There seems to be a gradually increasing amount of fiction coming from American veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Vietnam produced some amazing work (see O’Brien, Tim, among many others), the most recent series of prolonged *conflicts* that we in the USA have engaged in hasn’t produced a lot yet. What it has produced, however, has been pretty amazing (mostly Philip Klay Redeployment, but there are several others), and Ackerman’s fiction meets that standard. I haven’t read Green on Blue (yet), but Dark at the Crossing was moving and intense.
- Ackerman includes only a couple of native-born American characters, and we see one in particular only in a flashback, through Haris’s eyes. This isn’t the sort of prose that sees Syria through an American lens specifically. As an American Marine, of course, Ackerman can’t completely escape that perspective, but he makes an honest effort that is still based on experience in the area as a reporter following his discharge from the Marine corps.
- The questions of identity that arise are powerful, as Haris feels American even though he is a native-born Iraqi. He worked with American soldiers (I think they were Army, and were definitely special forces), and developed an affinity and longing for going to the US as a result. He turns this longing into a move to the US, but seeing his sister grow up and leave the house (as the result of a marriage to a UAE prince) releases him from his familial duty.
- He never clearly explains his reasons for coming back to Syria. He wants to fight the Assad regime, but the idealistic rebels whom he wanted to join (and who were recruiting him) have been pretty much either driven out of Aleppo or killed. His desire to fight, though, doesn’t seem to make much sense in this context as he was not a soldier when he translated.
- Ackerman even offers him the opportunity to do grunt research work, through Amir, a job that fits with his (as the cool kids like to say) skill set. He keeps wanting to cross the border, though, still wanting to fight even though he will need to fight for Daesh.
- My guess is that Ackerman believes his desire to fight comes from his feelings that he betrayed the American soldiers he translated for (he did, but because he didn’t realize who the actual IED builder was, thinking that he was protecting a pre-teen boy rather than setting the Americans up for an ambush). If so, the complexities that Ackerman locates in one character spoke compellingly to me about a far more complex picture of the Arab world – especially the interconnections between ethnicities – then we in the developed nations usually have.
- Haris’s relationships with the platoon he translated for are complex. He admires the soldiers for their calm heads under fire and their attempts to bond with him, but he hates the casual, brutal torture they inflict in order to get information that they need. His betrayal of them haunts him – at one point Daphne tells Haris that she sees a lot of one former American soldier in him, as well as his other more local influences, and he doesn’t disagree.
- Some of what Haris reacts to is also a counter-reaction. For instance, he sees that his mission in life is to take care of his sister, who has emigrated with him. He works at menial jobs to make sure that he can support her, and he does this because his own father deserted the family while in Iraq.
- Finally, the figure of Jamil is also one that Ackerman places emphasis on. Haris meets Jamil on multiple occasions, and as a refugee child who has been forced to help a group of young children survive, Jamil claims space in Haris’s head. The fact that Jamil becomes enamored with one of the Daesh fighters and joins Daesh ends the novel, but Jamil also retains enough of a sense of loyalty or friendship to Haris and Daphne that he makes sure that Amir gets the book that Daphne took with her on her return to Aleppo back after her murder. He has even updated it, including information that will help Amir in his work documenting the horrors of the civil war.
- And finally for real, Daphne also carries a lot of narrative meaning. She is torn by grief for the loss of her daughter, killed as she was by what seems like friendly fire, and while she still talks about the revolution against Assad as if it is a real thing she is so haunted by guilt and pain that she becomes monomaniacly focused on going back to look for her. Her position as a educated, cosmopolitan, modern Arab women seems also like a loss, as the new Syria does not seem to have a place for her.
- Ackerman has been compared to Hemingway, and I’m not a big fan of Hemingway so I didn’t see it. I admire what Ackerman is doing here, and this book will haunt me too, I’m guessing.
- I read it on the heels of reading Junger’s Tribe, and I had trouble separating the two texts at times. Tribe is optimistic as hell, but Ackerman’s novel points to what I think is the dark side of tribes having a special, unifying purpose – even Daesh, who I associate with fanaticism, are seen as pretty normal until the crazy ‘special, unifying purpose’ comes out and drives them to murder and robbery. The assumption that I made is that the novel would portray Assad’s troops as cynical and apathetic to anything but getting paid, but Ackerman has the two sides blur at the end of the novel in a way that shows that they both have their own reasons for doing what they do. It’s not a pretty picture.
- As with any discussion of the Arab world I feel completely overwhelmed by the complications. I am often drawn by the intentionality of those who live there, and I admire those who try to forge something that I as a left-leaning Westerner can recognize. What they are trying to accomplish seems nearly impossible to me, though, and I find myself in a miasm of confusion and loss that I can’t penetrate.
