Belladonna by Daša Drndić

In the afterword to his novel The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), Hermann Broch states that political indifference is closely linked to ethical depravity, that is, that politically innocent people are to a considerable degree ethically suspect, that they bear ethical blame, and stresses that the German populace did not feel responsible for Hitler’s coming to power because they considered themselves “apolitical”, in no way connected to what was happening around them. And what about the “apolitical” Croatian populace, which is selectively apolitical? How does it cope with what was happening and is still happening around it? It doesn’t. It enjoys music and applauds. And writes rigged history.

Damn.

This scathing indictment, which can be leveled at virtually all western nations, exemplifies Belladonna, a book about atrocity, about memory, about death. It’s a book that reserves several pages for a list of names of jewish children murdered from one small town in the 40s, a book that wants you to gaze at the abyss, in full (impossible), that fascism rent so deeply into European landscape and consciousness.

Our protagonist is Andreas Ban, a man with a lame leg, a lame hand, a cancerous breast, the spine of a 90 year old, glaucoma, suspiciously red-tinged eyes, and an isolated and troubled soul. Ban battles the truth of his own mortality, rapidly seeping away.  

He skips the first phase, the phase of rejecting the illness, he’s no fool. So he confronts it. The second phase, the phase of anger (fuck off!), settles down, he no longer shouts at the doctor, he’s tame. He rushes into the third phase, bargaining, with one sentence– Give me ten years— to which Dr. Toffetti replies, Perhaps. But then you’ll come back for another ten, and Andres Ban falls silent.

Ban’s health and history are only the half of it. He’s also obsessed with the Second World War. The holocaust looms foremost, yet it’s not simply German maleficence he’s concerned with, but the complicity of all of Europe. Examples include the Balkan states barbaric excecutions of Jewish villagers by their neighbors before the Germans even got there. Or, to take a different tact, the Dutch expelling Germans from the Netherlands post-WW2, even those who had emigrated long before the war and had Dutch spouses and children. It’s not simply the scale of torture and murder that pains Andreas, but the lengths people will go to forget, to shrug into apolitical stupor. They’ll go so far as to spin that loss of memory and responsibility into hero worship of men directly responsible for death camps.

This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read. There is no light at the end of the tunnel — just another train you can’t avoid. People will continue to forget our greatest crimes, even deny they ever occurred in the first place. Holocaust denial is on the rise. Consider this maddening article about Poland ascribing jailtime to telling the truth about its own complicity in the holocaust. It will depend on the reader whether Sadness or Anger is the primary emotion roused by Belladonna. For me, it was bitter anger. The same anger that erupts when watching Americans rewrite slavery or the Civil War. It’s not only a battle for human rights, but one for our collective memory, our history. 

Drndić is a deft writer, and the front and back covers of Belladonna are eager to compare it to the work of W. G. Sebald. Though there are a handful of paragraphs that devolve into an unclear word-salad, especially when delving a little too deeply into Andreas subconscious, most of the book can be opened at random to reveal clever insights: 

Cooking shows have long been universal hits. It might be worth asking why. Particularly since they are becoming increasingly tedious, unwatchable and undigestable. Since there is an ever-greater number of poor people, particularly those for whom TV shows are their only mental superstructure, these shows are also offensive. Lively performances by smiling chefs take place in elegant kitchens where high-quality pots and pans are used, the ingredients are expensive and often exotic. As Andreas fears that when he retires his nutrition will be reduced to chicken wings and innards and that he will, heaven forbid, go to the market just before it is blasted by water cannons to pick up a few rotten apples and discarded salad leaves, he find this nutrition craze nauseating.

Balkan history is unfamiliar to me, like I would assume it is for most Americans. I was a gradeschooler when the Yugoslav Wars broke out and the level of truth and history exposed to children at the time was shamelessly minimal. Yet it is important. As right-wing fascism takes deeper root in America, our own suddenly-confident Nazis scuttle from gutters like the rat on Belladonna’s cover, and we must look to the peoples who have been struggling with it for decades. It’s a disease some thought cured when the allies dismantled Auschwitz, but it lingers as a misshapen tumor, always lurking beneath humanity’s fragile skin. 

Let’s end this review with one of the many different descriptions of Belladonna in this novel:

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows up to two meters high and contains atropine, still used today to dilate the pupils, while in the Renaissance women would drop the atropine into their eyes to make them shine. And so those idle Renaissance ladies, squeezed into their corsets, in their silk, brocade, velvet and cotton dresses walk around with dilated pupils, disoriented, half-blind, winking without knowing at whom and smiling foolishly into space. Their eyes appear dark and deep, but are in fact empty and colorless. They were beautiful women, le belle donne, blinded fools.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.

Lexicon by Max Barry

My co-worker and former boss recommended Lexicon to me. Recommend is too soft a word. She told me it was good and then plopped it onto my desk the following day with barely a word.

There is a constantly shifting reading-list wedged between the folds of my brain. It is unpleasant and physical when altered by obligations, sort of like getting jabbed in the funny-bone. Luckily, this book was a good ride, though its seams begin to hiss and tear if you think about it too much. 

Two plot threads weave and intertwine through Lexicon. Emily Ruff is taken off the streets of San Francisco to enroll in a mysterious elite school, which initially shares more similarities with Survivor than Harvard. Here, she will learn to be a poet. Meanwhile, Wil Parke is scooped up by shady characters when exiting an airport and is hurled from one car chase or gunfight to the next.

