Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Daniel lives with Daddy and his sister Cathy in the woods, in a house of their own making.

This is a small story. Much of it is describing Daniel and his family’s life, current and past, with austere and beautiful descriptions of the copse in which they now live. Eventually, a plot appears. It turns out that Daddy did not own the land he built the family house on, and an age-old question is posed: who truly owns the land? The landowner or the person living on it? Why is the answer not: the community?

This is only half of the question of ownership. The other half: bodies. Who owns them? When a character who represents tenants in a nearby village being squeezed by exorbitant rents begins to wax poetic about the good old union days when workers were fairly treated, another character (a woman), points out how those good ‘ole union boys were like to drink too much and go home and beat their wives. Similarly, throughout the book, Cathy is predated on by men, boys.

The story is told in Daniel’s first person perspective; Daniel, who lives in the woods, ignorant of the world; long-haired, midriff-bared, effeminate. Despite the tight perspective, there is something distant and ethereal about him. Simply living a rural lifestyle does not explain him; Daddy and Cathy, who know far more of the world, see him as something fragile that must be protected. It’s this lens combined with the stellar writing that elevates Elmet, makes it an engrossing version of a story that has been told many times before.

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

Come to a place like this, far from the estates and the ring roads and the car parks and the black fields of beet and the screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianized precincts. Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home.

The place like this our nameless protagonist has come to, thirteen months past abandoning his wife and newborn daughter, is a ramshackle house amid the English moor. Here, he spends time contemplating the universe, comparing primeval nature to industrial humanity, and plunging his body into freezing water to surpass pain and selfhood alike. It’s good. Well-written, interesting, and posing uncomfortable but thoughtful questions such as: is it better to live as a miserable, suicidal person or abandon your entire family for over a year to potentially return as a better one?

There’s something primordially compelling about ‘man alone in nature’ type stories. Whether it be reading of this guy patching up a house, heating some sprouting potatoes on an old stove and living in thought and silence or something like William Vollmann living several days in obscenely low temperatures simply to experience it and learn something about himself, I follow along, rapt. I then brush it all off, knowing that I never would go live alone in the woods for years nor spend two weeks in the Arctic, but maybe, even being sure in that knowledge, I am closer to the allure that has captured these men than I give credit to. In any case, I certainly like reading about it and wondering how I would fare in their place. Indeed, the ‘reading’ part is key here. I generally don’t care for movies or reality shows of a similar stripe. I don’t need to see the tree fall, I want to delve into the realm of thought accompanying it. 

Alas, this premise only persists for the first 15-20 pages of Beast. Early on, a storm threatens the patchwork roof of the roughshod house. The protagonist climbs up to fix it. Next, we find him waking up, seriously injured, and more importantly, knocked senseless. The novel shifts, embracing a mixture of vague sentiments and surreality. He no longer thinks in specifics: his family, his former life, or even the saints and martyrs contemplated earlier. We abandon context and specificity, not to mention commas. It’s an encompassing vagueness — foggy landscapes, unclear physical sensations, and yes, a beast.

i had always thought that if i were to jump off a cliff i would be able to fly to control myself with my arms somehow to crash elegantly onto the rocks but no nothing works i flail and flap like i am boneless down and down and i will be eaten and if you have never been eaten then what are you.

While the newly christened refrain “if you have never been eaten then what are you” is kind of funny, it doesn’t hold up like anything the first dozen pages promised. I have never been eaten and honestly I just don’t find it a crucial component to self-actualization. On the other hand, I have observed/been one of those “screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West”. Even though the writing remains strong, it’s impossible not to be disappointed by the content.

I picked this up because I loved The Wake. Beast forms part two of a loosely related trilogy, despite there being a thousand years between them, and even for all of its faults, I’m still greatly anticipating the next one. Kingsnorth’s grasp on a distinct kind of English wildness and the prose he uses to elucidate it transports me. 

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

More of a collection of poetry fragments, parables, and clever wordplay than a regular novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers immerses us in the home of a father and his two boys, recently bereft of their wife and mother, and attended by a grief-eating, grief-healing crow. It’s funny and sad. At one hundred pages and less than an hour to read, it seems excessive to spend many words on a review, so instead I will paste this delightful chapter elucidating the psychology of a crow:

Head down, tot-along, looking
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAHH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p-45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could a learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Short books are strange. I’ve read many good ones and forgotten most of them. It seems like like there is some minimum time investment, something reached only by the repeated labor of turning pages, that is personally required for a book to feel like a book, to be shelved mentally between the memories of thousands of others. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

There’s two different kinds of prequels.

The first is most interested in the world of the story it is prequalizing. It will feel familiar in setting and tone, but the plot and events will only be distantly related. The story is self-contained, regardless of what occurs in the chronological future and literary past. I prefer this type.

The second is concerned with the characters and the events that led them to the place they start the original story. It elaborates on missing details of their personality or backstory and in general fills in the gaps. Unlike the first kind, this prequel relies on the reader having first read the original work. 

