Nell Zink’s Doxology is a longitudinal study of punk rockers from lower Manhattan in the 80s who manage to coax out fairly middle class lives while trying to be true to the indie ethic that dominated that scene. I spent some time in memory lane while reading this one, but it is far more Franzenian social realism than it is High Fidelity or Bright Lights Big City.
- Pam and Daniel are an idealized couple, but even my awareness of that didn’t make them less likable. They mesh in interesting and fun ways, and they share a world view without either one crushing the vision (and emotional freedom) of the other.
- Zink’s command of dialogue, especially between these two, led to some very funny exchanges of the sort that show the sort of mutual respect and understanding that I hope everyone finds in their relationships (whatever shape those take).
- Joe is fascinating – he’s this child of nature who treads lightly through the world until he mysteriously becomes a mega-star, until a girlfriend (who loves him in her own sort of selfish way) shoots him with heroin one time and watches him die out of sheer incompetence.
- That girlfriend then becomes a professional grieving rock star widow, and while I think we’re supposed to hate her even Zink’s narrator can’t do that…
- Speaking of the narrator, this one is wise and funny and an astute observer of the indie music scene. Jes’ sayin’.
- Pam’s relationship with her parents is interesting, as she essentially runs away and doesn’t contact them for years until she and Daniel decide they need to get Flora out of New York after 9/11. Flora then moves in with her grandparents and becomes a child of two cities, New York and Manhattan, and knits the two families back together even while she goes her own way.
- This novel is definitely centered on something that’s not very punk rock – child-rearing. My guess is that that centering device, along with the title, speaks to the not-very-monolithic nature of the indie music movement, just as Joe’s becoming a star in EDM (rather than as a punk or post-punk musician) is another perspective on the branches that grew from that scene…
- My reference to Franzen is not an accident. I guess that Franzen was one of Zink’s early adopters, and his advocacy helped get her published.
- This novel felt Franzenian in its longitudinal study approach, but what felt different was the competence of the characters, and their abilities to dig themselves out of holes in ways that Franzen’s characters never seem able to do.
I think Doxology is pretty brilliant, and I enjoyed the recreation of the music scene in lower Manhattan at a time when some pretty amazing bands were playing there. The narrative move to post-9/11 New York lent some gravity to the novel in a way that helped it leap from a self-indulgent reminiscence of the underground-yet-sorta-privileged music scene to the weirdness that resulted from an attack on our own soil. Even for people who knew the damage our benevolent and not-so-benevolent imperialism has done (and continues to do), 9/11 caused us to rethink our own attitudes, and to reconsider our place in the world.
I’m pretty certain that we’ve taken the wrong lessons from it, but that’s a post for another day.
Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther invokes a steampunk, alternative history version of 1942 Khazar (full disclosure – I didn’t know that Khazar was a real place). This is the first novel of Barton’s that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
- Barton’s world is intense – the people of Khazar (we mostly see them through Esther’s eyes) have long known that the Germans are coming, mostly because of the streams of refugees that keep appearing, and have tried to prepare, but they are a buffer between the Germans and the Rus, and have tried to balance their relations for centuries.
- The state is Jewish, and rabbis are persons of great respect and political power. Nonetheless, this alternative version of WWII is causing upheaval in their society, and the religious leaders are losing that power.
- She calls forth all sorts of mythical and non-mythical creatures – werewolves, golems, kabbalists, heretics, steppe horseman warriors, and other fantastical folks.
- Creating golems helps them keep the initial German push from their walls, although the novel ends with the Germans about to try again.
- The polyglot nature of the nation seems like a direct extrapolation from the region’s medieval origins.
- The clash of a culture marked by intense religious fundamentalist with modern (in a steampunk way at least) military might causes the rise of Esther, who defies the restrictions against her and with a little luck and a lot of chutzpah takes her own place in line to become queen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voice as a ghost (or awakening ghosts, or impersonating ghosts, or whatever) and so I re-watched Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell animated film in order to see how it approaches memory and identity through the lens of a type of ghost. Originally written and illustrated by Masimune Shirow, as a film it’s awkward – the animated characters barely move, and the dialogue is pretty wooden (perhaps it’s better in the original Japanese). Still, it’s a fascinating take on what now has become a ubiquitous concern – when we are living in the machine what will happen to our bodies?
- The plot focuses on an elite terrorist-fighting police squad located in a fictional Japanese city, roughly translated as New Port City.
