I have been in awe of Louise Erdrich’s fiction since I read The Plague of Doves. Future Home of the Living God confirms in my mind that she’s one of the greatest novelists in the United States. She of course doesn’t need my approval, but the variety of voices she brings to the task of novel writing is astounding, and helps us I think better understand who we are as our society grows increasingly diverse.
- This novel starts in an almost slapstick fashion, with our narrator energetically and sort of chaotically seeking out her “real” mom. It quickly changes tone, as the environment starts to go more quickly into collapse and evolution starts running backwards. As the cool kids say, shit gets real.
- Cedar (the narrator) might want to find out her roots, but as the novel reveals those roots are more complicated than she has imagined, and the reservation is not some sort of pristine Dances with Wolves prelapsarian wilderness but is instead as multicultural as the rest of the country.
- Hell, several of the tribe members have converted to Catholicism (albeit in a very interesting way, complete with a vengeful saint who feels as much product of the material world as more typical Catholic saint). Like much of the rest of the United States in this novel they are becoming increasingly fundamentalist as the world falls apart.
- Double hell, her step-father is a version of Proust, only way better.
- Their definition of fundamentalism, however, is pretty different, and definitely not totalitarian.
- The ways in which clearly no one fully understands what’s going on with the world is a smart feature. Too often dystopian novels try to explain to us what happened, setting up a sort of narrator-explaining vibe that makes the novel feel more like a rant and less like an exercise in building a world of hellish consequences.
- The movement back and forth between Minneapolis and the reservation in North Dakota also neatly sets up a whole bunch of unexpected turns. This definitely was not a sort of Thunderheart, run-to-the-reservation-for-safety scenario. Despite the fact that they are more fully developed as humans than the rest of the nation, the members of the Ojibwe nation can no better protect the pregnant protagonist than can her erstwhile boyfriend (who admittedly is tortured to reveal her location).
- The fact that so much of the background in this novel is set by rumor is a beautiful thing. The assumption that dystopia means complete oppression, with romantic midnight runs through barbed wire and lots of neo-Nazi punching, seems a tad overdone, and Erdrich does not fall into that trap.
- Erdrich always lots of heartbreaking vignettes to her novels, and in this one the scene that made me gasp described a bunch of tribe members as they saw what they realized might be their last snowfall. It wasn’t their last snowfall because they were dying – it was the last snowfall to ever be recorded in North Dakota. Yikes.
More Erdrich novels please…
Sally Rooney’s Normal People felt like anything but, and I’m guessing that that’s at least part of the point. She tells the story of two on-again, off-again lovers from the west side of Ireland, young people who grew up together, went to college together, and develop a passive-agressive relationship that is both infuriating and compelling.
I have thoughts:
- I do not fully understand the geographical and cultural differences of the regions of Ireland, but the west’s reputation for pastoral beauty and economic wasteland seems to still be a thing. Connell is from the working class, and he knows Marianne because his mom (who is an amazing character) cleans her family’s house. They go to the same high school, where they have very different experiences.
- They of course fall for each other, but not in any way we might expect.
- They also both go to Dublin for college, and end up at Trinity (upper-crust, which Connell can only afford via scholarship). This journey is traumatic for Connell, and he’s not helped by his lack of social skills, brilliance at literature – having no job prospects when he gets done – and obsession with Marianne.
- They both circle each other, thinking that they are just fuck buddies when it is clear that they need each other in ways that might be fundamentally unhealthy but are nonetheless real.
- Marianne’s relationships are destructive as hell, and Connell manages to attract someone who seems like an honest-to-goodness good person (don’t worry, he drives her away).
- The self-marginalization of class is tricky here – Connell clearly sees no way forward of his own (and he might just be a dreamy kid who can’t see himself in a business environment), while Marianne is wandering through Dublin spending her family’s money, getting decent scores on her exams, but again not having much sense of a future. Her family is incredibly abusive, as her brother definitely threatens her and might actually hit her, and she seems to have internalized that violence.