The Book of Dust, whose plot revolves around the fate of baby Lyra, the child protagonist of the His Dark Materials series, is the second type. While Lyra is not the main character here (she’s an infant), the story is all about answering questions of her past and putting her in the place she’ll eventually start the main series. The reason I like this structure less than the first is that the big important stuff has already happened. Actually, it has yet to happen but I’ve already read it. It makes everything feel like small potatoes as the the plot, regardless of how well written or interesting it might be, is all set-up for the big stuff.

I read the big stuff 20 years ago. His Dark Materials stuck with me as a young teen, as very few young adult books did then or since, which is why I picked this book up as soon as I saw it front-and-center at the book store. Pullman does not insult his reader’s intelligence and his splendid prose was (and is) far better than most authors writing for young people. The language is largely indistinguishable from an adult book and occasionally when he uses an unfamiliar word, Pullman will turn it into a learning experience. For instance, on page 3, you read:

More than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly.

Then a page or two later, Malcolm asks Sister Benedicta what a chasuble is. It’s a clever device. It bonds the reader to Malcolm by acknowledging you were both thinking the same thing and it establishes the narrator as a warm presence who is thoughtful in regards to how the reader is absorbing each individual word.

The Book of Dust, despite being lettered all big on the cover is actually the series’ name. Book 1 is technically called La Belle Sauvage, which is the name of the sturdy canoe of our eleven year old hero, Malcolm Polstead. Far up the Thames from London lies a cozy inn named the Trout, across from an old stone bridge where a Priory full of nuns sells baked goods and provides sanctuary to weary travelers and political dissidents alike. This is Malcolm’s world, as the son of the innkeepers, frequent student of the nuns, and river adventurer atop La Belle Sauvage. The first half of the novel lies entirely within this setting. The nuns take in a particularly unusual guest. Shady figures roam the inn and priory at night. The ever-oppressive Church invades Malcolm’s school. While slow-paced and somewhat uneventful, it’s easy to become absorbed in the day to day drama of the locale. It’s the book’s better half.

The second half of the book is the inevitable adventure awaiting all boys with trusty boats. The Thames floods and Malcolm is whisked away towards London, bearing a precious cargo. The setting shifts here, uneasily from science-based-magic to pure fairy tale. Underwater giants and faerie queens. Magic mirrors and fruit. It’s not a good shift. Pullman dabbles in archetypal stories and is simply not as good at it as he is with other themes, and worse, not as good as good as other writers who have done the same. Everything from impossible waterfalls to phantom villages peopled by ghosts are crucially lacking the enchantment they require. On top of this, the final confrontation with the main antagonist is stupid in like six separate ways. Too bad; he was a good villain. 

The climatic scene wherein we arrive in London is rushed (strange for a book twenty years in the making) and as I closed the back cover, I was left with a general feeling of “huh.” I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much of this was on La Belle Sauvage’s own merits versus the hoary roots of nostalgia sunk deeply in my childhood, but I’ll almost certainly continue on to book two.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes. 

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

golden-notebookTedious but interesting.

Anna, a writer of a one-time bestseller, keeps several notebooks — a journal, a novel, reflections on youth, etc — to maintain her sanity in a world in active opposition to her ideals. The book blurb and title would have you believe she combines all these into a golden notebook, however that only occurs in the final fifty or so pages of this seven hundred page book, which gives you a good idea as to how it’s paced.

Some classics resonate with time. Others are diminished by it. You can guess which I think The Golden Notebook is. In one of the prefaces, Doris Lessing notes that when the novel was first published, protagonist Anna was viewed as extremely “macho”. It’s just about impossible to get that impression nowadays so the effect is lost. Indeed, while heralded as a staple of literary feminism, and touching on misogynist elements of society that persist today, that portion of the novel feels out of touch with modernity. Largely because of how extremely passive Anna is. We recognize her situation sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why she continues to sleep with these awful married men.

And feminism isn’t really the focus anyhow. The bulk of the book is a growing disillusionment of the English communist party in the 50s, as the Soviet dream fell apart and peoples across Europe came to know how terrible Stalin was. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to cold war America, since it was actually possible to openly be a communist without being blacklisted or imprisoned,  the text here is  highly specific and lengthy for a utopian mentality that barely exists* anymore. It didn’t feel necessary to read I guess I’m saying.

I finished it. Despite TEDIOUS being my prime descriptor. The characterization of Anna and the content did keep me going. I doubt I ever need to return to it.

*Yeah, yeah, there’s plenty of Marxists still around, but the specific ideal English communists treasured and its razor sharp focus on the Soviet Union is not the same thing.

Passages by Ann Quin

passagesHe    Are you happy or unhappy?
She   That’s not a very important question

This is a story of depression and annihilation and co-dependence and/but it’s very beautiful.

A man and a woman wander through Mediterranean beach towns, possibly all on the brink of war, searching for the woman’s lost brother, who may or may not be dead, and for themselves, neither of which they can seem to find.

