing forward,  and proclaiming a philosophic and literary bent to the former. Wikipedia tells me:

He frequently refuses to conform to generic expectations for how a novel ought to end, leaving many of his fictions quite open-ended.

Open ended conclusions. How avant-garde.

He also appears to disdain long form novels. If it’s not clear yet, I am finding César Aira insufferable.

That said, there is something compelling about his writing, about this odd, likely racist* book. The writing and setting is unique in a way I find difficult to describe. The carefully articulated absurdity and irrationality the characters espouse. The random nonsense that appears without explanation (see — man-sized ducks ritually birthing giant eggs to slide into the ocean). The nonsensical actions the characters take, or the impossible fluctuations of time and space.

And either Aira, or his translator, Nick Caistor, has a stellar vocabulary. This book was the impetus for me to start a google doc of new words I’ve learned. Now I am trying to use circumlocution in common speech and am sort of amazed usufruct is a word.

*I know next to nothing about the Mapuche people, but it does not take much e-research to see that they have a problematic and troubled relationship with their European-descended colonizers like everyone else in the Americas… or anywhere. The Hare portrays them with much of the bloodthirst, absence of hygiene v. the white cast visible typical to media portraying native Americans. They are philosophers of the irrational and the silliness of the book only slightly takes the edge off. One groups lives underground in caves and sleeps most hours of the day. There’s a sequence where Clarke and friends strip naked and grease up and go native.

Okay, the above is the most probably racist element of this novel. Here’s the unquestionably racist part: There is a character present in Clarke’s backstory, a black Chilean (there’s some quote along the lines of ‘never trust a black Chilean’). He covets Clarke’s white lover and kidnaps her. He’s compared to a hulking ape. There is repeated emphasis on his blackness. There is a mandingo joke.

Googling these issues bring up almost nothing. If you just read the Goodreads reviews for instance, you’d never know. All I could find was this bit at the end of a gushing NPR review:

“The novel is not without its flaws — I’m sad to report that both its major villains are “black as an African,” and its overt equation of the Indian with the irrational makes my conscience queasy. But if you can set such quandaries aside, you’ll find there are few adventures more outrageous, and more unsettling, than this cowboy chase through the pampas in search of the white rabbit.”

I can’t set such quandaries aside. This isn’t some stupid aside, or hiccup. It’s the setting of the entire novel.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

riverobeesPeople turning into animals, animals turning into people, people on journeys of self-reflection, animals on journeys of self-actualization, animals learning how to talk and people being jerks about it. Also, alien rapists. These are the stories of At the Mouth of the River of Bees.

1. The long-short traditional narrative

The Horse Raiders

The setup here is strong and immediately hooked me. The setting is a planet that has impossibly hot days but rotates slowly enough that nomadic peoples can keep ahead of the worst heat (they use their shadows to gauge the perfect position) while depending on horses and dogs for transportation and communication. As the title suggests, the inciting event is the main character’s tribe being horse raided! The story starts to falter midway through and ultimately ends in an unsatisfying fashion.  The author could not pull off the difficult interpersonal relationships necessary to convince me someone could forgive so much, so easily.

The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles

One of the first cats in the world, or at least Japan, is separated from her family (I just googled ‘what is a pack of cats called?’ and I refuse to use the word… clowder) and treks across much of Japan having adventures. It is a blueprint for a Pixar movie. Or The Odyssey as experienced by a house cat. This is my favorite story. It’s paced very well, and bizarrely, I was more invested in Smallcat the plucky kitten than any of Johnson’s other lead characters.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist

In some fantasyland with a killer mist that has creatures swimming in it much like those in Stephen King’s version of a killer mist (The Mist), an architect plans a bridge. This story is fascinating as it succeeds while being almost entirely devoid of conflict. Everyone is super nice to each other and works together and gets the job done! I guess you could make a case for Man v. Nature but I would call your case flimsy.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees

Like the main character, I too drove all across the northern states on Route 2 in a Subaru. Unlike me, She discovered a river of bees. This is an engaging story of self-reflection, and what I thought was going to be a journey of accepting a beloved pet’s death. Instead the end is very silly and ruined the story for me, both thematically and narratively. This is unfortunately a common occurrence in this collection. There’s another story about a man’s wife turning into a Solitaire (relative of the Dodo bird) with a quirky 19th century prose-style that starts brilliantly but cannot sustain itself and peters off to predictable conclusion.

