Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

Bear by Marian Engel

bearWhen you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging through old books and cataloging them. When you note this blurb describes her as ‘mousy’. Yes, when you take these things and you read the sentence they sneak in at the end about this being one of Canada’s most controversial novels, I believe that like me, you can only come to one conclusion about what this mousy librarian does with that bear.

What is with Canadian women going wild on remote northern islands? This happened in Surfacing by Margaret Atwood too. Sans the beastiality, but with plenty of dirt and madness. But who am I to complain? I liked both these novels a good deal.

Engel has a pleasant, readable style. The pathos of the protagonist is real. It’s easy to get into her head even as she constantly reveals deeper layers that unveil a very different character by the end of the book. The descriptions of the wilderness — from the very specific feel of the cold morning air to the shape of the mushrooms — is immersive and well done.

So I guess we should spend some time doing some analysis on bearsex. What our librarian (who is not actually a librarian, she’s an archivist), Lou, comes to find out in the wilderness is not any particular useful bit of sexual or personal discovery. I read reviews or descriptions that attest to that and I’m confused. It’s more like she affirms what she already knew: that being an intelligent woman in the so-called liberating 70s was still to face stifling, society-wide misogyny on a daily basis. Lou can’t find love but she desperately wants a man: emotionally and sexually. It’s this sort of yearning I can match to 60’s/70s lit (The Golden Notebook for sure), but I see it much less in contemporary texts. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps it’s just disempowering to say that out loud.

Here’s where the bear comes in: with his musk and his enormous masculine presence and his phallus-like tongue, he’s the physical embodiment of strength/protection/power/etc that men are supposed to be. But he’s also impotent and can’t reciprocate Lou’s love. Bear is like the polar (ha!) opposite of the over-intellectualized but useless human men she encounters. Lou imprints a personality on the bear only to find it empty and wrong. It’s just a bear. Wilderness retreats, regardless of what taboos they break, can’t fix society or human relationships.

There’s my take on a woman-bear love.

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

cityofbohaneThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.

The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.

Ol’ Boy wore:

High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.

Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.

“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.

But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.

Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

hopscotchThere’s books you can’t put down, there’s books you can’t wait to put down, and then there’s books you sort of muddle and meander through unsure if you’re actually enjoying it or not.

Hopscotch, of course, is the latter.

Of the disaffected-intellectual in mid-century Paris genre, Horacio Oliveira is dicking around the city wondering over the nature of reality and carrying on a love affair with the Uruguayan, La Maga. Circumstances conspire to take La Maga away from Horacio, forcing him to confront how much his high-minded philosophy and personal elitism really mattered when compared to base body needs: love, human touch, etc.

The whole gimmick of the book is in the name: Hopscotch. You’re supposed to read until chapter 56, then restart at seventy-something and go in a 1-2-1-1-2 order back and forth through both the chapters you’ve already read and the new expendable chapters of 56+. I think the promise of this intriguing experimental quirk is what really got me going through all of the first 56 chapters, even as I started to flag and enjoy the book less and less. But once I actually reached that point, I discovered the hopscotch trick was actually pretty uninspired and uninteresting — not nearly worth reading through the whole book again. It’s the same damn book with some musings and vignettes sprinkled between them. 

The writing itself ranges from insightful to borderline incomprehensible. There’s many passages in french, many references to I’m not even sure what. It’s only loosely moored to any sort of narrative consistency. Oliveira is an asshole, as are most of the people he encounters. At times, I’d be midway through a dense, interminable paragraph and look back at the past few pages and wonder what percent of them I truly understood, and what simply floated by. There’s a certain charm to the first, Parisian portion of the book that makes all of this work. Sort of. Plus, there’s La Maga. If trying the hopscotch method of reading showed me anything, it’s that the early book is way better. Once La Maga leaves and we’re anchored completely to Oliveira, it takes a gradual turn for the worse.

I’m sitting here reading back over this review and finding it as banal and boring as the book itself. Not an intentional feat. Hopscotch just didn’t elicit much of a reaction. If the rest of my life wasn’t so busy during Oct-Nov, I probably would have just put it down. This! This is me too bored to write anything interesting.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

Review roundup

Life has been busy, no time to blog. But always time to read. Here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve read since the last update:

20893314A Brief History of Seven Killings: Violence and conspiracy in 1970s Jamaica as several characters encircle the little known assassination attempt of Bob Marley. The lengthy, smart dialogue matched up with the stream of consciousness point of view, coupled with the long and shifting list of characters gives you the feeling that The Wire, Quentin Tarantino and William Faulkner were placed in a blender.

It’s good, but too long. Some characters bleed into eachother, some chapters seem completely unnecessary.

