I’ve stumbled onto Lucia Berlin’s fiction late, and I read these in the wrong order, but I’m glad I did. Evening in Paradise is a collection of short stories that made me go ‘whoa’ multiple times. Thoughts below:
- The title story is emblematic of Berlin’s prose, in my mind, as it describes a few years in a family headed by a long-suffering partner and a recovering addict. They live in a paradisaical fishing village off the coast of Mexico, one that feels both timeless and rooted in contemporaneity.
- When a former dealer finds them, the addict falls back into using, and even when the dealer ODs and the partner essentially buries him at sea the story ends with a sense that the devil is right around the corner.
- This sort of ending is typical of Berlin’s prose – at the end of several of these stories she leaves us feeling like, yay, everything will work out, and then with one huge narrative stroke she undermines what we think will be the ending.
- These stories are semi-auto-biographical, I guess, although Berlin has said that she is far more interested in them feeling real than being true. I understand that that’s a fairly common writerly caveat, but based on the craziness of Berlin’s life that stretch can go a lot farther, I’m guessing…
- I often struggle with how to characterize what I think Berlin fictionalizes incredibly well – the moment of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when you realize that your optimistic, perhaps naive view of the ways that you can overcome trauma fail you, and you have to figure out what to do, often returning to well-worn and not necessarily helpful behaviors. There as many responses as there are people of course – for me I always feel unable to focus visually when my views of the world collide – and I think these stories describe a huge chunk of them.
- They are so full of these moments that I often read while holding my breath, and even if the characters plow through marks are left.
- This novel is social realism at its finest, perhaps because so much of it coincides with the author’s lived experience.
Storm of Locusts is the second novel in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series – I blogged about the first one, Trail of Lightning, here, and I found it an interesting take on fantasy from an author of Pueblo and African-American heritage.
- The fantasy genre has been shaken a bunch lately, and one of the ways that it has moved on from its obsession with young white men enacting their own vision quests is to feature heroes from a wide range of identity perspectives.
- This move has produced some amazing work, and I’ve enjoyed texts like Lauren Berkes’s Zoo City and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death from Africa, and N.K. Jemisin’s mind-blowing gods and mortals series. They haven’t necessarily expanded fantasy so much as they have blown it apart, and these authors in particular have created worlds that are completely different from ours and yet resonate in ways that make me sort of shudder.
- Roanhorse’s perspective is an interesting one as well, and I find Maggie Hoskins to be a powerful character, one who is a monster hunter for the tribe. Writing the novel from her perspective causes it to lurch into urban fantasy territory, not one of my favorite genres, but I’m a sucker for anything set in the southwestern deserts of the U.S., and I’m particularly fascinated by the cultural world she sets this series in.
- In this novel we get a bit more of a picture of what’s left after global warming has made cities like Flagstaff coastal (!), and it’s not pretty – the Dine are the only functioning civilization that we see (although there are some Mormon enclaves that have survived and seem to not be complete dystopias).
- Part of Roanhorse’s argument appears to be that a Native culture like the Navajo are better suited to this new world, and that’s an argument that has some merit.
- Part of the delicate balance that series like this have is the need to walk a very careful line between meeting generic expectations – even if the genre has changed dramatically – and integrating new voices and perspectives. The identity questions that Roanhorse uproots are powerful ones, and yet she still incorporates some of the traditions of fantasy – the seeking of allies, the violence-in-the-name-of-the-good, the quest.
- Even the hunt for monsters meets the new generic expectations, as they are enormously powerful and yet she is still able to defeat them, with help.
- The problems with cultural appropriation are also real – they are brought to the fore by a Dine writer here, and Roanhorse has responded.
- One of the most powerful anxieties that Saad Bee Hozho identifies is this one – why should Dine culture, a living, breathing, constantly entity, be turned into myth and legend? Why didn’t Roanhorse use her own people (Pueblo) as a backdrop?
- And it’s not like this sort of appropriation hasn’t been going on for a long time…at least Roanhorse is Native American.
Michiko Kakutani has been a harbinger of good literature for a long time, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump gives her a chance to connect the ways in which traditional notions of argument have failed in the digital age. More thoughts below:
- The argument she traces convincingly in this book is the idea that Trump is the best player in this game, not a paradigm-breaker himself. Trump gets mentioned in her subtitle, but she’s more concerned about the ways that our notions of truth have changed, not how Trump himself uses them. The fact that he’s not desperately trying to stay out of jail as a failed grifter is a symptom of the age, not a sign that he’s, uh, got talent.
- She uses her amazing knowledge of literature and philosophy to trace the evolution of the distrust of being able to make objective statements about truth to the rise of Trump. She clearly hates Trump and what he’s done to discourse in the U.S., but she sees the long dark night of the soul that we face in this country (and in social media-saturated platforms) and describes it clearly and devastatingly.