2. The postmodern nonsense / writing exercise

The meta-narratives. The third wall breakers. The gimmicks.

These are all over the place. Some number among the best of collection. For instance, Story Kit, a sort of David Foster Wallace-esque piece that combines the writer of the story, a woman suffering through a catastrophic divorce, with the story she is writing (and constantly changing to mirror her divorce-state) about Trojan hero, Aeneas, abandoning Dido, Queen of Carthage. It’s super obvious (but self-aware-of-it) low-hanging symbolism via writing-as-therapy and it just works. Dido/Writer’s mirror pain is visceral and cogent.

Then you have Schroedinger’s Cathouse, a navel-gazing, not-so-clever nod at the reader. Or Names for Water, which legitimately feels like an undergraduate course writing prompt.

But then, you have Ponies, a clever bullying metaphor involving magical talking unicorns that communicates an idea perfectly in two pages.

All over the place.

3. The fable or heavy handed metaphor

And I mean the wider reaching definition of Fable that includes all types of myths, not necessarily talking animals and a moral lesson (though there are some of those). These stories include Fox Magic, the story of a fox who falls in love with a man and magics herself into a woman, Chenting, where a man is offered a ministerial post in the underworld, and 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss — self reflection and a circus act.

They are the weakest. Johnson is a serviceable writer, but her biggest strengths lie in her imagination and pacing. When she is retelling a familiar tale, I found myself constantly aware of that thought: I have heard this sort of story before.

I glanced at the list of stories contained in the collection before writing this and there a handful of stories I completely forgot about it and they all fall into this category.

Overall verdict: Fun, but uneven and rarely extraordinary.

Compliance (2012)

compliance-ann-dowd1

How can anyone be so dumb?

This question will occupy your brain for most of this uncomfortable film. And dumb and stupid and gullible are the words. Even as people in positions of power commit appalling acts of abuse on their teenage victim. Cruel, horrific, abusive are not the words even though they ostensibly describe the acts.

A prank caller phones McDonalds impersonating a police officer and alerting the manager, Sandra (excellent performance by Ann Dowd), that one of her cashiers has stolen money from a customer’s purse; “Officer Daniels” convinces Sandra to search the victim’s purse and clothes, which then escalates to a strip search, and then continues to escalate to much worse. The movie does not care to analyze the neuroses of the caller — investigation into why some terrible people get off on control and abuse has been done. Instead, it wants to ask why otherwise “normal” and not overtly cruel people like Sandra would be so easily coerced into sexual assault. She does not do so unquestioningly; she wonders if doing these things are “right”, but Daniels’ constant reminder that he is a police officer continuously silences her objections. Sandra’s fiance is eventually called in, and the film demonstrates how women who are partners with abhorrent men blind themselves and (maybe even without realizing it) choose not to see.

Obedience to authority is infuriating, (dumb, stupid, gullible, etc) but common. Googling the case reveals that the real life impersonator pulled this off 70 times over a decade. The Milgram obedience experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are famous studies on the topic. When instructed by figures of authority, many people will harm others and require very little persuasion. Why is this? Undying dedication to a just world fallacy that allows them to get up in the morning? The banality of evil? Base human nature? I would assume most people who watch Compliance or read those studies would honestly say that they would not participate. Yet, if they were put these situations, with the pressure on, there is a good chance they would. It is incredibly unsettling.

This film frames an interesting paradox — it’d be be completely unbelievable if it was not a true story and had to be believed. “Based on a true story” usually means the director and writer took an enormous amount of creative license in interpreting the real events. Compliance, on the other hand, is an authentic retelling — the wikipedia article can be read as a scene by scene breakdown of the film. This begs the question of why it needed to be a movie in the first place, and my answer would be that seeing it play out visually imposes the horror on the viewer in the way a news bit never could. And the disorienting implausibility of the cast’s actions smartly replaces the suspension of disbelief that a narrative typically needs. I can’t believe this is happening becomes I can’t believe this happened.