 

 

7950980Tropic of Cancer: Life is a pretty much a shifting, slimy, disgusting morass. A sewer. Except when it’s not. Henry Miller’s amoral disillusionment with life, while he wanders around Paris, broke, is interesting but has largely lost the shocking relevance of its initial publication.

Shameful that the US censored this for a good thirty years in any case.

 

 

6617037Debt: The First 5,000 Years: When I was a kid, elementary school teachers
taught us that blood in your veins is
blue, and blood in your arteries is red. Your blue blood only turns red when you’re wounded because of its reaction to oxygen. When I learned much later that this was complete bullshit, I was outraged and astounded. Why teach kids a pointless lie??

Why is this relevant? Well, because the beginning of Debt outlines that the myth of barter — that one dude is trading a bundle of fish for another dude’s socks — that is taught to every child in America is also false! And I’m mad about that too!

Credit came first, then coinage. And the credit came back. And then coinage. And now, as of Richard Nixon delinking the dollar from the gold standard in the 70s, we’re embarking on yet another credit cycle.

 

White Like Me by Tim WiseWhite Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son: A sort of racism 101, told by a white guy occasionally revealing amusing or insightful anecdotes.

His most important point w/r/t white people talking to white people about race is the erasure of white resistance in history. For example, hundreds of thousands of southern whites deserted or protested rather than fight in the civil war. By silencing them, Wise points out that you deny whites the historic knowledge that you have a choice.

 

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.

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

sixtystoriesI’m not sure what the hell POSTMODERNISM actually means, but I do know that some of my favorite authors or novels are classified as such. David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo. I’ve occasionally heard another name bandied about, less well-known but highly influential. That would be Donald Barthelme.

I want to say that Barthelme’s relation to those other guys is quite shallow, and he does feel entirely unique, but in places it hews very closely to what will become Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He also deals with themes of alienation and changing cultural epochs like some of those other guys do, but it always feels secondary to what he’s truly after: some silly literary alchemy based on clever use of language, humor, and an understanding of how dialogue ought to work. It results in a very specific feel. Barthelme seems far more interested in what language can do, what one word placed next to another can make, rather than communicating any theme or point. 

There’s a mention somewhere on the exterior of the book that Barthelme once wrote a popular children’s novel. This is hardly a surprise when half the stories read like some kind of warped, adult Dr. Seuss novel (with a similar amount of words). If the Seuss comparison isn’t convincing or compelling, take instead one of the best stories in the whole collection, The Emerald, wherein a witch is seduced by the moon and seven years later gives birth to a talking emerald, much sought after by various ne’erdowells including one evil wizard seeking to extend his life. Tell me that’s not a Roald Dahl pitch.

In addition to The Emerald, I’d include my other favorites as City Life, where two women move to a city as roommates and engage in all sorts of social hyjinx/satire while involving themselves in virgin births and magical bards. And A Manual for Sons, which, among other things, is a bizarre list of various kinds of fathers. Take for instance, the ‘leaping father’:

The leaping father is not encountered often, but exists. Two leaping fathers together in a room can cause accidents. The best idea is to chain heavy-duty truck tires to them, one in front, one in back, so that their leaps become pathetic small hops.

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that some of the stories are repetitive. Barthelme has an iconic style and it’s pretty sweet, but it’s all he does. It’s not quite the same story, but a few variants of 3 or 4 types: nonsense conversation between two people, written account of confidante of famous person (say, Robert Kennedy or Montezuma or the phantom of the opera),  or quirky explanation of something (fatherhood, songwriting)  reproduced over and over.

He even re-uses character names so it feels vaguely like an improv troupe switching clothes and plotlines but performing basically the same show. It’s worse when the topics for these are really obvious/banal (There’s two stories based on ‘The Conservatory’ that just repeat the same tale about fabricated elite class clubs). But once you start to feel a little bored or fed up, you end up bumping into a brilliant story two pages later.

Good stuff.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesThere’s a golden rule in science fiction and fantasy that goes something like this: Don’t infodump.

Instead of spending paragraphs or entire chapters explaining the rules of this fictional world — the breeding habits of the native Grew, the intricacies of the spacecorn trade, the atmospheric pressure of Planet X — have that information roll out gradually through character action and dialogue. It’s simply a genre specialized version of fiction’s holy paean of SHOW DON’T TELL.

I’m telling you all this to make sure we’re on the same page when I say that Seveneves feels something like sixty percent infodumps. Or more. The moon explodes and all life on earth is doomed. What follows is lengthy descriptions of how, in the brief span of time we have left, humanity builds a set of vessels in space to survive our five thousand year exile from earth, waiting it out until the surface of the earth stops being bombarded by lunar debris and cools down. So the meat of Seveneves is technical explanations of the the structures humans are building in space, and how it is possible to build them. This is coupled with a primer on the science — with a particular emphasis on orbital mechanics — required to understand how space works.