I listened to an interview on NPR with James Wood, literary critic for the New Republic and novelist, and in it the interviewer reminded him of his earlier critique of Zadie Smith (and others) in which he accused them of writing fiction that he labelled as ‘hysterical realism.’ Wood backed off that critique a bit, even claiming that he actually praised Smith’s White Teeth, so I thought I’d re-read and re-think the interview, which I found disturbingly condescending the first time I read it after finishing (and enjoying – full disclosure) White Teeth. A couple of thoughts on Wood and walking things back (assertions, diatribes, half-hearted utterings, and so on) follow…
- His critique is centered on Smith, but he also invokes Pynchon, Foster Wallace, and Rushdie. His comments on them are used to set up his argument about Smith, I’m guessing, to give him armor against charges of not valuing the voices of women and people of color.
- I understand his frustration with White Teeth in some ways, because it is not a perfect novel. With the exception of Middlemarch no such entity exists, and WT is Smith’s first publication – her subsequent writing has gotten calmer without losing its energy, a type of progress that I’m sure Wood would see as something he somehow predicted. But Wood keeps calling for the novel to be less frantic, more interested in developing the ‘humanity’ of its characters, claims that I don’t get because I found her portayals of characters as intensely, empathetically human. I’m trying *not* to read his critique as an essentialist, human=upper-middle-class-white-man attack, so I’m wondering just where his definition of human comes from. Perhaps Smith’s novel does invokes too many characters (thus minimizing our chances to know much about each, and making their individual portrayals feel cartoony in Wood’s critique), but in my mind that multiplicity is among the novel’s strengths. Because we see how all of these people interact on a day-to-day basis, the ways in which their lives all affect each other’s even if only peripherally, we get a well-rounded view of the strategies that folks develop to try to understand their roles in the world. In my mind that approach is relentlessly human…
- His inclusion of the word hysterical in his label is also less than compelling. I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t know the historical uses of that word, and invoking it to criticize Smith is loaded with all kinds of potentially misogynist overtones. Again, I think he looks for cover in the other authors he labels in this way, but I think it’s telling that he moves toward criticizing the way the novel uses spectacle towards the end of his essay rather than focus on his earlier term. Perhaps he has become less comfortable with that term by the end of the argument, a lack of comfort that I would find at least a bit reassuring.
- Perhaps I’m also so worried about the lens through which I read that I’m not fully acknowledging his point. Wood is far smarter than I, and hell he’s written novels, something I’ve never managed to accomplish. I’m pretty certain that there is a lens that fits someone like me, a person who doesn’t spend enough time reflecting upon experiences, and I am probably overvaluing my own experience and preferences.
- Still, my concern with Wood of course is best expressed in my last bullet, but I also think that his casual dismissal of the fact that Smith talks intentionally about novels as means of problem-solving also makes me wonder what he sees as the purpose of novels. One of the reasons I read folks like Smith (and Wood) is because novels represent to me a chance to observe an incredibly smart person wrestle with big social problems. These same authors might even offer solutions, but if nothing else they provide us an opportunity to see those problems more clearly.
- WT does exactly this, and it manages to be realistic, optimistic, funny, and sad all at the same time, no mean feat.
- I guess that perhaps the difference between what I value and what Wood does lies in the area we want to understand with more depth – I’m less concern with understanding individual human motivations, perhaps, and more with historical views of issues…
- All that being said, I’m a bit more geeked up than I should be that there are still conversations like this, I have to admit. I clearly think that Wood is way off, but the fact that he engaged feels monumental somehow. And yet when I read the casual condescension in his review, the use of ‘cartoony’ and ‘low comic’ as insults, I get frustrated and angry at his framing this debate as one of high vs. low art. A colleague of mine argued in a conference presentation that these low vs. high art invocations seem to occur just as the canon opens up (she was talking about a game studies scholar), and the contextualization she provides of where this sort of critique is coming from strikes me as particularly appropriate and useful. Wood’s own novels are much different (full disclosure – I have Upstate on hold at my library so I haven’t read it yet), and interestingly enough by chance I just read his wife’s (Claire Messud) The Burning Girl (which I liked despite it being outside my usual generic preferences).
- If Wood’s desire is to help shape the contemporary canon I can’t help but wonder what shape he thinks it should take. If he wants novels to be more human, more interested in developing the interior lives of characters, doesn’t that limit authors to what they have directly experienced? What if a character simply doesn’t have an interior life? What if the author’s definition of human relies less on interior monologues and more on the types of relationships that people build (or don’t build, or fuck up)?