Warlock by Oakley Hall

warlock“Moral Ambiguity” often gets thrown around as a plus in great novels, especially in the modern climate (or reflecting on the height of the McCarthy era when Oakley Hall wrote this book). The “good guys” have dark secrets, the “bad guys” love their moms, and probably have some good reasons for being bad besides. Maybe there’s no good or bad guys at all. Warlock does not go this route. It does not take the heroic gunman of western lore and make him a pedophile or smugly make the puerile point that he is just as bad as the villains. Instead, its thesis is that the task of the hero is basically impossible, that justified violence is impossible. The book serves as both an indictment of vigilantism as well as the death penalty. Maybe some people deserve to die, but in the absence of some heavenly father, no one can ever be sure. There is no earthly or final judgement. And maybe you have no choice but to kill someone set on killing you, but the case may be this just leads to more people you have to kill or more people being killed.

This is not just a novel of ideas. It’s a great story too. The rapidly developing frontier-mining town of Warlock, sick of its deputies being run out of town and with the delay in receiving a town patent to legitimize itself, hires renowned gunman Clay Blaisedell to establish order and run out the murderous cowboys who threaten town. Blaisdell is a stand-in for Wyatt Earp and the inciting event plays out like the story of Tombstone Arizona and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, before rapidly diverging from the myth. It examines the ideas of Hero and Villain and the American myth/creation story of the west. It simultaneously asks why Americans need heroes while pointing out how cynically they discard those very same. The setup takes slightly too long to get going and the writing overall is a bit wooden, but

The cast of the novel is not oblivious to the greater, existential themes playing out around them. They’re utterly aware and stagger towards the book’s inevitable conclusion and play out their designated roles, because they have no other options or because they are forced to by the hero-worshipping society surrounding them. Thomas Pynchon calls this book a “novel of abysses” and this a perfect description. The cast is staring into each of their own personal abysses. The town itself seems almost like a literal abyss, eternally dusty and partially surrounded by mountains. The reader is considering his or her own abyss in such an effective way as I have never seen before. I feel like typically you can empathize with a character’s mistakes but wish they had done differently, feel bad for the decisions that doom them, wishing they had done otherwise. Basically the tragic flaw exerting itself. This is not so with Warlock. There really were no outs. No good decisions. Just pointless violence and no way to stop it. And this isn’t just the town of Warlock, it’s life, all violence, all towns.

This feeling is summed up by the sometimes-narrator and general store owner Henry Holmes Goodpasture:

“I feel drained by an over-violent purge to my emotions, that has taken from me part of my manhood, or my humanity. I feel scraped raw in some inner and most precious part. The earth is an ugly place, senseless, brutal, cruel, and ruthlessly bent only upon the destruction of men’s souls. The God of the Old Testament rules a world not worth His trouble, and He is more violent, more jealous, more terrible with the years. We are only those poor, bare, forked animals Lear saw upon his dismal heath, in pursuit of death, pursued by death.”

Goodpasture appeals to a violent God, but strange for both a Western and a novel written in the 50’s, most of the characters, and especially the primary POV character (John Gannon), are atheists. With no God to appeal to, some try to play up The Law as a solution worthy of worship. Or unions, democracy, civilization. But none of them really believe it for long. In fact, the book overall has an incredibly detached and reflective feel to it. It seems as if all the characters are philosophers. It works though.

Warlock does not offer a solution, or an answer. It flirts with the idea of love as the answer, and ends with a bewildering and ill-advised X-years later epilogue. Towards the end, on of the more memorable side characters, one-legged, alcoholic Judge Holloway, offers us this opinion:

“Yes, learn your lessons as they come your way,” the judge said. “And when you have learned them all they can stick red-hot pokers in your wife and babies and you will only laugh to see it. Because you will know by then that people don’t matter a damn. Men are like corn growing. The sun burns them up and the rain washes them out and the winter freezes them, and the cavalry tramps them down, but somehow they keep growing. And none of it matters a damn so long as the whisky holds out.”

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić

200px-Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsThis is the first book since Infinite Jest which led me to using two bookmarks, and I could have used three. Many books claim to challenge traditional narrative, or traditional methods of reading — pages turned in chronological order, beginning-middle-end, etc. Some are more successful than others and most are gimmicks. On this front Dictionary of the Khazars is a legitimate success. It’s one of those rare books where form trumps story or craft. As the title implies, it is a dictionary (sort of). Three dictionaries.