- As far as scenery goes, that’s pretty much all we see – endless city. The last scene in particular links the city directly to a data core, as its indistinct lines in the artwork make it appear to look like a series of databases. The scenery constantly changes and exposes us to new parts of the city, but we see so little green that the world’s constant rain seems like a comment on our own desires to wash the world clean.
- Cyberpunk as relentless urbanity invokes what feel like modernist anxieties in this film.
- This world is relentlessly crowded, and the city has had to adapt to global warming, all key elements in the cyberpunk world.
- My guess is that part of the lack of movement among the animated characters can be attributed to the fact that they are cyborgs. The humans in the squad move a little more – still, the lack of blinking or breathing is unnerving, and helps me realize why avatars in games like the World of Warcraft appear to breathe heavily – they look more alive.
- The questions the film raises are fascinating – Shirow invokes Arthur Koestler (who I know far better as the author of a truly terrifying novel, Darkness at Noon) and his arguments about the core of identity. Koestler’s work deserves a much longer treatment, but broadly he argues that we are not simply souls inhabiting bodies but that our connections are much more complicated.
- Shirow calls the cybernetic soul a ghost, and the term becomes increasingly more complicated as the film (and manga) proceed. The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, struggles to figure out who she is, and the connection she finds at the end of the film to the Puppet Master (a rogue AI that to me is the kissing cousin of Wintermute in the Sprawl series) speaks to Koestler’s ideas of how we (whoever the ‘we’ is) are connected.
- The violence in the film is fascinating. The cyborgs are the only bodies we see destroyed, with wires and tubes hanging out of decapitated limbs. Still, those bodies (and they’re gendered very specifically as female) are not only alive but able to function – and the ghosts can be transferred.
- As one can imagine, the idea of sentience becomes up for grabs by the end.
Although I’m not exactly sure how the themes in this text connect to the ones that I’m trying to identify, I’m glad I re-watched the film. It clearly hits a cultural sweet spot, and as we find ourselves ever more immersed in screens we can probably learn a thing or two from it. The artwork is damn near hallucinatory at points, and I found myself glad that the film moved so slowly, as I could spend time drinking in the arcane and stuffed world that the artwork spends time developing.
Jo Walton’s Necessity trilogy continues to delight me. The Philosopher Kings is book two in the series, and it starts twenty years after the final debate in The Just City, the one in which Athene, angry because she lost the argument and her Just City – based on Plato’s Republic – breaks up the experiment because the Republic was not working out as she imagined.
- Walton’s fiction experiments in interesting ways with all kinds of big ideas, and the factions that result from the end of the last debate (and Athene’s taking of all but two of the Workers with her) provide a glimpse at the drive to set forth and find lands of our own that motivated the continuous development of colonies that was ancient Greece.
- This set of colonies is imbued (burdened?) with the foreknowledge of what is to come, since in the original plan Athene simply plucked anyone who had thought of her out of their current time and plopped them as a Master in the Just City.
- Her portrayal of the gods is fascinating – she fully invests in the ancient Greek idea that gods have immense powers and yet are more fully realized humans. They can be capricious, loving, horrible, intensely empathetic, and a bunch more, and seeing how those characteristics play out in the mundane world is pretty cool.
- The consequences of time travel come into play here as well. The inhabitants do not want to destroy what is come because of what they know, and this concept gets really confusing with the advent of Christianity, since Christians still want to be saved and go to heaven.
- Walton does not give up what Hades is actually like in this configuration…no cheating I guess…
- There is far less dialogue in here, and a lot more action (of the traditional variety – I think dialogue is action, but I’m a nerd). I missed the dialogue, but I also miss Simmea.
- Oddly enough, she inhabits nearly the entire novel through Apollo’s love for her.
- As the inhabitants of the Just City leave to form new colonies, they come back for one thing – art. The potency and power of art in this type of city (which Walton sets up in direct contrast to Plato’s oft-expressed concerns about art’s power to invoke emotion in people) drives people to war.
- Some would say that anything drives people to war…
- I am really curious what the next novel will do with the notions of citizenship that Walton is just starting to explore at the end of this novel. In my reading of The Republic determining who is a citizen (and the whys and hows) causes a bunch of problems.
- I am also wondering about economics and material necessity. This series intensely examines what we think of when we think of the soul, and it gives us some looks at the material conditions that people face. As the material reality of the next landscape manifests itself perhaps we will see more of the economics of The Republic (esp. since Walton has effectively eliminated both slaves and Workers/robots).