- The dialogue is brilliant for its understatedness. They both sort of laconically go back and forth in what feels like a simulation of respectfulness – there is never any anger or even passion, as instead they constantly stop their conversations just short of the point where they might actually say something important.
- The title at first felt ironic, but now I think it’s more illusory and wistful. These two want to be normal people (I think epitomized by Connell’s mom), but they just can’t manage it.
- I’m pretty sure they even think they can save each other, but Rooney doesn’t give them that at the end…
I will read Rooney again, mostly because her dialogue feels absolutely spot-on for two teenagers who are desperately trying to hide what they feel are the demons that make them not-so-normal. For what it’s worth, they mostly fail at that…
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.
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…
Lila Savage’s Say Say Say immerses us as readers in two very tightly-delimited spaces, and she does so in a way that illuminates and heightens the intensity of both those spaces and our own worlds. If this is Savage’s debut novel, her future looks pretty bright…
- Both spaces we are immersed in are domestic – the protagonist, Ella, is a home health care worker who works with the elderly, and we spend time in the apartment where she lives with her partner Alix in a happy marriage. We spend even more time in the house of Bryn and Jill, so much so that Ella gets nostalgic for the ways that the dust motes hit the afternoon light after her job ends when Jill is moved to a residential care facility.
- We are also immersed in the world of home health care, particularly as we see what Ella does while working with Jill. The title is the product of Jill’s dementia, as she often repeats herself three times – say! say! say! is the way Savage characterizes this speech pattern in the novel – although it also provides a sense of the novel’s tone.
- Ella could be sort of Disneyesque – she feels like a lightweight in a lot of ways, but my guess is that that’s just the way she tries to understand her world, as Jill’s case, with its unstoppable plunge towards the ending that we all face coloring every scene.
- Bryn’s grief is horrific. He’s a retired carpenter, and he’s the one who hired Ella (she’s experienced at this, but Jill is a particularly trying case), but he flits in and out of scenes almost like a fly or bee. He doesn’t know what to do with the sheer exhaustion of his life, and he’s constantly grateful to Ella for the amount of time she’s there, even if she’s being paid.
- In a sense grief boomerangs from Bryn to Ella (and perhaps back), as they try to prevent Jill from hurting either herself or the house, and Ella gains brief glimpses into just how badly this hurts Bryn to watch the woman he has shared his life turn into something he doesn’t recognize.
- And there is no redemption or transformation – Ella doesn’t use this experience to paint more effectively or more fiercely (she’s an on-again, off-again artist), and Bryn doesn’t find happiness ever after – it all just is.
- There’s a lot going on here with the sudden immersion of a paid stranger into families, the dispersal of work that used to be done by a family or a community and that is now handled through a monetary exchange, and so on. The gig economy for the win…
- We also see Jill’s world in the only way we can in novelistic form – through those who observe her.
- I’m tempted to compare this to Butler, Moshfegh,Emezi, Eisenberg, or Berlin, all women who write intensively and unforgivingly about domesticity and mental health, and the comparison is fair, although Savage is much less interested in the point of the view of the patient than she is those who watch the decline.
- And, like all these authors, Savage is capable of achingly beautiful prose. A couple of quick examples:
Jill no longer carried herself with the burdensome knowledge of continual assessment womanhood so often brings. (35)
Was Ella naturally kind and gentle, or had the culture made her so, worn her down like beach glass, pushed her to her knees, forever eager to please? (68)
Their roles were stripped genderless through a wildfire of loss, standing stark where lush growth might have hidden predators, there was only charred and shivering sufferer and co-sufferer, lover and beloved. (69)
The strength it must have taken to contain that suffering, so that only the edges showed, so that a stranger’s glance wouldn’t exactly read them but might snag on something ambiguously raw in his bearing or his voice, it amazed Ella. It also put her in the peculiar position of being able to let the whisper of it fall into the background when she didn’t have the energy for empathy. (91)
It was love as anticipation of loss, it was love as shared burden of pain and embarrassment. It was pain transformed into gratitude, for without the ache, a stained tablecloth was merely flawed, merely unlovely, but the ache was like a caress on her grandmother’s wrinkled cheek, a comb straightening the crooked part. (153)
There are many more.