The Khazars were an (actual) people living in the Caucasus, bridging the Christian and Islamic worlds in the first millennium AD, who later disappeared. The book is three color-coded dictionaries to match the three Abrahamic religions. They attempt to piece together the events that occurred at the Khazar court, shortly before the entire nation’s dissolution; all are writing with the assurance that the Khazars converted to their respective religion based on a scholar/philosopher of their faith presenting the most compelling philosophy and dream interpretation to the Khazar leader (khagan). Some passages repeat across two or three of the dictionaries and others appear in just one. Certain words have symbols — the Christian cross, the Islamic crescent, or the Star of David — to denote which dictionaries a definition appears in. Calling these books a “dictionary” is a bit misleading. There are not many entries. The shortest ones are a page or two long and some of them are 10-20 pages in length. It’s more like a collection of alphabetically arranged short stories than a traditional dictionary.

You can read the book in any order you choose. Front to back, jumping around, 5 pages in one dictionary, 5 pages in the next two and back. I jumped around and I think the book was better for it. The threads are designed to facilitate moving around, and in such a way that you are eased into it. There are three time periods the majority of entries take place in and one of the very first entries in the first (Christian) book is a story about a man who dreams he is another man every time he sleeps… and that man is an entry in the Jewish book (dreaming the life of the first man); by the time you’ve read both entries, you’ve been introduced to several different characters in the 17th century to look up across all three books. Once you get into the hang of this, it’s easy to follow the threads for the story arcs taking place in the 10th and 20th centuries. That said, the final entry in the final book is clearly best read last as it ties together much of what occurs in the rest of the book.

The stories/entries are uneven. The best ones are incredibly weird. Genuinely strange — this isn’t false praise like many so-called “weird” books receive. There’s demons who tie birds to their massive penises to keep them floating out of their way, Dracula impregnating women with killer plants, automatons whose authenticity is tested by whether or not zombies will confuse them for real humans and eat them. There’s not enough of these stories. The worst parts are those written in a faux-academic style, detailing the surviving records of the Khazar court. Fictional history can be done very well, just not by Pavić. Many of the history-book type stories in this book are just boring. And the conclusion, insofar as there is one, is not particularly poignant nor does it bring everything before it together in a satisfying way. This is hardly necessary for a book to succeed, but Dictionary of the Khazars does have a central mystery — what happened at the original Khazar court when the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars came to interpret their khagan’s dreams?

There’s a male and female version of this book where a single paragraph is changed. It’s a weird and ineffectual gimmick. I think the mystery of what’s different about the other version? is far more fascinating than the reality. I read the male version and Alison is reading the female version. I looked at her copy after I finished mine and rolled my eyes at the paragraph in question.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

wormThis book is Bad. The characters and plot are stupid. The faux-Jacobean English writing is stupid*. The fact that this is considered a seminal fantasy classic is vaguely embarrassing (and also stupid). It’s not even that weird which it is supposed to be and could have been its saving grace.

There is an intro written by a “scholar”, Brian Attebery, who should be utterly ashamed of himself for praising this book. He quotes the author, Eddison, on why he loves (fetishizes) Iceland and the Nordic countries:

“first, on the political field — aristocratic individualism of an uncompromising kind; secondly, in its broad outlook on human life and destiny — paganism; and thirdly, in art — a peculiar and in itself highly perfect form of prose narrative.”

Listen to this jerk. “Scholar” Attebery goes on to comment:

“This emphasis on Nordic ancestry, combined with his disdain for commoners, cowards, foreigners, and other lesser breeds, occasionally sounds an ominous note in Eddison’s fantasies; some of his pronouncements verge on a British version of fascism.”

So, Eddison is not only a bad writer, he’s a classist, racist, backward-yearning fascist.

The cover art is pretty cool though.

*If anyone wants to read an excellent novel written by a 20th century author attempting 17th century English-prose, read Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

alifSince the vast majority of this review is going to be negative, I am going to start with the good parts. I did (sort of) enjoy this book. Alif is a page-turner. Conscientious hacker Alif gets the government on his ass, meets some jinn, comes into contact with a magic book, and other than an overlong, momentum-killing prison sequence, the story blasts forward right into The Revolution.  This is a skill. A necessary skill to widely-accessible pop-lit. And Wilson has a better grasp on economy of language than many of her page-turner contemporaries. Sure, the speed of the narrative kind of throws setting, character development, plot-coherence to the wind but it is still a fun book nonetheless. I read it quick, and yeah the margins were gigantic so it wasn’t really a 500 page book, but again, I sort of enjoyed it.