- For instance, some of her most powerful critiques are not directed at the Breitbarts of the world but instead at leftists who jumped fully on board the postmodern train and contributed to what she sees as the source of much of the destruction of our ability to come to any conclusions about what is true in any specific situation.
- In some ways she’s almost too good of a writer – I had to willfully slow myself down as I read the book, because her prose is achingly beautiful at times.
- It made me think about my own relationship with the postmodernists. I think I was lucky – I came to them after their heyday, and as someone a bit older with a bit more experience of the world. While some of their methodologies were enormously useful – Foucault’s identification of power, Derrida’s Swiss Army knife tool of deconstruction, Spivak’s look at the subaltern, and Said’s look at the creation of oppressive tropes of representation in both high and low art are some that I found productive – in general the falling off the cliff that folks like Lyotard promoted made me queasy.
- The lived experience they spoke from seemed pretty ungrounded from the reality that I saw, and seemed to pretend that material conditions could be somehow transcended.
- That said, I think one of the most interesting dances in this is watching Kakutani’s sense of fair play at work. She is, after all, the critic who wrote one of the funniest and spot-on critiques of Norman Mailer’s stupifyingly binary oeuvre I’ve ever read, one in which she accurately depicts the enormity of the high art ego, and yet she highly values the cultural impact of social realism and high art in its novelistic form. The search for objective truth usually privileges canonical texts, and can thus miss places where resistance to entrenched power occurs if those places are located outside the canon.
- She tries to acknowledge these lines, but it’s a tricky walk to make.
The fiction coming from the refugee community has helped me better understand the trauma, joy, and grief that comes from the experience, and Statovci’s first novel is no exception. I feel grateful for these types of stories – without them I can barely imagine the lived experience that is reality for millions of people. Thoughts:
- This novel feels fairly autobiographical (except I’m hoping that there’s no talking cat, which felt straight out of Bulgakov), and the story’s multi-generationality made the identity issues clearer, I think…
- We follow two protagonists, one who seems to closely mirror Statovci and a character who is his mother.
- Geographically the novel moves from a small town in Kosovo to Finland, the site of the family’s relocation. We spend almost equal amounts of time in the two places, and Kosovo is split between the rural area the family first lived in and a (relatively) big city.
- The talking cat sneaks straight in from magical realism, and he serves as an alter-ego of sorts. I’m guessing the cat appears because the young man talks about how the ethnic Albanians who live in Kosovo do not like or trust cats, and this cat is not even a good pet, let alone a good roommate. He seems to be a stand-in for parts of the narrator’s personality that the man wants to leave behind, as well as a representative of the dangers of trying to center one’s identity.
- Once the talking cat leaves the protagonist’s life he becomes much more grounded in Helsinki, as he finds a partner and settles into a domestic routine that appears fairly western European.
- What this combination of stories does, I think, is help me realize that one of the fundamental questions that Statovci asks is who gets to live their fully authentic life. The young man struggles
- The refugees are often hated by Finns, just as they are by citizens of the U.S., but they are also encouraged to adopt Finnish ways, some of which are cosmopolitan and far more contemporary than what they left behind.
- The male protagonist is part of this – as a gay man he leads a life that I’m guessing is much different than the one he would have led in Kosovo, much less grounded in religion. He seems pretty secular here.
- His mom’s story is a nice addition, and I admire the fact that as readers we have to work to put together the connections between characters.
- She also gets to dream, I guess, once she reaches Finland, but her husband – who’s an abusive asshole – flounders, eventually relying on Finnish social largesse and plotting a return to Kosovo and revenge on the Finns.
- While she doesn’t necessarily become some idealized transnational ingenue, she does become more than the sum of her children, which seems to have been her fate if she stayed in Kosovo.
- Not that there’s anything wrong with raising her kids, but in this configuration she wants to do other things as well.
- The complications of identity for refugees are far more powerful than we are considering. Again, I’m thankful for these literary attempts to help us understand.
I watched Altered Carbon before I even knew about the books, and I enjoyed the series (so much that I blogged about it here). The book was even more interesting, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
- For me it was hard to read this without recalling Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, and at least the first book in the series compares favorably. The AI-hotel that defended itself and its clients was actually better done in the teevee show, but the concept is still pretty cool, and the generic expectations of cyberpunk are built upon neatly, without too much rehashing.
- In particular I thought that this novel caught the tone of exhaustion and desperation that permeates Gibson’s work. Kovacs (the detective who has been resleeved, and who might or might not be a war criminal and/or rebel) seems to be constantly on the verge of figuring out just what *this-all-means*, but if that knowledge is possible to attain he doesn’t get there, and the frustration is palpable.
- I thought the novel’s ending was far better than the way that the show ended, but its complexity would have been hard to capture in a visual medium.