Jemisin’s fiction (@nkjemisin) constantly amazes me – it can be incredibly subtle and also inexorably direct and clear; it can be wildly imaginative and yet also pay homage to its sources straightforwardly; it can be maddeningly obtuse and frighteningly transparent. The Kingdom of Gods, the third and final novel in the Inheritance trilogy, lives up to all of these prosal characteristics, and like every other novel of hers that I’ve read I had trouble putting it down.
- This series (much like the other series of hers that I have read, the Broken Earth series) is chock full of discussions of identity and essential natures. Jemisin is way too smart to offer us easy answers to these questions, and her usage of Sieh as a first-person narrator in this novel fits that pattern.
- Sieh is a trickster god, an honored tradition in many pantheons. In the first novel of the series we see a lot of Sieh, and he’s pretty repellent, a childish purely libidinal creature with the powers of a god.
- That changes in this book, mostly because of the love he has for two mortals. Sieh talks about being true to his own nature, but he is able to transform by the end of the novel (no spoiler alert because I won’t say how).
- Jemisin doesn’t make that change an easy one. In fact, it requires enormous sacrifices on Sieh’s part, and because we are in a first-person narration we get Sieh’s not always completely self-aware understanding of how and why he is changing.
- From my perspective this approach to the essential nature of identity is a compelling one, especially in a fictional genre that tends to deal in often overblown archetypes. Jemisin’s insistence that we have no essential nature makes more sense when presented in this context, I think, because rather than assume that there are unchangeable parts of ourselves what we see are the ways in which cultural training in combination with our own reactions, strategies, and hard-wiring make certain combinations of actions seem inevitable, and thus natural.
- This approach is an incredibly complicated one to pull off, and I found myself looking constantly for markers that helped me locate my own reading experience. I wanted desperately to make the gods Greek, a fallback based upon my own training in the canon and the fluid sexuality of many of her characters. That approach is limited, but I think it sort of helped.
- I then kept thinking of trickster characters, especially the ones that I know from southwestern religious structures. Jemisin’s focusing this novel on Sieh as trickster nicely sets up this discussion of essential natures, especially since it follows other novels in which she has a mortal become a founding god because the essence of a founding god has been located in her.
- Yien, that god, transforms the one who was hidden in her, a comment perhaps upon Harry Potter and embedded wizards and such.
- Sieh, though, is forced to grow up, and that process changes him utterly in ways that trickster gods should not adhere to – he becomes interested more in stability than chaos, and becomes an actual change agent in ways fit neatly with these ideas of how identity changes.
- All of this is done while simultaneously exploiting the generic obsession with stable characters. Wow…
I read this immediately after finishing 99 Stories of God, because I forgot how much I admired Williams’s non-fiction. I was first introduced to it by an essay she wrote on hunting, in which she unabashedly talks about hunting as killing, and piles up animal corpses in an attempt to try to make the costs of hunting clear.
I’m more than a bit pissed at myself for just now discovering that Joy Williams writes fiction. As I noted in my post about her spiritual commentary 99 Stories of God, I knew her as an essayist, so finding her fiction has been both really cool and really frustrating. The frustration is all directed at myself.
- One of the fascinating things about her characters are how, when we as readers only hear their internal dialogue, seem to poised precariously on the tip of the abyss, but upon talking with their comrades they are reeled back in. I guess I could read this as an attack on the seeming placidity that conversation provides us – a way to pretend that we’re all okay – and that would be defensible.
- Instead, though, conversation – witty, humble, and humane – serves as an anchor, a way to pull those folks back from that abyss and ground them in the human. It’s not always the best of the human – dialogue in this novel does not save young women from the predatory desires of older men, for instance – but the grounding is unflinching.
- Oh, and by the way – who saves those young women? Themselves…as it should be…
- This novel doesn’t really concern itself with the idea of being saved or redeemed, however. The only character who sort of gets redeemed is the big-game hunter Stumpff, whose museum of his trophies gets taken over as a sort of hospice by Emily, an eight-year-old. His fascination with her and her cause results in him firing his taxidermist and driving Emily around town as she carries out her mission of mercy.
- It’s far more interested in the line between the quick and the dead. It features a mom ghost who is anything but motherly, a nursing home of sorts that denies people the right to die with dignity (our first view of it is as the head nurse washes down a patient who is strung up like an animal and who keeps screaming “I want to go home!”
- The border she’s elucidating has lots of components, and she treats animal deaths as seriously as she does human ones.
- As with 99 Stories, this one will come up in my own head again…
Well, the first (that I’ve read anyway) of the Gen Z books is out. Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace are college faculty/administrators who have conducted surveys of their own and analyzed the Pew research data to come up with a first stab at generational characteristics of the generation born in the range of 1998-2015 (or so).