Passages is split into quarters. The first and third are the woman’s point of view, which comes as segments of description prose-poetry and staccato sentences, not unlike A Girl if a Half Formed Thing though far more comprehensible and prettier. She alternates between the first person and the third person describing herself, a trick to modulate her distance from events. The man’s portions are his journals, relating the same events as his lover’s, sprinkled with dreams and self reflection. Mad ramblings on Greek mythology and Talmudic script are scribbled in the margins.

The two spend less time actually looking for the missing brother than they do running from a Kafkaesque squad of secret police they’re convinced are following them. And they spend more time than both of those things having rough sex with strangers, or thinking about doing so. Bondage, sadomasochism, whips, and chains. They both fantasize about rape, and there’s segments where it seems like maybe the man is a rapist or maybe the woman is being raped, but it’s hard to really say if any of that is actually happening; more like being at the mercy of sexual primacy and pushed along by a combination of inertia and the force of others allows someone to avoid the fact of their own agency.

In describing this, I fear I make it sound like this a narrative tale of people doing these things; it’s not. It’s fragments, passages. From one paragraph to the next, there may be little or no thread or correlation at all. It’s mosaic.

I read it on the beach and found it excellent.

The City and The City by China Mieville

city and the cityMieville takes a stab and grab at both the detective mystery genre and the allegorical locale by creating the twin cities of Ul Qoma and Beszel, located somewhere in central or eastern Europe and sitting literally on top of each other but with more strict and terrifying border control than the US/Mexican border. The cities are crosshatched — a building might be half in Ul Qoma and half in Beszel and construction crews would have to work specifically on their side without acknowledging the other. Pedestrians are trained to ‘unsee’ the opposing city, motorists to casually drive around their counterparts while actively not noticing them.

Why all this? The most general, cosmic ‘why’ is never answered but the personal ‘why’ is that if you’re a citizen of one of these city-countries and break the rules, cross over to the other side, then you’re at the mercy of a shadowy organization known only as Breach. People who breach the invisible line are nabbed by Breach and don’t tend to be seen again.

A woman from Ul Qoma turns up dead in an alley in Beszel. And the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case.

Our first-person protagonist, Detective Tyador Borlu, is a pastiche of gruff cop stereotypes. His clinical, largely unemotional demeanor even while the truly baffling is occurring is an anchor or counter to the setting and maybe-magical murder that is afoot. The book has an odd flow as it’s intriguing while we’re introduced to the mechanics of The City and The City, though a bit dry. The middle bits start to drag a bit, but then halfway through, the action picks up and the tale accelerates, not stopping until the murder is solved, the killer unmasked, the supernatural mystery explained.

The premise is excellent and not enough can be said about it. Usually I scoff at setting or ‘systems’ within sci-fi/fantasy as the reason to read it, while pining for great prose or character work. The City and The City has serviceable prose and forgettable characters but the setting is seriously compelling and fun. Mieville gets you to believe, really earnestly accept, something completely ridiculous. I think we’re supposed to laugh at the political drama of the ultra-nationalists or punky, idealistic unificationists of each city, since the boundary between them is so absurd, but it doesn’t take much thought to apply the same analysis on real life versions of the same. The political allegory is present but never laid on thick, and Mieville leaves you to make your conclusions on how these nonsense cities are reflected in the real world.

The actual identity of the killer is disappointing by way of his totally weak and unbelievable motive, but that’s almost a staple of detective fiction itself. The journey, not the destination. That’s what’s important. And for this particular book, the city you’re presently in. Whichever it is.

Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseA short review for a short book.

Slade House begins in 1977, in the first-person viewpoint of a thirteen year old autistic boy who stumbles into an unfortunate encounter with soul sucking vampires living in the eponymous house, which exists in a semi-magical bubble frozen at an exact moment some time around the second world war.

*breath*

The next chapter begins nine years later in 1986 following a different first person character, a crass copper this time, who also comes upon Slade House and… if you’re experiencing deja vu by this point it’s because Slade House follows a very similar tract to that of David Mitchell’s recently published novel: The Bone Clocks. Indeed, it takes place in the same universe. Mentally, I referred to the books as the same title. As in, ‘I need to put down The Bone Clocks and go to sleep’.

And really, if you want to know what I think of Slade House, you can just read my Bone Clocks review. It’s exactly the same thing, with the same successes and shortcomings, on a much smaller scale. The sci-fi-hocus-pocus technobabble is a maybe a little bit too much in Slade House: one entire chapter (of a total of five) is spent on the villain’s backstory and how they created Slade House and we honestly didn’t need to know more about them beyond ‘We eat souls!’. But this is countered by the otherwise swift pacing — with the shorter, twitter-inspired chapters, Mitchell has no choice but to jump right into the story and he does not waste a word.

And, more Bone Clocks? Great! Two David Mitchell novels in one year? Even better.