- The most interesting idea of course is the immortality that the rich have gained. Morgan very clearly makes the case that the rich alone have the power to keep endless quantities of sleeves available, and they use that power to accumulate fabulous amounts of wealth.
- They also have to find increasingly exotic ways to become sexually excited, leading to the murders that drive the plot narrative.
- I hope that Morgan explores the identity issues more thoroughly as the series proceeds.
- On the one hand, Morgan’s comments on the results of immortality are fairly straightforward – people become increasingly horrible, and the accumulation of wealth by the 1 percent becomes increasingly striated.
- On the other hand, though, the identity questions become tangled, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to bring God into all of this (there is a constant movement of Catholics against the resleeving of people throughout the novel). Making those questions of identity transparent leads beyond questions of good and evil, capitalist vs. communist.
- Instead, the implications of having these godlike powers become a meditation on the path to get there, given the many options that humans have already taken (and the environmental destruction that has led the rich to live on Mars, and leave Earth to those who can’t afford to leave).
- Kovacs himself has a relationship with some sort of cult movement, as he often remembers his home planet and its much stricter cultural mores. It’s also clearly the home of at best a founding father of sort, since it’s called Hansen’s World (or something like that).
Millennial Mythmaking is a series of essays on what the editors consider to be contemporary mythology, with subjects ranging from Harry Potter to anime to Ghost in the Shell to del Toro (at least as far as Pan’s Labyrinth takes us). The essays were interesting and referenced all the right source material, and my guess is that several will serve as the type of building block work that cultural studies needs done.
- I found the intro essay and the two on Pan’s Labyrinth and Ghost in the Shell to be the most interesting. The intro essay makes the case for studying these kinds of texts as representations of contemporary mythology, while the other two make the case for the two artifacts as ways that current texts incorporate what we think of as myth in order to create the stories we tell ourselves now.
- I would have appreciated a better definition of the mechanism by which this progress work.
- For instance, how does the invocation of ancient myths in these contemporary stories work? Is it a bricolage of sort? A deconstruction?
- I’m also curious what the resonance is – none of the authors in here accuse their audiences of not knowing history, so is the assumption that modern audiences understand these connections based on their own cultural knowledge? Are these features something that we’re hard-wired with, as long as the texts hit the right notes?
- I also felt that a bit of an explanation of the actual mechanism they see the monomyth working through (now at least) would have been useful.
Her Smell just finished a run at the Nightlight, and it brought me back to a couple of very late 80s/early 90s moments. More thoughts below:
- I guess Moss (who I will watch in nearly anything these days) called this a passion project, and as such she must have listened to some of the bands of the 80s and 90s that this reminded me of. I saw L7, Babes in Toyland, and Hole in it, and Moss’s character Becky Something sure seems like a mix of Kat Bjelleland from BiT and Courtney Love.
- I’ve listened to people describe the film as a fictional biopic, and if so only because it defies the generic expectations. Biopics in my mind tend to follow the VH1 format – lots of focus on the rise and success of the band, a relatively brief wallow in the break-up and nadir, and then a sometimes sort of forced redemption narrative that it finishes with.
- Her Smell has almost nothing about the rise to fame – we see two or three songs played live and that’s it for the glory years, except for three or four home movie-type segments about collecting gold records and getting magazine covers and jokes about selling out.
- We spend an inordinate amount of time on the fall, and we see Something in some pretty manic and frightening states. The camera also spends a lot of time on the reactions of those around her, and less on the bad girl of rock n roll misbehaving in ways that are fucking stereotypes at this point.
- The redemption is also short, and full of anxiety and moments in which I for one thought she was going to blow it. The fact that the band doesn’t go back out for one more song made me happy – the encore-as-redemption-for-all-the-horrible-shit-I’ve-done-to-people theme is sort of played out I think.
- There is also very little justification of her behavior, and even part of that justification is ridiculous, such as when Something tells her ex-husband that she dreamed they were part of a Native American tribe and he killed all the children and that’s why she was so horrible to him. He just stares at her, the only response that makes sense.
- The film deliberately uses that scene to illustrate how tense the struggle to justify her own actions is, especially in contrast to moments when she says that she was horrible to people.
- (I’m always a little weirded out by how much punk rock stars wanted to get married – it makes me proud, especially in light of the alpha male wannabe culture of the hippies.)
- I think that if the film argues anything it argues that there is a fundamental difference in rock and roll stardom that comes from the female bands of the 90s, especially in contrast to the rise of the alt-rock movement that again was heavily male. Becky Something has to rely on her bandmates, even in the end, and they seem to depend on her for more than just a meal ticket.
- She also at least in part relies on motherhood as a way to connect, even in her least lucid moments. She has clearly ingested the cultural attitudes towards being a mom enough to at least voice regret about missing time, and her big moment at the end comes not from the crowd adulation (which she has clearly enjoyed earlier in her career) but from the fact that her daughter comes running to her.