Okay, good part over.

This book is shelved and categorized as adult fantasy, but it has much more in common with young-adult (YA). I was shocked when late in the novel, it is revealed the titular protagonist is 23 and not like 17-19. It follows many of the familiar tropes. Outsider protagonist with secret knowledge. Shmoe turned hero. Inexplicably inept antagonists. Hot rich babe shuns main character and, as clearly telegraphed from the very beginning, his true love turns out to be the girl he’s known since he was a child that he has had a sisterly relationship with right up to the plot of the novel*. The books takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and it’s written by an American-born-now-living-in-Cairo Muslim convert. I have absolutely no idea if the above tropes are fiction universalities or they are there because the author is American-born. This goes for any issue of cultural “authenticity” in the novel. I really have no idea. I do know the virgin/whore paradigm Alif’s love interests are stuffed into is even more insidious given the cultural/religious climate – the whore is a whore because she nailed Alif a few times and has slept with 2(!) men and the virgin is a literal virgin who won’t do the same until Alif nabs her hand in marriage. But only if he asks her daddy and he says OK, Alif, she’s all yours.

So Alif is supposedly a pretty good programmer. Thus the novel must talk about technology. Which Wilson either does not know enough about or is purposely dumbing down the text for ignorant readers. This leads to a lot of technical namedropping that doesn’t really gel. Botnet the firewall’s revolving IP addresses, my good sir. The way Alif think/talks about tech is not how tech people think/talk either. This isn’t too harrowing by itself. The problem is that coding is key to the plot. Alif discovers new methods of “quantum coding” that goes “beyond ones and zeros”. How does he do this? Shit, I don’t know. Because every paragraph describing the concept or describing Alif coding is so vague and full of metaphor as to make absolutely no sense. He’s “building towers” of code and the tower is falling because of “redundancy” and “lack of code integrity”. Seriously, a major part of the plot is nonsensical.

Technology failure would be less of a problem if the other genre elements – the magic! The fantasy! The MONSTERS! – worked.

(they don’t)

The jinn, who you would hope would be some combination of grandiose, spooky, otherworldly, etc are just boring and unremarkable. There’s this one scary one that asks you questions until you die (or something) and get this, the way you beat is to… ask it questions instead. The major maguffin – a book titled The Thousand and One Days – something that should be the clever counterpart to the Nights is totally wasted. A better writer would have aped the style of Nights when transcribing parts of the fictional book in the narrative. I love that story-in-story gimmick when an author can pull it off. Not here.

The characters are one dimensional and forgettable too, but I’m getting bored of harping on this book so let’s narrow it down to one of them: the convert. As I mentioned, G. Willow Wilson is an American convert to Islam. The convert is also an American convert to Islam. She is the source of all the eye-rolling passages you’d expect from your typical lazy and shameless author self-insert. The thing that really kills me though – she is never named. Yes, a main character that is around for most of the book and no one thinks to ask her name. Nor does she offer it. It is absurdly distracting. The convert did this. The convert did that. Alif asked the convert this. I can’t believe an editor or proofreader or someone please did not point this out. It is so stupid and third wall breaking. Like text-book writing-getting-in-the-way-of-the-story in a totally fixable way.

The cover blurbs repeatedly compare the book to Neil Gaiman, Neil Stephenson, and Phillip Pullman. I’m starting to wonder if have outgrown the first two, and while I have really fond memories of His Dark Materials, I’m afraid of re-reading it for what I may discover.

*The frequency this trope appears is staggering and creepy. It’s one thing when the sister-not-sister character knew the protag when he was a child and then disappeared for puberty+X years, but Dina (the character in question here) was Alif’s neighbor for his entire childhood through adolescence through young adulthood through modern time. Unsurprisingly, the turnaround from sister-friend to wife-please is unconvincing. This is supposed to be a sign of maturity. It’s like a triumph for the author to point out Dina is less attractive than rich-babe. Our boy Alif becomes man when he stops lusting and begins to appreciate the sexless traditional wifely qualities — perseverance and subservience, total (and undeserved) loyalty to Man, strict adherence to (patriarchal) sanctioned cultural norms — as key.