Don’t get me wrong: There are characters, and they’re not poorly developed, though many are stand-ins for real life people. A Neil Degrasse Tyson stand-in named Doob is central. Hilary Clinton and Jeff Bezos analogues make appearances. But we’re talking about a 900 page book here. Characters and plot are not the focus, which is sort of counter to popular theory of what a novel ought to be.

Anyway, I thought it was great. I’ve never been partial to golden rules. Or rules of any kind really.

By attempting to encase the novel in real science, either what we can already do now or what we think we can do in the very near future, there’s an authenticity to the theory that makes it sing. I’m not a scientist. I have zero idea how much of this came from Neal Stephenson’s imagination and how much of it is solidly based in fact. But he sells it well enough that the novel feels like a legitimate merge of non-fiction science text and fictional adventure.

It does take a leap in the last few hundred pages, literally, time jumping to five thousand years in the future wherein humanity is terraforming earth in hope of returning full time. While the science theory is still there, sort of, it morphs into a second-rate fantasy novel that feels vaguely like Stephenson trying to create a setting for a video game RPG. It’s not bad exactly. Still a fun beach read. But a dramatic step down from the first two sections of the novel.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

milagrobeanfieldwarCheck out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed page edges. A brick of mass market paperback in that unmistakable font that used to signify A BOOK to me before trade paperbacks took over and the construction of the book itself became stylized. Along with the funny title, these are the reasons I picked this up for three dollars (more than its original sale price) and took it home.

Do you ever stop to contemplate a physical book that is older than you? This book is about a decade older than me. While I was busy being born and learning to read and playing super mario brothers and being bored at school and entering the workforce and getting married and whatever else up until the present moment, this copy of The Milagro Beanfield War was out there, somewhere. Maybe having adventures and being read by all sorts of people (there was an old receipt stuffed between the pages of the book from a now defunct airline). Or maybe it was just read once and stuffed in a trunk before being sold to a used book store many years later.

Anyway, enough musing. Review time.

This is a political book. The war of the title is not a joke nor a bloody battle, but a sort of Cold War between the inhabitants of Milagro and a combination of the wealthy landowners and government forces seeking to abscond with their ancestral lands to create a golf course and surrounding tourist amenities. It’s a story of rich versus poor, old versus new, white versus brown, tradition versus capitalism.

The chicano subsistence farmers of Milagro, New Mexico have lived and died there for hundreds of years. They were there before the US won the Spanish-American War and they’ve been there since. Never really gaining anything in the way of wealth, they’ve survived OK off the land, taking joy in beers on the front porch, mariachi music, and hunting and swimming around the gorgeous and serene mountain lakes that frame Milagro. But for the past several decades, trouble has been brewing and the working class farming community has slowly morphed to true hopeless poverty. Milagro’s inhabitants are all in danger of losing their lands. Indeed, many already have. They’re pushed into service jobs in faraway cities and a huge portion of them are on food stamps.

What happened? Bureaucratic water laws driven by interests far from Milagro, with dead eye sights on economic growth, out of state tourism and the March Forth of Progress. It almost does not need to be said that the poor farmers of Milagro whose land is the fuel for this endeavor will never see any of profit.

This leads to the events of the novel: Joe Mondragon, fed up with the directionless path his life has taken, heads out to his late parents dusty property and diverts a stream to irrigate a paltry beanfield. A simple gesture, but a seriously illegal one with major political implications that Joe himself, a fiesty hot-head, doesn’t even consider. Government agents, water rights goons, local businessman, and a slew of other interests converge on Milagro, plotting how best to dispose of Joe and his beanfield without blowing the whole delicate political situation like a powder keg. The community of Milagro, slowly, through various means both violent and peaceful, starts to unify in response.

While the paragraph above outlines the plot, it’s not truly the focus of the novel and it falls into the background for many pages at a time. Joe himself will disappear from the narrative for large swathes, heard only of in rumor, and some of his most important deeds occur off screen. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent elaborating on the exploits and histories of its large cast of characters, from old men like the ancient, possibly immortal Amorante Cordova and one-armed Onofre Martinez (his other arm was eaten by butterflies), to the whites who found themselves in Milagro for various reasons, like Charlie Bloom, a Harvard lawyer who desperately sought to escape his own culture but has a love-hate relationship with the new one that adopted him.

This is simultaneously The Milagro Beanfield War’s defining strength and distracting flaw. While it’s essential to get to know the town to truly feel immersed in the politics and get behind the plight of not just one unique main character, but a whole slew of them, it’s also digressive and meandering to the point of madness. Every character gets a backstory, even ones who appear for a mere scene or two. Luckily it’s funny and engaging and also relevant 40 years later, where the axis of wealth and the exploitation of the poor continues.