Despite my love of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m starting to think that I have a thing for novels that simultaneously inhabit and explode the limits women find themselves bound by…
Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is like nothing I have ever read. It is not (even though I spent the first half of my reading experience trying to make it so) about the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, or even the African experience (directly anyway) – its narrators immerse themselves in the entire body and soul of a young woman who was sexually abused and beaten as a child, and who has evolved an elaborate set of defense mechanisms to cope.
- My quick overview limits – in an almost generic sense – the ways in which this novel might be perceived. It does not read like the haunted memories of a woman trying to keep her sanity. Instead, with only two exceptions chapters are told from the point of view of the gods and goddesses who ride her, and who enable her to survive, and they are living, breathing characters (often to their chagrin, as they sometimes endlessly lament)…
- Emezi in the essay at the end of the novel describes it as “metaphysical,” so they (their preferred pronouns are they, their, theirs) are asking us to treat these big questions from a religious and spiritual standpoint, in addition to the psychological one.
- The borders – between body and soul, between religious identities, between genders – that we usually imagine are solid (if not rigid) do not exist in this novel, and Emezi clearly wants to examine them. They describe their work as existing in a liminal space, and those types of spaces are rife with conflicts, power, and energy.
- The use of many different embodiments of human personas in the form of a pantheon of all kinds of gods had me engaged (and possibly even immersed). There are no hints until about two-thirds of the way through the novel just what these various forms are, but there is lots of conversation of how they mean to both protect and annihilate Ada, the main (human) character.
- And the two extremes are not that far apart…
- As Ada deals with her own trauma, and jousts with the spirits inhabiting her, I never wondered about what parts of her were human. I am curious about that now – why did I so easily buy that these were gods inhabiting her body, mostly Nigerian or Yoruban? Was I imagining this novel was simply one of possession? Admittedly, that alone would be pretty cool…
- Finally, Emezi’s willingness to experiment is frightening in its precocity. This could have gone very wrong, and the fact that they also work in video and other art forms, according to the Internet goddesses at Wikipedia made me wonder if Emezi was simply too full of ideas to execute any of them.
- Answer – nope. They’re definitely talented enough to pull this off – it is one of the rare novels that I couldn’t wait to finish but which also didn’t find me rushing through and having to re-read because I had become impatient.
Big Mouth is an animated series about teens that is definitely not to be seen by them. It’s a hilarious, sex-positive, sensitive look at what it means to be a teenager and be nearly crushed by the chemical madness in your body. My wife and I enjoyed it, laughing so much that we often missed lines.
- I’ve not been a fan of Kroll, but this series made me rethink that. His pre-teen self is witty and yet really small physically, something of a nerd. His friend, Goldberg, is physically more mature but emotionally sort of a wreck. Throughout, their friendship waxes and wanes as they sort through the craziness of being a teenage boy.
- And Kroll voices a ton of characters, in and of itself a huge accomplishment.
- There are episodes discussing all sorts of perspectives – girls liking sex, kids respecting each other’s limits, masturbation, identifying LGBTQ – and much to my surprise no one is put down or disrespected. Even characters who are not the nicest people are given motives and reasons for acting as they do, except for the episode on toxic masculinity, which was still brilliant.
- Perhaps the most brilliant creations (as in all good sit-coms) are the side characters. Coach Steve is this innocent guy who somehow manages to go along day-by-day without either learning too much about the world or betraying his own general good-heartedness, and all the sets of parents are very fun and very odd.
- The best, though, are the hormone monsters, voiced by Maya Rudolph and Kroll. They are animated, furry critters (they are featured prominently in the trailer below) who make all of our hormone-driven-decisions-gone-bad real, and usually incredibly funny.
- Finally, I knew this series was good when I heard students talking about it. Lots of them watch it, and while that alone doesn’t speak for the series it doesn’t hurt.