- I admire Seemiller and Grace for their data analysis, and for sticking their necks out a bit to make some attempts at characterization. Much like Strauss and Howe, they will get some stuff wrong, but these sorts of baseline studies are very useful.
- That said, there are lots of flaws in here, especially with the ways that the authors simply quote GenZers and take them at their words. As more studies come out that approach will look dated and naive, I’m guessing.
- The one generational feature they I identify that I’m really curious about is the fact that this generation (much like the Millennials before them) seems to really like their parents. I’m not sure that I trust the group that came up with this number (their website is here), but supposedly 88 percent of them are extremely close with their parents.
- That attitude seems to match what I see anecdotally, and I wonder about it. Admittedly, according to that same company my generation (the Xers) were pretty much polar opposite (29 percent of us described ourselves as close to our parents), but I still thought that an important part of becoming an adult is pushing away. That action seems nearly impossible if you are “extremely close.”
- If true, this look at their parents as mentors and friends rather than authoritarians to revolt against will have interesting implications for our social structures.
- This book is pretty rosy, so we know that the backlash will come. In that sense I admire Seemiller and Grace for starting out positive, a position that’s not always easy to take.
- I’m trying to get over my desire to rant every time I hear someone describe “kids these days” (of any generation as being technological). That’s such an easy, ridiculous label, one that ignores how much people know about what goes on under the hood, but I have to accept, I think, that it’s a label that people will use unthinkingly. To their credit, Seemiller and Grace don’t use it like that…
- Finally, I’m not sure how you write a book about this generation and never mention Snapchat.
I have only read Joy Williams’s non-fiction, and I love her fierce dedication to the natural world as expressed in biting yet idealistic prose. This novella felt just as fierce and just as idealistic, and just as dedicated to the natural world.
- I was very pleased to see that Williams hadn’t gone soft and written some bland insipid inspirational prayer book. I will admit to being a bit nervous that she had done an Eldridge Cleaver, so I’m happy that this text is a logical progression from where she’s been.
- Her conception of god is one that will probably confuse lots of people. God shows up in here, a lot. However, he is doing pretty mundane things – hosting dinner parties, visiting animal shelters, shopping, hanging out with wolves – and he’s pretty routinely confused by what has happened to the planet under the ravages of Western industrialism.
- The stories she shares are often pretty mundane, which I’m guessing is part of Williams’s point. In my mind writing a book like this that is about conceptions of the divine and that isn’t chock full of platitudes that pretend to be epic revelations is a subversive act. The fact that she makes them funny as hell and sharply observed helps.
This novel read way faster than I thought it would, mostly because after I finished the first two chapters I was struggling to find a reason to keep going, especially as it’s way outside of my usual genre preferences. That being said, I had trouble putting it down after I got into the story. More thoughts below:
- Texts like this one that follow young girls from pre-teen to teen feel rare to me, but that’s probably just because I don’t read in the genre. I am fairly convinced that novels that approach these subjects in the way that The Burning Girl does – not trying to score pop culture point by using character archetypes to quickly establish who’s who, and that don’t have morality arcs of some sort – are rare.
- I’m a pop culture hound, so I’m not going to argue that the usual genre material can’t be well-done – it can, as I think about someone like Tracy Lynn, whose short stories and other geektastic world stuff I enjoy.
- The difference is that this novel feels far more adult, akin to The Outsiders and Laurie Halse Anderson’s work. At the same time, it shows intimate female relationships in a way that feels real, thoughtful, and complicated, and thus sort of feels far more like Joyce Carole Oates than the genre stuff.
- This difference though makes me wonder about audience. I see a definite need for the morality-based genre text, novels and films that join in the conversation about the types of big decisions that young girls have to make in a serious way but that also make these decisions seem possible to make. On first read I think that The Burning Girl would be tough for this audience, perhaps because its perspective as a reminiscence is one that is hard for them to share, or perhaps because it doesn’t offer those standard character archetypes that enable a reader to quickly figure out where they’re at.
- And I need to be clear – by morality-based I don’t mean according to some specific (read evangelical Christian) standard. As hard as it may be for some people to believe, those of us who are not evangelical Christians also adhere to a moral code, one that perhaps has more to do with how we treat each other and less with obeisance to a flying spaghetti monster in the sky.
- Despite its title, all the burning that anyone in here does comes from the press and crush of family dynamics rather than from some dramatic life events. Cassie, the character who I think is the burning girl, is mostly driven by a need to find a father who she has been told has died, but even the dramatic force of her trying to find her dad doesn’t cause her to burn down the world. Messud uses the novel to look at the micro-events, and the way that we deal with them, of family, and as this type of portrayal I think that perhaps it has more to say about fiction and novels than it does the family in general.
- Thank goodness for that – I’m pretty certain that we don’t need more texts talking about how messed up families can be.