On to Book Three…
Parasite (dir. by Bong Joon Ho) had me far closer to the edge of my seat than I would have imagined. It’s not billed as a thriller, necessarily, but I guess that the borders between classes are fraught with this if played right…
- These types of films are often used to highlight the inherent virtue of being able to obtain lots of money – Taxi Driver and Cape Fear are ancient examples that come to mind immediately, with the lower class guy who can’t get rich by legitimate means (define legitimate how you will). If you are a member of the one percent in this configuration, it’s because you deserve it.
- The rich family in this film – the Parks – are not evil, and they earn their money legitimately I would guess, but they are also somehow (perhaps if I understood South Korea better I would know how) to lots of money, while the Kims have a son and daughter who are college and art-school educated but who cannot find jobs, much like their parents.
- My guess is that this film condemns the crazy economic system that exists in South Korea – at one point the dad, Kim Ki-tek, says that 500 people with college degrees apply for jobs as drivers, like the one he used to have. I have no idea how accurate that is, as according to at least this site unemployment there is around 3.5 percent, but perhaps that rate hides a gig economy with insecure employment.
- The interaction between the Parks and the Kims is always fraught with danger. The Kims take full advantage of their scam and get all family members ensconced in the house, only to see things go horribly wrong.
- As a viewer, I get nervous for the Kims as I watch them flout class conventions. At one point while the Parks are camping they take over the house, drinking the good booze, eating their food, enjoying the view, only to have the night come crashing down on them when the Parks return early.
- The Parks will be able to bring the institutional power of the state on the Kims, and the narrative that will result will reify the power of wealth.
- The other theme is the blindness of the Parks, a blindness derived from their class advantages. Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex while their staff (having been busted in the house, and now hiding) lie silently under the huge coffee table, waiting for their chance to escape. Mr. Park talks about how Mr. Kim, his driver, gets too comfortable at times, and how he smells bad, all while the Kims are lying there trying not to breathe loudly.
- We know that the Parks do not have to live by their wits in the same way, as they are able to simply be blind. The film is not that simple – we see through the eyes of Kim the chaos that is Park’s workplace, and he seems stressed even if he is sort of bland – but the Parks have a lot more margin for error, and we know that the full powers of the state will be brought to bear against the Kims for their transgressions.
- The blindness even goes to the news media – we see multiple reports trying to explain what happened, and all of the official outlets say they are baffled as to what could have gone wrong.
- The final scenes, in which all the Kims are driven once again underground, make the class delineations visceral. These distinctions make the film a powerful one, and I’d happily watch it again…
Whitehead’s novel about his avatar Jonny Appleseed strikes me as a sorrow-filled yet full of resilience look at the issues of growing up gay on the reservation. More thoughts below…
- The heroes of this novel are the women. Men rarely provide support for Jonny, but the women in his life – ranging from his kokum to his mom – are there, even while they fight through their own issues.
- Whitehead’s use of the journey back to the reservation to attend a funeral provides another perspective on the path that Tommy Orange said he wanted to document in There There. Orange argues in There There that culturally in the US we prefer to imagine Native Americans on the reservation, away from those “polluting” influences of the big city, locking them in a nostalgic view of the American West that helps us atone for the sins of pursuing manifest destiny.
- Jonny Appleseed pretty straightforwardedly does the opposite of this, showing the narrator moving away from the reservation in order to find alliances as he struggles with the consequences of being gay in a society that hates gay people. He does not leave his ethnic identity behind – as the spoon boy in The Matrix says “that would be impossible” – but he finds some affirmation in the city (Winnipeg) that the men on the reservation cannot or will not give him.
- The narrator tells us through his grandmother of the concept of the second skin, which I guess is something that some Native American tribes acknowledge. There are issues with this, but my guess is that in some ways it makes members of the tribe who are LGBTQ+ feel less alien.
- I am gradually starting to become aware of just how many identification labels Native Americans have – in this book I was introduced to NDN and Nate. NDN makes a lot of sense, and my best guess about Nate is that is connected to Native Americans who live in the city.
- For a peak at the joyful space that is often found in Urban Dictionary, check out this entry for Nate.
- I love the buffalo on the cover – its red and white makes it look skinned, but it’s also embroidered, complicating a symbol that is often connected with masculinity (and hyper-masculinity1 at that).
- Finally, Whitehead’s appropriation of the Johnny Appleseed figure calls attention to just how problematic Appleseed is as a figure in US history, representing as he does a pastoral, uncomplicated, idealized version of the European settler, one goofy enough to wear an iron pot on his head and yet savvy enough to own property on the border.
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.