The interplay between the threads is Lexicon’s greatest strength. Both characters are likable, especially Emily. As the onion layers are peeled back, another plot point or mystery becomes obvious to the reader, but rather than delay the denouement, Barry quickly reveals that same truth and dangles new plot points and mysteries ahead. Tension is maintained. Characters don’t stay at one place very long, but are thrust onward, go, go, go.

The book suggests that power comes from mastery over language. There’s interludes containing news articles and forum posts detailing how the public can be manipulated by (fake) news and personally catered newsfeeds delivering precisely what an individual wants to hear. In narrative, there’s references to old-timey wizards and sorcerers who seemed to be practicing magic, but actually they were just good with words. This is too-clever misdirection. Both the modern day characters of Lexicon and the abra-cadabra wizards of yore are using magic. Most of the wordplay invoked throughout the book is one character using magic words to compel another to do something they would not otherwise do. Literally prefaced by gobbledygook magic words. Don’t be mistaken, the plot of book revolves around mind control, not words.

There’s another book, perhaps a better one, where the poets and word-soldiers of Lexicon are highly persuasive to the point of seeming magical. There’s a great chapter early on where Emily is taken out on the street by an instructor and tasked with coaxing people to cross the street, using a new method each time, with failure to reach some unknown number leading to expulsion. It’s tense. I wish that was the direction Lexicon took rather than fake-sciency word bombs. 

I had fun reading. It’s a thrilling thriller. Keep turning those pages. But it’s also a book where the more I think about it, the more problems I find.  More plot holes, more opportunities missed.

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai

The sensation of discovering a favorite author is not gradual. It is a thunderbolt, a swift jab to the heart. I do not read two, three books and have a lightbulb go off. I read a single chapter, even a single paragraph and know. Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver. It did not take long. Literary love at first read.

You can see where this is going. László Krasznahorkai. Add ‘em to the list.

He’s the type of writer who makes waiting in line at the post office gripping, even dreadful. Literally. There is a story about waiting in line at the post office and it is fantastic. Or in my second favorite story, which takes place largely in the back of a car while our timid protagonist is stuck listening to the driver’s vain and voluble friend blather on about his banking career, even the inane babble about middle-management corporate drama is engrossing, and you feel let down when the bored protagonist finally tunes him out.

Krasznahorkai has been a sensation for a while now — his first big success was published the same year as my birth. He won the international Man Booker in 2015. Yet, being a writer allergic to both paragraph breaks and commas, I’m not certain if he is all that widely read. I’ll avoid literary posturing entirely and tell you how I found him: I really liked the cover. And the title.

Thematically, these short stories can broken down to: Mundane life is terrifying. Humanity is a tiny piece of the universe and we may not exist, surely we do not truly understand causality in any meaningful way. Nor history. Most of the main characters are dissociating, locked up in asylums or wasting away their late middle-age in self-inflicted limbo.

“You shrink back slightly from the TV screen. You are incapable of reconciling all that you feel with all that you know.”

What elevates this beyond a (well-written) gallivant through misanthropy is that clearly Krasznahorkai, via his heroes, is desperately seeking some beauty in all this. Whether this be an early story about a guy trying to run faster than the earth, or my favorite piece: Gagarin. As in, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human in space. Like many pieces, the story is filtered through another character. In this case, a once-renowned lecturer, now living in an asylum, obsessively details his theories on the life of Gagarin: How could the first man in space die year later in a routine training incident? He invents clever solutions, backed up mostly by his own imagination.

I finished this book two weeks ago and I’m thinking about it still. Along with what Krasznahorkai novel I will read next. 

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.

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.

The Familiar Volume 5: Redwood by Mark Z. Danielewski

My reviews for the first four volumes: One Rainy day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain, Hades.

Thus we reach the latest novelty of the Familiar experiment: the season finale. The first four volumes slowly drew the disparate characters of the The Familiar, who have spent thousands of beautifully type-faced pages engaging in mischief, violence and introspection, directly into eachother’s paths. At last, we see them meet.

The great majority of Redwood is concerned with a single scene occurring in the Ibrahim’s living room. A gathering of main characters clashing over the fate of the eponymous kitten. It is a perfectly good scene. An interesting scene. Character and plot. It does what a good scene should.

But it’s the same scene repeated by the five different point of view characters present. There’s sundry details revealed in each chapter. Naturally one person will notice things that another does not. This includes some neat bits like seeing the Ibrahim’s comfortable middle-class house and lifestyle observed by other, less-privileged characters when we’ve already spent multiple books listening to Astair and Anwar struggle with money. Hardly enough to justify the repetition though.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a tight focus. Volume 1 comprised a single day, one rainy day in May, which felt lovingly crafted and well-paced, delving into the recursive depths and quotidian trauma a single day can hold. By contrast, volume 5 feels scant, even sloppy. It’s not merely the scene repetition — the writing itself feels imprecise, less sure-footed, the fantastic bits too muddy. I was not captivated nor satisfied in the way I expected to be.

Not everyone is in the Ibrahim’s living room. There’s movement elsewhere. Luther finally catches up with Domingo, though his arc continues to flirt-with but not commit-to the larger drama. The framing stories that open each volume receive conclusions or further clarity. The gruesome youtube clips of men shooting baby animals concludes and is tied into the main plot and wrapped up by Isandorno. The sections following cave people and far-future humans is far more cohesive and sensical, if still opaque.

I’m still on board the Danielewski train. One clumsy episode does not ruin a great TV show either. But it was certainly a let-down having the series first season finale be the weakest book thus far.